- When James O'Rourke asked me to contribute to this forum, I reacted
with a spasm of embarrassment. What could I say that I hadn't said already?
Except for some local adjustments, I hadn't fundamentally changed my
way of reading or teaching "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in almost
25 years. It was Keats's odes that made me an English major, inspired
my doctoral dissertation, shaped my first book. A key concern in one
of my first articles was the dynamics of reading "Ode on a Grecian Urn."
The poem has always been on my syllabi, not just for Keats's sake, but
as a primer of what may be gained by ear industrious and attention meetthose
pleasurable labors of careful reading, not as a search for information
or an occasion for exposures of ideology, but as a tracking and tracing
of language as event, as field of play, as a discovery of indeterminacy
in the desire for determinations. My branchings out therefrom have been
numerous, infused by gender criticism, new historicism, textual scholarship
and theory. All this new growth can still be mapped on to "Ode on a
Grecian Urn," and my teaching has developed therefrom, too. At the same
time, I have to say, the core is still close-reading, however much the
curricula have shifted. Preparatory to writing this essay, I revisited
the essays from which I learned how to read this Ode: the incisive description
of the dramatic arc in Jack Stillinger's "Imagination and Reality,"
and the engagements with rhetoric and language in Kenneth Burke's "Symbolic
Action," Cleanth Brooks's "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History
Without Footnotes," Stuart Sperry's "Romantic Irony,"
David Perkins's "Keats: The Uncertainties of Vision." I liked
these essays as much as I ever did. One thing I'm not embarrassed about
is my pleasure in still recommending this lucid, and lucidly debatable,
work to my students.
- I also decided to sit down and reread my reading of the Ode in The
Questioning Presence, a prospect I faced with wincing apprehension
rather than any narcissistic clucking. I articulated this reading in
the late 70s and early 80s, when the disorientations of deconstruction
were prevailing over the orientations of orthodox new criticism, and
when the feminist and new-historicist views of Romanticism and then
of Keats that have mattered a great deal to me since were not yet in
play. I guess it's the unreconstructed formalist in me, but I found
I still like the close reading of poetic events, even if I'd write it
up a bit differently now. I'm still impressed by the way Keats mobilizes
the ode's linguistic activityof words, of syntaxes, of poetic
formsto shape for his reader an analogue for his speaker's encounter
with the figures and configurations on the urn, an encounter described
in projections of desire that fail to tease out a certain or stable
legend for understanding. This reflexiveness involves not only a phenomenology
of reading (Wolfgang Iser's phrase for the unfolding of meaning and
meanings) but also (in ways that don't always interest Iser) ironic
relays on the frustrations of reading. The ode's inception in questions
leads to a witty interrogative trial of contradictions and, ultimately,
an answer that is no answer, but a circular statement ("Beauty
is Truth, Truth Beauty") that, for all its subsequent canonization,
including a chiseling on the walls of the Library of Congress, turns
out to be as baffling as the circular urn itself.
- Without rehearsing the reading in The Questioning Presence,
I'd like to review a couple of phases that students enjoy puzzling over.
I was, and am, interested in the way certain key lines in the ode, about
reading as the attention of eye and ear, figure doubly, not only for
eye and for ear, but also in the doubling of urn-reading and ode-reading.
In the wake of that initial barrage of questions ("What leaf-fring'd
legend haunts about thy shape of . . .?"), Keats has the frustrated
questioner step back, in a new stanza, to theorize (maybe to ravish)
the productivity of its unyielding silence:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
- Keats deftly plays these lines past the sensual ear (its pleasures
baffled by the atonal, slant rhymes) to the readerly eye: the word ear
appears folded into endear'd, as if to configure, visually,
and to echo faintly the audience of an inner ear, more endeared to silence.
It matters that this ear-echo is not registered by the first line's
rhyme-framing by "Heard . . . unheard," words that contain
the spell of ear but refuse the sound. To "canopy the
heard" (that's how Keats first wrote out this line from Shakespeare's
Sonnet 12 in a letter to fellow poet Reynolds; 22 November 1817), Keats
puts forth a visual semiotic, a shape of letters. The visual double-play
also shapes the other rhyme that refuses to satisfy an ear for harmony:
play on / no tone. With a preliminary patterning from
the "Not to" that frames the front of this qualifying clause
(11), the visual text of "no tone" is on the verge of playing
(to the eye) "not one." This spell of words isn't the issue
of my overworking brain: the verse that follows in this stanza is famously
not one, but a sustained equivocation of description ("Though .
