Thomson, "Teaching Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' in New Zealand"

Romanticism and Patriotism:
Nation, Empire, Bodies, Rhetoric

Teaching Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
in New Zealand

Heidi Thomson, Victoria University of Wellington

  1. Who is Keats? What is a Grecian urn? What is an ode? These questions are common ones in my classroom. I teach Keats's poetry as part of a third-year, twelve-week survey course on English Romantic Literature in the School of English, Film, and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, in the context of a three-year BA programme. Two hours per week are devoted to lectures to the whole group of students (53 in 2002); in addition there is a weekly one-hour tutorial, a discussion session in groups of about fifteen. Three lectures and one tutorial are assigned to Keats. Our textbook is Duncan Wu's Romanticism (second edition; Blackwell).

  2. My students' ignorance of Keats and nineteenth-century British literature in general has nothing to do with lack of brains or motivation. In order to fulfil their English major requirement our students take two "pre-twentieth century courses", a very modest requirement which leaves them, at the end of their degree, likely to be just as familiar with New Zealand, Australian, South African literature as with so-called canonical English literature.1 "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is generally not taught in secondary school, and at university one can easily major in English without having come across any of Keats's poetry. No wonder then that, while we as university teachers and researchers think of Keats's poetry as canonical, burdened with jaded conservatism, the students, who have consciously taken this course as a choice among many, are not burdened with such thoughts at all. For most of them, the encounter with Keats's poetry is an exciting discovery—a new planet swimming into their ken—as opposed to imposition of an outdated canon.

  3. The fact that we still think of Keats as a canonical author, an inevitable, and, in fashionably theoretical terms, unwelcome, jaded presence in our curriculum may have something to do with the separation between research and teaching which has become part of our profession. The theoretical debate, and its research outcomes, about the problematic nature of the canon was originally based on a particular curriculum of so-called masterpieces, and the pedagogical, largely New Critical approach, associated with it. For funding and prestige purposes universities in the US, the UK, and the richer nations of the Commonwealth in general, have been moving towards an apartheid system of lavishly paid, tenured full-time research stars and underpaid, non-tenured adjunct instructors. Tenure and promotion are, despite lip service to excellence in teaching, largely research based, but research about pedagogical issues has become increasingly divorced from any actual classroom practice. It is, ironically, possible for a research professor to write about the theoretical context of pedagogical approaches to "Ode on a Grecian Urn" without actually having to deal with the poem in the classroom on any regular basis. The main challenge for me as a tenured university researcher and teacher is to establish and maintain a teaching-research nexus, a dynamic connection between two aspects of my job, namely the exploration of and communication about beautiful and stimulating Romantic texts. This process is an exchange between the students and me, and any ideas or approaches which I may hope to convey cannot be divorced from the responses and the contributions of the students. Bearing the importance of a common meeting ground in mind, I have decided that the tutorial is to be devoted to the close reading of a poem, that it should be in other words an opportunity for the students to encounter the poem itself (as opposed to critical writings about the poem).

