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Thursday, 02 November 2006

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Scott Eric Kaufman

Imagine how much longer this post would've been had I covered the whole poem.

Or related its implicit, aestheticized theory of history to Mitchell's.

Jeez, no wonder they say blogs ain't the best place for serious argument.

(That's why I hired you folks to prove 'em wrong!)

Adam Roberts

"...to read the entire poem so that you might better refute my noodlings..."

Your noodlings touch me with their appendages. Excellent stuff. One small thing now, and more detailed response later:

"Keats' infamous ignorance, which I will discuss shortly, must be feigned—-one cannot not know what's represented on a nonexistent vase."

Pardon me for raising the 'F' word; but do you mean this in an as-it-were straightforward way (ie 'it is mere common sense to say...') or as a coded dig at Freud. Yes, I said Freud. FREUD! You and he have a checkered history, I know. But if one wanted a summary-in-brief of the whole of Freud it would be that one can and indeed people continually do find themselves ignorant about the stuff that they're making up inside their own heads. That not knowing the salients of one's own fantasy object is exactly the way the imagination works. No?

Rich Puchalsky

Well, this is why it's best to preferentially write about, say, recent SF books -- you can go on as you like without any guilt attendent on non-reading of nonexistent pre-existing criticism. As that ekphrastic poem, _The Godman_, makes full use of.

So ,at the risk of repeating what has been said millions of times about this poem, Keats' ignorance is dramatized through most of the poem for reasons that might well appear Freudian. The urn is a "still unravish'd bride"; therefore still sealed. Keats may be able to look at the outside of it, but he's never been able to experience what's on the inside -- so to speak. So goes the first stanza, with maidens loth, struggles to escape, etc.

But in the second stanza, Keats is saying that consummation is overrated -- those tunes unheard are sweeter, "Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss", but that's better since "For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!" James Branch Cabell had a sideline in writing interminable, objectifying bits about how when you slept with a woman, she became familiar, and you sometimes even had to go on and get old with her and see her get unattractive, etc. ad nauseum.

Let's see, third stanza: "For ever panting, and for ever young", yes, the imaginary moment never has to end. Fourth stanza, the urn/wife is still eternally being led to the marriage altar.

Finally, the urn has become rather that other objectified female shape, the Muse, who inspires art that lives down through generations, eternal, while all the people of that generation are dying in various ugly ways. The ignorance is necessary, because it's the imagined form -- the interpretation of the experience -- which is supposedly eternal, not the actuality.

nnyhav

Procurement of that particular Empson has been a problem, dammit.

Consider that the object to which the poem refers is also its own printed image ('silent form', as opposed to its recital) in a sort of auto-ekphrasis.

Kyler

Just based on your commentary, rather than the entire poem, it sounds like the whole urn thing is just a gussied-up Rorschach test for Keats and/or the speaker.

Were folks at that time into the nature/nurture debate at all, even if they didn't use those specific terms? Because my initial thought about the "Foster-child" reference was that it could be somehow distinguishing between those characteristics inherited at birth and those acquired later from its foster-environment. Which comports with your reading in terms of the historical context of the object vs. the subsequent aesthetic sense arising from ignorance of the same.

Or maybe for the sake of my safety and the safety of others, I should stay away from trying to do literary analysis.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Adam:

One small thing now, and more detailed response later.

I love it! You excuse yourself to write about Mitchell, I excuse myself to write about Keats. What odd circles we—literally? figuratively?—travel in.

but do you mean this in an as-it-were straightforward way

I mean it in an attitudinal way. Maybe structural. What I mean is, the speaker of the vase is profoundly ignorant of the meaning of what he sees upon it, and this, perhaps, is why he considers it an aesthetic object. If he knew what they were doing, he would neither have nor want to aestheticize it. Not that it would be an everyday item—the ancient equivalent of napkins decorated with ghosts and ghouls or Christmas trees—only that his ability to view it as an aesthetic object is enhanced by his ignorance. That's the weaker form of this argument. In the stronger one, his ignorance is what enables him to consider it one. I'm not sure which I consider the case, but either way, the disconnect between the speaker's ignorance and Keats' knowledge of the Elgin Marbles and various vases seems operative.

