The poet John Keats is famous for the concept of “negative capability,” his description of the ability to tolerate the world’s uncertainty without resorting to easy answers. Literary minds in particular should be more attuned to beauty than facts and reason. In fact, truth in the highest sense is the same thing as beauty, he tells us at the end of his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn. What does that mean? Is it true? Wes and Erin discuss these questions, and how it is that aesthetic judgments can communicate a kind of truth that is not strictly descriptive or factual.
The cover art is based on Keats’ tracing of the Sosibios Vase, which may have helped inspire the poem.
Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: So, Erin, this is the first of a series of episodes that we’re gonna do on Keats Odes. We’ll start with Ode on a Grecian Urn and then for the next episode will be doing To a Nightingale
Erin: And Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale were part of a series of five Odes that Keats wrote all in one fantastic Spring of 1819, and no one really knows the order in which he wrote them. There was Ode to Psyche, which most people think was probably written first, but otherwise the order is unknown. Then Grecian Urn, Ode on Indolence, Ode to melancholy and Ode to a Nightingale. There are a lot of arguments to be made for covering Ode to a Nightingale before Grecian Urn, but I think that the order that we chose, which is gonna have to go with it. But the two are sort of… It’s good to keep in mind that they were written at basically the same time. We don’t know which one preceded the other for sure. Anyway, John Keats, one of the most popular English poets of all time, probably the most popular of the English romantic poets. Romantic poets came in two generations, spanning the 18th and early 19th centuries. The first generation of the romantic poets, and they overlapped considerably, were Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge, and the second, the younger generation Shelley, Byron and Keats. And Keats was the youngest. And he also had the shortest life. He died only at the age of 25 and his whole career altogether lasted maybe about six years, and that’s kind of generous. He was writing not all the time in those six years. These Odes are his kind of his masterpieces, which were written in quick succession in the spring of 1819 and then the last one, which we’re gonna be covering in the third episode of the series, To Autumn, was fittingly written in September of 1819. So he took a little summer break and then came back with To Autumn, which, though it wasn’t his last poem, is kind of a valediction. He wrote a couple of poems after that and then became very ill with tuberculosis, couldn’t write for the last, I think 18 or 19 months of his life and then died at the age of 25 in Rome.
Wes: So, yeah, he was writing a lot of letters, including while he was sick. So he’s also really known for writing great letters and reflecting on poetry and on art and is the poem-reading today, in a way, is a reflection on art. I didn’t know he didn’t write any poems for the last 18 months. I didn’t know that.
Erin: Yeah, he was very… at least not any major work. He couldn’t really work on anything because he was so ill.
Wes: The letters, in those times, a lot of it is him, of course, complaining about his health, and it’s fascinating because he’s writing even on his deathbed. I’ve only read a few of those, but I at one point you know, I had read these poems a long time ago. It may even be since high school that I’ve read most of them. Endymion, I have read pieces of that more recently. And then at some point I had picked up a book of his letters and was reading those which I just found really compelling, in part because of his voice, which is what you would associate with a romantic but his level of earnestness and enthusiasm and passion, but also because you’re seeing someone who had such a short, productive life or produced so much and developed his craft in such a short period of time. It’s really interesting to get into the mind of someone like that.
Erin: I mean, I think that what the letters show is that they elucidate what’s really may be the most… I mean, ‘calculated’ is kind of a sinister word, but for lack of a better one, one of the most calculated poetry careers of all time from the very beginning, from the moment that he decided he wanted to become a poet. He really sort of shaped his career and was all the time asking himself, sort of “Okay, how am I going to get to the next phase of my development as a poet?” And a lot of these odes are sort of answering questions that he had for himself in his letters and in his private life about what the role of a poet is and what the role of poetry is in relation to other art forms.
Erin: He was very concerned with these questions and very interested in the idea of forming a legacy of poetry, which I think these odes really established that legacy and and just as a series of six poems. If we only had these Odes, they would be worthy of him having this top reputation, you know, usually considered second to, I don’t know, Shakespeare and Milton.
Wes: Meanwhile, he was writing. He was just being lambasted by critics. He was in financial trouble even though he had some inheritance as his parents died. I think one died at eight or nine and one died when he was 14. But somehow his inheritance was hidden from him. He was also lending people lots of money. He was always in financial trouble, and he had some champions, benefactors, who believed in his poetry. But the critics hated him.
Erin: Yet he persisted. It’s a lesson to all young artists. [laughter]
Wes: Yes. “Do you work hard? You, too, can die at the age of 25 and be immortalized.” [laughter]
Erin: [laughter] “And if everybody hates your work, that’s fine. You just need to keep going.”
Wes: That’s right. We’re going to start with you doing a reading of the poem, and then we’re going to go closer. We’ll do a line by line reading. You know, we’ll both translate what’s happening in the poem and do our analysis. So, give it to you for the reading.
Erin: I’ll do my best.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
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-fring’d 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?
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
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!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
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.
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,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this 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.
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!
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.”
Wes: Great, thank you. Really beautiful. Those last two lines, of course, they’re very controversial, two of the most criticized lines in poetry, maybe, which we’ll get to. So let’s say roughly what’s going on. These are a series of reactions, right, to scenes that have been carved into an urn that’s made of marble.
Erin: Yeah. And the urn, of course, would have the same function in ancient Greece as we have now, the funereal implication. So this is an ancient work of art, and Keats is just talking to the urn, as one does. He’s talking to it, he’s asking it all these questions, he’s looking at it, he’s turning it. So they’re all these scenes on this urn. This isn’t a real urn. Keats is conflating, possibly, the Elgin Marbles and other urns that he’s seen, and he’s sort of putting them all on this one, imaginary urn.
Wes: Urn amalgam.
Erin: Exactly, yes. And it has three scenes on it: a scene of rape, of struggle, where are these maidens being pursued by either men or gods; there’s a scene of courtship, a sort of pastoral kind of erotic scene; and then a third scene, which is a religious scene. And I think that, as some critics have noted, these three scenes would not ordinarily exist on the same urn. There might be several scenes on one urn, but these three would be a very odd combination to have. So that’s how we know that this is not quite a normal urn. I mean, there were plenty of other indications. But anyway, so he’s looking at this urn, he’s looking at all these scenes, and he’s asking himself these series of questions, or asking the urn these series of questions, to which, of course, the urn is silent. It can’t answer.
Wes: Until the very end, in which it gets some quotation marks.
Erin: But still, of course, it’s Keats answering for the urn. And this isn’t a work of art that has any kind of attribution that we know of because it is a made-up urn but also, like most urns from ancient times, we don’t know who made it. So the artist is a mystery. Everything about this urn is a mystery. He’s trying to figure it out.
Wes: Okay, so let’s start with the first characterization of the urn. “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / thou foster-child of silence and slow time,” This idea of an urn being unravished and what would it mean for it to be ravished, first of all?
Erin: An unravished bride would be a bride who has been married, they’ve gone through the marriage ceremony, but the wedding night has not happened, hasn’t been consummated yet. So presumably, a ravished bride would be a bride with whom the wedding was consummated. So there’s this freezing in time, right at the moment of highest expectation, perhaps, which is something he’s going to deal with throughout the poem.
Wes: It’s just such an interesting comparison or metaphor here to call the urn an unravished bride. It evokes the idea that some relation to the urn constitutes ravishment. And that could be, right, our aesthetic response to it, or some sort of response. But also I’m thinking of its persistence through so many centuries, and the idea that time itself and becoming and decay might have ravished it, might have destroyed it. It strikes me that that might not be the typical reading of that.
Erin: If you look at these… So there are these three characterizations that happen just in these first three lines, which are sort of balanced out later on in the last stanza by three more characterizations, which are quite different. But you have ‘unravished bride’, ‘foster child’ and ‘historian’, All odd characterizations, but all people. The idea of the urn as being a person or a life with a history and a background is this sort of metaphor that he sets up at the very beginning. So the idea that he sets up the urn as being like a person, and yet at the same time, he’s saying, well, this is a work of art which doesn’t decay like a person does. It has a certain level of immortality, though that is limited. And yet at the same time, it’s an object which holds the remains of mortals -no longer, because presumably it’s in a museum or something. But this tension between the immortality of art and the mortality of the people who create the art is going to be explored throughout the poem.
Wes: Right. So the idea that it’s unravished… much will be made of the fact that it’s marble so that the things depicted, they’re frozen in time. So the fact that it’s in marble has the quality of preserving in some sense, and making it a historian, almost as if the urn is giving some sort of sober, factual account of something which will turn out to, I think, not to be the case as the poem progresses or that sort of view will be modified and challenged. I think ravishness is sort of ambiguous between three things, as I mentioned, one of them being the effects of time, destruction of physical beauty, and later on we’ll see in the poem that the idea that as beauty fades, love fades, will emerge, and then it just highlights the difference between an object of appetite and consumption, which is a famous kind of aesthetic distinction. There’s a difference between aesthetic appreciation of form, which leaves the object untouched, and if it were something consumable, if there were something like food, of course it would be ravished and destroyed as well. And then there’s the prospect, there’s the dark side of love, where there’s a potential destruction of the object of our love in ravishment.
Erin: In the second line… you know, it starts out at that kind of high pitch, and it’s in the second line we have “foster child of silence and slow time.”
Wes: That struck me as strange, just given the fact that it’s quietness and silence are very close and to make the urn “the bride of quietness” but also “the foster-child of silence”. An editor might say, “Keats, what do you… what are you doing these days?”
Erin: You can’t put these two things so closely together.
Erin: I mean, of course, the poet means that as well, but then it wouldn’t scan. But why not ”Child of silence and slow time”? Why “foster-child”? It’s an odd way of sort of, like, taking a further step removed from this kind of a relation. And then we have “Sylvan historian”, so woody historian, related to the woods, and then he says, “who can’t thus express / a flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme.” So he sets up here, I guess, a hierarchy where he’s saying, “You, urn, you can tell a story better than a poem can.” So this object of visual art is superior to any poem that I can write. So there’s this appreciation and the sense of this hierarchy that he establishes.
Wes: It’s interesting, in that we get this challenge, the object of his appreciation and the object of his poem is also a competitor. It’s a competing poet, in a way, although he’s using this word ‘historian’, of course. There’s a strange tension there in that the urn is a historian, and yet it’s seen as the type of historian that might tell sweet tales and do it better than the poet.
Erin: And it’s also not a literal object in the world. So there is no actual history for this particular urn and is not really telling any historical… you know, all of these scenes on it are scenes that… they’re so universally wrought that he’s not even sure if the people on them are men or gods.
Erin: There’s a kind of a lack of specificity about the scenes where we know the general gist of what’s happening but we don’t know… “Oh, that maiden is.. Diana” or something like that. We don’t have any sort of specificity in the description. So not a great job of being a historian on the part of the urn, if that was the intention to actually record some event from mythology, say, that that happened (quote-unquote) “in Greek legend”, because he asked “of deities or mortals or of both”. He doesn’t know. And then he says “in Tempe or the dales of Arcady”. So in Tempe, this is a valley in Greece that’s sacred to Apollo, who’s the god of poetry and music, and it’s a place where the gods lived. And Arcady is Arcadia, it’s this ideal of pastoral innocence and a peaceful place, which is the realm of men. So is it gods, or is it men?
Wes: So I always imagine the urn because it’s a Sylvan historian. I think of the whole expense of time before one discovers it in a museum, all the time it spends out in the natural elements, where it’s basically… it’s alone except it’s surrounded by… It’s a sylvan historian because of the mythological associations, but also, I think of it, just sort of out there in the woods, as naive as that might sound, persisting for all that time, persisting in silence, slowing down time because of its durability, associating the slowness of time with its unravished quality right, any aging has been slowed down. So it’s the temporary adopted child of silence and slow time. It’s not simply its product, but in a way it’s been orphaned. It’s been orphaned of civilization, right, it’s on its own out in the elements. And then it’s been adopted by these parents who nurse it in the sense of preserve it. And, as we know, the preservation is just a matter of what it’s made of. But there’s this idea of a unity between the medium and between the temporal and its surroundings, let’s say, or it’s unfolding over time.
Erin: I like the idea of that, too, because, of course, the original parent of the urn is whoever made it…
Erin: …and then being long gone means that it’s had to be adopted by these new parents who are going to carry it on into eternity or until its eventual…
Wes: And to deliver it to the audience. So ultimately we adopted it in our aesthetic appreciation of it. But until then, it’s a foster-child.
