Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn

By Hofmann, Klaus | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn


Hofmann, Klaus, Studies in Romanticism


--For Ulrich Keller

THEY WHO MISQUOTE THE TITLE OF KEATS'S ODE MAY NOT BE AWARE OF the truth in their mistake. Indeed, Keats's poem is an ode not "on" but "to" a Grecian urn, most conspicuously so as it opens with a threefold apostrophe (1) and thereby fulfils the requirements of the genre more faithfully than most odes. This faithfulness exposes the poem to the question whether the apostrophe addresses a being worth the effort. Is the addressee an at least potentially responsive partner in the communicative situation of the ode, which is essentially a dialogic one though the utterance may be one-sided in the manner of the dramatic monologue. From its origins in the cult hymn, (2) the genuine partner of an odic address is a divine being, a god, goddess, or a godlike authority, capable of hearing, of understanding, of fulfilling a request. The invocation may not be received, the god may not listen, may not care, may not be willing or able to help--the precariousness of prayer--yet there must be a confidence in, and a possibility of, a gracious reception. This requirement is not withdrawn or diminished in post-religious circumstances with no established godhead to address. Then, the demand on the poem is even heavier. It is now the poem's task to create the authority to which it turns. The post-religious ode (3) has to assume the status of poetic self-sufficiency, of, in Miltonic terms, Satanic self-creation, of being the poet's prayer to himself. (4) Put in philosophical terms: It has to assume aesthetic autonomy. Religious belief is being replaced by the poetic faith of Coleridge's definition. Now the ode has to prove by its very performance that its address is a valid one, the foremost act of such performance being, in Keats's case, the poetic creation of the urn. To the degree this creation succeeds in the course of the poem, the urn will have proved eligible for the odic address.

In itself, an urn seems an unpromising addressee. An ode to a pot is bound to be ridiculous. Then, what about an urn, an earthenware, at best a marble, pot? Can it bear the burden of an odic apostrophe, its serious solemnity? Is not the danger of bathos unavoidable? Would not the title "Ode to a Grecian Urn" announce a travesty? The embarrassment is evident in some literary critics' endeavor to upgrade the urn, notably into a funeral urn, a move which finds no support in the poem, (5) but provides the opportunity for the critic to enrich the poem with ponderous thoughts on death and transitoriness, or with a plethora of symbolic lore. (6) Conversely, other critics have valiantly embraced the precariousness of the inappropriate object with an emphasis on the abject state of the disused utensil, the piece of debris, which through this abasement is elevated to the state of art. From this point of view Keats's Ode is regarded as ancestral to surrealist translations of discarded utensils into art objects. Mentioning Duchamp's ready-mades, K. S. Calhoon barely suppresses the punning, though etymologically correct, connection between urn and urinal. (7) Obviously the predicament has been noticed and there is no reason to assume that Keats was not aware of it. Is this why Keats avoids the obvious title and swerves to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a phrase which does not immediately expose the poem to the doom of bathos? But can the poem escape this doom? Do not the first lines quickly give away what the title may have tried to hide: that the poem is an ode to a Grecian urn, boldly confident of its success in establishing the urn's dignity?

The gesture of avoidance in the poem's title which after all announces what it refrains from announcing, namely an ode, which is generally an "ode to," may on the other hand not be a sign of embarrassment by the addressee's lowness, but a symptom of awe in the face of the silent work of art, even fear of the unmediated impact of beauty. Grant Scott senses this: "The prospect of paralysis before the silent beauty of the unravished bride is never far from the speaker's mind.

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