O'Donnell, "Three or Four Ways of Looking at an Urn"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

Three or Four Ways of Looking at an Urn

Brennan O'Donnell, Loyola College in Maryland

  1. I teach Keats's "Urn" regularly in three undergraduate courses—in 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 structures—metrical and syntactical, rhetorical and generic, propositional and imagistic—converge 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 does—confronting 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

Works Cited

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: Clarendon, 1997.

Roe, Nicholas, ed. Keats and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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.