A further note on Keats’s “Grecian Urn”

I had planned to deny you any visual aid to envision the object of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but then in class I ended up looking around for examples. What I showed you in class needs to be supplemented a little.

In the early twentieth century scholars worked hard to find an actual Greek urn with all the things on it that Keats describes: a piper, a bold lover, trees, a sacrificial procession. There isn’t one, but scholars did find urns Keats might have been familiar with in making up his own imaginary one. Two often-cited models are the Sosibios vase (ca. 50 BCE; now in the Louvre, Paris) and the Townley vase (2nd century CE; now in the British Museum, London). These are both marble vases with decorations in relief, as it seems Keats’s urn is.

Sosibios vase, Louvre
Townley vase, British Museum

Greek marble was also a hot topic in Keats’s time, as I mentioned, because of the exhibition in London, starting in 1817, of the so-called Elgin marbles or Parthenon sculptures (5th c. BCE; now in the British Museum). This exhibition signals the elevated prestige of classical Greek culture; it’s characteristic of Romantic (late 18th-early 19th century) literature and art across Europe to be particularly fascinated with ancient Greece.

Marble relief, Parthenon North frieze, British Museum

But it is equally important that there is no actual Grecian urn. Keats could and did see real ones: why does he imagine a fictional one instead for the purposes of the Ode?

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick