Thursday, 02 November 2006

Close-Reading Exercise: A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part II [Welcome to the second installment of my insanely close reading of Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn." You can find the first here. On to the show!] Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter... Are these lines baldly ekphrastic, in that the sounds of "pipes and timbrels" can't be depicted, only imagined? Or am I getting ahead of myself by assuming that the "pipes and timbrels" which close the first stanza play the melodies opening the second? I think I am. The second stanza reads like a theatrical aside—an excuse to indulge in a little Platonic digression on unheard melodies. Like the sound of a tree falling in the woods with no one around to hear it, these unheard melodies must exist independently of the minds which would otherwise perceive them. Or could the speaker be yoking Platonism to the aesthetic of ignorance? He imagines the sweet sounds produced by the pipers, but he has no idea what they actually sounded like. He assumes their sweetness, but for all he knows, those pipes could produce the brown note. Again, the speaker assembles the aesthetic from a collection of ignorant bits. ...therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone: The speaker implores the pipers to play on in silence. Only, not exactly silence. One can and should still listen to "spiritual ditties of no tone." What does that mean? According to the OED, in Keats' time the word "ditty" referred to "the words of a song, as distinguished from the music or tune." This definition threatens to spiral that fifth line into utter oxymoron. The ancient world being short Sambora's talk box, the idea of piping words through pipes to spirits fails the laugh test—but it does engage the reader in a brutal ekphrastic exercise about how the depictions of sounds on the urn relate to the words used to describe them. Instead of moving through two distinct media—difficult enough—the speaker compels us to navigate three. Moreover, the speaker suggests the pipers pipe their impossible ditty sans "tone." What he means by "tone" here is complicated by the "ditties" which lack it, but be the it musical or linguistic, the word still refers to the uniqueness of the phrasing. Why would the speaker want a tone which lacks distinctness? I'm not sure, and to be frank, this entire section of the stanza staggers me like sharp blows to the head, so I'm tabling this discussion for now. I'll return to it when it ceases to produce stars. With line fifteen, the speaker offers a repreive from dizzying ekphrasis: Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song... Stop. What is being described here? A fair youth beneath multiple trees? Is he one of the first stanza's "men or gods" in "mad pursuit" or "struggling to escape" with "pipes and timbrels"? Are we still looking at the same frieze, or have we moved onto...

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