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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

All in All, a Decent Close-Reading of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/30/06 at 10:42 PM

The meager fruits of my late labor:

Upon review, my exercise in close-reading John Keats’ "Ode on a Grecian Urn" revealed an intense—some would say obsessive—interest in the cultivation of tactical ignorance.  In my reading, Keats stages Joshua Reynolds’ argument in Seven Discourses on Art:

[P]erfect form is produced by leaving out particularities, and retaining only general ideas ... the usual and most dangerous error is on the side of minuteness, and, therefore, I think caution most necessary where most have failed.  The general idea constitutes real excellence.  All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be sacrificed without mercy to the greater.  The painter will not inquire what things may be admitted without much censure.  He will not think it enough to show that they may be there; he will show that they must be there, that their absence would render his picture maimed and defective.

The association of poetry with painting implicit here is, I assure you, a sound one.  Portlandvase01
(Even John Ruskin agreed with Reynolds on this point.)  So, too, is the association of Keats and Reynolds: the "Ode" first appeared in the Annals of the Fine Arts, edited by Benjamin Haydon, a close friend of Keats and Reynolds partisan.  Not only would Keats have been familiar with Reynolds through the Annals, he would’ve expected its audience to be. 

So I’ve established that the poem’s famous parting shot alerts the reader to Reynolds’ influence.  What of it?  Someone like Keats—a keen student of Greek sculpture and pottery—would have known, or been able to guess, the answers to the questions he asks at the close of the first stanza.  Had he been asked "What men or gods are these?" (8), he may have responded with any number of contemporaneous theories about the scene depicted on the Portland Vase (pictured right):

Consider the treatment the young man advancing from the left, his right hand holding his cloak.  Is he clutching it?  Is it dangling?  All evidence points to the former.  The right hand lifting the cloak off the bare stone indicates that the figure had previously been seated beneath the Doric entablature.  As anyone who spends countless hours studying Lucian amphorae knows, such positioning—beneath a column, his cloak a prophylactic against the cold, smooth stone—announces the presence of a god or immortal hero.  If it be a hero, the cloak upon which he sits represents the mortality he doffed...

Keats could have thought and written as much, but had he, the poem would not have achieved its general (philosophically speaking) effect.   Keats’ coy ignorance convinces readers that answering the questions in lines 5-10 would divest the urn of the very uncertainties responsible for its beauty.  The poem feigns ekphrasis the same way Reynolds enjoins his pupils to feign representation: by sacrificing, without mercy, the smaller things to the greater. 

Given his druthers, Reynolds would have his students eschew a laundry list of "smaller things" for "the whole beauty and grandeur of the art consists ... in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities, and details of every kind."  Keats eschews this brilliantly, championing a mode of productive ignorance in which what matters is not what happened but how one represents it.  Shrouded in sublime mists of unknowable unknowingness, history becomes exemplary or extinct.  Such, at least, is the lesson lisping minions learn:

"The Mists of Avalon is tremendously superior!  Once and Future King sucks!"

"So says you!  You sleight slayers soundly still, so why should she listen to such sluice-speak?"

"Are you mocking the deaf?"


[ ... ]



It seems to me that Romanticism is often dependent on ignorance (real or feigned). So, for example, standing stone circles make good subjects for Romantic literature because the modern reader knows relatively little about the culture that produced them, and it’s possible for the Romantic author to just Make Stuff Up and get away with it. Similarly, Pre-Raphaelite paintings on Arthurian themes (e.g The Lady of Shallot) are clearly not even trying to be historically accurate.

The reader’s assumed ignorance of the real historical background to the Grecian Urn (assumming it actually existed...) becomes an asset to the poet. Having swiftly dismissed any notion of doing some historical research, he plunges into his own fantasy.

By on 12/01/06 at 06:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Has anyone since fashioned an urn to Keats’ specifications?

By nnyhav on 12/01/06 at 09:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ian Jack’s Keats and the Mirror of Art (OUP 1967) contains lengthy, old-fashioned but detailed discussion of which actual urns Keats had seen, what ‘his’ might look like etc.  I daresay Scott has already consulted it.

By Adam Roberts on 12/01/06 at 10:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I can’t help imagining the urn as illustrating Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis..

Look - Here are the gathered armies, waiting in Aulis for a wind to carry their ships to Troy, and rapidly running out of control. Here are Iphigenia and Clytemnestra, fleeing in terror from the mob. Here is the priest Calchas, knife drawn to cut Iphigenia’s throat. Here is Achilles, who might save her (or might do nothing). Here is the deer[*] sent by Artemis, which might be sacrificed instead of Iphigenia (or might not). Anyway, it all made a lovely vase. Pity about Iphigenia.

[*] deer, heifer, whatever.

By on 12/01/06 at 01:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Susan C, I think you’re spot on, but you need not limit it to the Romantics.  Writers of historical romance indulge in similar fancy (which is how this whole project started in the first place).  (Also, should you ever start a blog, you’re now obligated to call it “Deer, Heifer, Whatever.")

nnyhav, there were many attempts to identify and/or fashion the urn, none of them too successful.  I mentioned earlier the Mitchell novel in which this was attempted (sort of). 

Adam, Scott has!

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 12/01/06 at 03:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

[*] deer, heifer, whatever

It seems that’s one of the problems that got early modern naturalists reved up (Brian Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe).  OTOH, the ancient texts mention various flora and fauna while, OTOH, the early moderns were surrounded by their own flora and fauna. Are the kinds evident in the here and now the same as the ones in ancient times? If so, which are identical to which?

They also had the problem of figuring out whether the flora and fauna near, say, Florence, were the same as those near, say, Paris. The largely descriptive and depictive work they did to solve these two problems laid the empirical groundwork upon which Darwin would stand 3 or 4 centuries later.

[I’m now mounting one of my hobby horses.]

This too is science, and, as a procedural example, it’s a lot more germane to literary studies than theory-testing and experimental psychology. I don’t think we’ve got proper desciptions of our materials yet. And who’s going to undertake the descriptive labor? There’s nothing sexy about it. It doesn’t fight hegemonic imperialistic white paternal capitalism nor does it commune with unravished brides and sylvan historians. It’s bricks and mortar, neither pure nor simple.

But we could build something with and on it.

By Bill Benzon on 12/02/06 at 05:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You want to know another still unravished bride of quietness? By now 19-year-old Rae Dawn Chong has been tied to a tree, butt-naked and waiting to be eaten, for 25 years straight. Forever will we perv, and she be tasty-looking.

Her contemporary photos range from soccer mom to hip urban chick. What a letdown.

By John Emerson on 12/06/06 at 09:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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