- I have taught the "Urn" in a variety of graduate courses, in upper-division
undergraduate Romantics surveys, in critical theory courses, and in
sophomore "Great Books" courses and British Literature surveys.
Because of what Jim O'Rourke calls its "hypercanonicity,"
students (and perhaps we their teachers) find it difficult to read the
poem itself, rather than simply rehearsing preconceptions. This difficulty
exacerbates a more general problem: students at all levels have difficulty
reading it as anything other than a narrative, having had little training
in either the historical development of the ode form or even the differing
interpretive demands of poetry and prose.
- In the fall of 2000 I had the luxury of addressing some of the relevant
formal and generic issues at length, in a graduate seminar at Auburn
University entitled "Form and History in Romantic Poetry,"
in part inspired by Susan Wolfson’s Formal Charges, which
had appeared the previous year. In that course we spent two classes
on the Romantic ode, using Paul Fry's The Poet's Calling and the
English Ode, Cyrus Hamlin's chapter on the ode in Hermeneutics
of Form, Stuart Curran's very useful chapter on the ode in Poetic
Form and British Romanticism, and some contemporary discussions
of the ode, including scattered comments from the poets themselves and
parts of Robert Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews.
Having already done extensive work on the sonnet, we were able to explore
the theory that Keats's ode form developed out of his experimentations
with the sonnet, address the relation between the ode and the hymn,
discuss the form’s public vs. private status, test Curran's hypothesis
about the combination of Horatian and Pindaric elements (while reading
some Horace and Pindar in translation), and read it alongside some of
the other Romantic and pre-Romantic odes that Keats would have known.
With that background, the "Urn" pretty much taught itself.
- Normally, however, the time for that kind of contextualization is
not available, and the challenges of teaching the poem in lower-division
courses are actually more interesting to discuss, if not always to face.
Getting students to read the poem in a sophomore British literature
survey with some degree of generic sensitivity takes up so much time
that I normally don't do a great deal of a great deal of detailed historical
contextualization. Am I therefore a closet New Critic in the classroom?
One of the questions Jim O'Rourke asked us to consider in this assignment
is whether we are new historicists in our research who "fall back
into formalist New Criticism in the classroom." I will duck the
admission of bad faith that this question implies by asserting that
I am not, nor have I ever been, a new historicist. But New Criticism
(or rather the caricatured ahistorical straw man that is called to mind
by that appellation today) is not the only alternative to new-historical
discussions of material conditions and ideological displacements, and
I do see my own scholarly agenda, informed by a different use of history,
as relevant to my teaching of the "Urn."
- I am interested in hermeneutic theory, particularly as developed by
philosophers such as Hans Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, with an emphasis
in my recent work on how questions of interepretation intersect with
questions of ethics. Therefore I like to look at the way past texts
and present readers speak to each other from different but intersecting
and historically conditioned horizons. I am not interested in what I
see as the impossible and incoherent task of reconstructing a work as
it was read at the time, a task that is incoherent on theoretical grounds
because it depends on a myth of historical objectivity that is in fact
a legacy of Romantic historiography, but also impossible on practical
grounds within the constraints of all but an advanced graduate course.
At the same time, I want to emphasize, rather than elide, the historical
distance between us and the poem, so I try to squelch any simple discussion
of how the poem is "relevant" to our time, with the goal of
enabling a less simple discussion of how interpreting such a poem from
the past might involve a kind of ethical practice that is in fact relevant
- My interest in these hermeneutic issues may make my approach to the
"Urn" a kind of minority report, and it may mark me as old-fashioned.
I may also appear to be merely complicating the obvious, since much
of what hermeneutics does is bring to the surface the unstated assumptions
that guide interpretive practice, assumptions that often operate on
a more fundamental level than the specific interpretive methods of a
particular literary or cultural theory. However, I think the question
of how our interpretive horizons intersect with those established by
a past instance of particularly intense interpretive practice is exactly
what needs to be emphasized when teaching the poem, particularly in
a lower-level course such as a sophomore British Literature survey,
in which we are often engaged in the very basic work of teaching students
how to read. For many students this will be the only literature class
taken in college, and so it can be the one chance to demonstrate the
value of literary interpretation and to help them become somewhat more
self conscious about their own interpretive practices. I would argue
that the "Urn"'s "hypercanonicity" is at least partly
a result of the fact that it is so useful for this purpose.
