Wolfson, "The Know of Not to Know It: My Returns to Reading and Teaching Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'"

"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy

The Know of Not to Know It: My Returns to
Reading and Teaching Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Susan J. Wolfson, Princeton University

  1. When James O'Rourke asked me to contribute to this forum, I reacted with a spasm of embarrassment. What could I say that I hadn't said already? Except for some local adjustments, I hadn't fundamentally changed my way of reading or teaching "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in almost 25 years. It was Keats's odes that made me an English major, inspired my doctoral dissertation, shaped my first book. A key concern in one of my first articles was the dynamics of reading "Ode on a Grecian Urn." The poem has always been on my syllabi, not just for Keats's sake, but as a primer of what may be gained by ear industrious and attention meet—those pleasurable labors of careful reading, not as a search for information or an occasion for exposures of ideology, but as a tracking and tracing of language as event, as field of play, as a discovery of indeterminacy in the desire for determinations. My branchings out therefrom have been numerous, infused by gender criticism, new historicism, textual scholarship and theory. All this new growth can still be mapped on to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and my teaching has developed therefrom, too. At the same time, I have to say, the core is still close-reading, however much the curricula have shifted. Preparatory to writing this essay, I revisited the essays from which I learned how to read this Ode: the incisive description of the dramatic arc in Jack Stillinger's "Imagination and Reality," and the engagements with rhetoric and language in Kenneth Burke's "Symbolic Action," Cleanth Brooks's "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes," Stuart Sperry's "Romantic Irony," David Perkins's "Keats: The Uncertainties of Vision." I liked these essays as much as I ever did. One thing I'm not embarrassed about is my pleasure in still recommending this lucid, and lucidly debatable, work to my students.

  2. I also decided to sit down and reread my reading of the Ode in The Questioning Presence, a prospect I faced with wincing apprehension rather than any narcissistic clucking. I articulated this reading in the late 70s and early 80s, when the disorientations of deconstruction were prevailing over the orientations of orthodox new criticism, and when the feminist and new-historicist views of Romanticism and then of Keats that have mattered a great deal to me since were not yet in play. I guess it's the unreconstructed formalist in me, but I found I still like the close reading of poetic events, even if I'd write it up a bit differently now. I'm still impressed by the way Keats mobilizes the ode's linguistic activity—of words, of syntaxes, of poetic forms—to shape for his reader an analogue for his speaker's encounter with the figures and configurations on the urn, an encounter described in projections of desire that fail to tease out a certain or stable legend for understanding. This reflexiveness involves not only a phenomenology of reading (Wolfgang Iser's phrase for the unfolding of meaning and meanings) but also (in ways that don't always interest Iser) ironic relays on the frustrations of reading. The ode's inception in questions leads to a witty interrogative trial of contradictions and, ultimately, an answer that is no answer, but a circular statement ("Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty") that, for all its subsequent canonization, including a chiseling on the walls of the Library of Congress, turns out to be as baffling as the circular urn itself.

  3. Without rehearsing the reading in The Questioning Presence, I'd like to review a couple of phases that students enjoy puzzling over. I was, and am, interested in the way certain key lines in the ode, about reading as the attention of eye and ear, figure doubly, not only for eye and for ear, but also in the doubling of urn-reading and ode-reading. In the wake of that initial barrage of questions ("What leaf-fring'd legend haunts about thy shape of . . .?"), Keats has the frustrated questioner step back, in a new stanza, to theorize (maybe to ravish) the productivity of its unyielding silence:

    Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
         Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
    Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
         Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: (11-14)
  4. Keats deftly plays these lines past the sensual ear (its pleasures baffled by the atonal, slant rhymes) to the readerly eye: the word ear appears folded into endear'd, as if to configure, visually, and to echo faintly the audience of an inner ear, more endeared to silence. It matters that this ear-echo is not registered by the first line's rhyme-framing by "Heard . . . unheard," words that contain the spell of ear but refuse the sound. To "canopy the heard" (that's how Keats first wrote out this line from Shakespeare's Sonnet 12 in a letter to fellow poet Reynolds; 22 November 1817), Keats puts forth a visual semiotic, a shape of letters. The visual double-play also shapes the other rhyme that refuses to satisfy an ear for harmony: play on / no tone. With a preliminary patterning from the "Not to" that frames the front of this qualifying clause (11), the visual text of "no tone" is on the verge of playing (to the eye) "not one." This spell of words isn't the issue of my overworking brain: the verse that follows in this stanza is famously not one, but a sustained equivocation of description ("Though . . . yet . . . / . . . though") about the urn's eternal stasis, in which (male) erotic desire is simulcast both "for ever" and "never never." Not one, but two ways of reading, for ever contradictory and never to be disjoined: this may not be all ye need to know on earth, but in the beholding of the urn, it is all ye know.

