The speaker refers to the urn as a "cold pastoral" because, while depicting a colorful pastoral setting, the figures in the picture are lifeless. The word "pastoral" comes from the Greek words for shepherding and therefore describes a genre of literature that focuses on rural life. In English, we often call people who live in rural areas "country folk," which is what the poet is doing here by referring to the residents of the urn as a "cold pastoral."
This poem was written by John Keats (1795-1821). Keats was an English Romantic poet whose work pre-dating that of William Wordsworth by about five years made him famous in his own time. His poems discuss such subjects as beauty, love, and death with a sensitivity and elegance that have never been surpassed. Keats died at the age of 26 after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
The urn is a historian of rural scenery, which it represents better than the speaker's era's poetry (or perhaps language more generally). The speaker wonders what stories the images on the urn are telling, whether the individuals shown are human or gods, and where they are in Greece. This last question leads into an exploration of mortality and immortality.
The urn itself is a funerary monument. It was used by ancient Greeks to store the ashes of loved ones who had no family to bury them. Ashes were placed inside a vessel called an urn and buried near the site where they were collected. If you visit a cemetery today, you will see many urns like this one displayed in museum collections. They are important sources for information about Greek culture because scholars can tell how wealthy people were by what was included in their urns: fine clothes, weapons, armor, tools, etc.
In this poem, the speaker imagines that the figures on the urn have stories to tell about their lives. He thinks about what these stories might be as well as wondering if they were told by humans or by gods. Finally, he asks himself whether the people contained within the urn are alive now or not. Are they living in Athens or not? If not, then where are they now? Perhaps they died long before our poet wrote about them, or maybe they're still alive but far away from home. We just don't know.
Pastoral poetry is notable for examining the human-nature interaction and romanticizing the ideals of a simple rural existence. The pastoral form's ongoing appeal implies a broad resonance with these ideas. Pastoral poets often use the genre to criticize the corrupting influences of city life on humanity.
In addition to critiquing society, some pastoral poems offer advice to young people on how to live a moral life. These poems are called didactic poems. Some early English writers used the term "pastor" to describe any poet who wrote in praise of religion or morality. However, this usage is now considered obsolete.
By the 17th century, the term had come to specifically mean a priest who lived in rural solitude. Today, the word "pastor" means a clergyman who serves a church community, but that usage did not emerge until much later. Before then, anyone who preached from a manuscript was called a pastor.
In modern times, the pastoral form has been popular among poets for presenting an idealized picture of country life. The genre is also used by writers to discuss the effects of urbanization on human nature.
Pastoral poets typically use their poems to criticize the ills of society or offer advice to young people.
A pastoral poem delves into the notion of escaping urban life to dwell in a lovely rural area. All pastoral poetry depends on the legacy of Theocritus, an ancient Greek poet who created idealized depictions of shepherds living rich and full lives. Pastoral poems are usually written in iambic pentameter, a type of poetic rhythm that uses five pairs of metered lines. These poems often include descriptions of nature and may offer advice to those looking to escape from reality.
Pastoral poems were most popular in Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries. They're still being written today and can be found in many different forms: hymns, songs, sonnets, and more.
Some famous poets who have written pastoral poems include John Milton (1608-1674), William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and Alexander Pope (1688-1744).
Milton's "Lycidas" and "Samson Agonistes" are two important early works of pastoral poetry. They deal with the loss of a friend and a hero, respectively. "Lycidas" was published in 1637 when Milton was only 25 years old. It is a plea for mercy to be shown to a lost young man named Lycidas.