Stillinger, "Fifty-nine Ways of Reading 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

Fifty-nine Ways of Reading "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Jack Stillinger, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  1. Even without seeing a list of contributors to this collection of essays I think I can safely claim to have been acquainted with "Ode on a Grecian Urn" longer than any of the others. I first read the poem in high school in the 1940s just after World War II. I reread it many more times between 1949 and 1958 in surveys, period courses, and seminars as an English major at the University of Texas, an M.A. student at Northwestern, and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard. Then I taught it at least once every semester—except when I was away on sabbatical leave—for the next four and a half decades at the University of Illinois, most recently in a large undergraduate survey of British literature since the 1780s and a graduate seminar on the topic "The New Romanticism" (the "old" being constituted by Keats and the five other currently canonical male poets of the period, the "new" consisting of those six plus a like number of more recently canonized women poets). I can report from this, first, that in all those years I have never seen students not get interested in Keats and his most famous ode—they walk and drive around listening to rock music or talking on cell phones and then, in class, become very serious about the difference between heard and unheard melodies, about the condition of eternal spring, and about the lovers never being able to kiss—and, second, that I myself have never tired of the experiences of reading and teaching the poem. On the contrary, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" continues to be rich and moving every time I read it—which ought to be remarkable, considering that I have known the 50-line text (really, the several different 50-line texts that are recoverable) word by word, mark by mark, for so many decades.

  2. Teachers of my generation (and of the preceding and immediately following generations) were taught to read poetry according to the principles of the New Criticism, the powerful movement initiated in the 1920s by I. A. Richards and practiced influentially in the 1930s and 1940s by William Empson and F. R. Leavis among others in Britain and by Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Alan Tate among others in the U.S. The New Critics were combating both the long established "biographical" method of criticism, which involved investigating and relating the facts of authors' lives while paying hardly any attention to the works the authors wrote, and a mindless kind of "appreciation" where works were admired, in general terms, for their wisdom, brilliance, emotional power (King Lear was "very moving"!) but were not actually read for either their content or the artistic strategies by which that content was conveyed or, as was frequently the case, subverted. The New Critics advocated a process of "close reading" (sometimes called "slow reading"), examining a text one line, one phrase, even one word at a time. They were interested not in authors' "messages" but in the representation of dramatic (fictionalized) speakers in particular circumstances, and above all in structures of irony, paradox, ambiguity, and contradiction. (If some of this sounds like the approach of the more recent Deconstruction, that is simply because Deconstructionists, too, learned their tactics from the New Critics.) Keats especially, because of the prevalence of paradox and contradiction in his texts, was a frequent subject of New Critical analysis. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is an exemplary text in Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's extremely influential textbook, Understanding Poetry (1938), where it is presented with a dozen questions beginning "In what sense is the urn a 'sylvan historian' (line 3)?" and concluding "Are the last two lines a teasing utterance or not? What is their truth? Do the preceding 48 lines serve to define it?" (474-76). As the subject of a famous essay, "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes," in Brooks's The Well Wrought Urn a decade later, it has a central place among case studies assembled to demonstrate that "the language of poetry is the language of paradox" (3).

  3. We taught, in the good old days of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s—in courses like my department's English 101, "Introduction to Poetry" (required of all English majors)—by posing Brooks-and-Warren-like questions about specific details in the texts. My routine study questions for Keats's odes, which still strike me as fundamentally sound, were a simple triad of (1) What does the speaker want? (what is the speaker's problem?); (2) What contrasts, tensions, ironies, etc. oppose the speaker's desire? (a question about the poem's structure); and (3) Is the opposition resolved? (a question about closure). For class discussion of "Ode on a Grecian Urn," I devised numerous specific questions, such as Who is speaking? Who or what is being addressed? What is odd about an "unravish'd bride"? What do "unravish'd bride" and "foster-child" have in common? In what sense can "quietness" be a husband, or "silence and slow time" foster parents? Beginning in line 5 the poem's syntax itself poses Brooks-and-Warren-like questions that can stimulate class discussion—"What leaf-fring'd legend . . . ?"—and six or seven more questions are asked before the end of the first stanza. The complications multiply with the introduction of several impossible situations in the images of stanzas 2 and 3. In stanza 4 the speaker adds still further questions ("Who are these coming to the sacrifice? . . . What little town . . . ?"). And the poem concludes with the urn's (or someone's) totally incomprehensible "message" of the last two lines, "Beauty is truth" and so on.

  4. The poem thus provides very rich materials for class discussion—I could on any occasion easily devise fifty or a hundred questions based on details of the 50-line text—and for several decades my (and I assume many other teachers') standard procedure was to introduce a selection of such questions, get various frequently bright answers from the students, and consider the merits of the answers and their tendencies to nudge toward larger generalizations concerning tone, attitude, thematic meaning, and so on. But I'm sorry to have to report that we operated in a scheme where there were right and wrong answers to the questions. The commonest activity of class discussion in those days was a sequence of wrong answers 1, 2, and 3 (volunteered by three well-meaning students) corrected by right answer 4 (delivered by the teacher). Granted that New Criticism was a matter of an individual reader huddling together with an individual text, doing the line-by-line, word-at-a-time slow reading, when it came to class discussion—Ph.D. professor in the front of the room, face to face with freshman and sophomores who had hardly any experience of life or literature or even much knowledge of the English language—some individual readers were thought to be superior to some others.