No, I don't know exactly what it is operative of, but I'm working on it. One guess—and this is just a guess—is that ignorance creates aesthetic objects because it grants them antique airs in a perpetual present. No matter when someone views the urns, he or she confronts their ignorance and, not liking to do so, aestheticizes the object that called it forth. It engages the imagination to the precise extent to which it cannot be understood. So, in the fourth stanza, the speaker describes a town not pictured on the urn, full of people not pictured on the urn who will never be able to explain to other people not pictured on the urn why the residents of the not-pictured town aren't not-pictured there. That seems to me a profound representation of eternal ignorance, and one enabled not by what is on the urn but what isn't.

Does Keats figures this ignorance in the urn itself or in the speaker's response to it? I'm not sure.

Rich:

The urn is a "still unravish'd bride"; therefore still sealed.

I'm not sure that line's meant to be taken so literally, though—it is, after all, the "still unravish'd bride of quietness," which removes it from the literal register. Also, I'm not sure the urns in question were the sort of things Greeks and Romans sealed.

In the second stanza...

In the third stanza...

Wait! I'm not there yet!

nnyhav:

Procurement of that particular Empson has been a problem, dammit.

Has it? It looks available, only expensive. That said, I don't own my copy—"The University of California Southern Regional Library Facility" does.

Consider that the object to which the poem refers is also its own printed image ('silent form', as opposed to its recital) in a sort of auto-ekphrasis.

Could you expand on that a little? I'm not sure I follow.

Kyler:

Just based on your commentary, rather than the entire poem, it sounds like the whole urn thing is just a gussied-up Rorschach test for Keats and/or the speaker.

A Rorschach, yes, but one which measures the patient's aesthetic sensibilities.

Because my initial thought about the "Foster-child" reference was that it could be somehow distinguishing between those characteristics inherited at birth and those acquired later from its foster-environment. Which comports with your reading in terms of the historical context of the object vs. the subsequent aesthetic sense arising from ignorance of the same.

By all means, man, keep going! The poem was written in 1819, if I remember right, which places it in a decidedly Lamarckian moment. I wonder what a medical education of the kind Keats would've received entailed in the way of developmental biology. Tremendously interesting—to the stacks!

Karen

How do we know if the urn isn’t real? Is there proof of that? Regardless, we all have skewed perceptions, even on real objects. The urn might seem like a funerary ornament to some and a flower-vase to others. Who is right? More importantly, Keats chose to not define it in those terms, he chose to explain the images painted on/around the urn, which portrays life in another time. So he’s not so concerned about the urn itself and its purpose, as much as the art it represents. If you went to a museum and observed an urn, what would you describe?

Based on your analysis:

Line 1:
Keats talks about the preservation of this historical piece. So from this perspective, Keats is amazed at its preservation. It is an “unravished bride of quietness”: a) because it hasn’t been touched b) because it’s too beautiful to be a man and c) silence is golden—and can express more than a thousand words. He is in awe at the urn.

Line 2:
Foster child because we don’t know where the urn comes from but we do know that “silence” and “slow time” have preserved it. So it’s irrelevant who created the urn, but how it was preserved given its intact magnificent beauty –or so you feel when reading this poem. In a way, it reflects the poem as well: its undying beauty and its resonance even in today’s day.

Line 3 and 4:
The Sylvan historian has the power of visual imagery, just like the poet of rhyme. I feel that he is matching the historian’s prowess to Keats’ own.

Line 5:
Yes! Keats is curious about what it tells the spectator, its history, so who cares what it carries inside? Art’s sole purpose is “to be” beautiful, not what it does. Also, beauty is superficial, so why dig for meaning inside the urn? There is a lot of meaning to be found outside.

Question on transformation/innocence:
His innocence is not feigned at all and he doesn’t transform –he is. You probably have the biography on Keats but, as a refresher, he died young so he died pretty much an "innocent virgin". He was always sick so his only pleasure stemmed from observing beauty and dreaming of love (his secret love for Fannie, his unconsummated love interest)--just like the urn.

Not sure if this helped but I love Keats and you pose some serious questions that were worth delving into. Thanks!

Rich Puchalsky

"I'm not sure that line's meant to be taken so literally, though—it is, after all, the "still unravish'd bride of quietness," which removes it from the literal register. Also, I'm not sure the urns in question were the sort of things Greeks and Romans sealed."

