- I teach Keats's "Urn" regularly in three undergraduate coursesin
our core freshman-sophomore course called "Understanding Literature"
and in two upper-division courses, "The Romantic Movement,"
and "Romanticism and Its Others." My approach to the poem
varies pretty widely, both across these courses and even within them.
Our angle of vision depends a good deal not only on the aims of the
course, but on my sense of the preparation and responsiveness of the
students. And the immediate context provided by other readings makes
all the difference. If pressed, I suppose I'd waffle and call what I
do most of the time in all three courses "historicized formalism,"
with the emphasis more on "formalist" in the core course,
on "historicized" in the course on Romanticism's "others,"
and right in the middle (or more explicitly on the fault line) in "Romantic
Movement." In all three courses, I try to mingle appreciation for
the poem as a powerful and enduring work of art with an understanding
that its artistic power flows not in spite of, but in complex combination
with, constraining conditions imposed by historical forces.
- With freshmen, the goal is either to resurrect the poem from the historical
graveyard where many students are wont to plant it, or to reclaim it
from the insipid poetic heaven into which a revered high-school teacher
has catapulted it. For students who tend to think of the poem as just
one more of those old-fashioned, frustratingly convoluted, incomprehensible
blobs of rhetorical excess that they've been told are the great poems,
the "Urn" needs to be dusted off; for devotees, it needs some
scuffing up. Both groups need to be encouraged to see the poem as something
that still has a life in the here and now.
- I try to present the poem to these students as a dynamic, self-conflicted,
and fruitfully perplexing artifact, written by a poet when he was not
much older than they are themselves, that explores love and loss, art
and life, confidence and doubt, permanence and temporality, feeling
and thinking in ways that can touch upon their own experience and might
even move them in some significant way. In the process I try to challenge
a view of poetry that I'm finding increasingly and distressingly prevalent,
according to which a poem is a more or less elaborate code. Even among
those with high verbal SATs and a professed interest in literature,
the goal of reading seems to be to find a "hidden meaning"
lurking beneath the surface of the poem. The urn is not an urn at all,
but a clue to an allegorical or narrative (usually biographical but
sometimes more broadly historical) level. Find the organizing substructure
and you've "deciphered" (they write tellingly) the poem. You've
"done" it, as in "we did this poem in tenth grade."
Unless students are awakened to a lively appreciation of the surface
of the poem and to the possibility that the poem means exactly what
(and everything that) it says, nothing else that we teachers of Romantic-period
literature wish to "do" with the poem will amount to much
more than doing it in under various guises.
- In English 130 (the core course), then, the focus is constructing
as precise as possible a reading of what the poem actually says, appreciating
the intricacies of exactly how it's said, and exploring the relationships
between the "what" and the "how." We read the poem
in the context of thirty or forty relatively brief lyric poems, written
between 1600 and about 1990 by poets from throughout the English-speaking
world. Because of its relative length and complexity, and because of
its cultural and linguistic distance from us, the "Urn" comes
fairly late in the semester, after a good deal of instruction and/or
review in the usual topics: diction and figurative language, meter and
sonic effects, imagery. Recently, I have been using Helen Vendler's
textbook, Poems, Poets, Poetry, which I like because it refuses
to apologize, as many textbooks do, for poetic complexity and difficulty.
Vendler's book is excellent for teaching students to pay attention to
the many ways in which good poems employ the dynamics of sentencing,
patterns of imagery, sequence of rhetorical structures, or the minutiae
of rhythmic and phonetic organization to swerve significantly from expectations.
It returns constantly to the theme that good poems repay careful attention
especially to points at which multiple overlapping structuresmetrical
and syntactical, rhetorical and generic, propositional and imagisticconverge
or pull apart, reinforce or undermine one another. The book is particularly
good in its emphasis on the potential for creative interplay of temporal
and spatial forms of organization. So by the time that my students turn
their attention to the "Urn," they have had a good deal of
practice in thinking of a poem as simultaneously a performable sequence
of speech acts creating what Vendler calls an "emotional arc"
and a visual artifact composed of lines, stanzas, and other markers
of the poem's constructedness as a text to be seen all at once as well
as heard sequentially.
- Not surprisingly, such an approach leads us where it led Vendler herself
in The Odes of John Keats; that is, to a consideration of the
poem as a work of meta-poetics, in which the rival claims of visual
art and poetry are inextricably bound up with the more overt claims
of the speaker. Depending on my sense of the level of skepticism about
claims of the meta-poetic (it never ceases to amuse me how students
will watch, enjoy, and clearly understand a film like American Beauty,
and at the same time rebel against reading poems as simultaneously about
themselves and about their "subject"), I may provide them
with some passages about poetry from Keats's letters, just to convince
them that, yes, Keats really did think hard about poetic art, beauty,
and truth. Or I might mention that the poem was originally published,
as was "Ode to a Nightingale" in a journal called Annals
of the Fine Arts. About half the time (for variety's sake), I will
have assigned "Nightingale" to be read in tandem with the
"Urn." In semesters where these Odes are paired, the argument
for the meta-poetic is, of course, easier to make, as students can see
the clear emphasis on expressive sound in one poem, and on silent mimesis
in the other.
