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"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

Deforming Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Jeffrey C. Robinson, University of Colorado at Boulder

  1. As a teacher of Romantic poetry for 35 years, I have become impressed not with how hard it is to teach, say, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" but how easy it is. And this I have found disturbing because it implies that on some level the poem is already known; it has not brought its reader to and beyond the horizon of the familiar, which as I see it is one of the main indicators of poetic success. When I ask students to deform a poem after we have discussed it in class, they re-make their understanding of a familiar code of reading in a "sweet struggle" of engagement that honors the poem as an innately resilient and active principle of mind.

  2. What in this poem (and by implication many Romantic poems and, for that matter, many poems) makes it seem, in Jerome McGann's word, pre-read and thus not read, as poetry, at all? First, Keats's "Ode" has an enlightenment structure: many questions are asked, in stanzas I and IV, that assume, rhetorically, the presence—available to the speaker or not—of answers. The urn as unravished bride proleptically contains its ravishment as a natural outcome in the ritual of weddings that parallels the consummation of questions asked. And even if stated in a kind of elegiac or tragic negative, other elements are structured around narratives of completion: lover meeting and kissing, trees leafing, ritual sacrifice being performed, citizens leaving and then returning to their town. The poem spins out a series of irreversible narratives of fulfillment. This is precisely analogous to and encouraging of the preferred ritual of reading poems, particularly in school and university classes: the relentless search for the poem's meaning. (Jack Stillinger's recent book on multiple readings of "The Eve of St. Agnes" simply demonstrates that in that poem the ritual can be varied in an astonishing number of ways.) Historicism hasn't particularly changed matters: it simply provides a ready source of answers and, while heightening the resonance of words, images, and voices in poems, it reinforces the enlightenment paradigm.

  3. Questions and answers typically presume a questioner who, in the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," is the speaker propelling the poem passionately through a series of probings and meditations and finally conclusive praise. We readers become interested in him, as a kind of familiar anchor of reading lyric: the fate of the speaker (the concern of Abrams and Bloom in their immensely influential studies of the "internalized quest romance" of Romantic poems) as the major category of meaning and as the crucial thread that further, through consciousness, binds the enlightenment narrative and rhetoric together. And finally we congratulate this speaker's probings as exemplary of the work of enlightenment which again corresponds to the ideal of reading poetry as work.

  4. Pre-reading, in this case, occurs in the presence of a poem that triggers a preferred ideological habit of mind; the gratification we get is the purely secondary one of fulfilling the habit. As McGann and Lisa Samuels say, speaking more generally about encounters with instances of traditional poetics: "the rhetorical power of a work of art will ultimately work against itself, dulling our sense of its own freshness" (Radiant Textuality, p. 108). And in the language of Blake and Clare, "poetry fetter'd fetters the human race." Deformation is a general term for breaking fetters of reading, coming both from sources internal to the poem and internal to the mind of the reader. It is a form not of pre- but of re-reading, a nostos of a more aggressive and wily and yet, oddly, more leisurely and "lazy" or unwarranted return to the poem. In teaching the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," I offer techniques of radical disruption and defamiliarization (a term, along with "deformation" itself, coming from the Russian formalists), of risking the powerful idea that forms are not sacrosanct, that nonsense in poetry is at least as important as meaning, that poems may "contain" nothing, may refuse the domain of and trajectory towards answers altogether. The result is not the abandonment of critical enterprise but a nearly mystical resurgence of conscious power in the presence of a poem, a surge in thinking and excitement. As the poem appears in/as unfamiliar juxtapositions that I have "made," it occurs to me that those juxtapositions, startlingly, are "there," part of the poem itself. Amazement accompanies my thinking. Adorno: "the only true thoughts are those which do not grasp their own meaning." (Minima Moralia)

  5. When I deform a poem, I bring to it a highly selective consciousness and intervene materially in its existence, just as Keats does in encountering the Grecian Urn. Think of his decisions and, so to speak, his self-selected regulatory practice!

    1) he addresses the object; apostrophe is a decision, not something demanded by the urn
    2) he asks it questions
    3) he looks not at the urn as a pot or at its use, nor at the act or nature of looking at it, but at the pictures painted on it
    4) he looks at the pictures strictly as instants of narratives
    5) he attempts at the end to generalize its significance and value
    6) he reveals nothing about himself openly, but the fact of apostrophe and the indicators of various emotional and perspectival registers show that his experience of the urn is a major part of what he wants to say on its behalf.
    He has deformed the urn in the sense that he hasn't talked about it, for example, as clay (Greek Anthology) or as ash (Thomas Browne); he has left out some things in order to emphasize others. The urn is not an object; it is deformed in that it is only its illustrations, its meanings. One thing is certain: for the speaker this encounter with the urn is full of surprise, and what he has seen has "overtaken" his mind. His experience bears little indication of pre-reading (a fact that our growing knowledge of cultural, literary, and artistic sources can only underscore).