  5. In a new stanza, Keats has his urn-reader try gamely to shake off this toil of double information by pushing everything--trees, melodist, and especially, lovers--into a "for ever," a "happy, happy" eternity of art. At the same time, Keats himself tunes and tones the verse to suggest urn-reading in overdrive, and plots its accelerating gradations of happiness toward a sharp reverse. This reversal happens in a shift of syntax as much as on the level of cognition. A virtually panting urn-reader depicts the lovers.
              For ever panting and for ever young;
    All breathing human passion far above,
         That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue. (27-30)
  6. With considerable syntactic momentum in the phenomenology of reading, the poem-line "All breathing human passion far above" solicits regard as the summary description of the world for ever on the urn. "Breathing" even seems part of the train of participles also involved with breath ("piping," "panting"): All are breathing human passion on a plane far above mortal humanity. OK, the semicolon after "young" (27) seems to mark a syntactic divide; but not necessarily. The stanza's second and fourth lines (". . . nor ever bid the Spring adieu;" / " . . . songs for ever new;") end in semicolons that register mere pauses to catch one's breath in the heat of ardent pursuit. Two manuscripts (George Keats's and Charles Brown's), moreover, show just a comma after "young." All this tentative punctuation helps credit the sensation, on first looking into the line, that "All breathing human passion far above" is a summary of the developing surmise. Earl Wasserman, for one, never doubted it: "The love is indeed a human passion, and at the same time it is far above all mutable human passion," effecting in the "syntactical oxymoron" an analogue to the "mystic oxymoron" of "mortal and immortal" in synthesis (The Finer Tone 39-41). But where he sees Keats stumbling, caught and bewildered in oxymoron, I read a melodious plot: Keats has set up the line up to woo us with the oxymoron Wasserman discerns; then, at the line's turn, pivots its information into the human differential. "Breathing" gets divorced from the company of piping and panting, and gets wed to the ensuing somatics of human passion, "burning" and "parching," while the possibility of "far above" as a location in imaginative surmise subsides to a sighing recognition of high aesthetic privilege, from which mortal humanity is excluded. This drama of syntactic reorientation plays out for the ode-reader the recognitions that signal the urn-reader's impending disenchantment, and for both, the stage is set for recuperated reading. What is absent "for ever" in urn-worlds is a speaking historian of a particularly poetic cast: "not a soul to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e'er return" (39-40)—the last syllable calling us back, by rhyme, to the title of poet's telling, "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

  7. As I reviewed my reading in The Questioning Presence, I actually wound up rethinking, refining, revising and rewriting it--an activity that seems to me an extension of, or the promised epiphenomenon of, the dynamics of reading that Keats's ode teaches. Even as my returns to the "Urn" have branched out into gender criticism, new historicism, and textual theory, I've continued to keep company with those for whom reading, by which I mean the close attention that constitutes literary pleasure, remains important. I've become a better reader of Ode on a Grecian Urn by reading it with Peter Manning, with Garrett Stewart, with Grant Scott, among others. And I'm more confident about why the Ode matters to me in these lively and productive textures from working out with the oppositional force of Jerome McGann's critiques.

  8. These days, I make more than I used to (twenty years ago) of the gender-marking of questioning and interpretation in the spectatorial drama of the Ode: a male poet, the female object he would ravish, the heightening of his aggression, and perhaps disdain, in relation to her refusals. Students (teenagers and twenty-somethings that they are) take well to the invitation to think about reading as an activity energized by desire and prospective satisfaction. I raise some questions from the start: To what degree does a poem such as this require a reader both to play the part of a desiring young man and to imagine the focus of desire as female? What is gained by this gendering? How would the Ode be different if these positions weren't gendered, or differently gendered? How does your agreement to play the male part, even if implicit, unrecognized, untheorized (unfelt, unheard, unseen), affect your sensitivity to the ironies of expectation and effect in the poem's play of language? Do we women read this eroticized drama with more alienation (or theatricalized alterity) than men? Questions about gender are one way of demonstrating how reading is inflected by who is reading, in what sort of circumstance, with what sort of culturally induced habits and expectations. Though the words on the page may be what they were in 1819 or 1820, they can spell out different systems of meaning, new configurations of information, depending on the energies, attentive interests, and even ideological formation of the readers.

