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"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

The Timeless in Its Time: Engaging Students in a Close-reading and Discussion of the Historical Contexts of "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

John Kandl, Walsh University

  1. In both survey courses and specialized seminars on Romanticism, I like to engage students in the tension between the "internal," personal, romantic poem and its "external" participation in the historical context. Particularly in discussions of hypercanonical works, often presented as "timeless," it is useful for students to grapple with ways in which such a work can be reconstituted within its historical moment. Interesting discussions and debates emerge since students generally like to locate themselves in various camps, defending the timeless work of art, defending the poem as solely the author's personal expression, or just as adamantly reading the work as a public statement, bound by its particular historical moment. Moreover, students often see these modes of reading as incompatible. Is the poem a deeply felt personal expression, or is it a public statement, having less to do with the poet's emotional interior than it does with the volatile politics of nineteenth-century England? Or does the poem's significance reside in a transcendent realm of art, outside the bounds of history or biography altogether? My goal is to allow for a discussion of the poetry that can encompass all of these registers simultaneously. Naturally, Keats's"Ode on a Grecian Urn" presents a remarkably rich site in which to explore these tensions.

  2. At the point of the course when we get to the "Urn," students have noted that, for Keats, nature is the realm not only of the timeless beauty of "rocks and stones and trees," but also of sensuality, sexuality, and notably of suffering and mortality - a perpetual curb to any transcendent ideal. They have seen this exemplified most profoundly in the Nightingale ode, and it is crucial to consider "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in relation to this poem. Helen Vendler and others have stressed that Keats's odes should be read in relation to one another, and this holds particularly true for these two odes. It is useful to remember that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" follows the nightingale ode in both the 1820 volume and in their earlier, first, publications in The Annals of Fine Arts. In significant ways the second ode, in Vendler's phrase, is "as near a twin to the earlier ode as one poem can be to another" (The Odes of John Keats, 116). It answers and continues the first. The "Ode to the Nightingale," celebrates the "immortal Bird," like the urn, as a generalized ideal of beauty. In the Annals publications, however, both poems are surrounded by essays by Hazlitt and B.R. Haydon which severely criticize the aesthetic ideal promoted by Sir Joshua Reynolds and the Royal Academy. Both Hazlitt and Haydon strenuously promote the verisimilitude of the Elgin Marbles, their truth to nature, over what they cast as the conceptual and artificial aesthetic favored by the Royal Academy, which is treated in these essays as an extension of the corrupt Regency government. (Haydon reminds his readers that it is no accident this body is known as the Royal Academy.) Students have seen photocopies of selections of these essays, as well as of the versions of the odes printed in the Annals. They are familiar with some of the political-reformist implications of this debate over "legitimate" aesthetic authority and of the subtle innuendoes inherent in this discourse. In this context, the tensions concerning the timelessness of a work of art and its engagement with an historical moment are profoundly apparent as the subject matter of Keats's odes. Students can see that Keats himself, in these poems, is grappling with some of the same issues of art and meaning that they are also now confronting. The title, for starters, of the Nightingale ode, both in the Annals and in Keats's manuscripts is significantly not "Ode to a" but to "the Nightingale." As Robert Gittings has pointed out the "a" of the 1820 volume seems to have been the publisher's decision. Keats's "the" presents a "universal," which stresses the timeless ideal of beauty represented by the nightingale—beyond the realm of suffering (detailed in stanza III) which Keats would escape. Stanza III, however, anchors this visionary experience in an excruciating awareness of human limitation. Students have devoted a good amount of class time discussing how, with cold skill, these lines present a list of unavoidable "natural" facts, facts the students must face themselves, including age, loss of love, sickness, suffering and death, all of which prefigures the failure of the imagined ideal in the final stanza: "Adieu, the fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf"! If the imagination can seem a "cheat," however, Keats is loath to rest with this. Here, in relation to the poem's conclusion, I have the students consider Keats's concept of negative capability. The concluding lines, students gradually note, leave us hovering in an ambiguous, or negatively-capable, state in which the transcendent ideal vies with mortal limitations for the last word: "Was it a vision? Or a waking dream? / Fled is that music? Do I wake or sleep?" The question mark after "Fled is that music?" (present only in the Annals version) adds to the ambiguity. Naturally this gives rise to an open-ended discussion, which suits well my goal of unsettling students' desires for a single "legitimate" interpretation. Does the music of the bird, and all its implications of transcendent, eternal presence remain, merely unperceived by the "dull brain [that] perplexes and retards"? Is its absence the illusion? Set in relation to Hazlitt's and Haydon's discourses, the ode seems less a duplication of their arguments than an active working out of a critique. By both positing and unsettling universal ideals of beauty, whether natural or conceptual, Keats marks his own place in the public discourse, with an impassioned questioning of issues that deeply concern him personally—enmeshed with his own grappling with personal suffering, and his personal poetic project. But also, in this "timeless" work, Keats overtly participates in a contemporary public dialogue concerning the potential meanings of art.