- For the most part, however, I am able to keep the contextual information
to a minimum in this course, as I encourage students to begin the poem
as the speaker doesconfronting a perplexing artifact from the
past, at a loss to make it speak intelligibly and meaningfully, and
therefore thrown into interrogative mode. Without such encouragement
to read the poem with what Susan Wolfson calls, quoting Coleridge, "a
'perpetual activity of attention' to the dynamics of a language which,
in turn, shapes a drama of the mind's uncertain pursuit of mystery"
(305), students will all too readily grasp at one of two views of art
which, as the poem itself suggests, threaten to short-circuit complex
aesthetic response by explaining away surface dynamics (and gaps, confusions,
contradictions, or surprising coalescences). They will want either to
sink the poem into narrative or elevate it into philosophical abstraction.
(See Vendler on these two options as present within the poem itself;
Odes, 118-121). For the sinkers, questions raised by the poem's
difficulties soon resolve themselves in a view of the poem as an episode
in the (sentimentalized) life of Keats, whom they know to have died
young in 1821, frustrated in his search for love and poetic fame. The
difficulties in the poem are attributable to his "confusion"
or "depression" over his own life. In this view, the "bad"
poetry of stanza three"More happy love! more happy, happy
love!"is an eruption straight from the heart of the wounded
Keats, more or less excusable in proportion to one's sympathy for failed
heartbroken poets. The banality of the closing lines is similarly resolved
through an entirely expressive view of art: if it is inadequate that
is because Keats wasn't up to making it better. On the other side, the
"elevators" tend to ignore the expressive gaps and fissures
in the texture of the poem and value it primarily for providing the
vehicle for the concise expression of universal truths. "Heard
melodies are sweet, but those unhear'd / Are sweeter."
In such a view, the closing lines are unproblematic, as the entire poem
has aspired all along to the condition of propositional statement, with
some bumps along the way.
- My task at this level is to encourage students to understand that
the poem's surface itself--with all its false starts, undeveloped or
contradicted hypotheses, vague or confusing historical or mythological
references, unanswered questions, abrupt transitions, rhetorical unevenness,
expressive banality and grandeur, sonic brilliance and monotonousness,
and architectonic promise and disappointment--is not a code for but
an embodiment of what the poem "means." It is a lyric, expressive
poem that aspires to the condition of mimetic sculpture and fails significantly
in that attempt. It is an impassioned utterance, warmly expressing the
desires, fears, hopes, and regrets of John Keats. It is also a deliberately
controlled, coolly constructed artifact in which the biographical, expressive
Keats is difficult to pinpoint, especially (but not only) in those last
lines, so abstracted and detached that we still can't agree about who
(or what) "says" them.
- I've spent a good deal of time discussing my treatment of the "Urn"
outside the context of courses in Romanticism because I think that most
of what I try to do in situating the "Urn" in an explicitly
Romantic context--whether from the "inside" in my "Romantic
Movement" course or from the periphery in "Romanticism and
Its Others"depends at some level on an understanding that,
however we place the poem in these contexts, it will continue, by virtue
of its being a powerful poem, to elude that placement. In "Romantic
Movement," the poem tends to become a representative text for one
or more themes running through the course, whether it be the historical
development of the English lyric, the place of romantic art and theories
of imagination in the history of ideas, relations between first- and
second-generation poets (especially Keats and Wordsworth), or relationships
between poetry and politics, poetry and gender relations, poets and
audiences. In this course, students come to the "Urn" very
late in the semester, so it is very heavily contextualized by arguments
about poetry in the period (especially in Wordsworth's prefaces, Coleridge's
Biographia, Shelley's "Defence," and Keats's letters),
by historical treatments of the lyric (especially Stuart Curran on the
ode), by accounts of the development of Keats's imagination (especially
Stuart Sperry's), by Wordsworth's poems, other Keats poems (especially
the other odes, the Hyperion fragments, and Lamia, in which
parallels between Lycius's seeing of Lamia and the speaker's seeing
in the ode bring out nicely the sorts of gender issues that have been
explored by recent critics), by "The Cockney School," and
by recent explorations of Keats in relation to the history and politics
of his time (especially Nicholas Roe's work). Each of these lenses is
helpful and instructive in its way. But if students do not have a sense
of the poem as something that is large (or capacious, or complex) enough
to admit of being viewed in many different ways, then we run the risk
of having one or another of our contexts become the pretext for reducing
the poem to allegory or abstraction.