  9. This is what new-historicist criticism, with a particular vigorous and not always sympathetic focus on Keats, asked us to reflect on. And yet, while I am surely much more historicist than I used to be, the new historicist handling of Keats's odes has had less consequence for me, partly because it has seemed to require a flattening out of ironies and complications—or, if not a flattening, then a consignment to the false consciousness of aesthetic ideology, which (the story goes) purchases these complexities with an evasion of historical contradictions. So even McGann's landmark essay, "Keats and the Historical Method of Literary Criticism," which provocatively situated Keats's aesthetic practices and their history of reception within determinative cultural, social, and especially political contexts, has not really altered what I do with the poem in the classroom. My engagement with questions of "history," in fact, tends to show deconstructive roots. When I first wrote about the Ode, I was caught by the poet's epithet for the Urn, "Sylvan historian"—a historian, as Cleanth Brooks put it in what I still think is one of the best ever essays on the poem, who proceeds "without footnotes." What's at stake (I wondered) in Keats's projection of a chronicler and a mode of chronicle in contradiction to temporality? (That's what history's about: events, a narrative of events.) The Urn emerges from some obscure history, but how can something unspeaking (except perhaps in a summary banality), displaying a static, unchanging tableau, be hailed as a "historian"? When I looked into the etymological history of "history," I suspected that Keats might not only have anticipated this protest (he's always ahead of his readers this way) but also wanted his readers to think of their engagement as proto-historiographic. Historia, I found, comes from a Greek word for "learning or knowing by inquiry," inquiry naming not only the method but also its motive. Historians develop histories from the questions they ask, the questions they're moved to ask, want to ask, burn to ask. The poet who addresses the Urn as a "Sylvan historian" and then, in this opening stanza and stanza IV, produces ten questions himself, is a rival historian, working in a medium of unsylvan rhyme. And since his questions, students tend to see, are simultaneously posed for our interest, we start to think about reading as a mode of questioning, about history as determined by the questions we ask.

  10. A reading of the ode as a reflection on history-making was not what the new-historicist "historical method" was after; its focus was on the determinative contextual forces that produce the text and the story of its readings. What this agenda means for the 1820 Lamia volume (and its odes) is that Keats—still smarting from the abuse his first two volumes suffered from his association with Hunt as well as his own Cockney insurgency (his outsider bid for legitimacy)—cast "Ode on a Grecian Urn" "not to provoke but allay conflict": it's part of a "reactionary" (by 1819 lights) endeavor "to dissolve social and political conflicts in the mediations of art and beauty" (McGann 53). Not for nothing did Keats shun Hunt's Examiner (even Hunt's Indicator) to debut his poem in Annals of the Fine Arts, for MDCCCXIX (4 [January 1820]: 638-39), edited by his friend B. R. Haydon, noted champion of the British government's acquisition of the Elgin Marbles. When the poem appeared in the Lamia volume, its title added a first word, "Ode," that affiliated it with "Ode to a Nightingale" (which it followed), "Ode to Psyche" (which followed it), "Ode" ("Bards of Passion and of Mirth"), a few pages on; "Ode on Melancholy," the last poem of the sub-unit of "Poems"; and even "To Autumn," just before "Melancholy," and evidently an Ode. For McGann, these aesthetic assignments amount to de-politicizing, even anti-politicizing moves. "The ode's urn," he proposes, "is placed before its readers (both past and present) as an ideal example of such vases," the example standing for the idealism of Romantic Hellenism, which understands Greek art as producing "perfect and complete embodiments of a perfect and complete idea of The Beautiful"—an understanding to which the Ode is allied by force of its initial publication in Annals, "one of [the] age's chief ideological organs for disseminating such ideas" (44).

  11. As interested as I am in the contexts of publication and reception, I have found this containment of the Ode a distortion. If the Ode evokes this ideal, I'm not persuaded that this is the same thing as saying that it is a straightforward example of it: the play of the poetry also frustrates it, ironizes it, maybe even subverts it--possibilities that don't interest McGann except as aspects of the dangerous illusion of aesthetic self-criticism. I always give McGann's bracing critiques to graduate students; but I hesitate to key my undergraduates' discovery of the poetry to his report on Annals-ideology, nor, especially, do I want to encourage them to assume (at least not without a struggle) that the Ode is out to embody a perfected ideal, let alone finds that leaf-fringed legend in "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (45; McGann doesn't quote the Annals text, but the Lamia one). What I like about Keats's wit here (in my Garrett Stewart mode) is the way "leaf-fringed" slides into "leaf-ringed"—the unknown information "about" the shape of the Ode that is (to me anyway) only desperately, only problematically, translated by the syntactic ringing of "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."

