Archive for April, 2010

MODERNISM 1900 – 1945

1900 – 1914: Incredible Period of Invention.

Whereas philsophy and theology continued to grow darker, the mood surrounding industry, science and technology greeted the new 20th century with excitement and invention. There had never been a period of such rapid and massive invention than the early 20th century. If you tick off in your mind all of the things that we take for granted today that were invented in the period just prior to World War I, it is mind boggling: the light bulb, the airplane, the passenger automobile, the phonograph, indoor bathrooms, modern waterworks and sewage, the cinema, the radio that anyone could buy for home, and on and on.

The Masters of the World go to War

Such invention, however, was the product of the western world’s gigantic industrial machine and its imperial and colonical control over most of the world. Most of the tensions that led to World War I involved balances of power, who owns or controls what portions of the world, with Germany jockeying to control more than they had.

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 coincided with massive advances in weapon technology. The war began with both sides equipped with an endless supply of weaponry that had never been used in such a war before: the machine gun, artillery, chemical warfare, grenade launchers, jelly bombs, airplanes and zeppelins. The war was supposed to be over in a matter of months, at least, that is what the hundreds of thousands of idealistic Brits who volunteered to cross the Channel and fight with the French believed. It lasted over four years, and caused 37 million casualties. Of those 37, over 1 million young British men and women died in battle. (Over 100,000 British civilians died, by the way, from such things as the Zeppelin attacks over London, which terrorized the city. No one had ever imagined they would be bombed from the sky.) In the Battle of Somme alone, over 1 million soldiers died. In one day of that battle alone, more soldiers died than in the entire Viet Nam War.

The Division in History: Before and After War.

I only emphasize the grim facts of this war to make it clear that one cannot overestimate the impact this war had on all of history, one a British mentality, and, consequently, on all literature and art that followed. The Western World went into the war in 1914 optimistic, believing that they were the masters of civilization, providentially chosen. The Western World came out of the war in 1918 with all millenarian beliefs crushed. For the first time in history, England questioned what humanity and civilization is. The incredible industry and invention that had made the country great was also responsible for the incredible machines of killing that allowed for such amazing loss of life. People wondered how the most civilized nations in the world could slaughter each other over a four year period.

I cannot do justice emphasizing in one short online lecture the monumental changes to British culture the war had. There are many good books on the subject. One I highly recommend, The Great War, by Paul Fussell. He was an English professor, and had first-hand experience with the war. He writes about the ways in which the war even changed the English language as we know it.

Modernist Spirit in Literature.

Up until the war, literature became caught up in the spirit of change and invention that was occurring in the world. The desire among writers and artists was to “Make it New!” There was a strong drive to break with a literary tradition, and to try new forms and ways with written expression. One can also see this drive in visual arts, with post-expressionism and cubism.

After the war, the desire to Make it New prevails, but with a different tenor. There is a dominant mood of darkness, alienation and betrayal in the post-War literature, combined with a spirit to break completely with the past and to try to make sense of a world that had become fractured and meaningless. Writers were in a state of shock of the destruction of the war, but they also wanted to use art in order to create meaning in the world, or at least to try to re-create meaning.

Thomas Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

Thomas Hardy is a very interesting poet because he straddles both a late Victorian world and an early Modernism. His poems are generally dark and pessimistic, and, like “Channel Firing,” he seems to sense the growing darkness.

T.S. Eliot is arguable the father of Modern Poetry. He wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” several years before the war, and when he was still a United States citizen. He was unable to find a journal to publish the poem until the middle of the war. The poem was shocking to audiences. The subject matter of the poem was new and unusual: the dramatic monologue of a balding, middle aged man who feels that life has passed him by. Eliot makes a concerted break with the sappy, romantic poetry of his time that was very popular. With this poem and his subsequent prose, Eliot calls for a more strict, classical, difficult and challenging poetry. He emphasizes experimentation with form combined with a classical, labored and stringent content.