  6. How different is his practice of selection from, say, deciding to read the poem last line to first? from re-writing the poem as only the sequence of the last word in each line? of reading only its nouns, or its verbs, or its adjectives? of re-writing the poem in the shape of an urn? or in the shape of the ash it may have contained now floating free to earth? or reducing each line to its first two and its last two words leaving out the "stuff" in the middle? or—perhaps most radically (in the manner of Jackson Mac Low)—discovering in sequence, as my student Alex did, the words the beginning letters of which spell out O-d-e-o-n-a-G-r-e-c-i-a-n-u-r-n:

    Ode Our Deities Escaped
    on a On A
    Grecian Cold Emptied River In Arcady—Gods Never,
    Urn Never Remain Unravish'd
    All these examples came from the minds of my students who had been practicing deformation for several weeks and who now felt comfortable with the playful aggressiveness deformation usually requires, sensing that such outrageous acts in fact belong to the strangeness of language, image, enchantment, and consciousness that is the occasion of poetry.

  7. To say that deformation is simply another name for selection minimizes the radical scale of its intervention. Describing the experience, my student Andrew wrote:

    I slowly crushed the piece into different shapes. I broke it down and built it up again. I RETURN, RETURN, DELETE, DELETE, DELETED. Up and down the words skipped, lines jumping and leaping all over the computer screen trampoline.

  8. Notice here how material the poem has become. . .or is he talking about the urn itself? If the ekphrasis that is Keats's "Ode" assumes a distance between art object and poem, this deformation emphasizes the visionary tendency of both media to veer empathically towards each other. (Traditional readings would keep them mutually uncontaminated.) The reader furthermore has identified "interpretation" with megalomaniacal destruction and re-creation: crush one urn/poem in order to create a second one in words (his poem re-written as a hieroglyph, a concrete poem in the shape of a Grecian Urn). But magically, the reader's initial choice and "regulatory" act—I will re-form this poem in the shape ("O Attic shape!") of an urn—gives way to the acrobatics of the poem's words and lines independent of his controlling hand, eye, and mind. This is "thought that does not grasp its own meaning." The reader actively performs the poem which, no longer an object and a container of meanings, performs back.

  9. Deforming poems thus produces a condition of reading that underscores the principle of experimental poetics, insisting that the making of a work of art requires both a regulatory practice (e.g. read the poem from last line to first, re-write the poem in the shape of an urn, re-write the poem diastically) and an openness to "chance," or experience. This confluence acknowledges a poem as at once under the control of the conscious ego and recording materials beyond its control and creates the poetic narrative of a mind expanding beyond the limits of the familiar and the known. Such a reading practice enacts the process of defamiliarization, a freeing of idiom from convention.

  10. The urn never provides answers to the questions, it never "yields" to the ravishing ardor of the speaker. The deformation helps us wonder: does the apostrophic act represent a strange fantasy about art's salvific power?—that it could answer our needs? In one of the most unusual readings of the "Ode" proposed, Dorothy Van Ghent, viewing the "sequence" of the Odes as a Keatsian journey archetype, claimed that the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" signified a failed quest of the hero because of his expectation that an "answer" to his questions about the sources of life (Who? What? from whence?) would appear with a finality from beyond experience and imagination. The deformation suggests that within the goal-driven heat of the speaker resides an "answer" in the form of the non-controlling intervention described by the student. (An answer given, monumentally, from eternity is itself a fantasy of control, as is the assumption that meaning, or meanings, reside permanently in a poem independent of the reader's interventions.)

  11. Watch what happens when Ruscha deforms the poem by listing only the last words of each line (last five lines of stanza V):

    or (from stanza II):

  12. Each is a version of the renovative paradigm of visionary poetics—far from either the consoling vision of an all-knowing but enigmatic urn or the ironic and skeptical vision of incomplete but theoretically possible knowledge. In these deformations one observes a sketch of the comic drama of hope, fulfillment, and abundance, sprung from waste and isolation, that characterizes visionary poetics; the important point is that the sketch resides within Keats's Ode. At the same time this renovative trajectory is juxtaposed, say, with what happens when the poem is read from back to front: a movement towards the silence of unanswered questions.

