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"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

Hermeneutics for Sophomores

David P. Haney, Appalachian State University

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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."

  4. 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 now.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 nightingale.

  11. 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.

  12. 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

    1. His inability to read the "leaf-fringed legend"
    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?
  13. 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. How do we make sense out of a poem that is so unsure of itself, given the above?
    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 truth—whether 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 us.
    6. How do we evaluate the poem—is 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?
    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.

  14. 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 us—a higher-order interpretive act—while 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 interpretation.

  15. 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 urn—and the need to evaluate the poem as a historical object that has settled into a canon.

  16. 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 importance—both as a reminder of our horizon's finitude and as a reminder that there are worlds beyond our own—of a conversation with that which ultimately resists interpretation.

  17. 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 people—too much self-conscious interpretation can stall action, ethical or otherwise, and plenty of bad people are expert interpreters—but 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.

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