Well, not literally in the sense that Keats is supposed to be looking at the seal on the urn, no. Although a Grecian urn with drawings on it would most likely be an amphora, and they were used to transport cargo and could be sealed. (Actually, the glazed and decorated ones were more ceremonial and I'm not really sure whether they could be sealed or not.) But the "still unravished bride", as the first image, is sufficiently memorable and has referents enough in the rest of the poem so that I'd be willing to base a reading on it -- given the ten minutes that I put into that post, anyway.

nnyhav

Consider that the object to which the poem refers is also its own printed image ('silent form', as opposed to its recital) in a sort of auto-ekphrasis.: The Ode exists both in a static, longlasting printed form and as dynamic, ephemeral song. Take the former, the text, to be metonym for the urn, upon which the latter comments and expands. Not in Rousseau's strict dichotomy between written and spoken, but as a synthesis that partakes of Leonardo's reconciliation between Plato's and Aristotle's theories of vision (cf JHDonner on HMulisch on 'seautoscopic vision': "True vision sees nothing but itself."). Greek as the oldest decipherable written language of Keat's time provides a ground ("Attic shape") for the potentiality of interpretation, realized in intonation.
Introit: the song is not yet sung: "Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,"
The written form contains in potentia all variations of intonation: "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:"
(One can commit anachronism in taking the sylvan references as alluding to leaves of paper, but wood wasn't the raw material until midxixcentury; then again, the Ode seems to invite such ahistoricity. The penultimate stanza also provides for extrapolating beyond the frame of the text.)
So: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty": The singing is the meaning, the meaning the singing.

nnyhav

BTW, this reading is your fault (my bold):

"The speaker addresses the urn here, so we can't say for certain whether he's describing the poem or imposing upon it qualities it doesn't have."

Is this intentional? An accident of ekphrasis?

Porlock Junior

"... his ability to view it as an aesthetic object is enhanced by his ignorance. That's the weaker form of this argument. In the stronger one, his ignorance is what enables him to consider it one...
One guess—and this is just a guess—is that ignorance creates aesthetic objects because it grants them antique airs in a perpetual present... It engages the imagination to the precise extent to which it cannot be understood."


The strong form, as well as the last sentence quoted, seems to me like an exaggeration; even straining for a point, if you'll excuse the Philistine reaction. Does it mean that one can't have a True Aesthetic Reaction to something purely abstract? Is my wife right -- certainly she's more informed about the arts -- when she interrogates me about where something comes from and who owned it and how it survived all those years in good condition (still unravished) while I just gawk at its excellence of form?

If I see a Tang Dynasty group with two highly spirited horses and two slightly intimidated Central Asian grooms, I think I know pretty much what's going on, horses and grooms not being very mysterious; and I'm too blown away by the splendor of this particular work to spend time wondering what brought these guys to Xian from the provinces of the provinces. This may be a defect in me; but again I note the question about something purely abstract, like a vase that does not have painted figures on it. Is that mere Craft and not aesthetically qualified as Art?

Speaking of China, and here is the point if I have one: this sort of distancing is a major feature of East Asian aesthetic. I assume that's a truism -- which makes me all the more curious why, in the tiny of amount commentary I've seen on things like the Ode, I can't recall seeing it mentioned. The only people who talk about it are popularizers like Alan Watts.

The Japanese word for it is yugen: the mountains shrouded in fog; the boat sailing away on the other side of the lake; the path that goes nowhere known: all almost cliches, but they're still effective after all these years. It would indeed spoil the fun if you did know what's being concealed. (Well, almost: the proper temple garden has a path going on up the hill, and you know it doesn't go anywhere in particular, and that's part of the fun.) OTOH there's plenty of explicit and non-mysterious stuff depicted in East Asian work, and that works too.

So I wonder why the mystery is considered essential; and whether a reading, be it a good bad one or a bad good one, might have a cross-cultural nod at the cultures that have given so much conscious attention to yugen.

Scott Eric Kaufman

Thanks to everyone who's commented so far, and my apologies about the delay in my response. Thinking's hard work. So:

Karen:

More importantly, Keats chose to not define it in those terms, he chose to explain the images painted on/around the urn, which portrays life in another time. So he’s not so concerned about the urn itself and its purpose, as much as the art it represents. If you went to a museum and observed an urn, what would you describe?