  4. The only difference between research and teaching is audience and the knowledge or skills we expect our audience to have. In scholarly articles I write for a community of peers who have a longstanding familiarity with the period and its texts. In the classroom no assumptions about specific prior or common knowledge of the materials can be made, but the students do bring with them a range of living experiences which influence their reading. Most remarkably, for the majority of them the fact that Keats was writing when he was roughly their age strikes a crucial chord, and this perceived sense of contemporariness makes their study of Keats different from their perception of, for instance, Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two other major authors in the course. Keats's youth and tragically early death conspire with the immediacy of his letters (so many of which emphasize empathy, discovery, passionate intensity and the inevitable vulnerability which accompanies it) to attract students who are in the first stages of independent adulthood themselves. In "Ode on a Grecian Urn" the passionate intellectual curiosity of the speaker appeals to the students. The reality that most of my students "fall for" Keats, almost instantly like and admire him, is a tremendous advantage. With Keats, more than with any of the other poets in the course (with the exception perhaps of John Clare), the students are fascinated by the combination of his personal and poetical qualities. As a teacher I make the most of my students' partiality for Keats by organizing my lectures and tutorials around the possible grounds for this fondness. The quality which makes Keats most appealing to my students is his openness to experience and its bafflements, his delight in articulating the dynamics of trial and error in exploration and discovery, in encounters with texts, nature, people, and artefacts such as Grecian urns. What makes Keats specifically attractive to students who are about twenty years old (or who remember what it was like to be twenty years old) is the ardour of the pursuer as we find him or her portrayed in letters and poems.2 At the same time, what makes Keats particularly admirable to young adults is his moral intelligence, his striving for unselfish friendship and love, and his acknowledgment of a complex picture which cannot be fully comprehended or contained: "Things cannot to the will / Be settled, but they tease us out of thought" ("Dear Reynolds, as last night I lay in bed", ll. 76-77) (181). In particular, in the classroom I address the same issue which informs my own research about Keats: his ability to express the necessity to give form to, to substantiate desire into a passion which lasts beyond the moment by focusing on the dynamics and the energy of encounters.

  5. I teach "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in a context which emphasizes Keats's poetics of encounter and the passionate intensity which characterizes these encounters. "Form" figures prominently, particularly so for "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a poem about an artefact (a formal structure about a formal structure). In a questionnaire conducted in the first trimester of 2002 I asked my 53 ENGL 311 students to comment on what they found most helpful and most enjoyable in their study of "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Many students commented on how they enjoyed formal analysis in a discussion-style tutorial ("coming to terms with the actual structure, building blocks of the poem"). The "thing itself", the poem, is their preferred starting point in discussion (as opposed to an article about the poem), in very much the same fashion that the urn is in front (mentally or physically) of the speaker of the poem. One student commented on how this approach gives them all something "to sink their teeth into" and how it gives them "a sense of ownership." In practical terms our tutorial about "Ode on a Grecian Urn" takes initially the form of a discussion about the plot of the poem (who is speaking? how does this speaker address the urn? what does the speaker want? what does the speaker "see" on the urn? how do we find out about this?), an approach which I was introduced to in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Romantic seminars of Jack Stillinger and the Professional Seminar on teaching literature of Nina Baym. First of all, the advantage of this approach is that straightforward, supposedly "fact" focused questions trigger discussion of more complex, ambivalent questions. For instance, as we worked our way through the poem it became obvious that the initial address, the initial substantiation of the urn, goes through a process of transformation. From addressing the urn in problematic human terms (unravished bride, fosterchild, sylvan historian), the speaker ends up acknowledging the urn as an artificial, but stimulating presence to human eyes ("a friend to man"). The initial encounter, a very one sided tribute from the speaker to the urn in the opening lines, has been turned into an affirmation of a dynamic in which beauty and truth need to be couched in an interpretive act of the beholder. Secondly, the "plot" approach also ensures that we do not take any of the ingredients of the poem for granted. The idea of a "Grecian urn", for instance, is not necessarily familiar to the students; overheads and illustrations are brought in (based on those in Ian Jack's Keats and the Mirror of Art) to give an idea of the kinds of materials which may have inspired Keats.

  6. The initial anthropomorphic "loneliness" of the urn is replaced at the end of the poem by an affirmation of its formal features (shape, attitude, brede of marble men and maidens, silent form, cold pastoral). The speaker's recognition of the urn's form substantiates its meaning of beauty and truth for those who view it. The fictional little town, the urn's original home, is a representation of a possible living context from which the urn has been lifted. The importance of context for the Grecian urn and the problem of substantiating it within formal constraints can be extended to Keats's larger cultural context. This is where the lectures are useful: Keats's literary and cultural context, his reading and thinking are directly related to the poems.