Erin: He ends the first stanza with this sort of loud noise, I guess you could say, this bacanal with all these pipes and timbrels, which are sort of like tambourines, I guess, and this wild ecstasy. So one can imagine this sort of, like, wild party. And then there’s a turn at the beginning of the second stanza, where he gets a little bit… He’s not looking at the urn so much anymore, but he’s sort of reflecting now, when he’s saying, “Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard / are sweeter.” He’s maybe imagining the sounds that these people on the urn are making, and he’s saying, yeah, it’s great to hear music, but it’s even greater to think of all of those tunes that we haven’t heard yet or to imagine what music they’re playing and sort of insert for ourselves what that sounds like, preferencing the imagination or what we bring to the work of art from ourselves than any kind of actual heard music.
Wes: Yeah, so I think that’s important. The role of the imagination of the audience is evoked. I’m also thinking, here, we got the implicit comparison of the competition between the poet and the urn has been set up, and the poet is more on the side of the melodist, the musician. It’s a kind of art form that unfolds in time and is heard, as opposed to the urn, which is silent. So I think of the urn’s actual engravings as the unheard melodies as well.
Erin: So he says, “soft pipes, play on; / not to the sensual ear” to our literal ears, “but more endear’d, / pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.” And this is maybe my least favorite.
Wes: Is it the word ditties that…? [laughter]
Erin: No, no. Spirit ditties… It just… it’s… I guess it sounds like a little silly flute kind of annoys “spirit ditties.”
Wes: Well, it’s “pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone,” right? On the first reading it looks… yeah, spirit ditties… It sounds… [laughter]
Erin: It sounds like, in a poetic sense, the words create the sounds of a pipe.
Wes: Yeah, I think if there were a comma there… I don’t know. Anyway. We’ve also got a pun in the line above which I actually like: “not to the sensual ear, but more endear’d.” It’s not the ear, but directly the heart. And I think that, you know, here we’re thinking of a comparison between what the urn is doing aesthetically and what pipes would be doing or what the poet would be doing. So the pipes that are represented within the urn, but also the poet who’s writing about the urn. So it’s an interesting way in which the different frames of reference, the external frame of reference and the internal one, are evoked. So there’s sort of three levels where it’s the urn piping, and then there are pipes in the urn, and then it’s the poet piping about the urn. So we get “ditties of no tone”, no tone because, of course, the urn doesn’t produce any sound. And “to the spirit” or to the heart is the thing where we get to direct endearing as opposed to the more sensual. It’s a contrast between what Nietzsche would call the Dionysian and the Apollonian, where the Dionysian aesthetic has something to do with ecstasy and frenzy and is more erotic or drunken, right? Dionysus is the god of wine and orgy, essentially. And something that’s much more quiet and stayed, and there’s an element of stasis in it, like a sculpture or any sort of visual representation where action is frozen and there’s a timeless quality to it.
Erin: I think Keats is very conscious of the fact that he is identifying himself with music, right? The fact that this is an ode, music and poetry both being the domain of Apollo in the Apollonian tradition. An ode as a form, a poetic form, were typically sung, not, of course, in Keith’s day. But that relation and that tradition would be very closely associated, still in Keith’s time, with music. And so he’s going to be very careful to identify himself with a music maker or to put music in each of the three descriptions of the three scenes.
Erin: Which we’re going to see that kind of takes an interesting turn in the third scene. But here he’s saying, yeah, poet, musician, these are two things that are very akin to each other and therefore he’s aligning himself with a music maker. So he then goes on to describe the second scene, which is this youth beneath the trees whose piping. It’s a pastoral scene and it sounds to me, and maybe I’m getting this wrong, correct me, there’s a man piping a song underneath the trees and a little over to the left or right…
Wes: In my imagination, on the right…
Erin: …there is a lover who’s pursuing his lady. So the piper is this fair youth. So Keats is “beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / thy songs.” So he’s still talking about music. And then he looks at the whole picture and he says, “nor ever can those trees be bare.” So he goes from talking about the music and then kind of zooming out a little bit from the guy piping and saying, “Ah, he’s underneath this tree.” We know this is a pastoral scene, and the tree is in full leaf, and so he’s saying, “Ah, because we’ve captured it at this moment in time, that tree is never gonna lose its leaves. It’s always gonna be at the peak of its leafy greenness”
Wes: Right. The audience for the urn and poet is now sort of… he’s affecting a kind of naivete. We started out where the urn was gonna be a historian recounting these events, but now we take it (I don’t think ‘literally’ is the right word) but now we’re taking notice of the fact that it is an aesthetic object. So the medium now overwhelms. Instead of just focusing on what’s being historically supposedly, you know, (quote-unquote) “historically recounted”, we are thinking of it as an aesthetic object and having that, sort of, invade the historical account where everything… Oh, now I’m thinking that the scene itself is frozen instead of imaginatively supplying the background context and thinking of what’s happening as happening within time and filling in all the actions that aren’t actually portrayed, I’m now taking it naively as the object of representation is as abstract and frozen as the representation, which has its costs and its benefits, as we’ll see. So the benefits are the leaves can’t fall. The trees will never be bare, not being able to leave his song. It’s unclear whether that’s a good or bad thing as we see the next lines. “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, / forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” We get this picture of… there’s no consummation to this love, there’s no kissing, but she will never age, never become unbeautiful and therefore the love will also never fade. It’s this interesting trade off between stasis and the possible perfection that comes with the being frozen. We get the aesthetic payoff from that all the time, right? There’s something about the aesthetic that involves this sort of stasis. But on the other hand, what we want within life is more closely connected to different sorts of passions and desires and appetites that have to be consummated to make sense. There’s no consummation in that same sense with the aesthetic. You get this formal appreciation, but like I said, you know, in regards the first stanza, you don’t consume the urn as if it’s an apple, and you don’t consume the urn as if it’s a lover in the sense of having physical contact and taking its virginity, because that’s what’s implied in the ravishment. So these trade-off sets are describing within the scene between eternal love and eternal beauty, but no consummation. There’s something… it speaks to the contrast between aesthetic appreciation and different sorts of desire and appetite.