  5. Confident that I was perfectly justified in correcting students' wrong responses, for several decades I cheerfully carried on the inculcation of an interpretation of Keats's major poems, "Grecian Urn" among them, in which, to put it in the barest possible terms, the theme was skepticism concerning visionary imagination, the various characters (Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes," Lycius in "Lamia," the knight in "La Belle Dame," the speakers in the odes) were hoodwinked dreamers, and the basic idea was that, as it is stated in the final stanza of "Ode to a Nightingale," the imagination "cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do." I regularly drew a "Keats Map" on the board in my classes, consisting of a horizontal line dividing an ideal world above the line (heaven, immortality, the supernatural, timelessness, etc.) from an actual world below (earth, mortality, the natural, time, etc.), and had the students position various elements of the poems above and below the line—Madeline's dream in her bedroom above the line, for example, Porphyro, physical love, the rest of the castle, and the storm outside below the line; La Belle Dame's magical grot above the line, the knight's cold hillside of reality below; the Nightingale's forest above, and "here," the world of "hungry generations," below; and so on (for elaboration, see Stillinger, John Keats: Complete Poems xvi-xxii and Reading 107-13).

  6. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" fit the scheme perfectly, with the initial perfection of the permanence depicted in the world of Tempe or the dales of Arcady above the line and the speaker's real world of process, change, passion, and death below (complicated, as the poem develops, by the speaker's gradual realization, especially evident in the negatives at the end of stanza 4, that the ideal permanence is itself a kind of death, in sharp contrast to the life of "breathing human passion" in the actual world that the speaker earlier wished to escape). In this way my class "discussion" inevitably turned into lecture. I had the truth about Keats's poems, and the students didn't seem to mind taking it in. Accepting my reading was much easier than doing their own interpreting; it saved time and effort in the long run, and the students too believed that the professor's reading was likely to be the correct one.

  7. These were, as I said, the good old days, now superseded by much improved ways of understanding poetry. For one thing, the New Critical "slow reading," once so radical in its approach (because, in focusing on "the text itself," it barred from consideration not only history and biography but every other extrinsic source including the dictionary meanings of words in the text), became everybody's ordinary way of approaching a text. For another, the coming-of-age of Literary Theory (here capitalized to give it thematic status like a float in a Fourth of July parade) in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s opened up many more possibilities than had hitherto been thought of for the kinds of meaning that a reader could be aware of in a literary text. Of the twenty or so serious theories that attracted interest (and enthusiastic adherents) in those decades, I'll single out four that I think have had the most influence on our reading of "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

    (1) Deconstruction—taking a view that literary works are disorganized, illogical, incoherent, essentially indeterminate, and employing a methodology of analyzing works to find mistakes, inconsistencies, gaps, and contradictions—could, as a theory, have been based solely on "Ode on a Grecian Urn," because Keats himself had already written into his text those very incongruities and discordances that Deconstruction was established to expose. The poem has in fact been deconstructing itself for more than 180 years, but for many readers it took 1970s theorizing to make it permissible to say so in class. We now understand, even with the most admired poems, that some conflicts are not resolved into agreement, that some closures are not really achieved, and that readers who demand agreement and closure must supply them interpretively, compensating for lacks in the actual texts themselves.

    (2) New Historicism is an approach based on the idea of literature as a social activity involving not only authors but publishers, editors, printers, booksellers, purchasers, readers, reviewers, critics, teachers, students, and a great deal of nonliterary historical context, including the political and social ideas of everybody involved, local and national and international events, and so on and on. In its political emphasis, New Historicism began as a delicate outgrowth of the Marxist criticism that had some influence in the 1920s and 1930s and then was revived in the 1960s. Politics have always been central in the writings of Blake, Byron, and Percy Shelley among the Romantics and, in a different way (because of their progress from youthful radicalism to middle-aged conservatism), in the writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge. But what, we used to ask, can there possibly be of political interest in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where a speaker is confronting an old Greek vase with pictures depicting lovers, piper, trees, a sacrificial procession, and musing on vague abstractions about Beauty and Truth? As it turns out, critics beginning in the 1980s have discovered plenty of political concerns in the poem. Keats's centering the poem in Greek life and culture made a point about the ancient origins of the modern revolutionary spirit, for example, and publishing it in Annals of the Fine Arts constituted an attack on the art establishment of the time (see, among others, Kelley 221-32; Roe, John Keats 85-87; Magnuson 167-210; Cox 165, 185-86; and O'Rourke 75-77).