During and after the war, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” hit a chord with American and British audiences who identified with Eliot’s expression of loneliness, alienation, confusion, desparation, betrayal and meaninglessness. His major poem, The Wasteland, which came out in 1922, depicted culture as dried up, dereacinated, futile–all of the greatness of literature and art of the past becoming twisted, corrupted, mutated and forgotten. The poem was a wild success with a generation feeling dark and diaffected by the war.

April 26, 2010 at 12:11 pm Leave a comment

T.S. Eliot and Prufrock

The Poem as an Interior Monologue. As you read the poem, keep in mind that it is an “interior monologue.” This means that everything in the poem is spoken from inside of Prufrock’s mind. Therefore, try to understand the poem as an assembly or collage of images that all somehow reflect Prufrock’s state of mind. As you do so, keep your eye on the dramatic situation: Prufrock is walking somewhere through a bad side of Boston. He has somewhere to go. Where? Ask yourself where you think he has to go, and who he wants to see, and why he is anxious about the meeting. Then, notice three quarters through the poem that he passes up his destination. By the end of the poem, he is on the seashore, admitting his failure to reach his destination.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

Use the questions below to help you in re-reading the poem. The questions could serve as points of interest and places that are important. Here, by the way, is T.S Eliot reading this poem in the 1920s, a famous recording. Perhaps you could listen to it as you read the poem, or read my questions. It is a beautiful and helpful reading.   Eliot\’s reading.

1. The famous first three lines always stumped people first reading the poem as they still do today. Can you imagine an editor reading this poem in 1915, and getting past the first three lines? More than likely, the opening of the poem is what made it end up in the wastebasket more than anything. How do you interpret the odd simile of lines 1 – 2: “Let us go then you and I,/When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherised upon a table.” How can the dusk look like a patient on a surgeon’s table about ready for the scalple? Further, what does it say about Prufrock’s state of mind, the way he sees the world?

2. Lines 4 – 12 essentially situates Prufrock and the reader in his location. It sort of gives both a sense of his environment, where he is, while it further develops his state of mind. Based on “half deserted steets,” “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells,” what part of town (Boston) is he in? How would you describe such an area of town?  What do you think Prufrock means by the simile (again, describing his surroundings), “Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent” ? What do the images of Boston he sees say about his frame of mind? How he sees the world?

3. Lines 11 – 12 suggest Pruforck’s destination, his intent in the poem: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” In the context of the poem, where is Prufrock walking? Where may he be going? (Granted, you have very little information so far).

4. Like the first three lines, lines 13 -14 always throw students: “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Why on earth are these two lines here, in the middle, suddenly?  What do they have to do with Prufrock’s thoughts?  It might be easier to consider oppositions. How do the two lines suggest a very different environment from the preceding lines?

5. Lines 15 – 23 are a wonderful meditation upon “yellow fog” that Prufrock obviously sees as he is walking to his “visit.” This passage is an example of imagism: when a poet uses “pictures,” visual “images” of usually natural aspects of the world to convey mood, impressions, meaning. Eliot was very influenced by “imagist’ poetry at the time, poets who would write very short poems that often would focus on just one image. In many ways, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is a long series of imagist poems, linked together like a collage, in this case a sort of imagist-tapestry of Prufrock’s thoughts. Look at the passage of “yellow fog.” How does he describe the fog? Why is it “yellow?” Most importantly, what does the yellow fog resemble in Eliot’s description, as when it “rubs its muzzle” and “licked its tongue” and “Curled once about the house and fell asleep.” Why does Eliot compare the yellow fog to such resemblance? What does it say about Prufrock, and how he feels?

6. In lines 24 – 34, Prufrocks repeats “There will be time” six times. What type of mentality does Prufrock exhibit by repeating this line? What kind of anxiety is he expressing? Why might he be expressing this particular type of anxiety? (Remember, the visit.) When does a person, “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”?  What does he mean by, “time yet for a hundred indecisions /And for a hundred visions and revisions”?

