Throughout the first two stanzas, the speaker addresses the urn as a single object, taking note of its silence at several points as he discusses unheard melodies and tunes heard not by the sensual ear (line 13). With line 17, the second stanza begins to change tone as the poet shifts his focus from the urn as a whole to the individuals represented in the artwork. The two lovers, whose image the unknown artist has created through his craftsmanship, appear to the poet as a couple who cannot kiss yet do not grow old. Again the narrator discusses the urn in terms of its unaging qualities by saying, "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss" (line 19), but he also focuses on the inability of the lovers to ever obtain sensual pleasure due to their static nature.
As the poem comes to a close, the narrator once again addresses the urn as a single object. However, his tone becomes sharper as he seeks answers from the work of art that it appears unable to answer. In the final couplet, the poet provides a line for the urn, which complicates the narrative and has generated a multitude of critical responses as to the author's intent: "Beauty is truth -- truth beauty / that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know."
Beginning with an epitaph taken from Matthew 6:28, the poet introduces the theme of indolence through an excerpt of Jesus's suggestion that God provides for the lilies of the field without making them toil. The poem describes the three figures as wearing "placid sandals" and "white robes," which alludes to the Grecian mythology that commonly appears in the 1819 odes.
The images pass the narrator three times, which causes him to compare them to images on a spinning urn (line 7). In line 10, the narrator uses the word "Phidian" again as a reference to the Elgin marbles, whose creation was thought to have been overseen by Phidias, a Grecian artist.
As the poem progresses, the narrator begins to discuss the intrusion upon his indolence by the figures of Love, Ambition, and Poesy, and he suggests that the images have come to "steal away" his idle days. In the final stanzas, the figure of Poesy is described as a daemon which some critics think poses a direct threat to the idleness the poet wishes to retain. In the final lines, the poet once again rejects the three images: "Vanish, ye phantoms, from "my idle spright, / Into the clouds, and never more return!" (lines 39 to 40) with the intention of once again enjoying the laziness from which the poem obtains its title.
The poem describes the narrator's opinions on melancholy and is addressed specifically to the reader, unlike the narrative of many of the other odes. The lyric nature of the poem allows the poet to describe the onset of melancholy and then provides the reader with different methods of dealing with the emotions involved. Using personification, the poem creates characters out of Joy, Pleasure, Delight, and Beauty, and allows them to interact with two other characters which take the shape of a male and his female mistress mentioned (line 17).
Keats himself fails to appear as a character in the poem, as there is no mention of the poet himself suffering from melancholy. In the final stanza, the poet describes the mistress as dwelling in Beauty, but modifies the beauty by saying that it "must die" (line 21). Some critics think that this provides the poem with a hint of Keats's philosophy of negative capability, as only the beauty that will die meets the poem's standard of true beauty.
While the ode is written "to a Nightingale", the emphasis of the first line is placed upon the narrator rather than thw bird. Some critics think that the negation of the reader as a party in the discourse happens just as the song of the nightingale becomes the "voice of pure self-expression".
In the third stanza, the poet asks the nightingale to "Fade far away", casting it off just as the narrator in "Ode to Indolence" rejects the Love, Ambition, and Poesy and the poet in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" banishes the figures on the urn to silence.
In the fourth stanza, the poet states that he will fly to the nightingale rather than it to him, moving upon the "wings of Poesy." Some critics interpret this to mean that while the poet intends to identify with the bird by describing the poem as being "to" it, the real identification in the narrative exists between the poet and his perceptions of the nightingale's song.
In its closing, the poem questions whether the bird's song has been real or part of a dream: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: -- do I wake or sleep?" (lines 79 and 80), and the theme of imagination once again arises as the poet appears, unable to distinguish between his own artistic imagination and the song which he believes to have spurred it into action.
Psyche, a creature so beautiful that she drew the attention of Cupid himself, draws the attention of the narrator, whose artistic imagination causes him to dream of her: "Surely I dream'd to-day, or did I see / The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes" (lines 5 and 6). As he relates himself to the mythical character of Cupid, he confuses the god's emotions with his own and imagines that he too has fallen in love with the woman's beauty.
The poet does, however, understand the temporal difference between the characters of ancient Greece and his own as he declares, "even in these days [...] I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired" (lines 40 through 43). In line 50, the poet states "Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane", which, implies that the poet himself becomes a "prophet of the soul" as he regards the beauty of Psyche and attempts to place himself within Cupid's personage. According to T.S. Eliot, this is the most prominent ode among the six great odes.
The poem discusses ideas without a progression of the temporal scene, an idea that Keats termed as "stationing". The three stanzas of the poem emphasize this theme by shifting the imagery from summer to early winter and also day turning into dusk.