Saturday, 02 December 2006

All in All, a Decent Close-Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" The meager fruits of my late labor: A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part I A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part II A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part III A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part IV A Good Bad Reading of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Part V Upon review, my exercise in close-reading John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" revealed an intense—some would say obsessive—interest in the cultivation of tactical ignorance. In my reading, Keats stages Joshua Reynolds' argument in Seven Discourses on Art: [P]erfect form is produced by leaving out particularities, and retaining only general ideas ... the usual and most dangerous error is on the side of minuteness, and, therefore, I think caution most necessary where most have failed. The general idea constitutes real excellence. All smaller things, however perfect in their way, are to be sacrificed without mercy to the greater. The painter will not inquire what things may be admitted without much censure. He will not think it enough to show that they may be there; he will show that they must be there, that their absence would render his picture maimed and defective. The association of poetry with painting implicit here is, I assure you, a sound one. (Even John Ruskin agreed with Reynolds on this point.) So, too, is the association of Keats and Reynolds: the "Ode" first appeared in the Annals of the Fine Arts, edited by Benjamin Haydon, a close friend of Keats and Reynolds partisan. Not only would Keats have been familiar with Reynolds through the Annals, he would've expected its audience to be. So I've established that the poem's famous parting shot alerts the reader to Reynolds' influence. What of it? Someone like Keats—a keen student of Greek sculpture and pottery—would have known, or been able to guess, the answers to the questions he asks at the close of the first stanza. Had he been asked "What men or gods are these?" (8), he may have responded with any number of contemporaneous theories about the scene depicted on the Portland Vase (pictured right): Consider the treatment the young man advancing from the left, his right hand holding his cloak. Is he clutching it? Is it dangling? All evidence points to the former. The right hand lifting the cloak off the bare stone indicates that the figure had previously been seated beneath the Doric entablature. As anyone who spends countless hours studying Lucian amphorae knows, such positioning—beneath a column, his cloak a prophylactic against the cold, smooth stone—announces the presence of a god or immortal hero. If it be a hero, the cloak upon which he sits represents the mortality he doffed... Keats could have thought and written as much, but had he, the poem would not have achieved its general (philosophically speaking) effect. Keats' coy ignorance convinces readers that answering the questions in lines...

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