    (3) Feminism, which has been enabling readers to see so many imbalances that formerly were invisible, allows one not only to ponder the sexual politics of "unravish'd bride" and the "maidens loth" struggling to escape in stanza 1, as well as the gender of the sacrificial animal in stanza 4, but also to consider more clearly the critical suggestion that Keats chose to write about an urn because its curved shape resembled that of a woman (Patterson 211-12, 218). Margaret Homans, to mention one of the most helpful critics in this context, does not cite the ode but provides excellent background commentary in her comprehensive account of Keats's relationships with women (both those he knew and those he imagined as readers). Daniel Watkins gives an extended analysis of patriarchal morality in the poem (104-20, 206-11).

    (4) Reader-Response Criticism (sometimes called Reception Theory) has been making it increasingly reasonable—in books and articles, in the classroom, and in social activity more generally—to accept the diversity of individual responses to complex poetic texts. The title of the present essay, which for the occasion could more accurately have been phrased "Teaching Fifty-nine Ways of Reading 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,'" takes off from my 1999 book on multiple ways of interpreting "The Eve of St. Agnes," which in a central chapter (accompanied by a list in an appendix) presents fifty-nine different interpretations of Keats's narrative, some of them in direct conflict with some of the others, and maintains that all fifty-nine are legitimate readings and none of them is "wrong" (Reading 35-77, 147-49). In my preface I announce an ideal of "interpretive democracy," and in a chapter on how we individually process the profusion of stimuli received from Keats's lines I advocate a practice of "no-fault reading" whereby, again, responses cannot be right or wrong, merely more or less interesting (ix, 89-96).

  8. I have been teaching undergraduates on these principles for a dozen or more years, ever since I became interested in the idea of "multiples" in the basic components of a literary transaction—multiple authorship of works that we usually assume to have been written by a solitary genius; multiple textual versions of famous works in the canon; and, what is most relevant to the present occasion, multiple interpretations of those works everywhere one turns in the critical literature (by the most sophisticated of readers) and the classroom (by some of the most naïve). In general students have responded favorably to my approach, several over the years even remarking—after the exams were finished and the grades turned in—that the idea of no-fault reading had changed their lives! Friends, colleagues, and reviewers have been similarly approving, though not exactly in the same extravagant language.

  9. The chief question that arises (from colleagues and reviewers, if not from students) is how one teaches a complex poem in a scheme where there are no wrong answers concerning the points being raised. In Reading "The Eve of St. Agnes" I quote Alvin Kernan's contemptuous depiction of no-fault readers as a group of savages "who have a great deal of difficulty piecing out the broken signs on the printed page" (Reading 91; Kernan 144). I counter this with numerous situations where multiple responses—contradictory and even "wrong" assertions among them—enhance the richness and complexity of the reading experience (Reading 89-96). The text of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" provides conflicting stimuli in practically every line—"Fair youth . . . thou canst not leave / Thy song . . . Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss . . . She cannot fade . . . thou hast not thy bliss . . . And, little town, thy streets for evermore / Will silent be" and so on. With lines like these, the responses have to be multiple and contradictory.

  10. Keats's well-known ideal of poetic disinterestedness—"Negative Capability," he called it, "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (Keats's Letters 1:193)—can be usefully applied to the author-text-reader transaction in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." We have in the first place a negatively capable author/speaker who asks a great many questions about activities depicted on the urn, gets no answers to his questions (unless "Beauty is truth" is supposed to be one), but remains content in his situation of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts. We know he is content simply because the final lines, while lacking the logic that would enable clear paraphrase, have an unmistakable air of resolution about them—the message is from "a friend to man" and its wisdom is "all ye need to know." We have in the second place a negatively capable text, in the sense that it is an epitomizing texture of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts—possibly the best example of comparable length in all of English poetry. And in the third place, with the help of reader-response thinking we can say that we have negatively capable readers as well, who, like the author/speaker, similarly don't know the answers to the questions but are satisfied without knowing, accepting at the end a kind of contented irresolution. In recent years, in trying to position the poet himself on the Keats Map, I have imagined Keats standing outside "Ode on a Grecian Urn" looking on with his readers and wondering, with each successive reading, how the various conflicts will get resolved, with the possibility (for Keats and the readers alike) that they will be resolved a different way each time. This is not a bad premise on which to conduct class discussion of the poem. It certainly beats fifty minutes of interpretive dicta from the front of the class.

Works Cited

Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1947.

Brooks, Cleanth, and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students. New York: Holt, 1938.

Cox, Jeffrey N. Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Homans, Margaret. "Keats Reading Women, Women Reading Keats." Studies in Romanticism 29 (1990): 341-70.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1958.

Kelley, Theresa M., "Keats, Ekphrasis, and History." Keats and History. Ed. Nicholas Roe. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. 212-37.

Kernan, Alvin. The Death of Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Magnuson, Paul. Reading Public Romanticism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

O'Rourke, James. Keats's Odes and Contemporary Criticism. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1998.

Patterson, Charles I. "Passion and Permanence in Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn." ELH 21 (1954): 208-20.

Roe, Nicholas. John Keats and the Culture of Dissent. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1997.

Stillinger, Jack, ed. John Keats: Complete Poems. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1982.

---. Reading "The Eve of St. Agnes": The Multiples of Complex Literary Transaction. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Watkins, Daniel P. Keats's Poetry and the Politics of the Imagination. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989.