  7. The first lecture is devoted to a number of points, all of which clarify Keats's context and which illustrate the differences from, primarily, Wordsworth's and Coleridge's poetics. Keats's friendships with Leigh Hunt and Benjamin Robert Haydon introduced him to The Examiner and The Annals of the Fine Arts, in which "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was first published. The political connotations of The Examiner and the larger cultural context of The Annals are briefly considered By considering some of the major letters (truth of the imagination, human life as mansion of many apartments, poetical character and chameleon poet, negative capability) and sonnets ("Chapman's Homer", "When I have fears", "On sitting down to read King Lear"), I stress the importance of reading and formally articulating a response to reading in Keats's work. Reading Homer through the lens of an Elizabethan, re-reading Shakespeare, reading the sky for new planets all affirm the importance of exploration and discovery which is channelled in a poetical form. Those processes often take the form of a greeting, a salutation which incorporates a sense of astonishment and confirmation at the same time. Before moving on to the odes we spend some time on "The Eve of St Agnes" and "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." Both poems are read primarily for their portrayal of sexually charged encounters which do not conform to fairy tale scenarios despite the formal markers of romance. Both poems also portray problems which the main characters face when attempting to substantiate their desire into tangible reality. "Isabella" and "Lamia" would also be good choices here. The possibly tragic vision implicit in these poems is counterbalanced by the intensity of characters or speakers to substantiate their desires into actual encounters which accommodate these desires. Isabella's fervent digging, Lamia's painful transformation, Madeline's loss of control over her ritual all suggest the breakdown, or the transcendence, of boundaries of embarrassment or social decorum (which is also what we witness on the urn to some extent). Because of time constraints I usually leave out "Lamia" and the Hyperions altogether in favor of focusing on the odes as a group in the second lecture.

  8. The odes stage encounters between speakers and concepts (Psyche, nightingale, urn, autumn, melancholy) in which the speaker needs to accommodate or substantiate the addressed abstraction or form. For "Ode on a Grecian Urn" I emphasize how difficult it is to attribute meaning to something which has been taken out of its original context. Problems of context are a major issue for museums, and for the students it comes as quite surprise that public access to works of art, by way of the museum, was a relatively new experience in Keats's time. As James Heffernan pointed out, Keats's ode on the urn "was made possible by the collections of classical vases and marbles Keats saw at the British Museum, founded in 1753, which acquired the vases in 1772 and the marbles (from Lord Elgin) in 1816, just three years before Keats wrote his ode" (93). The frustration of fragmentation, of isolation, is also part of the debate surrounding the then recently acquired Parthenon marbles by Lord Elgin, as their originality was championed by Benjamin Robert Haydon in the pages of The Annals of the Fine Arts. And for the middle class consumer, the taste for Grecian urns was also catered for by the tremendously popular Wedgwood pottery. In the lectures I try to illustrate that there was indeed a cultural context for Keats's poems to originate in.

  9. The focus on context, both in tutorials and lectures, emphasizes that banal generalities such as "beauty" and "truth" can only be substantiated by the interpretive act of the beholder. The fragmentation which befell the Parthenon Marbles after having been removed from their context is also applicable to the urn in the poem, which has been lifted out of its original context into a world of artifice, the museum pedestal or the engraving. When I saw the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum in April 2002, I was impressed by the video set-up in an adjacent room which illustrated the position of the marbles on the original building. The evocation of the sacrificial ritual and the little town in stanza four of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" serves a similar purpose of creative reconstruction. For Keats, "Truth" is always the "truth of the imagination," the positive construction of a desired vision, and the resultant "Beauty" is the enduring form in which this vision has been cast. What we achieve in the classroom or in the lecture theatre is a creative, dynamic reconstruction of the contexts in which Keats's poetry took shape.


1 For more information about English majoring requirements at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, see <>. I am grateful to the 2001 and 2002 ENGL 311 students for their enthusiasm, their advice and ideas.

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2 See the letter to Bailey: "every mental pursuit takes its reality and worth from the ardour of the pursuer" (73).

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Works Cited

Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1982.

---. Letters of John Keats: A selection. Ed. Robert Gittings. Oxford: OUP, 1990.

Heffernan, James A. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashberry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.