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Wednesday, 08 November 2006

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Rich Puchalsky

"On the other, why is that necessarily the case? I can imagine a polytheistic religion in which lesser gods sacrifice specimens from their lowing, mewling or mooing flocks to appease their superiors."

Shouldn't Keats be able to assume that the figures depicted on a Greek urn are Greek, and that the reader will have some kind of background idea about Greek sacrifice? With the priest leading a heifer to the altar, it's safe to say that these aren't gods.

For the grammar at the end of the third stanza -- well, it's a climactic passage (so to speak) and grammar often gets confused during those times -- what with all the happy, happy love and panting and so on, that leaves a high-sorrowful moment afterwards and a parched tongue.

As for the trope of evocative ignorance, I'm just not sure. As per usual with my method of going from the sublime to the ridiculous, remember the poem that I mentioned last time, with the picture of a tool? That began with a question, although I knew what the thing that I was thinking of looked like. The ignorance is tactical, not necessarily actual.

According to the conceit of the poem, Keats can't know exactly what the urn depicts. But first imagine that he's looking at an actual urn. Maybe his ignorance is really the same as the urn-maker's. If the urn-maker decided "hey, I'll put a nameless empty town in the background while the people go to sacrifice" then Keats' idea of who they are is really as good as the urn-maker's. If Keats is imagining looking at an urn in the first place, then no real ignorance is involved -- the urn is whatever Keats imagined.

The point is that in bad poems as well as, much less often, good ones, you want to throw a cloud over the reader. It's not ignorance, it's smudging the lens. The trope of evocative ignorance is supposed to be simply evocative.

Sorry to go on -- I'm not sure whether I've really understood the basics of your reading.

Adam Roberts

What Rich said.

In other words, I think your account of Keats's-narratorfunction's ignorance is overstated (comically hyperbolic, yes, well, good; but a bit distorting). The implied context is "I'm looking at a Greek vase, and ..." and so on. He sees people. They must have come out from a town. The exact level of ignorance is pitched quite precisely between "Which town? Why, a Greek town!" and "Which Greek town? Why, I'm not a-sure I can a-say, precisely!" No papering over missing floorboards necessary.

Your position is something akin to the person in the crowd in Life of Brian when Brian is trying to tell his parable.

Brian: Once there was a man and he had two sons. And ...

Person in crowd: What were they called?

Brian: What?

Person in crowd: What were their names?

Brian: I don't know.

Person in crowd (incredulous): You don't know what they were called??

Brian: It doesn't matter.

Person in crowd (to passers by, in disgust): He doesn't know what they were called!

Brian: It's really not important. Alright, they were called Simon and Peter. And one day ...

Person in crowd: Oo you said you didn't know!

It's a deliberate refusal to suspend one's disbelief, isn't it. The SEK logic: if Brian's telling the story, then he must know know the names. It's his story, after all.

nnyhav

green altar evokes:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

Rich Puchalsky

It's not quite the same as refusal to suspend disbelief. It's sort of like an incomplete move into the narrator's frame. The point being, poets lie about their degree of ignorance, as well as about everything else. When you write about "a speaker whose ignorance has granted him fantastic manipulative powers", you're writing about every poet. Except that sometimes the ignorance is pretended, and sometimes it isn't.

I understand that in this poem, the narrator is making a point of emphasizing his supposed ignorance, and thereby making a point about art. I'm just not sure how the attack on the usual reading of it ("there are timeless human scenes that make up art") is working.

Adam Roberts

Rich: The point being, poets lie about their degree of ignorance, as well as about everything else.

I suppose 'lie' is right, technically, but seems harsh (because it's so freighted with negativity). The thing I like about the Life of Brian example is that it pinpoints the necessary selectivity of the writer's techne ... necessary because to tell absolutely everything about a story would just not work, would swamp the narrative, even if it were possible. Brian doesn't need to supply the names of the two sons in order to tell the story. Because he doesn't need this detail he doesn't know it. If, at some future point, the names become important he'll make them up then. It's not exactly lying.

Keats gives us just what is necessary. If Scott starts interrogating him 'but what about this? and that? tell me more!' he might reply 'but you're missing the point'. Or he might say 'I'm dead, leave me alone'. Or he might cough noisily and consumptively. Who can tell?

Rich Puchalsky

Well, Scott does have a point that Keats is not merely failing to supply the names. He's actively drawing attention to his supposed inability to do so. It's as if Brian began the story "Once there was a man and he had two sons, and I wonder what names they had that have been lost in the depths of time."

