Waiting and Wanting in John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

At sixteen, I was captivated by this image: two dazzled lovers clasped in each other's arms, the couple captured just star-sparkled moments before their fateful kiss. So was Keats. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the Romantic poet speaks to the classical scenes he imagines carved on ancient pottery. Keats is enthralled by how the art renders its stories immortal, and maybe he’s motivated by a sense of his own impermanence—before he published this ode, Keats contracted the tuberculosis that would end his life at 25.

I still remember my high-school English teacher, with her high gaze and firm shoulders, pulling this stanza  apart for my class. For four decades she had choreographed her lessons with the precision and rigor of the Royal Ballet, and  she demanded the same from her students. I wanted intensely to pierce those ironclad expectations; I was never sure I had.

“Look at the moment these lovers are locked in,” she said. Our couple, inches from the kiss they’ve waited for, will never reach it. They’re robbed of their story’s climax.

But that’s what enthralls Keats—the eternal, resplendent pause. Anticipating a moment, my teacher proposed, may be more of a thrill than the moment itself. It’s the breath pressing in your ribs before a long exhale, the wait at the top of a coaster before the plunge down. Keats revels in this instant before the end. He wishes he could linger there longer.

For years after high school, I returned to the insight of those lines—and that of my teacher. At times I’d be reminded of one of her difficult lessons and find a delicate wisdom I had missed before. My memory of a rigid, impenetrable lecturer gave way to one of a mentor who had played the long game.

One day I came back to school and walked the quiet corridors to my teacher’s door. Through the window I could see a ramrod figure reviewing papers at her lectern. I lifted my hand to knock and froze. What if, I wondered, she didn’t remember me? Or, worse, what if she didn’t remember me fondly? Panic gripped. I dropped my arm and slipped off.

That was the last time I would see my teacher; she passed away a year later. I cried hot tears at her memorial service.

Since then, I’ve looked back to Keats often, to his dazzled lovers trapped in their wanting and waiting. The image is still revelatory: a reminder to appreciate the pause of anticipation, to understand it as a thrill worth savoring. Now I know it’s no replacement for the act itself.