- In "Romantic Movement," I try to address this concern by
incorporating weekly, brief writing assignments in close reading. So,
while in class we may be treating the "Urn" primarily in terms
of romantic hellenism and the political tensions arising from the Elgin
marbles controversy (in fact the tack I've taken most recently, in part
because the marbles have been in the news), the student may be writing
that week a brief explication of the poem, with special attention to
the function of the transitions. Throughout the term, I tell them that
much of class time will be spent flying well above the surface of the
poems, mapping all sorts of macro-movements in the broad cultural phenomenon
(or phenomena) we call "romanticism," but that they need to
bail out of the plane periodically really to get the lay of the land.
- In "Romanticism and Its Others," which I tell students is
a course "in everything I didn't need to know about the Romantics
when I was in your shoes," it is even more imperative that students
have the capacity to appreciate the "Urn" as a poem, since
my treatment not only of the "Urn," but of Romanticism in
general, is almost entirely focused on what is missing from, or suppressed
or occluded in texts conventionally labeled "romantic." The
text for this course is Mellor and Matlak's British Literature,
1780-1830, and I follow the editors in treating Romanticism as
but one chapter (actually a part of a chapter) in the story of a fifty-year
period of intellectual, cultural, artistic, and political ferment. The
"Urn," along with Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immorality,"
Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," and Shelley's "Hymn to Intellectual
Beauty," plays the role of representative romantic text in a course
largely about texts that are very differently situated in their historical
contexts. Fascinating things happen to the "Urn," both as
poem and as cultural document, when it is encountered in the context
of a course that works, week-by-week, through the large themes of Mellor
and Matlak--The French Revolution and the Rights of Man; the Rights
of Woman; Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Abolition; Society and Political
Economy; Science and Nature; and Aesthetic Theory and Literary Criticism
(which includes Romanticism along with Neoclassicism, the Sublime, the
Beautiful, and the Picturesque, and Sensibility). Students read the
poem early in the course and are asked to locate in it quintessentially
Romantic stances such as the focus on the eternal extension of the moment
of anticipated sexual fulfillment in stanza two or the flirting with
a religion of the aesthetic throughout. As we work through the course
we return periodically to the "Urn" and the other "greatest
hits of romanticism" to ask how our response to such moments is
altered by subsequent readings, whether in Burke and Paine and Wollstonecraft,
in Wilberforce on the Slave Trade, in historically undervalued (as "un-romantic")
poetic genres (verse epistle, satire, occasional poem, domestic lyric,
drama), or in the work of hitherto neglected poets (especially women
poets, in the context of whose work "still unravish'd brides of
quietness" and passionately pursued nymphs can have a very different
resonance indeed). To take just one example, after reading some poems
by women poets, especially Lucy Aikin's "Epistles on Women,"
one student offered the observation that the speaker of the Urn doesn't
seem interested in how desirable it would be to be pursued
throughout eternity. The remark led to a very useful discussion of stanza
two of Keats's poem and of our whole project of reading "other"
romantic-period texts that I think sharpened our reading both of Keats
and of the others, not least because it helped us to see clearly the
ironies of stanza two as a moment in the poem where it might be said
that beauty is purchased at the expense of (the whole) truth.
- Such moments notwithstanding, the danger of reducing the "Urn"
to an allegory or statement is greater in "Romanticism and its
Others" than in "Romantic Movement," in part because
the scope of "Others" makes it very difficult to cultivate
the sort of close reading that has been the critical consort of the
romantic lyric at least for the past fifty years, if not since Biographia
Literaria. The "otherness" of "Romanticism and its
others" is as frequently a matter of genre as of gender, class,
ethnicity, or political party. The greater romantic lyric mingles promiscuously
with philosophical and literary essays, prose fiction, narrative poems,
plays, reviews, political writing, and other genres, with the result
that students (and their teacher) must cultivate a more flexible, more
comparative and reticulative kind of reading, through which they may
connect disparate scraps of text into a provisional whole. The goal
of comprehensiveness, good in itself, tends to preclude the sort of
patient attention to detail and the ability to remain quietly in the
midst of doubts and uncertainties that powerful art demands. I haven't
solved this problem to my own satisfaction yet, except insofar as I
try frequently to remind students that I've chosen for them a syllabus
and an approach that stacks the deck against the Romantic poems, that
we're using (with all of the connotations of that verb) the "Urn"
and other poems for particular purposes (as indeed we're always using
the texts of our courses), and that these poems have a life that extends
well beyond this course, and indeed beyond the reach of academic criticism.
Curran, Stuart. Poetic Form and British Romanticism. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1986.
Mellor, Anne K. and Richard E. Matlak, eds. British Literature 1780-1830.
New York: Harcourt, 1995.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford:
Roe, Nicholas, ed. Keats and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Sperry, Stuart. Keats the Poet. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1973.
Vendler, Helen. The Odes of John Keats. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard Belknap, 1983.
---. Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology. 2nd
edition. Boston: Bedford / St. Martins, 2002.
Wolfson, Susan J. The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and
the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry. Ithaca, New York: Cornell
University Press, 1986.