  13. These two very different kinds of deformations shift attention from a linear, "penetrating" narrative leading to possession, through knowledge, of the object's value, a hidden depth of value, towards a non-subject-object-oriented set of what might be called spatial harmonics of words, the "unheard melodies" of the poem. Traditional readings of Keats's poetry (even up to the present day) assume a speaker of normative consciousness, a person testing the "limits" of visionary apprehension, an assumption encouraged by Keats's decasyllabic line (associated with speech conducted from the perspective of the social world). Deformation reminds one that persons speaking to urns, nightingales, seasons, and ancient goddesses are not in a state of ordinary consciousness—they do not have their feet on the ground. In fact, their words may not even belong to them: a poem like Keats's "Ode" may be a stream or field of unheard melodies or harmonics that impose on or complement one another in unexpected ways. If, for example, you read the poem backwards and arrive, now late in the poem, at the line "What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both?" you get:

    What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape
    A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

  14. The "legend," strangely split from its crucial prepositional modifier, is associated with non-verbal nature, with silence and quietness. Legend as story haunts but does not reveal itself; legend as explanation for symbols on a map does not explain. Reading backwards, the "shape" itself remains mysterious. Indeed, the questions that open the stanza vanish like water in sand; or rather, they vanish in the anticipation of the answers they might produce, but they become vivid as "pure" questioning, in their detail, the shape of the stanza: they fill out the image of a questioning consciousness that haunts the space of the poem. Deformation makes one realize how fragile the monumentalizing and epistemologically optimistic trajectory of the "original" poem is and how precarious is the voice of normative consciousness (a point revealed in the following short-line deformation of part of the last stanza, short lines typically being associated with a transformed, disembodied or de-materialized consciousness:

    Thou, silent form,
         Dost tease us
    Out of thought as doth
         Cold Pastoral!)

  15. Deformation often speaks against monumentalism and certainty in poetry; it makes one see that the overwhelming drive for the oracular truth (as Beauty) found outside the precinct of experience but blessing it is a rescue fantasy. Students find such discoveries, that is, they find the opposite experience of deformative intervention, exhilarating, even if deformation often presents poetry more akin to perceptions of the greater world realities of entropy and oblivion.

  16. Consider Adam's deformation, a re-writing of the poem as ASH, big lines of poetry floating free from the top of the page to the bottom, as if he had emptied the urn of its ritualized contents of death. But what is the substance of ash?—practically nothing, the way words are just signs, not meanings, more non-sense than meaning in poetry! Meaning exists but as an epiphenomenon, accompanying the reading, accumulating, like ash itself as a residue of meaning, haunting the shape of the poem.

  17. The shape: in Ovid's phrase, a poem is an imago vocis, an image of the voice. All poems are, in some sense, concrete: meaning-centered reading practices (whether focussed on internal relations or historical ones) typically "pass by" the actual sight in search of the signified, like a train speeding through a tunnel. If you see the "Ode" as ash, as an urn itself, as a short-lined poem (the "stuff" of the middle removed), as prose, as a poem with one word per line, you have created a set of commentaries on the visual impact of the original and can no longer assume Keats's choices of line-length and stanza as simply the default position, the transparent container of the poem.

  18. Reading the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" this way raises the question: do poems "contain"? or are they surfaces? spatial arrangements? Deformation produces the (all too infrequent) condition of re-reading. To deform a poem is to create a second version of it, the first already known, if only in a "pre-read" way. Reading the poem from poem's close to poem's opening, we are haunted by what has become the leaf-fring'd legend, or dream, of the original. As we read, we picture it in glimpses; we recognize it, but strangely. At the same time we are not reading naively: we have already read the poem, and the consciousness of that poem produces, surprisingly, a spatial image of it as we see it reworked, or in Keats's word, "overwrought." The overwrought (in the emotional sense) search for meaning reduces the poem's space, the poem as an inhabitant of the cosmos (a "real thing," as Keats would say), to a mere line, with meaning "contained" within the poem.

  19. When she wrote her "diastic" deformation based on the line "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty" (pick a word from the poem beginning with "B," then a word with "e" as a second letter, another with "a" as the third, and so on), Lisa showed that one harmonic of the "Ode" is "Truth, [is] thus, never near." Or, as Jessica wrote after rearranging the poem so that all rhyming lines were together, "the thing [urn] is gone, and now there is a poem which is slowly growing incomprehensible" (anti-enlightenment trajectory). In both instances not knowing as a condition of the experience of the poem attests, I believe, to the proximity of poetry to death and the invitation it makes to the mind of the reader to expand outward to touch that which is incomprehensible to us; the poem becomes a kind of underworld image into which the reader descends and travels and observes. In Lisa's poem the world becomes populated with divine as well as human life, and the words, as in Keats's famous line, seem to come from afar; her poem, in fact, may be unpacking the famous aphorism:

    Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty
    Beauty is sweeter struggle.
    Truth, thus, never near.
    Though beneath the bride of youth,
    Deities breathing beauty
    Shape leaf-fring'd truth.

