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U

Urn In classical literature literal urns have three functions: to hold liquids (the

Greek word for ‘‘urn’’ is hydria, from hydor, ‘‘water’’), to hold ballots or lots,

and to hold the ashes of the dead. From the first use comes the image of the

urn as the source of a river. Virgil pictures Father Inachus pouring his stream

from an urn (Aeneid 7.792), while Statius has Ismenus drop his urn in despair

(Thebaid 9.410). Imitating these river-gods, Dryden writes, of the great fire of

London, ‘‘Old Father Thames raised up his reverend head, / But feared the fate

of Simois would return’’ -- the Trojan river that fought the fire of Hephaestus;

‘‘Deep in his ooze he sought his sedgy bed, / And shrunk his waters back into

his urn’’ (Annus Mirabilis 925--28). Thomsons eye roves ‘‘To where the Nile from

Ethiopian clouds, / His never drained ethereal urn, descends’’ (Liberty 3.252--53).

Schiller laments the time when ‘‘Out of urns the lovely Naiads carried / Leapt

the rivers silver foam’’ (‘‘Gods of Greece’’ (1800) 23--24), while Shelley imagines

a northern clime where Liberty teaches ‘‘every Naiads ice-cold urn’’ to speak

of her (‘‘Ode to Liberty’’ 111).

The urns occasional use as the source of fate derives from another passage

of the Aeneid that names the urn full of lots for choosing which seven young

Athenian men must be sacrificed to the Minotaur (6.22). In Senecas Troades we

learn that the captive Trojan women have been assigned to their captors by

lots from a spinning urn (974). Behind this tradition lies the two jars (pithoi) of

Zeus, one containing griefs, the other good things, to be distributed to

mortals below (Iliad 24.527ff.).

Propertius warns his friend Postumus that he may be sent back from the

wars in an urn (3.12.13). ‘‘Urn’’ became a general term for tomb or grave in

poetry. Donnes lovers will forgo a long chronicle for a sonnet or two, for

‘‘As well a well wrought urn becomes / The greatest ashes, as half-acre tombs’’

(‘‘The Canonization’’ 33--34). Admonishing us to remember the vanity of

fame, Gray asks, ‘‘Can storied urn or animated bust / Back to its mansion

call the fleeting breath?’’ (‘‘Elegy’’ 41--42). Byron describes Athens under the

Ottomans as ‘‘a nations sepulchre’’ and a ‘‘defenceless urn’’ (Childe Harold

2.20--21).

Keats does not tell us what he thinks was the original function of his

Grecian urn, but since it is ‘‘storied’’ like Grays, it is plausible to think of it as

a cinerary urn, once holding the ashes of the dead. That use may give it

another means to ‘‘tease us out of thought / As doth eternity’’ (44--45).