- The "Urn" is a particularly good text for these issues because, like
all of Keats's odes, but especially the "Ode to Psyche" and the "Ode
to a Nightingale," it is so self-conscious about its own interpretive
practice. The speaker worries about how to read a "flowery tale"
that is directly apprehended ("ditties of no tone" bypassing
the "sensual ear" and piped directly to the "spirit"),
but which produces more questions than answers, leading to an explicit
message about beauty and truth, which is presented as a general statement
for future generations, but which is also clearly an end-product of
the speaker's interpretive moves throughout the poem. The poem is very
specifically concerned with the temporality of interpretation, in its
effort to interpret an object that "speaks," albeit silently,
from the past, as the "foster-child of silence and slow time,"
with a message for the future.
- In spring 2002 I taught the poem in a sophomore British literature
survey (Romantics to the present) at Appalachian State University, in
which my guiding theme was how the authors we read interpreted the past.
For part of the semester we read A.S. Byatt's Possession, a
story of how two late-twentieth scholars unearth and relive a romance
between two Victorian poets, alongside a good deal of Romantic and Victorian
poetry, partly to help us maintain a double focus that is explicit in
Byatt's novel: we observed modern relations to past texts as we studied
how those texts engaged their own relation to various pasts. With very
little encouragement on my part, the "Urn" kept popping up
throughout the course well after we had "done" the poem, as
a touchstone for other works that treated and in some way idealized
a past. Some of the more obvious connections to the "Urn"'s treatment
of the past included Matthew Arnold's much more confident idealization
of a different brand of Hellenism, Swinburne’s juxtaposition of
the Greeks' quotidian sense of mortality with the illusions of Christianity,
and Yeats's aesthetic Byzantium.
- I open the discussion of the poem itself (once we have gone through
the text and untangled some syntax and vocabulary) by asking students
to explore how the poem is about interpretive strategies and the difficulties
they entail. We discuss heard vs. unheard melodies, the inadequacy of
"our rhyme" to reproduce the work of the "Silvan historian,"
and the disjunction between the spatiality of the urn's figures and
the temporality of the narrative implied by the speaker's questions.
Students are so used to reading according to a linear narrative model"reading
for the plot"that noticing this poem's failure to construct
a plot can usefully steer them away from seeing it simply as a story
with a moral at the end. Particularly if they have read more obviously
dialectical Romantic odes in which one section is opposed or even contradicted
by the next (the turns in Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," or,
better yet, the successive contradictions of Keats's own "Nightingale"),
they can begin to see the poem as something other than a straightforward
narrative, in explicit opposition to the speaker's effort to perceive
the urn as the teller of a narrative.
- Some of this ode's interpretive self-consciousness comes with the
genre. Without going into a great deal of detail about the history of
the ode in English poetry, I ask the students to think about hymns,
a genre these North Carolina students, many with strong religious backgrounds,
do know something about (Fry's book has an excellent discussion of the
Romantic ode as displaced hymn). They can see that the speaker's effort
to connect with an idealization "all breathing human passion far
above" resembles a hymnist's effort to connect with a deity through
praise, thanksgiving, or supplication, but in this case the effort occurs
without the security of a religious community confident in the omnipotence
and benevolence of the idealization in question. It is easy for students
to see that this situation poses some particular interpretive difficulties,
and that the object of a hymn is to make a connection, not simply to
narrate a story, even as the speaker attempts to extract a narrative
from the urn and as the poem ends up narrating the poem's failure to
make the desired connection.