  12. This ringing utterance brings me to my branchings out into textual criticism—an interest related to, but not equivalent to, the historical motivations for textual choices and the history of reading about which McGann cares (it's no coincidence that he is an important editor, too). The textual tangle comes into focus for students (undergraduate as well as graduate) when we get to the famous closing lines that are so launched (49-50). The 1820 Lamia volume (whose production Keats was too ill to supervise and so was managed by advisers to his publishers) has lower-cases after the first Beauty. The text in Annals (which Keats could have supervised) reads:

    Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.—
    Although capitalization, especially up through the nineteenth century, might be (usually is) regarded as an "accidental" variant (versus "substantive" variants, of semantic import), such a distinction is dicey to argue here, in the wake of the poem's overt quest for answers, and especially in such a climactic, curtain-lowering event, cast not just as an answer, but the answer: has the desiring urn-reader suddenly imagined access to two out of three of the Platonic ideals, as the capitals urge us to think? Or might the lower-casing signify, by evident refusal of this purchase, a modern skepticism, even a hermeneutic mystery? Beyond teasing these capitals, there is the encompassing question of the thirteen words that follow. As if to clarify the rhetorical situation, the hand that guided the Lamia volume put only "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" in quotation, with the effect of distinguishing this voice from the one that follows:
    "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"—that is all
         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (Lamia)
    Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.—That is all
         Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know. (Annals)
    In this variety, we are left asking, as Jack Stillinger so succinctly put in back in 1958, "Who Says What to Whom at the End of Ode on a Grecian Urn?" The poet imagines that the urn "say'st" (48) the bit about beauty and truth, but what of the rest? In his youth, Stillinger summarized the four proposals in the critical literature, each one proffered and debated (poet to reader; poet to urn; poet to the urn's figures; urn to reader).

  13. For all this helpful priming, I think Stillinger's cautionary prelude to his anatomy of criticism more to the point: "As to critical interpretation of who says what to whom, no single explanation can satisfy the demands of text, grammar, dramatic consistency, and common sense" (171). And that's what I teach, with a deconstructive spin on issues about textual stability (issues that Stillinger would, in later decades, address with the full force of his scholarship and theoretical smarts). I'm less inclined than Stillinger in 1958, the decade of Eisenhower and "reconciliation"-prone New Criticism, to press for dramatic consistency or to argue common sense (I suspect Stillinger is, now, too), but otherwise, the multiple demands of text, grammar, drama and sense are exactly what I hope students will learn to read by reading the Ode, from beginning to end, and then back again, and again. Every time I sit down to read "Ode on Grecian Urn" once again, I find that even if I'm not forever young, the poem is still to be enjoy'd. It promises to sustain reading, when old age shall this generation waste, by its remarkable capacity to generate fresh reviews of what we think we know and to give us new ways of knowing.

Works Cited and Consulted

Brooks, Cleanth. "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes" (1944); rpt. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947); New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. 151-66.

Burke, Kenneth. "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats." Accent (1943); rpt. A Grammar of Motives. Cleveland: World, 1962. 447-63.

Manning, Peter J. "Reading and Ravishing: The 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'" Approaches to Teaching Keats's Poetry. Ed. Walter H. Evert and Jack W. Rhodes. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1991. 131-36.

McGann, Jerome J. "Keats and the Historical Method in Literary Criticism." (MLQ 1979); rpt. The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method & Theory (1985); Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988. 9-65.

Perkins, David. "Keats: The Uncertainties of Vision." The Quest for Permanence: The Symbolism of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1959. 217-57, esp. 233-42.

Scott, Grant F. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis, and the Visual Arts. Hanover: UP of New Hampshire, 1994.

Sperry, Stuart M. "Romantic Irony: The Great Odes of the Spring." Keats the Poet. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973. Esp. sections I (242-49) and III (261-67).

Stewart, Garrett. "Keats and Language." The Cambridge Companion to John Keats. Ed. Susan J. Wolfson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 135-51.

Stillinger, Jack. "Who Says What to Whom at the End of Ode on a Grecian Urn?" PMLA 73 (1958): 447-78; rpt. "The Hoodwinking of Madeline" and Other Essays on Keats's Poems. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1971. 167-73.

---. "Multiple Readers, Multiple Texts, Multiple Keats." Journal of English and Germanic Philology 96 (1997) 545-66.

Wasserman, Earl R. The Finer Tone: Keats' Major Poems. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1953.

Wolfson, Susan J. "The Odes: Reader as Questioner." The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986. Esp. 301-5 and 317-28.