"Ode on a Grecian Urn":
Hypercanonicity & Pedagogy
Teaching Like An Urn
Bridget Keegan, Creighton University
During my senior year in college, my best friend was interviewed for a Mellon Fellowship. It was the mid-eighties, and we were Comparative Literature concentrators, drunk with French post-structuralism and hungry for the next big wave in high theory. During my friend's interview, a Famous Harvard English Professor asked her, "How would you begin to teach Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' to first-year undergraduates?" My friend launched upon a lengthy disquisition surveying the various approaches that she might take to expose the poem's aporias, to tease out its unresolved ironies and to confront its deceptive use of prosopopoiea. The Famous Harvard Professor listened patiently. When my friend concluded her rigorous and sophisticated response, she expectantly asked Famous Harvard Professor what she thought of such an approach, and whether that was the answer she was looking for. Famous Harvard Professor replied, "Well, all I really hoped you would say was that you would begin by reading the poem aloud."
I share this anecdote for several reasons, not the least important of which is that it calls us back to remember the sheer musical beauty of Keats's language, the luscious sensuousness of Keats's words. This is something of which every class needs to be reminded (and of which most students, whose experience of poetry is silent and textual, are likely to be ignorant). But it also reminds us that students frequently think that literary analysis requires taking a "simple" question and returning a "complex" answer. They imagine (and often with good reason) that such "complexity" is "what we want" as teachers. I would argue, however, that many good teachers are not so much concerned with answers, really, but with questions. For me, and especially with first-year students, encouraging the act of questioning and helping students to formulate meaningful questions are my primary pedagogical objectives. This is especially true when we work with a hypercanonical text, such as "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Such texts, in general, are hypercanonical precisely because they are resistant to any definitive final interpretive answers. This text, in particular, is famously resistant. But it is also a poem that is all about how the questions, rather than the answers, are the most important part of our encounter with an aesthetic object.
The rhetorical act of questioning, and the pedagogical strategy of privileging questions over answers, inform how I teach the ode, largely because of the context in which I teach it. I regularly teach the poem to first-year students in my university's required World Literature survey. It is a course that isn't built to achieve any level of "depth," and which serves a student population with little background in literary history or theory and a good deal of resistance to being forced to study literature at alland poetry in particular. We usually have only one class session to discuss the poem (in a four class sequence on European Romanticism). Because most of the students at my university are there to get degrees in the sciences or the health professions, they do not feel terribly eager or empowered to study literature. Many talk about reading poetry as if it were something written in a secret code to which no one ever bothered to give them the key. The students are also generally hard-working and ambitious for high grades. Thus, in the literature classroom, they want to be told what a text means and what they have to know about it so that they can transcribe that information on their test and get an A. They want answers, but that is only because they have been taught that having the answers is what matters most for their GPA. My purpose in teaching the poem, then, is to begin to readjust their intellectual value system to see the equal importance of questions and questioning. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a perfect text for such an objective.
I don't delude myself that my methods are original or theoretically sophisticated, and I guess, to a certain extent, they are "new critical." I try to have students pay attention to textual details and read the poem closely. Because of the structure of the course in which I teach the poem, I don't teach the poem with much historical or biographical context. While I assign students to read the biographical blurb introducing Keats in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, I tend not to make too much of it. To the extent, however, that I don't attempt to resolve the ambiguous questions that the poem poses, I could say that I resist new critical techniques and tendencies. I don't ever untangle the ambiguities the poem sets forth for the students, and I use the poem metapoetically, as a way of teaching about reading poetry and responding to art in general. As such, albeit in an unsophisticated way, I draw from the deconstructive methods that I learned in my own college classes.
If there is any critic who has influenced my understanding of the poem, and best helped me to teach it to my first-year students, it is Susan Wolfson. In The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry, Wolfson identifies the interrogative mode as an essential dimension of Keats's style and describes Keats's contribution to "the fundamentally interrogative character of the major poems of Romanticism. These poems are critically implicated in perceptions that provoke inquiry, experiences that elude or thwart stable organization, events that challenge previous certainties and require new terms of interpretation" (18). Reading Romantic poems, then, is a way to help students reframe their experience of poetry in particular, and knowledge in general.
When I teach the poem in the third week of the semester, I am primarily concerned with how the questions we pose to our students, and the ways in which we help students to pose their own questions, may be more important than the kinds of answers we might try to teach them about literary theory or literary history. If I can teach them to feel comfortable and confident asking questions on their own, then there's a greater likelihood that they will continue to read poetry, and take pleasure in reading poetry, even if it means, to quote Keats's famous letter, "being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (43).