- My agenda is to view the poem as an attempt, or a series of attempts,
at a difficult and ultimately incomplete act of interpretation, rather
than as a statement or a narrative, and then to see how our interpretive
acts intersect with the poem's. Interpretation is always incomplete,
because of the finitude of any interpretive horizon, and Keats was more
aware than most of how his horizon is limited by his health, education,
and social status. The operative conceit of most Romantic odes (perhaps
with the notable exception of Keats's "To Autumn") is that
the speaker is trying to connect with something that is by definition
beyond the speaker’s horizon, with the attendant Kantian problems
of accessing a noumenal realm inaccessible from the phenomenal: Wordsworth’s
past in "Tintern Abbey," Shelley's Mont Blanc, Keats’s
- For the speaker of the "Urn," this generic interpretive difficulty
is exacerbated by the fact that his particular object of interpretation
is frustratingly both within and beyond his horizon. The sudden ability,
thanks to the imperial insensitivity of Lord Elgin, for someone like
Keats to view Greek artifacts directly in the British Museum, puts him
into the state of confusion expressed in "On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
for the First Time," a poem I usually have students read with the
"Urn." Keats is well aware that his knowledge of Greek language
and culture is second-hand, which adds to the already inconceivable
temporal and spatial distance imposed by what "Elgin Marbles"
calls "the rude / Wasting of old time" and the "billowy
main." But at the same time, he is able to see these new examples
of "Grecian grandeur," previously visible only in two-dimensional
pre-photographic reproductions, up close. The shock of this simultaneity
of temporal and spatial distance and proximity (a foreign but important
perspective for students brought up in the eternal present and presence
of video and shopping malls) is at the root of many of the speaker's
interpretive difficulties, as is evident in the oscillation between
the direct apostrophe in stanzas three and five and the distance implied
by the questioning in stanza four. A related phenomenon informs our
interpretive perspective. On a simple level, the poem is right there
in front of us but interpretively inaccessible in its historical distance.
The poem is also familiar and other in another sense: the poem's interpretive
horizon is different from our own but also partly constitutive of our
own, in the direct sense that our reading is conditioned by the poem
in front of us and in the indirect sense that our interpretive practices
are historically conditioned by phenomena that include Romanticism.
- I try to get at these issues concretely by asking students to list
the difficulties and ambiguities that the speaker of the "Urn"
faces, and the difficulties that we face, and then look for points of
comparison and contrast. A sample list of interpretive difficulties
for the speaker might look something like this
The list of our own interpretive difficulties (which can legitimately
include what advanced students might see as "dumb" questions)
might look something like this:
1. His inability to read the "leaf-fringed
2. The urn's refusal to identify the figures ("what
men or gods are these?") that are, however, clearly visible.
3. Difficulties posed by the difference in genre
between the urn's tale and "our rhyme"; the impossibility
of constructing a narrative about the figures on the urn.
4. Whether to read the lovers' static relation as
unfulfilled or undying.
5. The frustration resulting from the desire to interpret
an iconic work, representative of a classical past.
6. How to evaluate the "Urn"is it
a "cold Pastoral" or a true "friend" or both?
1. How do we make sense out of a poem that
is so unsure of itself, given the above?
The lists have a number of things in common: both we and Keats find the
combined proximity and distance of the object of interpretation disconcerting
and question-generating. The speaker's difficulties foreshadow our own,
particularly if we take the poem literally and see ourselves as the future
addressees of the urn, living "in midst of other woe" than the
speaker’s after his generation has been wasted by old age. We address
the canonical poem with questions as the speaker addresses the canonical
urn, and, like the speaker, we find both maddeningly unanswerable questions
and "cold" general truths. We try to make a narrative out of
the poem, as the speaker tries to make a narrative out of the figures
on the urn, and we both are aware of the impossibility of that task. Our
evaluation of the poem is likely to be as ambiguous as the speaker's evaluation
of the urn.
2. If we are supposed to be those who hear the urn's
message in the future "in midst of other woe" than the speaker's,
how do we deal with the fact that our access to the urn is even more
mediate than the speaker's, since it is filtered through his poem? That
is to say, how do we read the message of truth and beauty? As a message
for us? As a construct of the speaker's? As a message for us mediated
by the poem?
3. Who is saying that last line and a half? Who is
the message of truth and beauty for and who is telling whom that this
is all we know and all we need to know?
4. Are we supposed to take seriously the equation of
truth and beauty and the apparent idealization of the Greek past? (The
students will have read the letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22 November
1817 in which Keats says, "What the imagination seizes as Beauty
must be truthwhether it existed before or not," a phrase
with plenty of interpretive difficulties of its own. The inevitable
discussion of ways to understand the relationship between the biographical
Keats and the speaker of the poem often occurs here.)
5. Why can't we agree on an interpretation of this
poem after all this time? The words are all right there in front of
6. How do we evaluate the poemis it good art?
How do we know? What criteria do we apply? Can we really read all those
"happy"s in stanza three with a straight face?
