Friday, 03 November 2006

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Close-Reading Exercise: A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" 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...
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Close-Reading Exercise: A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part III [This would be the third installment of my insanely close reading of Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn." You can find the first here, the second here. I know some of you must be bored by now, but I must say I feel like a scientist who—having written the definitive treatise on the leaf—was handed a microscope and then—having written the definitive treatise on the cell—was handed an electron microscope, &c. The more attention I pay the more the poem yields. I will, however, interleave other posts in with the Keats come tomorrow. For now, to the show again!] I open with a few more lines than before: 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! Why? Happy you should ask! I cannot tell you how happy I am at this happy coincidence! It is a most happy, happy coincidence! Wait—what do you mean? I am not trying to hard. Does it sound like I'm trying to hard? Does not. Does not! Does not! You may have a point. This stanza screams of argumentum ad nauseam. You want something to mean what you think it should, you repeat yourself until no one cares to challenge you or—not to be topical or anything—until people begin to mumble your words under their breath as they stumble into pool halls and voting booths. In this example, the speaker needs you to believe the boughs are happy, happy with their perpetual plumage. Maybe they are. Maybe pain follows every leaf plucked by wind or wanton hand, and so the thought of keeping its foliage lushed and unplucked in perpetuity appeals to the bough. That, at least, is what the speaker assumes. Of course, since he anthropomorphizes the tree, I should have license to. Perhaps Spring is the deciduous equivalent of our awkward, teenage years. Perhaps every tree dreads the arrival of Spring, what with the budding pains, the pericarpal outbreaks—not to mention the inevitable heart rot. Why should we assume that trees are happy in Spring? The Western Tradition? Is the one Keats and his speaker shared the same as the one the Roman potter and his clientele did? Not necessarily. In diction, Keats and his speaker betray an aware of this. The boughs "cannot shed" their leaves. Not "will not shed" but cannot." Despite its overwhelmingly happy happiness, the tree has been prevented from acting, prevented from doing what it would do left to its own devices. Coupled with the coercive repetition, this characterization of an anthropomorphized tree seems cruel and unnecessary. Had the tree just been a tree, I wouldn't bother—but anthropomorphize it and its inclusion in the scene becomes disturbing. I suppose the attribution of agency hangs me up here, but with repeated readings that first line begins to resemble the words of a serial killer to his victim: "Tell me how happy you are. Tell...

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