  20. Truth still is relevant to us, but not because we are "winning near the goal," but because we envision a cosmos which values it. The gods shape it, even in its incomprehensible (to us) form, "leaf-fring'd." (We might call "divine" the presence of Lisa's poem within Keats's.) Focus, instead, on the sweeter struggle that is beauty, active, engaging, even sexual, and notice that "shape" has been transformed from noun (object) to verb (action). What sweeter struggle could we have than to read this deformation kaleidoscopically with Keats's version? In terms of contemporary experimental poetics (from Mallarme onwards) "truth" belongs to a "constellation," a set of correspondences in the cosmos; at the same time it is a signifier in the river of language that is the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," beyond the power of any human ego to control it. One begins to realize that Keats, too, was trying to write a poem about letting go of control but that in this poem he may have been committed to a different, enlightenment rhetoric of control. Harmonically, however, a more expansive poem resonates—one not beholden to the "fetters" of subjectivity, of conventional syntax and punctuation, of voice, and even of objects as repositories of truth. The motto of the Ode's harmonics might be in Keats's sonnet on what the thrush said:

    O fret not after knowledge—I have none
    And yet the Evening listens—He who saddens
    At thought of Idleness cannot be idle
    And he's awake who thinks himself asleep.

  21. This "thought of Idleness" brings to mind another outrageous idea about deformation in Keats's "Ode"—that Keats himself may have written his own deformation of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," calling it an "Ode on Indolence," the subject of which confirms a surprising, counter-intuitive consensus in my class about the act of deformation itself as "leisurely," even "lazy." Somehow, as vigorous, aggressive, even industrious and productive as deformation appears, it feels beyond the pale of the work ethic that furrows the brows of scholars and students alike and yet limits both vision and engagement. In that later poem, which Keats "enjoyed" writing more than any other in his "1819 temper," the speaker alludes to an urn in describing a visitation of three figures:

    They pass'd, like figures on a marble urn
         When shifted round to see the other side;
              They came again; as when the urn once more
    Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;
         And they were strange to me, as may betide
              With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.

  22. Readers tend to see this poem as "imperfect," "weak," "immature," compared to the "great" monumental Odes, but "Indolence" supports my class's view of the deformed version of the "Grecian Urn": it proposes a different poetics, strategizes against the enlightenment ardor for knowledge and possession and fulfillment of the ego: "Vanish, ye Phantoms! From my idle spright, / Into the clouds, and never more return!" It disregards "depth" and celebrates surfaces: "My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o'er / With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams: . . ." It invites repetition, remarking that an urn is shifted round more than once so that sights on it "return." The famous textual history of the poem—the uncertainty about the sequence of stanzas—suggests that the poem has no inevitable trajectory but exists in space. (Imagine deforming the poem as a circle of stanzas!) It notes not the familiarity but the "strange"ness of vision and asserts the figures' life independent from the wishes of viewer or maker. And finally it promotes the condition of readerly indolence and implies praise for that habit of mind. Going further, it values what Bataille finds definitive in poetry, its excess of expenditure, its inherent wastefulness. (See Marjorie Levinson for a more elaborate working out of this issue.) In both of his Odes Keats attempts to promote the Urn as object beyond its use-value. Yet my students seemed to accept a course in "lazy" (not use- or meaning-oriented) reading, not as trivial but as a form of serious play. In a course on Romantic poetry, another group of students were surprised to discover, upon reading the "Ode to a Nightingale" backwards that that poem was not about "accepting tragic reality" but about vision in a drugged state (Hemlock, a draught of vintage) and that drugs and oblivion might be what poetry is really about (the true, the blushful Hippocrene), ending as it does with a drowsy numbness; ditto for Kubla Khanbwhen shifted round from back to front. I believe my students discovered that their pleasure in and their acute consciousness of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" increased with the riskiness of the playful interventions. Where were they at such moments? Feet clearly not on the ground, clearly not hearing "the voice of busy common-sense," they nonetheless were affirmed, gathering the meaning of things more or less in a dreamy state, as was the poem passing before their eyes. How much more do we really want to accomplish with a student reading a poem?