- At the same time there are important differences. We probably aren't
as worried about the possible equation of truth and beauty, or about
an iconic ancient Greece, as Keats is. Even if we aren't new historicists,
we are interested in locating the poem within a cultural and aesthetic
milieu, rather than directly addressing a mysterious artifact. We have
a somewhat readable text before usa higher-order interpretive
actwhile his is a lower-order (in the sense of more "basic")
encounter with an object that is translated into a higher-order text.
The speaker in the ode is singing a displaced hymn, we are writing an
- Am I imposing unfair assumptions about the homogeneity of the students
in this use of "we"? That's always worth talking about in
this kind of discussion. The fact of the matter is that the students
in this class were mostly white, middle-class North Carolinians between
the ages of 18 and 22; the "we" of the present reader might
have been factually more complex in a culturally more diverse setting.
However, the constitution of the "we" is not solely determined
by the cultural make-up of the particular interpretive community. The
poem itself, as a common object of interpretation, establishes a common
horizon for even a culturally diverse group of readers, as does the
syllabus and my own agenda. That double determination of the reader
(by both his or her culture and the context established by the class,
text, and teacher) gives us an interesting perspective on the second
list above: some of our interpretive difficulties stem from differences
between our cultural milieu and Keats's, such as our difficulty in taking
seriously the equation of truth and beauty, and our lack of reverence
for the Greek classical past as an ideal. (It's easier to generalize
about what "we" are not interested in than what we
are interested in.) The nature of these differences will vary with different
readers' backgrounds. Other difficulties are posed by the poem itself,
such as the actual ambiguities of language (the opening line's "still"
as adjective or adverb, the long-standing question of who speaks the
last line and a half) and the speaker’s unanswerable questions.
Still other difficulties result from the fact of historical
distance (as opposed to the content of the historical differences
between then and now), including the double mediacy of our access to
the "Urn"he's writing a poem about his encounter with
an urn, we are discussing our encounter with his poem about an encounter
with an urnand the need to evaluate the poem as a historical object
that has settled into a canon.
- We share a horizon with Keats in that we are pursuing an interpretive
path with him (both in following his interpretive moves in the poem
and in interpreting his poem as he interprets the urn), but an important
part of that shared horizon is an acknowledgment of otherness: the inaccessibility
to the speaker of the urn's story and even the message about truth and
beauty (spoken to future generations, not to him) mirrors, with a difference
in register, the distance between us and the poem. The poem is "relevant"
to us not because its concerns match our own, and definitely not because
we construct the text as we read it, but because the interpretive effort
it instigates will "tease us out of thought" in forcing us
to recognize the value of this shared interpretive work in a conversation
between past and present, as we also recognize the importanceboth
as a reminder of our horizon's finitude and as a reminder that there
are worlds beyond our ownof a conversation with that which ultimately
- Am I universalizing the poem's "message"? Yes and no. No,
in that I'm seeing many of the poem's concerns, such as the equation
of truth and beauty and the Hellenistic ideal, as part of a historical
horizon most of us do not share. Yes, in that I'm trying to show that
the kind of interpretive work performed in and instigated by the poem
is, if not strictly a universal phenomenon, at least a legacy of Romanticism
that is still an important part of what we do. I admit that this hermeneutic
emphasis is partly a strategic choice, perhaps influenced by my role
as the chair of an English department, who by virtue of that role is
necessarily invested in the institutional context of teaching. Especially
at a time when university education is becoming more and more technical
and product-oriented, I think it is important to put in a word for interpretive
process as a good in itself, and as something worth conscious study.
It is true, as I say to prospective English majors, that the interpretive
skills you learn doing this kind of thing may get you a better job or
a promotion, but it is a more important truth that reading a poem like
Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" forces you to become self-conscious about
your own interpretive processes. The point is not exactly that this
kind of interpretive self-consciousness will make us better peopletoo
much self-conscious interpretation can stall action, ethical or otherwise,
and plenty of bad people are expert interpretersbut that our education
toward ethical participation in society can in fact be advanced when
we simultaneously participate in and observe an interpretive process
that actively engages the otherness of the past, the finitude of the
interpretive horizon, and the desire to understand that which is both
immediately present and just out of reach.