"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy
James O'Rourke, Florida State University
This volume on the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is part of the Romantic Circles Praxis series on seminal texts in Romantic literature. When I was asked to edit a volume of essays on the "Urn," I decided that instead of looking for original scholarship on the poem, it would be more useful to inquire into the present pedagogic state of this hypercanonic text. As I put it to the prospective contributors to the volume: Every English major knows something about this poem, but what is it that they know?
If the eleven essays in this volume are representative, it seems that there is a surprising consistency to what students are learning about Keats's "Urn." In classrooms across the US, and in at least one classroom in New Zealand, they are hearing that this poem is about questions, and not about answers. They are being asked to look for the dominant punctuation mark in the poem, and to consider why the question mark recurs so frequently; they are hearing about negative capability as the cultivation of uncertainty; and they are contemplating the enigmas of Keats's poem as an analogue for the urn that so perplexed and intrigued him.
In sending out the request for contributions to this volume, I suggested a few general questions that respondents might consider: What sort of balance do you strike in the classroom between formalist close reading and historical contextualization? Do you teach the poem differently in classes set at different levels? Does the poem's concern with "beauty" and "truth" resonate with twenty-first century American college students? I asked contributors to focus their remarks on how they talk about this poem to the nonprofessional audience of our students, and not about what they would like to say to an audience of their peers.
I may have put the first question a bit too polemically. When I asked whether "we replicate the problem that is often raised in other periods of early modern studies, where scholars confess that while they are New Historicists in their research, they often fall back into formalist New Criticism in the classroom," this phrasing suggested to at least one contributor that I was equating formalism with "bad faith." I saw the question as more of a practical and logistical one. While it is pretty much a demand of scholarly research that a critical analysis of a literary text be accompanied by the placement of the work within a coherent cultural context, and there is a high degree of expectation that a new essay on a work as familiar as Keats's "Urn" should offer some important new raw material about the poem's origin, teaching the poem requires that we figure out how to get that material into the classroom, and how to make sure that its inclusion sharpens the focus on the literary text.
What was most striking about these essays, on the whole, is the energy with which the contributors attacked these questions. We are all too familiar with the endlessly repeated charge from the cultural right that college professors are no longer interested in teaching, and with the refined versions of that charge: that we are only interested in teaching our own specialized research, and that we no longer care to teach the "great books." We know this is propaganda, but we hear it so often that we may begin to believe that it is only an exaggeration, and not an inversion of reality.
The essays here suggest that the canon, and American college students, have never been in better or more solicitous hands. The contributors to this volume detail the close attention they pay to the text and to their students, varying both the amount of contextual material brought into the classroom and the style of close reading according to the class level. While upper-division and graduate courses generally offer more of an opportunity to explore the cultural context of the poem, there is a recurrent stress on not allowing the poem to get lost in that context.
The primary challenge of teaching the "Urn" seems to be, at every level, to find a way of conveying the poem's resistance to being reduced to a consumable meaning or a predictable narrative. Students sometimes arrive at college believing, as one contributor put it, that "We did this poem in high school." Nonprofessional readers want to believe that once a text has been solved, like an algebraic equation, one needs only to remember the formula in order to reiterate the answer. This problem can be replicated at higher levels when the ability to provide a rich cultural context for the poem can offer the temptation to make the poem fully explicable through that context. The resistance to this semiotic desire emerges in the ways that various contributors work to make the daily lives of their classrooms as unpredictable as possible. Some of the contributions suggest that the longer one is at this, the more radical one's methods become.
Our contributors suggest that many students do, eventually, appreciate the idea that Keats's "beauty" and "truth" are neither ideological effects nor transcendent truths, but markers of a strange, elusive desire. In the best of cases, they discover that desire within themselves, and they recognize its difference from the simpler, utilitarian desires of their everyday lives. If any of our students' parents (or our deans) are alarmed by media claims that professors no longer care about teaching, they need only look at the evident fervor with which this random sample of professors has approached what might look like the most routine pedagogical exercise"How do you teach the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn?'"in order to be reassured that their children's education is being treated with a good deal more seriousness than they ever imagined.
When I asked the contributors to this volume to focus on how they taught the poem, I suggested that citations should be kept to a minimum, and that familiar texts needed no citation. Some contributors have included lists of Works Cited with their essays, while others have not. I have added a composite list of Works Cited for the entire volume.