"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy
O'Rourke asks a diverse group of professors of Romanticism what might look like the most routine pedagogical question: How do you teach the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn?'" The energy and ingenuity with which the contributors to this volume addressed this question gives some sense of the range and the subtlety of the ways in which the enigmas that Keats confronted in a silent urn are being recreated in American (and New Zealand) classrooms.
This essay examines how Keats heightens the tension implicit in commodity consumption—the fact that no object can satisfy the desire one hopes to fulfill by purchasing it—when he suspends satisfaction outright. The urn thus becomes that impossible, absent object itself, the sublime object that forever remains beyond reach. Yet in his account, those who encounter the urn are not frustrated but rather experience the paradoxical bliss of anticipating what will never be fulfilled. Collings further explores how Keats renders the urn into the exemplary aesthetic artifact; he can idealize the urn to this extent only because he relies on the gesture whereby the museum severs the urn from historical reference and places it in a zone of atemporal, "eternal" significance. The temporal suspension represented in the images on the urn and in its unchanging message to mortal beings perfectly exemplify the ideology of the museum; the truth the urn teaches has no content but simply returns to viewers the eternity they attribute to it.
Critical tradition has tended to read this Ode as the poet's triumph over the power of mortality—a power by which he is besieged and to which he responds in his other Odes. This essay suggests that especially in this Ode, where the art object places itself "far above" passion and death, Keats is intensely aware of the indispensible power of mortality as the very source of eros and art.
Hall notes the place of Keats's "Urn" in a variety of graduate and undergraduate pedagogies but focuses on the poem's usefulness in teaching students how to "read." Depending on the kind of class, he emphasizes formalist or deconstructionist techniques of close textual analysis. Often juxtaposing the "Urn" with "Ode to a Nightingale" and paying careful attention to the ambiguities of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary, he works back from the poems' endings to demonstrate and identify structure, theme, and tone. Keats's "negative capability" letter and Coleridge's statement on "the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities" are often introduced in this context. In advanced classes, the "Urn" is subjected to a more deconstructive and antithetical mode of reading that foregrounds the problematic nature of Romantic notions of symbol and embodiment. Hall places such problems in the context of second-generation British Romanticism.
Grounding his reading in the hermeneutic tradition, Haney argues that Keat's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" can be productively taught to non-English majors as an exploration of the interpretive processes at work in the poem itself and in our historically mediated relationship to the poem. Such an approach runs counter to narrowly ideological readings while still emphasizing the historicity of interpretation. Unstated assumptions about both students' and poets' interpretive practices are brought to the surface as students list and discuss the interpretive difficulties and ambiguities faced by both the speaker of the poem and the reader. Students explore both their shared horizon with the poem's speaker and the otherness implicit in that act of sharing. This necessarily incomplete struggle to achieve a shared understanding helps to teach the value of interpretive self-consciousness.
For Kandl, In discussions of hypercanonical works, often presented as "timeless," it is useful for students to grapple with ways in which such a work can be reconstituted within its historical moment. Is the work a deeply felt personal expression, a public, political statement, or a work of timeless art transcending the historical and biographical? Kandl's goal is to allow for a discussion encompassing all of these registers simultaneously. Naturally, Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" presents a remarkably rich site in which to explore these tensions. By opening up possibilities of interpretation and understanding beyond the aesthetic boundaries of the work in itself, students begin to see that works of art, particularly hypercanonical works, may give way to a multitude of possible, responsible readings, dependent on the version of the work one is reading and in what particular context(s). Indeed the continued hypercanonical status of a work like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" may be owing to the poem's uncanny ability to comply with various readings, to be several works at once.
Keegan describes how "Ode on a Grecian Urn" serves as a key text to model for first-year undergraduates how they might begin to readjust their strategies and expectations in analyzing literature. Keats's poem productively stresses the equal importance of questions and questioning when approaching a poem or a work of art.
In the undergraduate classroom, the "hypercanonized" "Urn" needs first to be de-familiarized and re-presented as a dynamic, self-conflicted, and fruitfully perplexing artifact that explores love and loss, art and life, confidence and doubt, permanence and temporality, feeling and thinking in ways that can touch upon students' own experience and might even move them in some significant way. In this essay, such an approach challenges a view of poetry that seems to be increasingly prevalent, according to which a poem is more or less an elaborate code and reading a process of discovering "hidden meaning." Awakening students to a lively appreciation of the surface of the poem and to the possibilities that the poem means exactly what (and everything that) it says can be an end in itself (in the introductory course) or can underlie other approaches, more concerned with historical, philosophical, or psychological approaches.
To deform a poem is to intervene significantly in the poem's physical structure (e.g. reading the poem backwards, reading only nouns) in order to highlight features of the poem not easily noticeable. In this essay, a famous poem like Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" shows how such an activity makes one aware how too easily we "pre-read" the poem. This is particularly true of our sense of its narrative from question to answer, from passion to cool friendship.
Twentieth-century reading and criticism of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" began with author biography and relatively mindless "appreciation" of the beauties of individual pictorial details. It made great progress as a result of New Critical emphasis on "close reading," which uncovered irony, paradox, and ambiguity in the syntax and images. It gained further sophistication with the advent of several types of literary theory—in particular, Deconstruction (which gave legitimacy to the poem's incoherence and indeterminacy), New Historicism (which brought out hidden political concerns), Feminism (which focused more specifically on the sexual politics), and Reader-Response criticism (which showed not only the feasibility but the inevitability of diverse readings)—all of which opened up possibilities for additional meanings in the poem and therefore increasingly multiple, complex, and even contradictory responses from its readers. The result for teaching the poem in the twenty-first century has been to sanction open-endedness, admire Keats all the more as the genius who provided such rich materials to work with, and free the classroom forever from the narrowness of single-meaning interpretation laid on the students by well-intentioned instructors.
Thomson reflects on her experience of teaching Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" 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. Her students are generally not burdened with preconceptions about Keats's canonicity. On the contrary, most students are favorably disposed towards Keats's youthfulness and his passionate intensity. In the classroom Thomson addresses the same issue which informs her own research about Keats: his ability to express the necessity to substantiate desire into a passion which lasts beyond the moment by focusing on the dynamics and the energy of encounters. Thomson's teaching approach is particularly influenced by the pedagogy of Stillinger and Baym; lectures and tutorials are devoted to Keats's literary and cultural context, with a particular emphasis on the importance of reading and the attempts to formulate a response to reading in Keats's work. An additional focus on the politics of museums highlights the complexities of context for an artefact such as the grecian urn. In terms of pedagogy and teaching content, Thomson emphasizes creative reconstruction: "Truth" is always "the truth of the imagination" in its pursuit of a desired vision.
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" repays 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. 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.