. . yet . . . / . . . though") about the urn's eternal stasis,
in which (male) erotic desire is simulcast both "for ever"
and "never never." Not one, but two ways of reading, for ever
contradictory and never to be disjoined: this may not be all ye need
to know on earth, but in the beholding of the urn, it is all ye know.
- In a new stanza, Keats has his urn-reader try gamely to shake off
this toil of double information by pushing everything--trees, melodist,
and especially, lovers--into a "for ever," a "happy,
happy" eternity of art. At the same time, Keats himself tunes and
tones the verse to suggest urn-reading in overdrive, and plots its accelerating
gradations of happiness toward a sharp reverse. This reversal happens
in a shift of syntax as much as on the level of cognition. A virtually
panting urn-reader depicts the lovers.
With considerable syntactic momentum in the phenomenology of reading,
the poem-line "All breathing human passion far above" solicits
regard as the summary description of the world for ever on the urn. "Breathing"
even seems part of the train of participles also involved with breath
("piping," "panting"): All are breathing human passion
on a plane far above mortal humanity. OK, the semicolon after "young"
(27) seems to mark a syntactic divide; but not necessarily. The stanza's
second and fourth lines (". . . nor ever bid the Spring adieu;"
/ " . . . songs for ever new;") end in semicolons that register
mere pauses to catch one's breath in the heat of ardent pursuit. Two manuscripts
(George Keats's and Charles Brown's), moreover, show just a comma after
"young." All this tentative punctuation helps credit the sensation,
on first looking into the line, that "All breathing human passion
far above" is a summary of the developing surmise. Earl Wasserman,
for one, never doubted it: "The love is indeed a human passion, and
at the same time it is far above all mutable human passion," effecting
in the "syntactical oxymoron" an analogue to the "mystic
oxymoron" of "mortal and immortal" in synthesis (The
Finer Tone 39-41). But where he sees Keats stumbling, caught and
bewildered in oxymoron, I read a melodious plot: Keats has set up the
line up to woo us with the oxymoron Wasserman discerns; then, at the line's
turn, pivots its information into the human differential. "Breathing"
gets divorced from the company of piping and panting, and gets wed to
the ensuing somatics of human passion, "burning" and "parching,"
while the possibility of "far above" as a location in imaginative
surmise subsides to a sighing recognition of high aesthetic privilege,
from which mortal humanity is excluded. This drama of syntactic reorientation
plays out for the ode-reader the recognitions that signal the urn-reader's
impending disenchantment, and for both, the stage is set for recuperated
reading. What is absent "for ever" in urn-worlds is a speaking
historian of a particularly poetic cast: "not a soul to tell / Why
thou art desolate, can e'er return" (39-40)the last syllable
calling us back, by rhyme, to the title of poet's telling, "Ode on
a Grecian Urn."
ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. (27-30)
- As I reviewed my reading in The Questioning Presence, I actually
wound up rethinking, refining, revising and rewriting it--an activity
that seems to me an extension of, or the promised epiphenomenon of,
the dynamics of reading that Keats's ode teaches. Even as my returns
to the "Urn" have branched out into gender criticism, new
historicism, and textual theory, I've continued to keep company with
those for whom reading, by which I mean the close attention that constitutes
literary pleasure, remains important. I've become a better reader of
Ode on a Grecian Urn by reading it with Peter Manning, with
Garrett Stewart, with Grant Scott, among others. And I'm more confident
about why the Ode matters to me in these lively and productive textures
from working out with the oppositional force of Jerome McGann's critiques.
- These days, I make more than I used to (twenty years ago) of the
gender-marking of questioning and interpretation in the spectatorial
drama of the Ode: a male poet, the female object he would ravish, the
heightening of his aggression, and perhaps disdain, in relation to her
refusals. Students (teenagers and twenty-somethings that they are) take
well to the invitation to think about reading as an activity energized
by desire and prospective satisfaction. I raise some questions from
the start: To what degree does a poem such as this require a reader
both to play the part of a desiring young man and to imagine the focus
of desire as female? What is gained by this gendering? How would the
Ode be different if these positions weren't gendered, or differently
gendered? How does your agreement to play the male part, even if implicit,
unrecognized, untheorized (unfelt, unheard, unseen), affect your sensitivity
to the ironies of expectation and effect in the poem's play of language?
Do we women read this eroticized drama with more alienation (or theatricalized
alterity) than men? Questions about gender are one way of demonstrating
how reading is inflected by who is reading, in what sort of circumstance,
with what sort of culturally induced habits and expectations. Though
the words on the page may be what they were in 1819 or 1820, they can
spell out different systems of meaning, new configurations of information,
depending on the energies, attentive interests, and even ideological
formation of the readers.