7. In lines 37 – 49, Prufrock offers the first real details about the place /event he is possibly walking to. Notice that the passage is in the future tense, as he imagines what might happen if he goes. What is Prufrock self-conscious of? even paradoid about? What does his anxiety say about his supposed “crisis”?

A rough draft of Eliots poem. The piece of paper that launched poetic modernism! Whats cooler than that?
A rough draft of Eliot’s poem. The piece of paper that launched poetic modernism! What’s cooler than that?

8. In lines 49 – 69, Prufrock gives a long description of various social things. What people and type of society is he talking about? How does he feel about these people he describes, who we may assume are the people he would interact with at the “visit?” How does he feel about his position in this world?

9. In lines 87 – 98, Eliot makes a very subtle but important shift in the poem. It is a shift in grammar, in tense, “And would it have  been worth it . . . ”  What is the shift in tense, and what clue does this give us as to the action and development in the poem? What may it say about what Prufrock does (or doesn’t do)?

10. Up until lines 110, what type of scenario does he imagine as possibly might have happened in the future? What situation does he imagine could have happened? What does it say about Prufrock’s anxiety? What clue does it give us as to why Prufrock is old and alone?

11. Lines 111 – 119 are famous, beginning with “No! I am not Prince Hamlet” and ending, “the Fool.” Notice the movement–from Hamlet to the Fool. This is a kind of movement that happens a lot in the poem: Prufrock takes us often from a great height (“I have seen my head brough in upon a platter”) to a depth (‘I am not prophet.”). Why do you think Prufrock compares himself to Hamlet?  And then why does he, in the same breath, deny that there is a comparison?  What assessment does Prufrock make of himself in this passage?

12. Notice the shift in mood, tone and rythm in the final stanzas of the poem, lines 120 – 131. How does the mood, tone and rythm of the poem change?  How might it reflect a change in Prufrock’s frame of mind?  How does the setting of a seashore contribute to the change in tone?  Why does Prufrock bring up mermaids? What do mermaids symbolize (they have to be symbols, since mermaids don’t exist)? Why does he shift from mermaids in the very end to “sea-girls”?

TS Eliot was not the happiest human being. And he tended to make people around him fairly unhappy, too. The movie Tom and Viv is a pretty good portrait of his disasterous marriage with Vivian
TS Eliot was not the happiest human being. And he tended to make people around him fairly unhappy, too. The movie “Tom and Viv” is a pretty good portrait of his disasterous marriage with Vivian

13. Those last three lines of this poem haunt me. They always haunt me. Combined with the previous three lines, I think that the last two stanzas of this poem are the most beautiful in any poetry. High praise!  What is Eliot saying? What do you think he means that “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea,” and why do we linger “Till human voices wake us, and we drown”? Why do we drown? Why is it “human voices”? What other kinds of voices can there be?

April 26, 2010 at 12:09 pm Leave a comment

Yeats The Second Coming

1. How would you describe the tone of “The Second Coming”? In the first stanza, what vision of the world does the poet express?  How does he describe the state of things?

One version of Yeats philosophy concerning gyres.
One version of Yeats’ philosophy concerning gyres.

2. What do you think Yeats means by the first two lines: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”  Look up the word “gyre,” particularly Yeats’ use of the word. Consider what Yeats suggests about the world situation with the image of the falcon that cannot hear the falconer.

3. What is the tone of the first few lines of the second stanza? How would you describe the emotion of this voice? What is the “second coming?”  What is it about the second coming that the poet seems to beseech?  How does the second coming become darkly ironic by the end of the poem?

4. Starting on the fourth line of the second stanza, describe the poets vision. What is the “vast image” he sees? How do you interpret what he sees, and what it represents?

5. The poem was written in 1922, not too long after the end of World War I. Even though many thought it was the war to end all wars, what does Yeats seem to prophecy in this poem?  What type of future does he seem to envision?

6. What do you think is the poet’s attitude toward Christianity?

A site the tries to explain Yeats’ philosophy concerning the gyre.

