- How one approaches Keats's ode in the classroom will depend, of course,
on the kind of classroom and the nature of the class. The hypercanonicity
of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" stems in part from its usefulness in various
pedagogical settings, from the British Romanticism survey to the Introduction
to Poetry class to the course on literary criticism. Like Wordsworth's
"Lucy" poems, "Grecian Urn" is a target text for exemplifying major
issues and ideas in British Romanticism, for studying the genre of the
lyric, and for illustrating various critical and theoretical approaches.
As James O'Rourke's recent Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism
has ably demonstrated, the poem is especially well suited to foregrounding
the debate between formalist, deconstructionist, historicist, and feminist
ways of reading and teaching.
- My own pedagogy, while eclectic, is biased toward formalism for several
reasons, including, inescapably, my early training in the New Criticism
and my reservations concerning the extra-literary direction of literary
studies over the last several decades. More importantly, however, one
tries to identify students' needs, and in my experience, students—and
I am not referring to ESL studentshave never been more in need
of learning how to read. I mean by "read" not just the ability to respond
with comprehension and sensitivity to what used to be called "poetic"
as opposed to "scientific" or "discursive" writing. I mean also the
ability to decode even mildly complex uses of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary
and thus to analyze and understand a written text on a paraphrastic,
much less a fully "literary," level.
- It will come as no surprise, then, that I spend a lot of class time
on "close reading," although I do not delimit that methodology in the
ways that Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and other New Critics
tended to do. I like to teach Keats's "Urn" in conjunction with "Ode
to a Nightingale," often assigning a preliminary writing assignment
(formal or informal) in which I ask students to discuss the two poems
with special attention to the endings of each. I focus on the endings
for some obvious reasons. For one thing, the notorious "who says what
to whom" problem in the "Urn"'s last lines still catches students—even
advanced students—by surprise. Many simply do not see the various
grammatical and syntactical possibilities for meaning at a first (or
even third) reading, nor have most ever thought about the material nature
of a text, the determinant role of editing, or the importance of publication
history. (The major Romantic anthologies all include commentary on the
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" crux, although many undergraduates seem
opposed on principle to reading footnotes.) The "Urn" is an excellent
vehicle for introducing such things and for forcing students to pause,
in their headlong gallop toward subjective response or ideological pronouncement,
to ponder the grammatical and semantic relations between pronouns and
antecedents in the English language.
- Attention to the concept of closure implicates the concept of form
or structure, which opens up discussion of theme, tone, persona, diction,
and other formalist preoccupations. The anthology I use most often for
Introduction to Literary Study I, a foundation course for English majors,
includes the "Urn" in the chapter on "Word Choice, Word Order, and Tone."
My teaching points are not particularly original and are indebted to,
among others, M. H. Abrams's classic statement on "the greater Romantic
lyric." I tend to present the structure of the ode as processive, that
is, as revealing the persona's dynamic processes of thought and feeling
as they develop, line by line, from stanza one through stanza five.
I ask students to identify what they take to be definitive shifts in
the speaker's responses and thus in the argument and structure of the
poem. We usually agree, as do most critics, that stanza four marks a
fundamental formal and thematic turning point. The persistent questioning
of stanza one reappears, but directed now to a very different scene
with very different implications. Instead of a timeless and erotic Hellenic
pastoral in which the disparity between "deities" and "mortals" is inconsequential,
the speaker interrogates a religious sacrifice with its intrinsic reminders
of human mortality and limitation. The scene provokes him to imagine
a "desolat[ion]" beyond the capacity of the urn to picture or explain
and thus initiates the highly-wrought ambiguities of the closing stanza.
- Comparing/contrasting poetic texts is a good way to teach reading
skills, and juxtaposing the "Nightingale" and the "Urn" encourages students
to make precise discriminations involving tone and theme. That one poem
ends in a question, the other in a declarative statement is a starting
point, and students usually identify the "Nightingale" as the more obviously
skeptical and "emotional" of the two poems. They come to a better appreciation
of the ambiguity and feeling in the "Urn," however, as we examine the
various tonal ironies of "brede," "overwrought," and "Cold Pastoral"
and the deceptive assurance of the "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" pronouncement
in stanza five. We then move back to the paradoxical portrayal of artistic
transcendence in stanzas two and three. Students rarely seem to notice
without prodding the problematic effects of the double negatives and
repeated "happy"'s in those stanzas but are eager to interpret them
when they are pointed out.
