Hall, "Keats's Widely-Taught and Well-Wrought 'Urn'"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

Keats's Widely-Taught and Well-Wrought "Urn"

Spencer Hall, Rhode Island College

  1. How one approaches Keats's ode in the classroom will depend, of course, on the kind of classroom and the nature of the class. The hypercanonicity of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" stems in part from its usefulness in various pedagogical settings, from the British Romanticism survey to the Introduction to Poetry class to the course on literary criticism. Like Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems, "Grecian Urn" is a target text for exemplifying major issues and ideas in British Romanticism, for studying the genre of the lyric, and for illustrating various critical and theoretical approaches. As James O'Rourke's recent Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism has ably demonstrated, the poem is especially well suited to foregrounding the debate between formalist, deconstructionist, historicist, and feminist ways of reading and teaching.

  2. My own pedagogy, while eclectic, is biased toward formalism for several reasons, including, inescapably, my early training in the New Criticism and my reservations concerning the extra-literary direction of literary studies over the last several decades. More importantly, however, one tries to identify students' needs, and in my experience, students—and I am not referring to ESL students—have never been more in need of learning how to read. I mean by "read" not just the ability to respond with comprehension and sensitivity to what used to be called "poetic" as opposed to "scientific" or "discursive" writing. I mean also the ability to decode even mildly complex uses of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary and thus to analyze and understand a written text on a paraphrastic, much less a fully "literary," level.

  3. It will come as no surprise, then, that I spend a lot of class time on "close reading," although I do not delimit that methodology in the ways that Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and other New Critics tended to do. I like to teach Keats's "Urn" in conjunction with "Ode to a Nightingale," often assigning a preliminary writing assignment (formal or informal) in which I ask students to discuss the two poems with special attention to the endings of each. I focus on the endings for some obvious reasons. For one thing, the notorious "who says what to whom" problem in the "Urn"'s last lines still catches students—even advanced students—by surprise. Many simply do not see the various grammatical and syntactical possibilities for meaning at a first (or even third) reading, nor have most ever thought about the material nature of a text, the determinant role of editing, or the importance of publication history. (The major Romantic anthologies all include commentary on the "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" crux, although many undergraduates seem opposed on principle to reading footnotes.) The "Urn" is an excellent vehicle for introducing such things and for forcing students to pause, in their headlong gallop toward subjective response or ideological pronouncement, to ponder the grammatical and semantic relations between pronouns and antecedents in the English language.

  4. Attention to the concept of closure implicates the concept of form or structure, which opens up discussion of theme, tone, persona, diction, and other formalist preoccupations. The anthology I use most often for Introduction to Literary Study I, a foundation course for English majors, includes the "Urn" in the chapter on "Word Choice, Word Order, and Tone." My teaching points are not particularly original and are indebted to, among others, M. H. Abrams's classic statement on "the greater Romantic lyric." I tend to present the structure of the ode as processive, that is, as revealing the persona's dynamic processes of thought and feeling as they develop, line by line, from stanza one through stanza five. I ask students to identify what they take to be definitive shifts in the speaker's responses and thus in the argument and structure of the poem. We usually agree, as do most critics, that stanza four marks a fundamental formal and thematic turning point. The persistent questioning of stanza one reappears, but directed now to a very different scene with very different implications. Instead of a timeless and erotic Hellenic pastoral in which the disparity between "deities" and "mortals" is inconsequential, the speaker interrogates a religious sacrifice with its intrinsic reminders of human mortality and limitation. The scene provokes him to imagine a "desolat[ion]" beyond the capacity of the urn to picture or explain and thus initiates the highly-wrought ambiguities of the closing stanza.

  5. Comparing/contrasting poetic texts is a good way to teach reading skills, and juxtaposing the "Nightingale" and the "Urn" encourages students to make precise discriminations involving tone and theme. That one poem ends in a question, the other in a declarative statement is a starting point, and students usually identify the "Nightingale" as the more obviously skeptical and "emotional" of the two poems. They come to a better appreciation of the ambiguity and feeling in the "Urn," however, as we examine the various tonal ironies of "brede," "overwrought," and "Cold Pastoral" and the deceptive assurance of the "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" pronouncement in stanza five. We then move back to the paradoxical portrayal of artistic transcendence in stanzas two and three. Students rarely seem to notice without prodding the problematic effects of the double negatives and repeated "happy"'s in those stanzas but are eager to interpret them when they are pointed out.