But if these two sons never had names, being made up for the story as it were, then this profession of ignorance is a lie. It's basically a technical trick designed to sneak in all those connotations about time, and timelessness, and human universals, and the vagueness that permits the reader to think that he or she is filling in the scene him or herself, and so on.

Which I find sort of interesting, but not so unusual as Scott seems to think that it is.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Rich:

Shouldn't Keats be able to assume that the figures depicted on a Greek urn are Greek, and that the reader will have some kind of background idea about Greek sacrifice?

Certainly, but I'm interested in what's taken for granted. For example, the urn's "Grecian" but probably not of Greek origin. Most of the urns thought to have inspired were Roman copies, and I'm sure that the Romans appropriated as much as they copied. Meaning, if the Romans modified Greek conventions, we're looking at a "Grecianish" urn. That may not be a meaningful distinction—I wouldn't know—but it could be.

Another way to express my interest, then, would be to say that I find the reader's complicity in the speaker's ignorance intriguing. The poem works because, not in spite, of Keats' tactical ignorance.

With the priest leading a heifer to the altar, it's safe to say that these aren't gods.

Is it? I'm familiar enough with Greek mythology to know that the gods were often complicit in sacrifice, but not so familiar with the conventions of Greek art (or Roman appropriations of it) to say whether or not, say, the god to whom an animal would be represented as traveling wth the party to the altar. Couldn't a representation of the sacrifice of Iphigenia include the figure of Artemis relinquishing her hold of the wind? Sure, the divine personage would be represented differently—perhaps taller, penumbral, foregrounded or backgrounded, &c.—but such conventions are themselves often invisible to the untrained eye, even one as educated as the speaker. Or Keats, even, though I want to stick with tactical ignorance, so ignore that.

If the urn-maker decided "hey, I'll put a nameless empty town in the background while the people go to sacrifice" then Keats' idea of who they are is really as good as the urn-maker's.

Do you think the town itself is featured in the poem? (A link so you don't have to go searching for it.) The town seems hypothetical, something not pictured but entailed by the frieze. Or are there often towns in the background of friezes on Greek urns? Are those towns usually depicted as empty or bustling? Or does convention dictate that since they're so far in the background, potters need not worry themselves over such detail.

To reveal my hand, the connection I'm drawing between Keats and Mitchell hinges on the idea that the presumption of ignorance creates a place for an author to indulge his or her imagination. In the "Ode," we see Keats position his speaker in such a way that he can make universal claims without having to know much at all about the past. Which is to say, it's not a universal claim so much as a particular one being forwarded because no one knows any better—except, perhaps, Keats—but they all think they know enough. Maybe. But you know what? Keats and Mitchell, they can tell you more. I do think this is a tactical decision on Keats' part, and something Mitchell borrowed from him when sitting down to write Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker: Sometime Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on the Staff of His Excellency General Washington or The Youth of Washington. He can invent the details shading the familiar contours even though people really aren't that familiar with the familiar contours. Why? Because they believe they are. It's a functional, and as you said, tactical ignorance.

Adam:

Rich said what I would've: "Keats is not merely failing to supply the names. He's actively drawing attention to his supposed inability to do so." That that particular meta-commentary on the notion of authorial ignorance exists alongside Platonic declarations about Truth and Beauty interests me. I know, maybe it shouldn't. After all, the idea of Ideas being what it is, my worrying over the particulars of this particular doorknob matter less than how it instantiates Doorknobiness. Still, I think the way Keats hustles this into the poem technically interesting, if only because I think Mitchell mirrors it in his historical romances. (Obviously to far, far less effect.)

Scott Eric Kaufman

nnyhav, the Marvell's messing with my mind. Are you saying my analysis suffers under the law of diminishing returns, i.e. that I'm finding what I'm looking for at this point? Because if so, I like the idea that all insults must now take the form of quotations from metaphysical poetry. Granted, I like Emerson's idea, too, but yours better. (If nothing else, it'd be a great excuse to actually read some metaphysical poetry, something I don't often do.)

But I take it you're not actually insulting me here so much as inadvertently revealing to the class my stunning lack of erudition—that's not quite right—my stunning lack of thinking-about-poetry-skills. Speaking of which, is my scansion totally for shit or do the stresses in that last line fall on the indefinite articles:

Yet it creates, transcending these, Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that's made To a green thought in a green shade.

If so, that's both interesting and odd. Anyone up for two weeks of Marvell?