Erin: This is the unravished bride, right? So this is the moment of greatest potential love, which also says something which I think you hinted at at the beginning of the episode, which says something interesting about Keats’s sort of perception of what love is and what love means and what the greatest peak moment of love actually is for him, which is the moment before the consummation. Where I teach this poem… I taught this poem, when I was a grad student, to a bunch of 18, 19, 20 year olds. I would ask them, “what is the most exciting moment for you when you are on a date with someone you really like, and you’re, like, about to go in for the kiss or whatever? Is it the anticipation before that, or is it the actual kiss?” Every time I dropped this, universally, they said, “Oh, it’s the anticipation before the kiss,” so they were all for the moment right before it. So they were all, kind of, of the mind of Keats that this moment before the actual consummation is actually the moment of greatest love and tension, if not greatest actual passion, right, because there’s the coldness of being frozen at that point. But it’s not the actual height of passion, so there is no bliss, “Thou hast not that bliss,” but that’s the moment where you would love this person the most, which is a little difficult. I mean, this is the moment at which you love the person the most because they are perhaps idealized in your mind. Again the idea that these heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter. So he’s basically saying that imagination takes precedence over actual experience. What you imagine this moment is going to be like in that moment of greatest imaginative potential, that’s when you love the most, not when you’re actually consummating the relationship
Wes: Right. There’s several different negative connotations to consummation. You know, one of them we saw above, with rape and ravishment. The idea that it can be violent, consummation can be violent, it can be resisted, it can defile the object. Ravishment sort of gets at that, it can turn the virgin bride into the wife, but it also can turn the virgin maiden into someone who’s been raped and their chastity has been defiled, and the psychology of that, you know, is actually still very important. It’s, you know, it was more… Social life has loosened up, so, you know, you don’t get honor killings, right, in our society for couples who have had, you know, sex out of wedlock or something. But the psychology of it is important. The idea that sex might defile someone or use them up in some way, so that’s one negative connotation. But another is just once we’ve consumed or consummated, then the desire goes away and it’s kind of a moment of anhedonia or apathy or even depression, where, you know, the moment of anticipation and imagination and desire… we’ve lost that. That’s when the trees have lost their leaves effectively. We enter into a kind of autumn. It’s temporary, right, hopefully. Then desire returns. But relationships go through these kind of seasonal changes, where desire’s heightened and then you want to get away from the person.[laughter] So I thought of a third negative connotation to consummation. It was you talking about idealization that I thought that’s where the idealization could go away. The idealization is something that can burn out very quickly. And so you want to think of relationships according to a different paradigm. And I think we talked about this a little on Much Ado about Nothing. But this is an idea that Shakespeare plays with a lot as well, which is the dangers of treating relationships, romantic relationships, especially, as if they are something like consuming, and it’s something that is potentially destructive to the relationship where Shakespeare, in a way, is a realist. And that’s part of the whole… we talked about the banter between Beatrice and Benedick, where you set different expectations, you know, instead of the idealizing love, you said, realistic expectations that create some persistence. So the idea is that if we treated relationships more like they were aesthetic objects, they might survive longer.
Erin: Right, in all-weather terrain, you might say. But the negativity of that, or the negation that you’re talking about, is mirrored in the language chosen in the stanza. I just want to point that out before we move on to the third stanza, which, I think, of all of the stanzas, this has far more negative language we see ‘never’ ‘not’ ‘canst not’, all these negative constructions in the syntax of this stanza, which is interesting that he’s talking about this bold lover, the height of spring, the height of anticipation. And yet it’s cast in this incredibly negative language.
Wes: Yeah, it’s gonna be much more seemingly positive, although I think this is a very… The third stanza I read is very ironic, but…
Erin: “happy, happy boughs”, “happy, melodist”, “happy love!”, “more happy, happy love”.
Wes: [laughter] Yes, the “happy, happy” should be a sign that you’ve got to either read him as being extraordinarily sentimental and naive in the stanza, or the irony is creeping in. It’s such a nice little twist in a way to me, where he’s trying to hold on to the idea that the lack of temporality and the lack of consummation is something happy: “Oh, how happy that you’re never gonna actually kiss her.” [laughter] Isn’t that great? Love gets to be warm and still enjoyed forever, “forever panting, and forever young; / all breathing human passion far above, / that leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, / a burning forehead and a parching tongue.” So that attempt at manic kind of “yeah, this is great. This is great” falls apart by the end of the stanza.
Erin: Right. He sustains the second scene over these two stanzas.
Erin: So this is the only scene that gets two stanzas of explication and much of the third stanza. So the second stanza of description of the scene is repeating what’s already gone on in the second stanza, the first description of the scene, but with an even more… yeah, as you say, like, manic kind of a tone. So he goes back and re-treads. But now it’s almost like… it’s kind of spiraling out of control as he talked about it.
Erin: Panting, even cloyd, which is almost a sort of like self-criticism or something or reflection on the fact that he’s then overly describing the scene with the idea that the scene itself is also overly sweet.
Erin: So it’s too much. It leaves a burning forehead and a parching tongue. So then there’s this negative side to it. Yeah, it’s happy, but it’s also burning itself up. It’s causing a thirst which can never be satisfied, never be saded.
Wes: So this is the paradox of love and desire, which is that in a way, it’s a kind of longing and therefore kind of pain, and so something that often people will avoid because of that, even though it’s supposed to be the key to… as well, to happiness. This stanza nicely captures that paradox.
Erin: And I just want to point out the pun that he uses, another great pun in the second line of the third stanza “that cannot shed / your leaves nor ever bid the Spring adieu.” So ‘leaves’ and ‘leaving’ again, the sort of manic quality of “you can’t leave.” [laughter]
Erin; And you could never “bid the Spring adieu,” so you are stuck in spring forever, which means, of course, not the fullness of summer, but not the dead of winter. It’s kind of a purgatorial state.
Wes: I’m thinking of Groundhog Day now. Even if it’s spring, do you want to be stuck there?
Erin: He was thinking of Groundhog Day, obviously…
Wes: Of course.
Erin: …when he was writing.
Wes: Well, you know, he’s obviously taking a screenwriting class, because the second act he divided into two parts. It’s Act 2 a) and Act 2 b) for the second and third stanza. [laughter] But anyway.