- This is what new-historicist criticism, with a particular vigorous
and not always sympathetic focus on Keats, asked us to reflect on. And
yet, while I am surely much more historicist than I used to be, the
new historicist handling of Keats's odes has had less consequence for
me, partly because it has seemed to require a flattening out of ironies
and complicationsor, if not a flattening, then a consignment to
the false consciousness of aesthetic ideology, which (the story goes)
purchases these complexities with an evasion of historical contradictions.
So even McGann's landmark essay, "Keats and the Historical Method
of Literary Criticism," which provocatively situated Keats's aesthetic
practices and their history of reception within determinative cultural,
social, and especially political contexts, has not really altered what
I do with the poem in the classroom. My engagement with questions of
"history," in fact, tends to show deconstructive roots. When
I first wrote about the Ode, I was caught by the poet's epithet for
the Urn, "Sylvan historian"a historian, as Cleanth Brooks
put it in what I still think is one of the best ever essays on the poem,
who proceeds "without footnotes." What's at stake (I wondered)
in Keats's projection of a chronicler and a mode of chronicle in contradiction
to temporality? (That's what history's about: events, a narrative of
events.) The Urn emerges from some obscure history, but how can something
unspeaking (except perhaps in a summary banality), displaying a static,
unchanging tableau, be hailed as a "historian"? When I looked
into the etymological history of "history," I suspected that
Keats might not only have anticipated this protest (he's always ahead
of his readers this way) but also wanted his readers to think of their
engagement as proto-historiographic. Historia, I found, comes
from a Greek word for "learning or knowing by inquiry," inquiry
naming not only the method but also its motive. Historians develop histories
from the questions they ask, the questions they're moved to ask, want
to ask, burn to ask. The poet who addresses the Urn as a "Sylvan
historian" and then, in this opening stanza and stanza IV, produces
ten questions himself, is a rival historian, working in a medium of
unsylvan rhyme. And since his questions, students tend to see, are simultaneously
posed for our interest, we start to think about reading as a mode of
questioning, about history as determined by the questions we ask.
- A reading of the ode as a reflection on history-making was not what
the new-historicist "historical method" was after; its focus
was on the determinative contextual forces that produce the text and
the story of its readings. What this agenda means for the 1820 Lamia
volume (and its odes) is that Keatsstill smarting from the abuse
his first two volumes suffered from his association with Hunt as well
as his own Cockney insurgency (his outsider bid for legitimacy)cast
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" "not to provoke but allay conflict":
it's part of a "reactionary" (by 1819 lights) endeavor "to
dissolve social and political conflicts in the mediations of art and
beauty" (McGann 53). Not for nothing did Keats shun Hunt's Examiner
(even Hunt's Indicator) to debut his poem in Annals of the
Fine Arts, for MDCCCXIX (4 [January 1820]: 638-39), edited by his
friend B. R. Haydon, noted champion of the British government's acquisition
of the Elgin Marbles. When the poem appeared in the Lamia volume,
its title added a first word, "Ode," that affiliated it with "Ode to
a Nightingale" (which it followed), "Ode to Psyche" (which followed
it), "Ode" ("Bards of Passion and of Mirth"), a few pages
on; "Ode on Melancholy," the last poem of the sub-unit of "Poems";
and even "To Autumn," just before "Melancholy," and evidently an Ode.
For McGann, these aesthetic assignments amount to de-politicizing, even
anti-politicizing moves. "The ode's urn," he proposes, "is
placed before its readers (both past and present) as an ideal example
of such vases," the example standing for the idealism of Romantic
Hellenism, which understands Greek art as producing "perfect and
complete embodiments of a perfect and complete idea of The Beautiful"an
understanding to which the Ode is allied by force of its initial publication
in Annals, "one of [the] age's chief ideological organs
for disseminating such ideas" (44).
- As interested as I am in the contexts of publication and reception,
I have found this containment of the Ode a distortion. If the Ode evokes
this ideal, I'm not persuaded that this is the same thing as saying
that it is a straightforward example of it: the play of the poetry also
frustrates it, ironizes it, maybe even subverts it--possibilities that
don't interest McGann except as aspects of the dangerous illusion of
aesthetic self-criticism. I always give McGann's bracing critiques to
graduate students; but I hesitate to key my undergraduates' discovery
of the poetry to his report on Annals-ideology, nor, especially,
do I want to encourage them to assume (at least not without a struggle)
that the Ode is out to embody a perfected ideal, let alone finds that
leaf-fringed legend in "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (45;
McGann doesn't quote the Annals text, but the Lamia
one). What I like about Keats's wit here (in my Garrett Stewart mode)
is the way "leaf-fringed" slides into "leaf-ringed"the
unknown information "about" the shape of the Ode that is (to
me anyway) only desperately, only problematically, translated by the
syntactic ringing of "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."