- An attempt to define as specifically as possible the tone of Keats's
"Urn" affords an opportunity to introduce the December, 1817 "Negative
Capability" letter. The letter as a whole, with its references to the
visual arts, its celebration of artistic "intensity," and its use of
the phrase "Beauty & Truth," makes a useful commentary on the poem
and moves students beyond a reductively formalistic preoccupation with
the "words on the page." I ask students to apply Keats's ideas on Negative
Capability to the "Urn." Compared to the "Nightingale" (or "To Autumn"),
for example, does the poem "remain (sic) content with half knowledge"?
Does it achieve an aesthetic form, a "sense of Beauty," capable of "overcoming"
or "obliterating" its implicit "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts"? I
also often introduce Coleridge's organicist view of "the balance or
reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" in chapter fourteen
of Biographia Literaria as another relevant theoretical statement.
We generally agree that the "Urn" achieves a degree of "negative capability"
or "balance" or what Brooks called "dramatic wholeness" greater than
that achieved in the "Nightingale" but less than that achieved in "To
Autumn." The point, of course, is not to construct an evaluative hierarchy
or come to absolute conclusions but to get students thinking carefully
about tone, context, and diction, and about their own critical and aesthetic
- In upper-division and graduate classes on Romanticism, I teach Keats
as a second-generation Romantic and foreground the skeptical idealism
that characterizes that belated generation. In such classes, I tend
to adopt a quasi-deconstructive critical stance, approaching the "Urn"
as a meta-text that comments self-reflexively on Romantic idealist aesthetics
and metaphysics. Using familiar deconstructive moves, I push students
beyond the more or less "balanced" ambiguity of a formalist reading
towards a more radically ambivalent interpretation that foregrounds
the unresolved (and presumably irresolvable) relationship between transcendent
meaning and material form. As a way of reading, deconstruction is particularly
well-suited, I think, to illuminate the textual complexities, if not
to evaluate the metaphysical, aesthetic, and emotional commitments,
of a Romantic idealist poetics.
- Although I do not completely buy Paul de Man's distinction between
symbol and allegory, his equation of the symbolic and the aesthetic
works nicely as a way into Keats's ode. The poem strives to construct
the well-wrought urn as a symbolic form, as an eternal work of art capable
of representing the ideal perfections Romanticism attributed both to
nature and to Hellenism. The poem seeks to idealize the urn, that is,
as an embodiment (and thus an expression), as an incarnation (and thus
a revelation) of transcendent and intelligible meaning in a sensible
form. At the same time, however, the poem includes subtextual elements
(de Man would call them "allegorical") that put into question the very
possibility of an aesthetic symbolism uncontaminated by and transcending
temporal, material reality.
- In stanza one, for example, the urn is represented as both "historian"
and poet, but the speaker cannot decode the "flowery tale" it tells,
a readerly and writerly failure intensified, as already mentioned, in
stanza four. The tonal and thematic inconsistencies in stanzas two and
three also point to an underlying metaphysical and poetic dilemma. An
ideal order "far above" the exigencies of material human existence—including
attempts to "Pipe . . . spirit ditties" to a non-"sensual ear"—can
only be expressed in terms of the same naturalistic and sensual order
that the speaker desires to transcend. Vehicle obscures tenor, signifier
compromises signified, language deconstructs meaning.
- A similar problem unfolds in stanza five as the speaker seeks to
elicit from the urn a transcendental message both aesthetic and ontological
that will bring the poem to thematic and formal closure and that will
confirm the urn's (and the poem's) status as a revelatory Romantic symbol.
Not only is the revelation itself largely undecidable, however, but
the speaker's conflicting attempts at personification and apostrophe
betray, as figurative language so often does, his (and our) epistemological
uncertainties. Is the urn a "silent form" that leads us beyond intelligibility
(and speech) altogether, or is it a loquacious, even sententious "friend"
speaking a higher, but still explicable, wisdom? The speaker, like the
text, and like second-generation British Romanticism, can (indeed must)
desire an answer, but cannot know.