Erin: And then let’s move on to the fourth stanza and the third scene, which is the religion scene. He starts asking more questions: “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 dressed?” So we know that this is a religious procession, it’s mysterious, he uses that word. There’s a procession going to an altar, and there is a heifer, presumably for blood sacrifice, which is dressed in garlands and being led to a sacrificial place in the woods.
Wes: So I love this turn here, which is quite sudden. It’s one of these moments, and there’s a lot of this in Keats, I think. And it’s one of the things that makes him great because it’s an unexpected… again, it’s another… what I see as a twist, but this is the one that shifts you into an entirely different emotional gear, where we’ve come off this cloying, sickly sweet, stuck-in-love stuff, and now we’re getting serious all of a sudden. I don’t know, that’s kind of a mystic characterization, like what preceded isn’t serious, but we get something much more solemn. And there are hints of danger, the idea of the sacrifice of the heifer, but also the shift into a sort of religious tone, into some sort of higher spiritual connection. It gets us out of, in a way, the contradiction between the peacefulness and stasis of the urn and then the scenes that it’s been representing. And there’s much more, in a way, unity between what’s going on here and the stasis of the urn. Because at least I associate religion with that kind of peacefulness, and we’re being superseded, becoming a relationship to something absolute…
Erin: And this is why these scenes, you know, a lot of scholars say would never be on the same urn because they’re coming from such different places. The first two are coming from one place, right? The scene of rape is a scene we could say of lust. The scene of the courtship, or the erotic scene, or whatever we want to call it, is a scene of love. And then we have the scene of piety, which comes from a different place altogether. And if… I haven’t re-read her at all lately, but if I remember back to college reading those Helen Vendler essays on the Odes. She talks about the religious scene as being the most foreign scene. That it would be the most foreign to Keats’s time, of course, and our time, obviously, that we have… we understand scenes of lust and scenes of rape. We have corollaries for that in our time, and so did Keats. We understand, of course, scenes of courtship in love, but the foreignness of the sacrificial rite…
Wes: The pagan quality.
Erin: Yes. Yes. That foreignness also creates this kind of, you know, for Keats and for us, creates this quiet moment, that’s a moment of distance and solemnity and piety, but also a kind of historic distance that we have no corollary for in our own lives. This is a very foreign strange scene. And the thing I love most about this is, like the lover scene, or the sound of the piper, or whatever, the idea that these people are frozen in time so he somehow, like, the urn has taken, like a chunk of life and preserved it unnaturally on the urn. Here, he really gets into the sort of, like, the what’s happening off the urn. So prior to sort of like coming onto the urn the people had to be going somewhere, they’re going to some green altar, but that’s like, you know, if we think of it almost as a comic strip, that’s a couple cells down. They’re going to the altar, but we don’t see the altar. And then the previous cells of the comic strip are where they came from. So where they came from and where they’re going. And where they came from, he wonders “what little town by river or sea shore, / or mountain-built with peaceful citadel / is emptied of this folk, this pious morn.” So the sort of, like, logical extreme of questioning the activity on the urn and who are these people and what’s going on, is that there’s a narrative from which they’ve been lifted and put on the urn. And therefore, the fact that they’ve been lifted out of that reality will leave some sort of emptiness from where they were taken. So, he says, “the mountain-built with peaceful citadel, / is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? / And, little town…” (this is my favorite part of the whole, whole poem) “…and little town thy streets for evermore / will silent be; and not a soul to tell / why thou art desolate, can e’er return”. So the logical extreme is that these people have been lifted. So because the scene pictures them having left the town and on their way to an altar, that means that whatever town that they’ve come from is always going to be empty of them. And people may come to this town and be like, “how come there’s no one here” [laughter] and they’re gonna be like…
Wes: [laughter] They are on an urn!
Erin: …because they’re on an urn somewhere! I love that. I love that. It’s like this flight of fancy.
Erin: Which is that because of the fact that this urn has been created, that this art has been created, something from life is lost.
Wes: Yes, I wrote this, too.
Erin: Right, which is, of course, corollary to what’s actually happening in the scene, which is that there’s going to be this sacrifice of this heifer, and so I guess what he’s saying is that art takes something out of you, something out of life that is very real and sacrificial that you have to reconcile with, as an artist.
Wes: Yeah, that’s very interesting. Yeah, So I love this as well. This does kind of spatially what he’s been doing with time above, where he’s gonna naively pretend that there’s representation and then there’s what’s being represented. And in the preceding stanzas he’s pretending that because the representation is static, that what’s being represented is going to match that, he’s affecting naivete and conflating representation and what’s represented. And here it’s done with space and context. It’s interesting, because the way it starts, who are these coming to the sacrifice? Now we’re imagining things happening. There isn’t this initial emphasis on everything being frozen. But then we are to think of this supposed effect in the background, which is that a town has been emptied forever. He’s also speaking again to the aesthetic experience you were talking about: something is taken out of life and… of course, we always lose something in representation. And that’s what these stanzas in general are pointing to: representation or signifiers, however you wanna put it, language… It’s not adequate to what is real, the experience of love and consummation and the actual here-and-now sensual experience of being with people. These sorts of representations cannot be adequate to that. They can’t simply replicate that experience. When we represent, we’re doing something else. It’s sort of distanced. But that kind of infuses life. So a relationship isn’t just here-and-now sensual experience. It’s not just sensations. There’s an abstract quality to it, that you had mentioned, idealization, for instance. We’re doing all sorts of things in our relationship with the world and relationships with other people that introduced this element, let’s say falsifying element, of representation or static making element. Representation introduces these problems, but also again, it’s happy because it also has a preservative element. The preservative element is just that we are not limited like, say, an animal, to here-and-now. We can have memory. We can do this sort of thing that he does in the stanza, which is to supply, imaginatively supply background, context.
Erin: This is specifically what he must bring to this crisis, this description of the visual object, which is a common form and poetry. He’s bringing something to it that isn’t already there, and yet at the same time, you know, as we know from the beginning, he addresses it as a historian. It can’t be because here he’s saying, “Where are these people coming from? Where are they going? He can imagine, but he has to supply the history. The object itself can’t supply that. It’s a moment in time. It’s not a narrative, it’s not a complete story.