As an historicist, the first thing I think about when I read Keats' description is whether he knows—or thinks he knows—something about it I don't. In other words, there are two things I may be ignorant of:

1. What people at the time the urn was originally made—probably 3rd Century A.D. Romans, though probably, in another wrinkle, a copy of a Greek original—thought the pictures meant and what they signified to them. For example, certain scenes may only have been depicted on funereal urns, whereas others were only depicted on those commemorating weddings or military victories. Before I could be able to make sense of what the urn's purpose was, I would need to familiarize myself with the conventions with which it was designed. The difficulties inherent in the process are multiplied by the ekphrastic claims of this particular poem—after all, if Keats described an actual urn, then those conventions would play into the meaning. If he didn't—if it is, in fact, a composite—then we must consider it in light of my second question:

2. What did people of Keats' time think the pictures depicted on the urn meant? For example, certain friezes may have only appeared on funereal urns, but this fact may have been unknown to Keats' contemporaries. Moreover, they could have had an alternate theory of why certain friezes appeared on certain urns. They may have believed that the scenes described on this urn only appeared on those given to Roman children upon the completion of some rite of passage—which would make Keats' poem triply ironic, since it contains scenes of frozen immortality in celebration of a rite dedicated to marking the passage of time. Now, this may sound overly academic, but what we have to remember is that this could've been common knowledge for Keats and his contemporaries. That is, if could be what Keats would've expected anyone with wits enough to read his work would have understood. (Yes, this line of thought does keep me up at nights—why do you ask?)

So to answer your question, I would describe what I saw, certainly; but then I would attempt to describe what Keats' contemporaries would've scene, so as to better understand the nuances invisible to my 21st Century eyes. A quick example from your comment:

It is an “unravished bride of quietness” ... because it’s too beautiful to be a man

What if in Keats' day the ideal of beauty wasn't feminized? I'm not actually making this argument, mind you, but these are the kinds of questions which haunt my thought. I can't assume that just because I can understand a poem in my terms that I'm understanding it—the end result of which is a process I think I've written about before, but can't seem to find, in which the works which are preserved are those which happen to be intelligible to people at any given historical moment. So Chaucer we preserve through brute force, but eventually, English will evolve to the point where his works are entirely unintelligible. Does that mean they're any less literary? Of couse not—they haven't changed, we have. Just because canon formation has historically been a matter of accident doesn't mean we want to formulate a canon based on the accidental.

Wait, where am I? What was I saying? Time for more quotation:

So it’s irrelevant who created the urn, but how it was preserved given its intact magnificent beauty—or so you feel when reading this poem.

This is why I mentioned the poem's "perpetual present" earlier—it seems to me that Keats begs for it to be interpreted thus, which means that it develops, as you note, and as Kyler suggested earlier, independently of its original intent. That is, it acquires the characteristics of beauty and passes them down to the next moment. It is not considered beautiful because of what it was, initially, but because of the standards of beauty based on it. This may sound arcane, but it smacks neatly of Lamarckianism, the theory of development Keats likely encountered in medical school, if he encountered any at all. But I'm writing from the hip here, and need to do more research.

Rich:

As you well know, it's parentheticals like that one there which keep me up at night. Also, I think there's something to the idea that the first powerful image in a poem organizes its readers' interpretations, but I'm not sure where to go with that. First, I'd have to define "powerful." Then I'd had to adjudicate between the various powerful images, find one the most powerful, &c. Or I could consider them like warring parties—or, like a bad divorce, partners engaged in an eternal litigation.

Nnyhav and Porlock Junior, I'll respond to your comments shortly.

Rich Puchalsky

Hmm. I think that it really depends on the purpose that you're doing the reading for, which I'm not really clear on. If you just want to do "a reading", then it doesn't really matter which one, and choosing the first strong image in the poem to organize the rest is fine, as long as that organization is both internally consistent and externally historicized. If you want to do more than one reading at a time -- a comparison of different readings, say -- then you're sunk. You have to examine the critical history of this amazingly well-studied poem and try to do justice to it.

Given Karen's interesting biographical information about Keats' unconsummated love interest, I'd be additionally tempted to my reading. But since both the New Critics and the Theorists agree that biography is verboten, I guess that's out. But of course I'm not really suggesting my ten minute reading as one you should use, except perhaps to say, why spend too much time on something that doesn't seem to be really what your diss is about?