April 26, 2010 at 12:08 pm Leave a comment

The Victorian Era

The Victorian Era, which dominates most of the nineteenth century (1830 – 1901) is named after Queen Victoria, who (until now) was England’s longest reigning monarch. Although it is fallacious to characterize this nearly century long period in British history monolithic-ally, for our purposes I will focus on some Victorian issues that impact the development of literature. There were, actually, three distinct stages in Victorianism:

Stage One.

The first from 1830 -50, which was marked by radical social uphevals in both Europe and England in which a working class began to revolt, and  socialism began to accelerate as either a danger or a salvation (depending upon your politics, I suppose). The result in England were a series of Reform Bills in the 1830s – 40s that revolutionized the principles behind a working nation. For instance, it gave more political power to workers, unions, voting, etc. It established the first child labor laws and health and safety mandates. Also, England began to change tax codes to help the middle and working class. It was far from modern and the “welfare” state England would develop even further in the early 20th century, but it showed England becoming much more socially conscious.

Stage Two:

The Second Period, 1850 – 1870 marked the period of incredible growth of “Empire” and economic prosperity, the things we tend to characterize Britain with of this time. The explosion of industry, the expansion of trade and colonization around the world, and the beginnings of modern science and technology made England into THE superpower on the globe. England was by this time, consummately, Great Britain, and the sun never set on the Yukon Jack.

Stage Three:

Third Period: 1870 – 1901. During this time there came a growing suspicion and criticism within England of its role as superpower, or Empire. There was also a growing skepticism and even loathing of Victorianism and its sense of pride, moralisms and enervating sense of culture (as you see in Matthew Arnold’s prose, and Oscar Wilde’s wit and satire aimed at Victorian prudery and moralistic attitude). During this period, some of the greatest and, for many, most shocking discoveries and advances in natural science were being made, particularly Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the confirmation by geologists that the earth was far far far far far far far more older than 5,000 years.

The Earthquake of Natural Science.

The effects of advances in natural science on culture, religion and society cannot be overstated. Darwin’s books on evolution and natural selection proved uncomfortable aspects of our world at the same time that they were an assault on Christian religious truths (and often not so subtle in its attack). By theorizing (and proving some of it pretty well for a nineteenth century scientist) that we evolved from lower species, Darwin outright rejected the notion that humans are singularly created. In rejecting Creationism, Darwin also proceeds to reject all notions that humans function by the guidance of transcendent moral codes. Instead, Darwin argues that our sense of morality has been socially constructed, engendered over centuries of the human as a social and instinctual animal.

If Darwin had been an isolated phenomenon, an individual speaking alone, he may have been simply considered a crackpot. However, Darwin was researching and writing during this time in which natural scientists in England were canvasing the globe in an attempt to empirically understand the world with the same energy and ambition as explorers and colonizers took over the world. At the same time that Darwin posited Evolution and Natural Selection, geologists were successfully proving that the earth was no 5,000 years old, but millions, perhaps billions of years old, another assault upon Biblical truth and mythology that had established religious ideology in England for nearly 1,800 years.

Explosion of Existential Thought.

Contiguous to the advances in natural science, philosophers began to radically question established truths, assumptions and ideologies by which the British lived by and in which they had believed for centuries. Philosophers such as Nietzsche posed often frightening challenges to comfortable metaphysical philosophy by engaging in what you might call a “demythologizing” philosophy, an inquiry suspicious of anything by which we hang on to as truth, questioning everything. For the first time, God’s existence came into question in an organized and systematic way. And, for one of the first times, atheists, spiritualists, occultists, anarchists, etc., gathered and publicallyspoke and wrote, whereas many with such beliefs only a century earlier would have been persecuted.

A De-mythologizing Era.

Paul Ricoeur(one of the greatest late twentieth century philosophers) famously labelled the discourse of the late 1800s, “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” It is a period in which many sacred, assumed, and sometmies naive truths become “demythologized.” For one of the first time, there is a dominantly growing philosophical and theological discourse rejecting Creation, and a more minority voice that begins rejecting God.