Wes: The urn can’t be a historian exactly, because, besides the fact that it’s not recounting actual historical events, it’s recounting schema, right, which are sort of historical events like this happened, leaving out the God stuff, leaving out the mythology. Historical events of this sort happened, so it’s not exactly a historian, but also, yeah, it can only give us this little slice.
Erin: And it can’t speak for itself, which is why it’s associated with silence…
Erin: …and so Keats is speaking for it or speaking through it. And speaking of that, I just want to mention that, as I said before, there’s music in every one of the scenes or sound or something. And in this scene there’s a change in the music and the only sound, because this is a very quiet and peaceful stanza, is the “heifer lowing at the skies”, the music of the animal about to be sacrificed. So the music of death, which is much different from the wild music of the bacanal scene and the romantic accompaniment of the piper to the romantic scene. This is the music of sacrifice, death music, death pangs.
Erin: So then the literal term ‘desolate’ at the end of this fourth stanza, and the idea that one can’t return to this town that’s been empty because of the sacrifice of putting these people on the urn inspires him to, then again, take another step back in this last and sort of philosophical stanza where he uses much different language. And he has then again, a series of three addresses to the urn, which are contrasted greatly with the first three addresses when he has a bride, the foster child and the historian. In this last stanza, he calls it, “Oh, Attic shape.” He’s now taking a step back, obviously, because he’s looking closely at the scene but now he’s looking back, and he’s taking the full view of the vase, and an attic vase would be a vase of a certain… a Greek vase of a certain type of shape and style. So he’s looking at the whole thing in its entirety, and taking the larger view. “Fair attitude” is another of his descriptors, which is again kind of cold “with brede of marble men and maidens overwrought.” So now we have these people. They’re not flesh and blood, they’re not panting, they’re not… they don’t have this burning forehead. Now they’re marble. He is now emphasizing, rather than going to the extreme in the religious scene, where he imagines whole history for these people as if they were living, breathing things taken out of life and planted on the urn. He’s now taking a different view, kind of cold view, where they’re just marble people. There’s marble men and ‘overwrought’, which is almost like… kind of a negative word, right, where he’s saying “That’s too much”, like they’re overrun. The urn is overrun with these marble people. And then, rather than saying all these beautiful stuff like “leaf-fringed” and “flowery”, he says, “forest branches”, which okay, was, you know, not negative, not positive, and then “trodden weed”. It’s almost like a bitter taste in his mouth. Now he’s now kind of looking at it as an objective work, and he’s saying, oh, it’s like just a bunch of marble people running all over the place, and all these weeds there trodden on, rather than this beautiful leaf-fringed (presumably there’s like a border of leaves that are running above and below all of these scenes) and now they’re trodden weeds. Then he calls it “silent form” and the last address is “cold pastoral”. So rather than this living beautiful, exciting moment of highest passion kind of thing, this is a pastoral scene, which is cold, literally cold because it’s marble and it’s cold because ultimately, perhaps it leaves him cold because it’s not real, it’s not the real thing. There’s a sense to which Keats is not satisfied by it.
Wes: And “silent form, dost tease us out of thought / as doth eternity.”
Erin: Mm… Most confusing line for me.
Wes: Yeah. Me too.
Erin: To “tease us out of thought”, like we can think about this all we want, but we’re just going to return to the fact that this is just a cold form that gives us no answers in the same way that the world, the eternity of life, of the earth, is something that we can philosophize about and we can sort of rile ourselves up about, and then ultimately we’re going to be met with silence, with coldness, with nothingness. It’s a sort of… this idea of the cyclical nature of philosophizing or intellectualizing something, is that there’s a limit to it, and a point at which our questions can’t be answered. And we have to abandon our questioning.
Wes: Yeah, this is a good segway to negative capability. So this phrase “tease us out of thought”… it’s in one of his letters to his friend Reynolds. So he says, “when things cannot to the will be settled, but they tease us out of thought.” That’s how he puts it in his letter. He went through a bunch of different drafts of the poem, and I think he’s having a discussion with Reynolds during these different drafts and trying out different ideas. So I think he’s making the direct connection for us between this particular line and his famous idea of negative capability.
Erin: From another letter, he talks about this achievement, especially in literature in which Shakespeare possessed so enormously, I mean, negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. And this is perhaps what he’s talking about here, and so there’s this idea that the world is full of all of these uncertainties, these mysteries, these things that don’t add up. And what some poets do, which Keats doesn’t like, is they try to falsely make all of these things add up by impressing upon it some sort of like system of truth or making the ends meet up even when they actually don’t.
Wes: I think the word ‘skeptical’, and this is part of what happens during the Renaissance and the early modern period in history, where there’s this discovery of these ancient texts, including these skeptical texts, and it’s really important to art. So one of the ways it’s manifested in Shakespeare is just sort of his letting characters be what they are. So in portraying a villain, one might be tempted to moralize, for instance. I think you see this sneak into even better writers, really, at some subtle level, give in to it. They give in to their own ethical judgments, for instance, about characters of their own moralizing or their own opinion making, where for Shakespeare, it’s almost as if it’s… (sorry to make this comparison, [laughter] but like I was going to say God himself, but that’s going a little bit far) …there’s a complete disinterested aspect where you let everything that you’re representing be what it is, and you don’t have to control what they are for the sake of, for instance, some higher truth. You don’t have to bend your art to these different sorts of truth. So you just let things be what they are, imaginatively, aesthetically.
Erin: It is God-like, I mean, it’s sort of letting your created world in your art form have it’s free will and not forced all of these things to ultimately be reconciled to my idea of morality, or my system of religion, or thought, or whatever, just letting them be independent actors that are actually imitating life and the world in which there is no comeuppance for bad guys or easy answers or truths…
Erin: …that are easily reconciled. But rather this sitting with this discomfort of the messiness and the ugliness, at times, of the world itself, the way the world actually is. And so Keats says that all you need, really, in a work of art, is the sense of beauty in its construction, or this appreciation of beauty and allowing all of these other loose ends to remain loose is what you just have to do. So you have to be concerned with beauty, and that in itself will give its own truth without having to bring in other moralizing, more literal truths.
