The Meaning of Keats’s ‘Cold Pastoral’


By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Cold Pastoral’ is a phrase from one of John Keats’s best-known poems. But the meaning of this two-word phrase is somewhat enigmatic, so we need to look more closely at the poem, and the relevant stanza containing this expression, to understand its meaning fully.

We find Keats’s reference to ‘Cold Pastoral’ in his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, one of a series of odes he wrote in his annus mirabilis, 1819. He was still only in his early twenties at the time, yet he was writing some of the poems – indeed, many of the poems – which would cement his place in the poetic canon.

‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is one of the best-known and most widely analysed poems by John Keats; it is one of his celebrated Odes. He wrote five of these Odes in all, and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is perhaps the finest, and most critically acclaimed, of them all. (This wasn’t always the case, however: in 1820, when the poem was first published, it was met with a lukewarm reception.) It is in this ode that we find Keats’s reference to ‘Cold Pastoral’.

But what does he mean by ‘Cold Pastoral’?

Inspired by the scenes depicted on an ancient Greek urn, Keats starts to reflect on what these images can tell him – and us – about truth, art, and the passage of time. One of the distinctive features of ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is how few answers Keats arrives at as a result of his examination of the urn: if anything, he becomes more and more uncertain, almost knowing less at the end of the poem than he knew at the start.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, Keats himself was keen on the idea of what he called ‘negative capability’, a state in which one is happy in being ignorant about something, and content with mystery and imagination, rather than ‘irritably’ reaching after facts and reason, as he put it in a famous letter.

In his ode, Keats reminds us (and himself) that he will never learn the answer to the questions the urn has inspired him to ask, because the townsfolk depicted on the urn are all dead and will remain silent. And the Grecian urn, too, will not offer up the answers. He then addresses the urn directly:

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Keats praises the beauty of the Grecian urn as a whole, celebrating its ‘Attic shape’ (i.e. its Athenian form, as it’s an ancient Greek or ‘Grecian’ urn) and its ‘Fair attitude’.

Keats praises the ‘brede’ of ‘marble men and maidens overwrought’ (‘brede’ is an old word referring to plaiting or embroidery). He is keen to draw attention to the ‘silent’ nature of the Grecian urn as a work of art. Keats says that the urn ‘doth tease us out of thought’. In other words, it presents us with teasing riddles (who are these people, and what are they doing?) without providing us with the answers. We are thus teased ‘out of thought’, out of our minds.

And this brings us to ‘Cold Pastoral’. The word ‘pastoral’ denotes the countryside and the world of shepherds. There is a long-established tradition in poetry which depicts rural life, and the lives of shepherds who look after the sheep in the countryside, but depicts them in an idealised way. In other words, there isn’t much focus on sheep dung and disease. Instead, pastoral poetry shows us shepherds falling in love, or trying to woo a wife, and other things, using a romanticised countryside as a backdrop to these events.

The word ‘pastoral’ is derived from the Latin pastoralis, which means ‘pertaining to shepherds’, and is the reason why priests are sometimes referred to as pastors – they’re in charge of their ‘flock’ of worshippers, so ‘shepherds’ of a kind – and why we talk about providing pastoral care, i.e., like a shepherd looking after his sheep.

So that explains the ‘Pastoral’ part. The men and maidens depicted on the urn are idealised versions of simple rustic folk. But why ‘Cold’?

Well, at this point in the poem, Keats realises the urn is coldly refusing to give up its secrets; for Keats, the Grecian urn is ‘Cold Pastoral’. In other words, it depicts pastoral scenes, but it is cold pastoral, because it raises more questions than it provides answers to. We might compare giving someone the cold shoulder, a phrase meaning to ignore someone or give them short shrift.

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