  6. An attempt to define as specifically as possible the tone of Keats's "Urn" affords an opportunity to introduce the December, 1817 "Negative Capability" letter. The letter as a whole, with its references to the visual arts, its celebration of artistic "intensity," and its use of the phrase "Beauty & Truth," makes a useful commentary on the poem and moves students beyond a reductively formalistic preoccupation with the "words on the page." I ask students to apply Keats's ideas on Negative Capability to the "Urn." Compared to the "Nightingale" (or "To Autumn"), for example, does the poem "remain (sic) content with half knowledge"? Does it achieve an aesthetic form, a "sense of Beauty," capable of "overcoming" or "obliterating" its implicit "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts"? I also often introduce Coleridge's organicist view of "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" in chapter fourteen of Biographia Literaria as another relevant theoretical statement. We generally agree that the "Urn" achieves a degree of "negative capability" or "balance" or what Brooks called "dramatic wholeness" greater than that achieved in the "Nightingale" but less than that achieved in "To Autumn." The point, of course, is not to construct an evaluative hierarchy or come to absolute conclusions but to get students thinking carefully about tone, context, and diction, and about their own critical and aesthetic responses.

  7. In upper-division and graduate classes on Romanticism, I teach Keats as a second-generation Romantic and foreground the skeptical idealism that characterizes that belated generation. In such classes, I tend to adopt a quasi-deconstructive critical stance, approaching the "Urn" as a meta-text that comments self-reflexively on Romantic idealist aesthetics and metaphysics. Using familiar deconstructive moves, I push students beyond the more or less "balanced" ambiguity of a formalist reading towards a more radically ambivalent interpretation that foregrounds the unresolved (and presumably irresolvable) relationship between transcendent meaning and material form. As a way of reading, deconstruction is particularly well-suited, I think, to illuminate the textual complexities, if not to evaluate the metaphysical, aesthetic, and emotional commitments, of a Romantic idealist poetics.

  8. Although I do not completely buy Paul de Man's distinction between symbol and allegory, his equation of the symbolic and the aesthetic works nicely as a way into Keats's ode. The poem strives to construct the well-wrought urn as a symbolic form, as an eternal work of art capable of representing the ideal perfections Romanticism attributed both to nature and to Hellenism. The poem seeks to idealize the urn, that is, as an embodiment (and thus an expression), as an incarnation (and thus a revelation) of transcendent and intelligible meaning in a sensible form. At the same time, however, the poem includes subtextual elements (de Man would call them "allegorical") that put into question the very possibility of an aesthetic symbolism uncontaminated by and transcending temporal, material reality.

  9. In stanza one, for example, the urn is represented as both "historian" and poet, but the speaker cannot decode the "flowery tale" it tells, a readerly and writerly failure intensified, as already mentioned, in stanza four. The tonal and thematic inconsistencies in stanzas two and three also point to an underlying metaphysical and poetic dilemma. An ideal order "far above" the exigencies of material human existence—including attempts to "Pipe . . . spirit ditties" to a non-"sensual ear"—can only be expressed in terms of the same naturalistic and sensual order that the speaker desires to transcend. Vehicle obscures tenor, signifier compromises signified, language deconstructs meaning.

  10. A similar problem unfolds in stanza five as the speaker seeks to elicit from the urn a transcendental message both aesthetic and ontological that will bring the poem to thematic and formal closure and that will confirm the urn's (and the poem's) status as a revelatory Romantic symbol. Not only is the revelation itself largely undecidable, however, but the speaker's conflicting attempts at personification and apostrophe betray, as figurative language so often does, his (and our) epistemological uncertainties. Is the urn a "silent form" that leads us beyond intelligibility (and speech) altogether, or is it a loquacious, even sententious "friend" speaking a higher, but still explicable, wisdom? The speaker, like the text, and like second-generation British Romanticism, can (indeed must) desire an answer, but cannot know.