In short, the late 1800s undergoes seachangesin British thought. Although such thinking does not radically change the British and Victorian social fabric and Europe’s belief in their dominant and God-given role to lead the world, it establishes the darker, more suspicious and existential tone that would be instrumental in the radical breaks with tradition in the fervent period of Modernism during and after World War I.

Literary Movements in Victorianism.

The literature of the period we are looking at for April 20th is from roughly 1850 until 1900, falling during the greatest expansions of British Empire and the consequent skepticism and disillusion with Empire as the 1900s approach.

The Novel.

The dominant genre during the Victorian era was prose, particularly the novel. The novel came into its own in the mid 1800s with such greats as Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot, and many others. We would not have time in the intensity of a mod combined witha survey course to do justice to the novel of the 1800s (which is why I run a course on this every other year). The Victorian novel was very much a product of an explosion of middle class literacy and a growing publishing industry. Novels were, for the most part, a form of high entertainment. Most novels were published in serial format in newspapers in England, where people could follow on a weekly basis a novel by, say, Dickens. They were, in a sense, the “soap operas” of the 1800s. In fact, most novels serialized in newspapers were extravagantly illustrated withincredible prints and drawings, an element that is lost from our experience with the reprinted book format.


Poetry underwent changes (many would argue, including me, not for the better). A dominant group of poets, like Robert Browning, reacted against what they felt was the soppy, rose-colored, sweet and flighty poetry of late Romanticism (think Shelley), and developed a more prosey poetry that focuses more on narrative, concrete issues in a “real” world. But, as the 1800s moved on, there was also a growing group of poets who react against the increasingly prosaic “realism” of the 1800s, and write a very romantic poetry that grows at times as ridiculously sweet and vacuous at the same time that it can be beautiful. In the early 1900s, T.S. Eliot would famously argue that since the 1700s, poetry has undergone a radical and unfortunate shift: poetry is either intellectual / cerebral, or it is emotional / romantic. Never again, he argued, since the Metaphysical poets of the late 1600s has poetry fused both intellect and emotion. It would be the really soppy, moody poetry of the late 1800s that Eliot reacts against with his groundbreaking modernist poems in the 1910s and 1920s.

Prose–The Essay.

Prose, particularly the essay, becomes just as central as the novel during this period. I’ve already talked about the earth-shaking effects of people like Darwin’s published books. The dominance of the essay mirrors the growing concern with the world around us, the real social issues of people, during Victorianism. The terms “Realism” has often been used to describe this period. Most Victorian novelists and essayists were interested in realism, in depicting the world as accurately as possible. A result of looking at the world head on is a growing criticism and suspicion of what authors see. Hence, Dickens many novels that expose social ills.

Matthew Arnold: Critic and, Possibly, Cultural Prophet.

Matthew Arnold is one of the great social voices of the Victorian era. He is the era’s greatest critic, while at the same time he is also the epitome of Victorianism in his belief that we all can change and reform everything (the idea of Utopianism has its explosion during this era).

Particularly in Culture and Anrachy, Arnold criticizes the narrow-minded, mechanical, industrial and material mindset of Victorian England, particularly amonst its middle class. He believed that industry and the machine had developed a “Puritanical” British middle class, one more intereted in moralisms and rules designed to benefit social/financial advancement. Arnold hankers for a return to “Hellenistic” thought. By this, he means a mind (like the ancient Greeks) that breaks from its narrow, material concerns, and roams over all possibilities, all interests, particularly cultural interests.

Arnold (rightfully, I believe) feared that the material culture of England was developing minds growing narrower, more concerned with self-interest, expediancy, and industry. He feared this would lead to ignorance and bigotry. He famously called the puritanical middle class in England, “Philistines,” which has come to mean shallow, narrow minded and uncultured. What Arnold envisioned was an England that would shift more emphasis to the study of literature, art and music (now that England was Empire and had excelled in industry) in order to cultivate minds for a more literate future. His notion of studying the “touchstones of history” had a huge effect on our present day notion of a literary “canon,” the implicitly accepted list of works that appear on a syllabus and that a student reads and studies in secondary school and college.