CORRECTION: The author of this "web-log" is a bonehead. The phrase "green altar" appears in the poem he's devoted the past two weeks to explicating. Why he didn't remember this, we don't quite know, other than to say, he's a bonehead. — The Management

History Geek

Person One: There was once a man with a wooden leg named John...
Person Two: What was the name of his other leg?

No this has no relevance I just like that joke.

Pumpkinhead Ale anyone?


Scott Eric Kaufman

A good joke need not justify its existence.

It is good.

That is enough.

nnyhav

Anything beyond pointing to Empson's "Marvell's Garden: The Ideal Simplicity Approached by Resolving Contradictions" in Some Versions of Pastoral would be superfluous.

hugh

I'm not sure what the difficulty with the last three lines of stanza three is. (Or if, indeed, the difficulty is not imaginary and exists only as an amusing excuse for spelunking metaphors.) Nonetheless, I will get out a line and flashlight of my own, and head off.

I would read an inversion in the line 28, so that the more prosaic way to phrase the line would be "far above all breathing human passion".

The alternative reading here would be that the breathing human passion is above the urn, so the line would be intending "all breathing human passion [being] far above". This seems unlikely on a couple of counts. First of all, of course, it's putting passion higher than the urn, and the rest of the poem appears to be doing the opposite. Secondly, though, under this reading, "all breathing human passion far above" would be departing from the parallel construction that has been running through the whole stanza, according to which what is being described are properties of what is depicted on the urn. "All breathing human passion far above" would (still under this second reading) be describing, _not_ the images on the urn, but rather the urn's (metaphorical) location.

At this point, we take a breath (or a pant), having gotten over (not under) the major crevasse. In the next two lines, breathing human passion is characterized by the condition in which it leaves the heart, forehead, and tongue. So there we are.

Adam Roberts

"Rich said what I would've: "Keats is not merely failing to supply the names. He's actively drawing attention to his supposed inability to do so." That that particular meta-commentary on the notion of authorial ignorance exists alongside Platonic declarations about Truth and Beauty interests me."

Yes I take the force of this. Except that the supposed ignorance he draws attention to is still partial. He may not know the name of the town, but there's nothing in the poem to suggest that he doesn't know "beauty" when he sees it. ('I may not know much about Art [that implies the existence of imaginary Greek towns] but I know what I like')

Rich Puchalsky

"That that particular meta-commentary on the notion of authorial ignorance exists alongside Platonic declarations about Truth and Beauty interests me."

Maybe the problem that I have is that I don't think of it as a *meta*-commentary so much as part of the basic argument of the poem. I know that you haven't gotten to the last lines yet, but the poem does end in:

"that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'"

So Keats has carefully set up his poem to lead the reader to this conclusion, which is explicitly about ignorance. That makes all those questions rhetorical questions. If you accept that there is no physical urn -- no object which could be Roman rather than Greek, depicting non-Greek ceremonies etc. -- and that Keats is telling us whatever he wants to tell us about his imagined urn, then the connection to Platonic Truth and Beauty seems apparent. For Keats, as least as far as I understand "negative capability", the imagination was where poets perceived a source of authority that was rather like a Truth or Beauty.

So the method of close reading that you're using appears too focussed on fact and potential fact. I don't think that the Model Reader of the poem is really supposed to start thinking about whether the ceremony could be Roman rather than Greek etc. If you're trying to say that Keats communicated this tactical ignorance to Mitchell, I think that you can do it using, basically, a surface reading of the poem. If you want to try to read under the surface of the poem, clearly you can go in any number of directions, but the insistent themes of femininity and virginality were what really stood out for me, and I do think -- going back to my original ten minute reading -- that you could do worse than to say something about the objectified Muse as the Greek feminine source of all this supposed poetic imagination.

Adam Roberts

I repeat myself: "what Rich said."

History Geek

It would have been better if I hadn't made four typos or so in telling it.

Note to self: You do not possess the ablibity to drink and post without typos. Proof read girl. Proof read.

Scott Eric Kaufman

History Geek:

It would have been better if I hadn't made four typos or so in telling it.

Typos? What typos? (I accept cash, check, Visa and MasterCard.)

———

nnyhav:

If only the BugMeNot login still worked for Questia—or UCI had access—I'd hit that forthwith. Alas!

———

Hugh:

I'm not sure what the difficulty with the last three lines of stanza three is.

You overestimate my intelligence.

I would read an inversion in the line 28, so that the more prosaic way to phrase the line would be "far above all breathing human passion".