Wes: Right. That’s what I think “dost tease us out of thought” means, where thought is the moralizing or systematizing. It’s sort of a rebuttal to the initial concept of the urn as historian, where it’s going to tell us things. Now we are being teased out of that, I think.
Erin: Yeah, and the idea that we go to art for answers, perhaps…
Erin: …and as springboards into thought or reflection. And if we think about it too much, it’s almost like it’s sort of self-defeating. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is that of course, you’re supposed to be reflective, you’re supposed to be philosophical, you’re supposed to confront all of these things. I mean, that is the work of this poem, right? It’s that he’s looking at this work of art, and he is coming to it with these questions, and he’s making demands upon it. He’s not saying that that’s something that you shouldn’t bother doing.
Erin: But he’s saying that, in the end, all that we can really understand is this sense of Beauty with a capital B, this idea that it is a beautiful thing, that it can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities and that that, ultimately, is all we need to get from the artwork, so it can inspire all of this thought all of this reflection and all of this philosophizing. But ultimately those end up being kind of dead ends or things that ultimately we don’t have answers for, we can’t confront, in the way that we can’t confront eternity. So all we can most get at the end of the day, what sticks with us, is this beauty which lasts in our minds as this aesthetic pleasure.
Wes: Do you want to read the final lines?
Erin: Yeah, and he ends with:
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.”
So he’s saying, when we get old and die and this generation has gone from this earth and another generation comes up, with its own problems, and it’s different problems from ours, in a different sort of philosophical age, you’re still going to be there. And even though you haven’t given us any easy answers, you’re going to be a friend to us.
Wes: So obviously this is meant to be a comfort. And as you pointed out, it’s a way of saying that truth isn’t just a matter of these historical propositions here. And it isn’t just historian, but there’s something about judgments of beauty that, let’s say, get it a deeper kind of truth. Let’s say a little bit more about what does it mean for beauty to be truth, and for truth to be beauty.
Erin: Well, in the classical tradition, there’s this idea that goodness, truth and beauty are all sort of three prongs on the same fork. [laughter] I don’t know how I wanna put that. It’s been a long time. So the idea that goodness is true and goodness is also beautiful and beauty is true, and beauty is also good and truth is beautiful and truth is also good, right? So all of these things are intertwined with each other, and so the conception of beauty as being something that has a kind of a goodness and truth of its own, independent of the obvious intellectual considerations of truth, systems of truth, a scientific truth, a philosophical truth after which the Greek philosophers were searching. And all through the philosophical and the scientific traditions, there’s this third prong of beauty, which has its own worth and its own part of this great triad, and that beauty is what’s going to get us through the moral and scientific and whatever else kind of conundrums that come up. So when goodness is compromised, when truth is compromised, beauty is what we could still have to appreciate when those other two fail.
Wes: Yeah, that’s very well put. Nietzsche makes a lot of this. So Nietzsche, who was a classicist and philosopher and who wrote a lot about Greek tragedy and then aesthetics. The skeptical kind of frame of mind that was coming to the fore around the time of Shakespeare and Montagne, part of what motivated that was science, actually, and a discovery of a disjunction between… not a discovery but a rediscovery, because it’s there, back in Lucretius and Epicurus, but of this sort of radical difference between seeming and being is there, of course, in Plato, another ancient philosophers, but science recast it in a different light. So, for instance, taking the example of light, color is to be described as this mechanical operation, in which particles or waves bounce off objects and into our eyes. And so color, in a way, is reduced to physics to spatial-temporal events involving energy or particles, or however you wanna put it. There’s a divide between phenomena as they appear to us, and then on the underlying scientific theories that explain them. That divide becomes so important that someone like Kant will say, well, even space and time is kind of an appearance. It’s just an appearance, it’s just an illusion, and we don’t really know what’s out there. We just know that there’s something that interacts with us, and then we construct all of these things for ourselves, whether it’s color or space or time. That’ll probably be confusing to some listeners, but I’ll leave it at that. By the time we get to Nietzsche, Nietzsche will be in a sort of camp that says, well, if we don’t know what… how things in themselves are, well, maybe that doesn’t even make any sense, and the appearance, in a way, is all that we have. And the appearances Nietzsche associates it with lying, and that’s what often art is associated with, because it’s making up stories, for instance. But he also associates it with a different kind of truth, let’s say, where it’s a more… I don’t want to see matter of fact, but you embrace the appearance for what it is without doing what, you know, Keats calls the reaching towards the theoretical explanations. So the aesthetic allows you to concentrate on the phenomena instead of reaching for the abstract and the theoretical. And for Nietzsche, it’s something that even supplants or refines moralism. Instead of having a kind of moralistic relationship to the world, you approach everything as if it were a matter of aesthetics, and it can even become a basis for a code of conduct, for instance, so…
Erin: Right. It seems to me that what you’re saying is that he’s sort of taking the romantic ideal that Keats would have been in the thick of, and sort of forming his own system of thought out of that.
Wes: Well, he starts out as a kind of romantic, but then he becomes anti-romantic and he refines all that. Romanticism is sort of the point of departure.
Erin: And Keith would have been responding himself to the romantic era as the response to the neoclassical era. You know, the idea that empiricism is king and we’re going to go back to the ancients and to this idea of the scientific method and an extreme time of scientific ingenuity and all of these great inventions happening in the 18th century. This neoclassical era, which really preferenced over intellectualizing, one might say, the ‘scientification’, if that’s a word, or science… ‘sciencification’ of all elements of life. You know, I think if people like Jefferson, you know as being like in perfect neoclassical figure, as someone who was trying to… or even Benjamin Franklin, two American examples of people trying to sort of systematize, classify, logicians, empiricists, all of these people who are trying to sort of make life better from a scientific point of view. And the romantics, the romantic poets and the romantic philosophers are rejecting that and saying, “Well, you’re too much in your head. Just look at beauty. Look at the aesthetic considerations of things. Those are just as important, and those are just as valid in terms of getting at truth as these systems are.” And Keats and Grecian Urn is, you know, he’s taking this relic of this era, which has been the obsession of people for the past 100 years, the Greek and Roman eras, and the resurgence in clothing and architecture, in all of these areas of this classical mode of scientific expansion and using it instead as an object with which to advance his romantic ideals, which is a turn away from that sciency way of looking at the world and instead into a more (quote-unquote) “artistic” way of conceiving the world, which is as an uncomfortable place that ultimately, no matter how much we analyze it or systematize it, offers us no easy answers. And so we retreat into beauty in order to calm ourselves and to placate ourselves in a way to be our friend, as he says in the middle of “Whoa, this urn will be a friend to man, and it will remind us that beauty is the conciliatory force in a world that is uncertain and uncomfortable.”