April 11, 2010 at 11:37 am Leave a comment

Percy Shelley and Ode to the West Wind

Shelley, like John Keats, was a “high romantic,” meaning one of the romantic poets in the generation following Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Like Keats, Shelley crafts himself into the artist who burns with his creative spirit, allowing his poetry to consume him. Shelley, more than any of the British romantics, desires art to consume him as much as he wishes to consume art. In many ways, Shelley represents everything you either love or hate about romanticism.

The Poet as a Prophet.

He is a master of lyricism, his poetry moving like passionate music that can become at times — for me, at least — overbearingly operatic. A consummate believer in the Self, he takes the poetry as a worship of selfhood to dizzying heights. The poet, for Shelley, is a visionary, one who does not just speak for the gods, but as a god. Accordingly, Shelley harbored a religious sense of the great artist as martyred for his vision. The great poet is destined to suffer and to die upon the pyre of his own creation. For Shelley, the great figure of mythology is Prometheus, chained to the side of a mountain by the gods as punishment for usurping godly power in his invention of fire. Shelley’s great poem is his epic Promethues Unbound, which you thankfully do not need to read for my class (although it is required reading for anyone who wishes to specialize in British romanticism).

“Ode to the West Wind.”

Whether you find Shelley’s poetry wonderful of sickening, “Ode to the West Wind” is a lyrical masterpiece, and encapsulates Shelley’s vision of himself as a poet and the creative process. Like so many romantics, Shelley suffers from the tragic attempt to reconcile being with nature. Part of the “romantic agony” involves the desire of the poet to not only represent nature in a poem, but to become nature itself. Like the epic struggle with time, the struggle to unite with nature becomes doomed to failure for the human. One hundred years later, Yeats would famously write of his desire to become one with the eternity of nature by freezing himself into a mosaic in “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats is one of the few famous heirs to the romantic tradition in the twentieth century, along with Wallace Stevens, who builds upon Walt Whitman and John Keats, and William Carlos Williams, who Paterson continues almost too facilely Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

In “Ode to the West Wind,” Shelley imagines himself one of the infinite leaves blowing in the west wind of autumn that precedes the winter. The leaves of autumn that fall to the ground, mixing with the frozen dormancy of winter, grow to new life in the spring. Shelley yearns for his poetry to take part of the same natural cycle of death and life, life and resurrection. The image that runs through the poem is that his poetry is like the leaves blowing and falling upon the entire world, and growing into new creation that will summon mankind–like Christ’s resurrection–to see his vision. Hence, there are rampant religious analogies in the poem, yet Shelley uses them to reject a classic Christian vision for one that almost returns the poet to a pagan visionary. At the climax of the poem, line 54, Shelley cries out, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” The poet at the end may be spent after the act of poetry, as Shelley says to the wind, “Drive my dead thoughts ever the universe” (line 63), but his vision is “Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!” Like the spring, his poetry will rise again, “And by the incantation of this verse” in order to become revelation for the world.

Sactter, as from an unextinguished hearth

Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

Be through my lips to unawakened earth

The trumpet of a prophecy!

The Image of “Leaves” and “Wind.”

Shelley structures the poem around crafty and various meanings of the words / images LEAVES and WIND. In renaissance sonnets, “leaves” refer to the pages of a book. Metonymically, “leaves” for Shakespeare, or Sidney, or Spencer, can come to mean books, or poetry, or writing itself. So the image of leaves blowing across the landscape in the autumn turns into a metaphor of the poet disseminating his work and his vision. WIND has an extremely interesting etymological history that Shelley uses to a great extent. The word “spirit” comes from the word “wind.” When the Hebrew Bible portrays God breathing into the dust to give life to humankind in Genesis, the Judaic tradition bestows upon wind an image of God’s eternal life. Therefore, “spirit” transforms into the mysterious force of the divine–we have come now to equate that which is spiritual as being holy, or filled with a religious sense, or sacred. Yet we also derive from spirit the notion of lively, or full of life, resembling the enlivening aspect of wind / God’s breath–such as filled with spirit, or describing a person as having a lively spirit.