I keep stumbling over the "that" in 29, I guess. It refers back to "all breathing human passion," but be the "far above" at the beginning or end of the sentence, it still confounds me. To literalize it—which, yes, I know, defeats the purpose, but I'm trying to show why I'm confused here—the statement seems analogous to:

Far above all buildings really tall, that [insert qualities of the buildings]

And as I type that, I think my problem may be with the "all" in combination of the "that." I don't know. When one's profoundly stupid in so many ways, it's difficult to figure out what's confusing you with any precision. That said, I think this may one of those cases where the lines impress with clarity but just don't diagram. (Not that this one helped all that much, mind you.)

———

Adam:

Except that the supposed ignorance he draws attention to is still partial.

I don't actually think we're disagreeing here so much as you're objecting to the strenuousness with which I'm asserting authorial ignorance—and you're right to. In my chapter, I'm linking it to Mitchell's re-imagining of it in a couple of different contexts. In each of them, he connects the unknown-but-plausible to the True and Beautiful and writes from the assumption that ignorance empowers.

Plus, I mean, this series is entitled "A Good Bad Reading of Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'" (Or something.)

———

Rich:

So Keats has carefully set up his poem to lead the reader to this conclusion, which is explicitly about ignorance. That makes all those questions rhetorical questions.

Yes, but it's a very particular kind of ignorance, one linked to an aesthetic tradition full of unqualified assumptions—ones which, in the hands of less erudite readers, become self-justifying. So yes, they're rhetorical questions, but more like the ones a teacher asks in a classroom than a speaker does before a crowd, i.e. they don't imply their answers, they indicate that the speaker knows them and the listeners don't even though they really ought to. For that last line to work, those rhetorical questions need to be of the public-speaking variety. If we treat them pedagogically—like a tendentious moralist who happens to write historical romances did—the poem takes a slightly different shape.

In other words, I'm cognizant of the fact that I'm neither a model reader nor interested in how one would interpret the poem. I'm a historicist once-removed, looking less at intention than reception at a particular, non-contemporary moment of reception.

History Geek

Do you accept cats as payment?

Rich Puchalsky

"So yes, they're rhetorical questions, but more like the ones a teacher asks in a classroom than a speaker does before a crowd, i.e. they don't imply their answers, they indicate that the speaker knows them and the listeners don't even though they really ought to."

Hmm. I may just be getting steadily more and more confused, but I don't think so. The first rhetorical question in the poem is:

"What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?"

I'll take this as a pattern for the rest. OK, on the assumption that Keats is thinking about an imaginary urn, he knows everything about it that there is to know, because he can make up whatever he wants to make up about it. He could, if chose, write exactly who the men or gods are, etc. But by pretending that he's looking at a real urn, made by people in the far past, he pretends that he doesn't know. Not only that, he pretends that the reader wouldn't and couldn't know either, even if the reader was looking at the supposed urn.

So it's not that "the speaker knows [the answers] and the listeners don't even though they ought to" -- the speaker knows the answers, is pretending not to, and is assuring the listeners that they don't know the answers and couldn't possibly know them. That's why I referred to this as a lie of ignorance. It's not a teacher asking rhetorical questions to students, it's, hmm, a politician saying that no one can figure out where the money for the new city hall went, who has in actuality pocketed it. All poets are like that. (Actually, most of them just kind of squander the money. Only the good ones make off with it.)

"In other words, I'm cognizant of the fact that I'm neither a model reader nor interested in how one would interpret the poem."

But... wouldn't Mitchell want to interpret the poem? I don't know anything about Mitchell, or even Keats really. But it seems likely to me that if Mitchell got the idea for tactical ignorance from this poem, he got it from reading it as it was seemingly intended to be read.

Scott Eric Kaufman

History Geek:

Do you accept cats as payment?

I would, but unlike bills in bank accounts, one can have too many cats. I mean, sure, they look cute enough—even form, Voltron-like, a fuzzy Yin-Yang—but then they turn on each other, others intervene, and the battle cry sounds ... by which I mean, no, another cat would upset the delicate balance of power I've established. But cash, checks and major credit are still accepted.

Rich:

Hmm. I may just be getting steadily more and more confused...

This is why my dissertation's still "In Progress" (or "In Process," for Adam and his lot).

But it seems likely to me that if Mitchell got the idea for tactical ignorance from this poem, he got it from reading it as it was seemingly intended to be read.

No no no no no. Another way to define historicism is "Stupidity Through The Ages!" (The crackling of old projector on dessicated film can be heard. A grizzled voice opines, "Since the beginning of time...") Maybe that's a little over-the-top, but really, it's only a little. Not to say we're perfect or unblinkered, but our blinkers can't hold a stick to theirs.

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