  3. This engagement with public issues, beyond the merely personal, continues in the ode "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where the first-person "I" of the Nightingale ode interestingly shifts to a more distanced, subtly more "objective," "thou." The ode has traditionally been read as either a successfully autonomous poem celebrating an ideal of aesthetic beauty, or, more recently, as an attempt at this goal but fraught with all the ideological contradictions and paradoxes inherent to an idealist aesthetic. Paul Magnuson notes, however, that this line of criticism "has appropriated [Keats's] poem for an ideology opposite that of the Annals of the Fine Arts," and that "the strange fate of the 'Ode On a Grecian Urn' is to have become an idealized object, when its original context strongly denied the existence of that ideal" (Public Romanticism, 169). While the "Ode to the Nightingale" ambiguously keeps the ideal in float, "On a Grecian Urn" echoes Haydon's and Hazlitt's denial of a "beau ideal," favoring a poetics of sensation, and vehemently reconfiguring the ideal as emerging from the empirical. Haydon (in a passage from the Annals I photocopy for students), clarifies the debate in terms which frame Keats's poem:

    There was but one period of art in the world which can be said to approach perfection, viz. the period of Phidias [sculptor of the Elgin Marbles], whose great principle was to restore every object represented to the qualities and properties bestowed on that object at its creation, adapted to its intellect or instinct, and then to clear these qualities or properties from the results of accident and disease, to their essential powers: thus, a god was only a human being in his highest perfection, with the qualities of a human being restored, and not violated; a horse, was characteristically a horse; a cow, a cow, a dog, a dog; a fish, a fish, and so forth, essentially and characteristically a horse, a cow, a dog, a fish; whereas in the time of Alexander, and after that, in the time of the Roman emperors, the artists then living wandered from the sound path, and attempted to elevate nature, by a violation of many of her great principles, and never suffered action or repose to have their due influence, if that influence at all disturbed the shape of the figures they represented, or the 'beau ideal' of the human form they had fixed on in their own minds as a standard of perfection. The figures then produced have thus misled the world with false and pernicious notions of ideal beauty; which were no other than making nature bend to a capricious system, and never bending the system established to the great and eternal laws of nature. The 'ideal beauty' of Phidias was but to restore nature to the essential qualities given her by God.

  4. For Haydon and Hazlitt, the "'ideal beauty' of Phidias," means an ideal derived from nature—as represented by the Elgin Marbles. This "natural" ideal is posited against the later Roman, and neoclassical "beau ideal" which would elevate nature, presenting, in Hazlitt's words, the notion of an "ideal perfection which never existed in the world, nor even on canvas" (Works, VIII, 144). Haydon's attention to "shape," "action," and "repose," and his emphasis upon natural objects cleared of "the results of accident and disease," articulate the central tensions in Keats's ode. I pair students and have them examine the figures represented on the urn. The figures are caught in action: in Bacchic revelry bold lovers pursue "Maidens loth," while a "happy melodist" pipes "songs for ever new." Students are quick to note that, like the Nightingale, these figures represent a realm of beauty, of sensual bliss at its peak, forever beyond the world of flux and sorrow: "All breathing human Passion far above, / That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloyed / A burning forehead and a parching tongue." While fully natural in expression of active sensual desire, the figures may yet, however, present a "cheat" in that the permanence of their beauty is an atemporal fiction—blissfully freed from time and change, "accident and disease." The question emerges: what is Keats saying here about the truth or fictionality of an ideal of beauty? At this point it is useful, again, to have students review stanza III of the Nightingale ode in relation to the figures on the urn. Ironically, the very pathos of this tension between mortality and an immortal ideal heightens the beauty frozen on the urn. But this is an ideal of beauty not bent to fit a "capricious system," imposed upon the natural, but one that recognizably emerges from the full-blooded experience of human passion in action, caught at its height.

