In The Structure of Complex Words (1951), William Empson prefaces his discussion of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with a complaint about looming unreadability:
It seems clear that we have to imagine what went on in the mind of Keats, as he wondered what the pot can have meant—we, it is understood, being those who have lost our innocence in the matter by reading the contradictory babble of the critics.
Fifty-five years later, the contradictory babbling of the critical brook has grown into a rushing roar of deafening rapids whose brutal churnings hoist screaming scholars from their tiny boats and into the water, under the water, out of the water, rumbling them here then tumbling them there and pushing them forward, forward, forward, so when they gain, for good, the surface, breathe a breath, or two, and find, their bearings, they have just enough time to see the end they share with the cascade as it launches them over the falls—ascending, soaring, falling, plummeting—and they slam with fury on the surface of the lake below, where their battered bodies drift here, then there, until they join, join the others, on the shore, another academic casualty, half-drowned, half-broken, bloating in the hot sun.
Such is the fate of those fools dull enough to venture into criticism of what W.J.T. Mitchell calls "the ritual example" of ekphrastic poetry. Interpret "ritual" as a
hazing cruel hazing gratuitously cruel hazing and you'll begin to understand the pleasures attendant upon entering the Murray Kreiger Memorial "Ode on a Grecian Urn" Wing of the critical canon. Unfortunately, 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. I can handle the former—I'm likely the only person alive who can—but I could use some help with the latter. Otherwise I'll spit nonsense about how some ekphrastic moments are "considerably less stable than [those] maintained by a model ekphrastic text such as 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' [in which] Keats' speaker has direct access to the urn." (No, I will not provide a citation, thank you very much.) Anyhow, on to the interpretation:
Most critics agree that the urn is a composite, equal parts Elgin Marble, Townley Vase, Portland Vase, one of Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware duplicates of the Portland Vase, &c. It's only indirectly ekphrastic, because it does not describe a particular object so much as create in readers' minds the object it describes. So Keats' infamous ignorance, which I will discuss shortly, must be feigned—one cannot not know what's represented on a nonexistent vase. Keep that in mind as I weave—sometimes deftly, sometimes like a drunken sailor—through Keats' poem, the first line of which reads:
Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness
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. This potential for unreliability compounds the poem's already problematic status as an ekphrastic work. If the speaker's words can't be trusted, we're forced to shift our perspective from the vase to the character of the person describing it. Imagine, though, that we can trust the speaker, that the urn is an unravished bride of quietness. What does that mean? Is the bride married to quietness, or is she a quiet bride? Given that the speaker speaks for the urn, I'd contend the urn's a quiet bride. If she could speak for herself, she would. But since she can't—or is reluctant to—the speaker must speak for her. Is this intentional? An accident of ekphrasis? Ekphrasis demands ventriloquizing, after all, so is it even significant that the speaker speaks for the urn?
Probably, I would argue, for reasons inherent in the poem. Since it can't speak for itself, the speaker must impute meaning to the urn. So any interpretation teeters on the critic's evaluation of his honesty. In most criticism, this evaluation occurs covertly, by attributing the speaker's words to Keats or an analogue thereof. Since I'm interested in the model of history provided by the poem, I want to keep this covert attribution as close to the surface as possible. Even if the vase is a "Sylvan historian," the history it tells is mediated by the speaker who relates it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
I haven't even discussed whether the poem is "still," as in "not moving," and "unravish'd," or "still unravish'd," as in forever awaiting the consumation of the marriage bed. If the former, you would expect a comma between "still" and "unravished"—"Thou still, unravished bride of quietude"—so I incline to the latter ... which conveniently accords with the rest of the poem thematically. So as the first line ends, the reader learns that the speaker considers the urn roughly analogous to a shy bride whose marriage still hasn't been consummated. Fair enough—only what does that mean?
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
The OED cites the poem as a "fig." exemplar of "foster-child," but that doesn't help much. The urn, the OED would have us believe, is the figurative "child as related to persons who have reared it as their own." Wonderful. Only, are "Silence" and "slow Time" the urn's birth- or foster-parents? Contemporary usage would suggest that they're the urn's foster parents, which means that its birth parents are, um, give me a minute here—wait, wait, I know the answer to this one, would it be—no, that can't be right—I know! Bigmouth! (Keats and Yeats are on my side.) Which means the other parent is—The Present! Is that right?
I don't know. I mean, why did I dance directly to the antipodes? Why can't the urn be the product of the short but tumultuous affair of "Speaks When Not Spoken To" and "New York Minute"? The antipodal explanation seems to be the best, though, so I'll run with it. Whatever the urn may have meant to its parents, after a few years with "Silence" and "slow Time," it means something different to the new parents who shape the speaker's, not to mention the reader's, understanding of it.
In other words, the urn is an object worthy of study not because of who it is or what it meant when originally thrown, but because of who it is and what it means now, as an aesthetic object worthy of investigation despite having no specific historical context. Not that it doesn't contain an abundance of historicity—it clearly does, and is clearly valued in part for that. But its historicity relates to its original context in the same way truthiness relates to the truth. To wit:
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme
The speaker values the urn for the superior manner in which it can tell the tale, not for the accuracy with which it does. The urn's a "Sylvan historian," alright, but the only reason the speaker "listens" to it is that all the other Sylvan historians are dull as dirt. As becomes abundantly apparent in the next few lines, the urn's content matters far less than the felicity with which it relates it. The speaker, well:
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?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
What's the title of this thing anyway?
Is it about them? Them? Both?
It takes place where?
Which one of them are these? Who are they?
Where are they going and why are they in such a rush?
What is that? Guitar? Xylophone? Why so loud?
Despite knowing the answers to none of these questions, the speaker still values the urn. I know I promised to produce a close-reading of the entire poem, but I want to stop hear for the night and hear some feedback before continuing. As you can probably guess, I think the poem is less about the timeless value of aesthetic objects and more about how things only become aesthetic objects once they've lost whatever they once meant. In other words, aesthetic objects are not created without regard to the historical moment in which they're produced, but become aesthetic objects only after the particulars of that moment have been lost to history. The speaker possesses a transformative ignorance—he finds meaning in the urn precisely because it has none for him. I need to figure out why Keats would choose to dramatize this ignorance—because if this or something resembling it obtains, I think I know why S.W. Mitchell's attracted to it.
For those who want to read the entire poem so that you might better refute my noodlings:
|Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,|
|Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,|
|Sylvan historian, who canst thus express|
|A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:|
|What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape||5|
|Of deities or mortals, or of both,|
|In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?|
|What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?|
|What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?|
|What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?||10|
|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:|
|Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave||15|
|Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;|
|Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,|
|Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;|
|She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,|
|For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!||20|
|Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed|
|Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;|
|And, happy melodist, unwearièd,|
|For ever piping songs for ever new;|
|More happy love! more happy, happy love!||25|
|For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,|
|For ever panting, and for ever young;|
|All breathing human passion far above,|
|That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,|
|A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.||30|
|Who are these coming to the sacrifice?|
|To what green altar, O mysterious priest,|
|Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,|
|And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?|
|What little town by river or sea-shore,||35|
|Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,|
|Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?|
|And, little town, thy streets for evermore|
|Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell|
|Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.||40|
|O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede|
|Of marble men and maidens overwrought,|
|With forest branches and the trodden weed;|
|Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought|
|As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!||45|
|When old age shall this generation waste,|
|Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe|
|Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,|
|'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all|
|Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'||50|