I usually start the class, then, by having the students read the poem aloud (mindful of the advice of Famous Harvard English Professor). Then I ask, much to their surprise, if they notice anything unique about the poem's punctuation, and whether there is any punctuation mark that seems to recur. There's usually silence because they imagine that my simple question must be a trap, as it is far easier than the typical "English teacher" question. But then a brave soul will state the obvious. This allows me to remind them that in a lyric poem, an author has to deal with more limited space (or "length requirements") and thus needs to choose every word and even every mark of punctuation with great care.
But then I ask the students why Keats would have so many question marks in the poem. I ask them what his questions are about. I ask them whether the questions seem to have anything in common. I ask them, finally, to whom Keats is asking all of these questions, and, what that might mean for his actually getting any answers. I then ask perhaps the most troubling question, which is, why ask questions when you know you cannot, at least at a literal level, get an answer? Why bother? What's the point? (This last question is the one that non-English majors always seem to ask about the study of literature). I am careful in this whole process never to answer my own questions or to acknowledge any of the students' responses as "correct" or "incorrect." Whether the class notices this, and how soon they notice, varies from semester to semester.
However, students catch on pretty quickly that the speaker in the poem mirrors their own quandary in approaching "remote" and "difficult" works of art. Once they can identify with the speaker, they can also use his questions to help think through their own. As Wolfson describes, "over the course of the ode, Keats turns the activity of his verse into a dilemma for the reader fully analogous to the speaker's dilemma of interpretation before the urn. By the conclusion of the ode, in fact, we may have the uneasy feeling not only that these dilemmas have converged but that they may even have reversed, for Keats's speaker abandons us with an ambiguously toned 'that is all' just before becoming as silent as the urn itself" (319-20).
By emphasizing the interrogative over the declarative in the course of our reading the poem slowly and carefully together in class, by the time we get to the famous final lines, the students feel comfortable really probing the "answer" that it purports to give. If class has gone well, the students are now suspicious of the "answer" of the last lines, which, as Wolfson notes, "has the sound of wisdom, but its import is very much qualified by its emergence from a context in which what we know and how we know are subjects of questioning rather than the substance of answers. The more one teases this summary assurance, the more one hears a tone that unsettles its performance of meaning" (327). By the end of class, I hope that I have helped students to better "hear" that unsettling tone, and no longer reach so irritably after facts and reason.
To be sure, any number of other Romantic poems might demonstrate the interrogative quality of poetry and help model the vital, creative, intellectual importance of questioning. Blake's "The Lamb" and "The Tyger" come immediately to mind. But in so far as Keats's ode asks questions specifically about a work of art, and in so far as Keats is using those questions to get at even greater mysteries like eternity and truth and beauty (ideas about which there are a lot of answers but no final ones), the ode is a very good teaching text. This is not because of the answers that it gives, but, again, for modeling the importance and the urgency of the act of persistent questioning. Wolfson sums this up quite eloquently, linking this feature with Keats's musicality: "The urn befriends its readers the way Keats's rhyme doesby encouraging our imaginative activity in a perpetual fixing and unfixing of what we think we know. We come to value its artistry not so much by what it yields to thought as by what it does to thought, provoking questions and refusing to confirm any sure points and resting places for our reasonings" (325-6). The poem demonstrates for students a point I go on to stress during the remainder of the semester: that literature, and especially poetry, is really a way to try to ask questions about things that there may, ultimately, be no answers for.
By teaching the poem early in the semester, I hope to help the students to become better questioners, and thus help shape their ability and openness to reading a diverse variety of "strange" texts from a variety of "foreign" or "remote" cultures, texts about which they are unlikely to find definitive answers but will enjoy much more if they are comfortable and confident asking questions. In the end, my teaching of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is motivated by a refusal to give answers, and a desire to teach the value of unanswered questions. I aspire to teach like the urn itself, forcing questions but never dispensing final answers. I work to frustrate students into challenging the conventions of questioning that operate toward the teleology of the answer. The ode is a perfect text for those purposes, and what's more, it ultimately allows me to make transparent to my students my motives in being so "mysterious." As Wolfson writes, "The play of questions with which the ode begins culminates in a linguistic limit that is both a parody of critical processes and a cunning expansion of mystery beyond the bourn of words" (327-8).
By the way, my friend didn't win that Mellon Fellowship. I think, however, that like me, she must have learned some good lessons from the interview, as today she is a tenured professor at a major public research university, and has just been awarded a university-level prize for excellence in teaching.
Keats, John. Letters of John Keats. Ed., Robert Gittings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.
Wolfson, Susan. The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986.