  5. The sacrificial procession in stanza IV furthers and deepens this aesthetic dialectic, also engaging the volatile context of pagan religion. Here I introduce students, briefly, to some scholarly commentary on this mysterious stanza. As Ian Jack, in Keats and the Mirror of Art, has shown, the stanza's imagery with its "mysterious Priest," and "Heifer lowing at the skies, / And all her silken flanks with garlands drest," derives in part from an Elgin frieze which depicts just such a sacrifice. However, as Robert Gittings has pointed out, it also echoes an article by Haydon. Haydon's article describes and discusses a "Cartoon" (or drawing) by Raphael depicting the "Sacrifice of Lystra," a Biblical scene in which St. Paul, who has just cured a cripple, looks with disdain upon a Priest and procession leading a bull to be sacrificed in gratitude to Paul for his miraculous act of healing. As Gittings notes, Haydon's description of the drawing provides "the garlanded heifer [here a "Bull"], the priest and worshippers, the town emptied of its inhabitants to attend sacrifice, even the players on the sylvan pipes, whom Haydon described as 'wholly absorbed in the harmony of their own music' . . . Even the central theme of the agelessness of art was put in almost the same words by Haydon, who, passing on to the classical statuary of Michaelangelo, remarked that they 'look as if they were above the influence of time; they seem as if they would never grow old, and had never been young'" (Odes of Keats and their Earliest Known Manuscripts, 70).

  6. Along with these imagistic and thematic influences, the drawing, as described by Haydon, significantly depicts a moment of tension between paganism and Christianity. Haydon quotes the relevant Biblical passage from Acts in which "when the people had seen what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying . . . the Gods are come down to us in the likeness of men." Haydon notes that the apostles were mistaken for Mercury and Jupiter. The passage concludes with the apostles, Barnabas and Paul, rending their clothes and crying, "men why do you do these things? We also are like you, and subject to the same infirmities, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, who made the heaven and earth and the sea, and all things that are in them." Keats would also have relished the populist message in the Biblical passage: the divine power of healing is not imparted directly from hierarchically superior pagan divinities, but is diffused through the agency of mortals: "We also are like you," cry Paul and Barnabas, "subject to the same infirmities." Students can continue to explore connections. This passage, for example, complements Haydon's discussion (above) of the Phidian ideal in which "a god was only a human being in his highest perfection, with the qualities of a human being restored." For Haydon, again, "the 'ideal beauty' of Phidias was but to restore nature to the essential qualities given her by God." But Keats's attention to the desolation of the town, "emptied" this morning of all its pious inhabitants, may also, in the context of epochal change, lament with Leigh Hunt, in the latter's critiques of the corrupt national church, the passing of such "cheerful" pagan piety, here bound up with the loss of a more "natural" sense of aesthetic beauty. The urn, and the ideal it presents, as the final stanza reminds us, is a relic of antiquity, an "Attic shape."

  7. In the final stanza, the "Attic shape" becomes a "fair attitude," a "silent form" that "dost teaze [sic] us out of thought / As doth eternity!" Keats's pronounced attention to "shape" calls up Haydon's key statement concerning the neo-classical aesthetic, which "never suffered action or repose to have their due influence, if that influence at all disturbed the shape of the figures they represented, or the 'beau ideal' of the human form they had fixed on in their own minds as a standard of perfection." Disjoining the "ideal" from the human figure and transposing this to the more purely abstract formal perfection of the urn, Keats quite deliberately "disturbs" that shape, imposing fully the dialectic of "action and repose" upon the "silent form," "with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought." At this point, when students are immersed in a multiplex of possible interpretations, it is good to, once again, remind the class of Keats's concept of negative-capability. A complex of double-entendres and puns ("attitude" "brede" "overwrought") climaxes in the poem's crucial paradox, "Cold Pastoral." Keats holds the disjunctive energies of the poem in a tense equipoise: "Perfection," in this dialectic, exists not solely in the permanence of these figures within an ideal work of art, but rather in conjunction with the exacerbating impermanence of the fleeting scene they simultaneously represent and belie. This scene exists forever, paradoxically, as a frozen moment in the history of human passion, framed on this "Attic shape," and captured in the "leaf-fringed legend" of the urn as "Sylvan Historian." The "truth" equated with "beauty" in the poem's concluding lines may be that of a "timeless transcendent," (similar to the neoclassical "beau ideal"), or of the "time-bound" world of natural mortality (as in Hazlitt's and Haydon's verisimilitude—a beauty and truth arising out of nature). Or it may be both simultaneously, hovering in Keatsian negative capability.

  8. Introducing students to this kind of contextual reading unsettles without demolishing the idea of the "timeless" classic. By opening up possibilities of interpretation and understanding beyond the boundaries of the work in itself, students begin to see that works of art, particularly hypercanonical works, may give way to a multitude of possible, responsible, readings, dependent on the version of the work one is reading, and in what particular context(s). Indeed the continued hypercanonical status of a work like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" may be owing to the poem's uncanny ability to comply with various readings, to be several works at once.

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