Wes: So this relationship between science and art is also something Nietzsche makes a lot of. But one of the claims that Nietzsche will make, and this is in a famous essay called On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense (sometimes translated “extra moral sense”, but meaning “outside of morality”). You know, one of the claims is we can’t escape the world, the realm of appearance, and we can’t escape even in language, the fact that really language is fundamentally metaphorical, according to Nietzsche. We don’t really escape that realm. We’re not just in the business of coldly and historically to go back to that historian metaphor, using words to designate objects or sentences to express or designate facts in the world. The contribution of our own activity to that is sort of paramount or constructive, the sense in which we construct the world. To get at the idea that “beauty is truth”, for instance, or “truth is beauty”, we would do well to reflect on the use of metaphor, so to say things like, for instance, like life, to make the claim: “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players”, these non-literal claims. The literal claim is the more historical or scientific claim that’s simply trying to describe the world, but a metaphor, which I think we’ve entered this realm of the aesthetic and the beautiful at that point, and we discussed this in… a little bit, in our Much Ado episode, but it’s trying to get at a deeper sort of truth. Whatever sort of truth is conveyed by thinking, oh, yeah, you know, “all the world is a stage.” [laughter] It’s comparable to that. And that comparison says something important, and it’s a very condensed sort of claim. There’s a density to it. I can draw all sorts of implications from it. I can elaborate on that metaphor and extend it and draw conclusions from it. And sometimes, you know, as we saw in Much Ado, those conclusions are wrong, and metaphors don’t service the type of evidence, they don’t perform the functions that we think they do, But also, you know, otherwise, the positive side of that, is that they do reveal these insights, and they can also play a role in establishing a more realistic mode of interacting with the world, as we saw with Benedict and Beatrice, as opposed to the more idealized way of interacting with the world. So there’s a grounding, skeptical component of metaphor that fits well with the idea of beauty and the idea of negative capability.
Erin: Well, the idea that, I guess, beauty and metaphor have, as you’re saying, rightfully, they have their limits, they’re an artistic framework for the world, which has its limits, and in response we sort of retreat into the realm of scientific rationalism. But then that in itself also has its limits, and so we retreat back into beauty, the two feed off of each other, but also just assigned to the rationalization has its limits. So does art and metaphor and the two dueling forces, I suppose you can say that they rule over people’s perceptions of things and the cyclical nature of history, but that each has something to teach us. And so Keats is saying, I think, that in a time in which he was he was writing, in which people were still sort of in the grips of this kind of scientific rationalism or of imposing order on wild and uncertain things, he’s saying, embrace the chaos, basically, and embrace the beauty as being the organizing principle. And don’t worry so much about the minutia, or the order, or the idea of things as being good or bad. Just focus on the beautiful, and the rest will follow.
Wes: Yeah, that’s very good. The kind of truth there is to beauty would be non-rational in the sense of it’s not descriptive exactly, and it’s not trying to… it’s not simply the kind of truth it’s trying to describe the world or come up with these theories about the world. And so it fits that skeptical, negative capability type of frame. Like I said, these might be the two most criticized lines in poetry. I don’t know if that’s right, but I just know that he’s got a lot of flak from critics. And I think even these days, I think many critics would be reluctant to defend these lines, although Helen Vendler does, because they seem too sentimental, too hokey, almost maybe even clichéd, a sort of cliche, the summation of what romanticism is all about. But you gotta admire Keats’s courage to just go for it, and it’s a kind of rousing, and to me, unexpected ending to the poem, actually. And it works.
Erin: You know, it’s an argument for itself, in a way. I mean, look at these last two lines and they have a beautiful symmetry to them. Just the construction, the syntax of these mirror images that are happening in the last two lines. “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty. That is all you know on Earth and all you need to know.” I mean, that in itself is just, yes, we might say it’s a cliche or whatever, but it has this beautiful syntactical balance to it. And it’s a way of ending the poem that is taking all of these various roiling forces that he’s talking about on the urn and ending it in this kind of beautiful repetition and a balance. The rhetorical balance in these last two lines puts a bow on the poem, maybe in a way that a lot of critics don’t like. But it also puts a bow on the poem in a way that I do like, that we can read the entire poem through the prism of these two lines, and maybe we come up short in understanding what he’s trying to do, but that’s okay because then we, again, we retreat back into the idea that they’re just too beautiful lines at the end of a beautiful poem, and that in itself is the point he’s trying to get at. I’m not advocating that you could just put in nonsense and say, well, it’s beautiful and that’s the point, and we don’t have to interrogate it further. It’s a way of reading the poem that is both, I guess, you could say, sensical and sensual.
Wes: Yeah, it brings it full circle because the poem begins with this historian kind of thesis and then explores that and, in the end, is, in a way, I think, rejecting it. So to talk about beauty is to go beyond history, it’s to go beyond simply descriptive statements about the world, and it is to give priority to the imagination in a way, so I’m not simply subsuming, as Kant, this is something Kant would say, judgments of beauty, aesthetic judgments instead of subsuming particulars under concepts. “Hey, this is an urn” or, you know, “Hey look, this is a heifer”. My judgment, in a way, is freed of that. So I’m detecting order, in aesthetic form, I’m finding something orderly, but it’s not simply descriptive, the descriptive order involved in describing an object conceptually. It’s conceptually undefined and so it’s free. I was just trying to get a little bit more at this relationship between the typical conception of truth and the conception of the way judgments of beauty can be an important kind of truth, because I think it’s defensible on deeper philosophical grounds. So… and it’s not just a cliche, and it’s also something that is not simply added onto the poem. It’s a conclusion to a sort of reflection. Anything else we should touch on?
Erin: Uh, I think… I think that’s more than enough.
Wes: All right. Thank you.Erin: Thank you.