You wrote that "I need to produce a specific, sophisticated reading of the poem in order to finish my Silas Weir Mitchell chapter: specific, because it must conform to Mitchell's notions about art and history; sophisticated, because contemporary literary scholars must be more sophisticated than the dim brutes they study." What does "conform to Mitchell's notions" mean? For that matter, what does "sophisticated" mean? Does it mean "has obviously required time"?

Scott Eric Kaufman

nnyhav:

Is this intentional? An accident of ekphrasis?

That right there is accidental ignorance. Ain't it beautiful!

The written form contains in potentia all variations of intonation...

Not only does it contain it, Keats exploits this quotation to create impossible but perfect sounds. On the one hand, this is merely a poet indulging in the quirks of his medium; but on the other, as indulgences go, Keats' is surprisingly topical. If the arts are at war, striving to best one another, then Keats' poem represents a powerful salvo in it. His medium can describe the unattainable perfection the others can only strive for, &c.

Porlock:

Does it mean that one can't have a True Aesthetic Reaction to something purely abstract? Is my wife right -- certainly she's more informed about the arts -- when she interrogates me about where something comes from and who owned it and how it survived all those years in good condition (still unravished) while I just gawk at its excellence of form?

That's the question, isn't it? Are you just gawking at its form, or are you appreciating, via contrast with objects encountered in your ordinary life, an interesting asymmetry? The art historian who values abstract expressionism for the interest generated in its defiance of conventional still understands that abstractness in terms of an aesthetic. The person who walks into a museum and is captivated by that abstractness, on the other hand, has a different experience, one which isn't so easily explained. I think some of it has to do with it being in a museum.

"See this thing here," the Musuem says, "why would someone put it in me?"

I think we all try to make sense of that, and that it leads us all to "gawk at the ... form." I ellided "excellence" there on purpose, because I'm not sure how to parse form such that some is "excellent," other "poor."

The Japanese word for it is yugen: the mountains shrouded in fog; the boat sailing away on the other side of the lake; the path that goes nowhere known: all almost cliches, but they're still effective after all these years. It would indeed spoil the fun if you did know what's being concealed.

It may be that the unknown isn't valued, but I don't think that's it. In this particular poem, I think Keats demands the reader confront the unknown via the ignorance of the speaker. This afternoon I'm going to write about the excessive "happiness" of the third stanza—in which the speaker attempts to impose a particular interpretation via repetition. If I say "happy" enough, everyone will know what the urn means. Only, not so much, and the disconnect between the interpretive utterance and the object being described interests me.

Gavin Weaire

I enjoyed this greatly. I know very little about Keats, but a couple of thoughts.

Pedantic nitpick re: Rich Puchalsky's comment: transport amphorae are unlikely to have depictions on them. This is clearly fine ware.

I'm unclear on what (presuming that there was no "real" vase) narrows the notional model down to anything as specific as "presumably 3rd century A.D. Romans." This sort of Dionysiac scene is quite common. One could imagine e.g. a classical red-figure krater. Surely the default assumption should be classical Athenian? ("Attic shape," etc.)

At times I seemed to detect a sort of implicit assumption that "normal" ekphrasis depicts something real, and insofar as the poem doesn't, that's divergent from expectations. (Apologies if I'm misreading.) Ancient ekphraseis are unusually relevant here, presumably, and the "normal" ekphasis in classical literature is of an imagined object, e.g. esp. the shield of Achilles.

Why don't you want to take "still" both ways? Either way, it ends up where you want it to.

Doesn't "foster-child of silence and slow time" suggest that "bride of quietness" is to be re-read as "married to quietness," unless you're prepared to read the second line as "silent and slow-timey foster-child"? Doesn't seem to pose problems for your reading - a bride, like a foster-child, was previously defined by different relationships than the current ones. She used to be in her "father's" house, now she's Just Married to quietness.

Line 7 raises problems "In Tempe or the vales of Arcady" isn't "This takes place where?" It presumes knowledge of specific places appropriate to pastoral scenes, plus it suggests two working hypotheses: Tempe (below Mt. Olympus) corresponds to "deities," "Arcady" to "mortals ." This speaker isn't all that ignorant, and context does apparently matter to how he looks at the vase.


Gavin Weaire.


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