- This ringing utterance brings me to my branchings out into textual
criticisman interest related to, but not equivalent to, the historical
motivations for textual choices and the history of reading about which
McGann cares (it's no coincidence that he is an important editor, too).
The textual tangle comes into focus for students (undergraduate as well
as graduate) when we get to the famous closing lines that are so launched
(49-50). The 1820 Lamia volume (whose production Keats was
too ill to supervise and so was managed by advisers to his publishers)
has lower-cases after the first Beauty. The text in Annals
(which Keats could have supervised) reads:
Although capitalization, especially up through the nineteenth century,
might be (usually is) regarded as an "accidental" variant (versus
"substantive" variants, of semantic import), such a distinction
is dicey to argue here, in the wake of the poem's overt quest for answers,
and especially in such a climactic, curtain-lowering event, cast not just
as an answer, but the answer: has the desiring urn-reader suddenly
imagined access to two out of three of the Platonic ideals, as the capitals
urge us to think? Or might the lower-casing signify, by evident refusal
of this purchase, a modern skepticism, even a hermeneutic mystery? Beyond
teasing these capitals, there is the encompassing question of the thirteen
words that follow. As if to clarify the rhetorical situation, the hand
that guided the Lamia volume put only "Beauty is truth,
truth beauty" in quotation, with the effect of distinguishing this
voice from the one that follows:
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.That is all
In this variety, we are left asking, as Jack Stillinger so succinctly
put in back in 1958, "Who Says What to Whom at the End of Ode
on a Grecian Urn?" The poet imagines that the urn "say'st"
(48) the bit about beauty and truth, but what of the rest? In his youth,
Stillinger summarized the four proposals in the critical literature, each
one proffered and debated (poet to reader; poet to urn; poet to the urn's
figures; urn to reader).
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
- For all this helpful priming, I think Stillinger's cautionary prelude
to his anatomy of criticism more to the point: "As to critical
interpretation of who says what to whom, no single explanation can satisfy
the demands of text, grammar, dramatic consistency, and common sense"
(171). And that's what I teach, with a deconstructive spin on issues
about textual stability (issues that Stillinger would, in later decades,
address with the full force of his scholarship and theoretical smarts).
I'm less inclined than Stillinger in 1958, the decade of Eisenhower
and "reconciliation"-prone New Criticism, to press for dramatic
consistency or to argue common sense (I suspect Stillinger is, now,
too), but otherwise, the multiple demands of text, grammar, drama and
sense are exactly what I hope students will learn to read by reading
the Ode, from beginning to end, and then back again, and again. Every
time I sit down to read "Ode on Grecian Urn" once again, I find that
even if I'm not forever young, the poem is still to be enjoy'd. It promises
to sustain reading, when old age shall this generation waste, by its
remarkable capacity to generate fresh reviews of what we think we know
and to give us new ways of knowing.
Works Cited and Consulted
Brooks, Cleanth. "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes"
(1944); rpt. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry
(1947); New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. 151-66.
Burke, Kenneth. "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats." Accent (1943);
rpt. A Grammar of Motives. Cleveland: World, 1962. 447-63.
Manning, Peter J. "Reading and Ravishing: The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'"
Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry. Ed. Walter H. Evert and Jack W.
Rhodes. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 131-36.
McGann, Jerome J. "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism."
(MLQ 1979); rpt. The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations
in Historical Method & Theory (1985); Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988. 9-65.
Perkins, David. "Keats: The Uncertainties of Vision." The Quest for
Permanence: The Symbolism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Cambridge:
Harvard UP, 1959. 217-57, esp. 233-42.
Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual
Arts. Hanover: UP of New Hampshire, 1994.
Sperry, Stuart M. "Romantic Irony: The Great Odes of the Spring." Keats
the Poet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973. Esp. sections I (242-49)
and III (261-67).
Stewart, Garrett. "Keats and Language." The Cambridge Companion to
John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 135-51.
Stillinger, Jack. "Who Says What to Whom at the End of Ode on a Grecian
Urn?" PMLA 73 (1958): 447-78; rpt. "The Hoodwinking of Madeline"
and Other Essays on Keats's Poems. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971.
---. "Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats." Journal
of English and Germanic Philology 96 (1997) 545-66.
Wasserman, Earl R. The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins UP, 1953.
Wolfson, Susan J. "The Odes: Reader as Questioner." The Questioning
Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. Esp. 301-5 and 317-28.