So Shelley utilizes the ambiguity of WIND / SPIRIT to create both a religious and a secular connotation in his poem. Like the breath of God the breathes life into dust–like the west wind the blows the leaves of autumn which will eventually become spring–Shelley desire his “leaves” (his words, his poems, his vision) to circulate amongst the world and to bring revelation to mankind.

Not really my cup of tea, but I admire his lyrical density.

April 11, 2010 at 11:35 am Leave a comment

John Keats: High Romantic and Ode on a Grecian Urn

We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.
We do not know at which Grecian urn Keats was looking. Nonetheless, the Grecian urns are some of the most beautiful works of art / craft in the world.

John Keats: the Consummate Romantic.

John Keats was, in many ways, the epitome of the romantic poet. He was of a generation of poets known as “high romantics,” which included Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. They were writing most of their poems in the early 1800s, and are considered high-romantics because they follow the initial romantic breakthrough of Wordsworth, Coleridge and the German and French romantic philosophers.

For the most part, romantic poetry had become more accepted when Keats was writing, although there still remains a feeling amongst high-brow intellectuals that romanticism is a sort of dirty, low-brow literature. It is interesting to see moments when Jane Austen clearly satirizes romantic poetry in her novels. Often when one of her characters enjoys romantic poets, they are the individuals Austen holds up in scorn. Austen’s novel Northinger Abbey is a very funny satire of the Gothic tradition growing in popularity in the early 1800s.

John Keats is a tragic figure. He contracted a particular form of tuberculosis when he was a child. As he grew up, he knew that he would die young. By the time he was twenty four years old, he knew he had only months to live. Despite a very short adult life, Keats wrote prolifically, and much of his poetry constitutes the best and most loved poetry in England. In particular, his “odes,” which he wrote in the last months of his life, are some of the most powerful romantic poetry. They are all the more powerful when you consider that he was aware that at any moment he was going to die. Look at the combination of agony and ecstasy, beauty and terror in “Ode: to a Nightengale.”

The Agony and Ecstasy of Romanticism.

Keats absorbed by a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as the scene of reading (or) writing. Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.
Keats absorbed in a book. Romanticism gives birth to scenes such as this, people absorbed in reading or writing. It is known as “the scene of reading (or) writing.” Such images were not very prevalent before the late 1700s because 1) you do not have too many people reading books, since there were not many around, or writing 2) Such an image of solitary engagement in an imaginative realm would only convey suspicion. Artistic solitude as a value is a romantic invention, one that we still value today.

The combination of happiness and despair, ecastasy and agony, best characterizes his odes. Although the combination of these moods mirrors the emotional tensions in his life at the time, he also uses his inner strife to explore the nature of joy and despair inherent in romanticism itself. Many of his poems, particularly his odes, indicate a tension in romantic poetry and philosophy. Many dichotomies highlight these tensions: the desire to emotionally express oneself and the consequences of doing so; the desire to form a union with nature and the reality of the human’s division from nature; the desire for permanence in a world that refuses to keep still; a desire for “immortality” and the reality and fear of “mortality.”

As you can see, I predicated these dichotomies with the word, “desire.” The notion of desire–what desire means, how desire inspires and drives literature–becomes a heated issue in romanticism and continues until today. Keats reveals the joys of deisre, and the disappointment and sense of incompletion that follows.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

One of the most famous romantic poems, particularly because of its puzzling final lines. (Think of all the philosophy of aesthetics courses that have dwelt upon these lines.)

First, you need to establish a sense of “place,” “perspective” and “object” in this poem. What is Keats looking at? How close is he to the object? How does the object move him, and why does he choose this particular object over anything else he might study?

What scene does the urn depict? What pictures does Keats see and record in his poem?  Why do these particular images move him to write a poem?  How do you think that these pictures / images speak to Keats? How do they convey “theme” (that word I despise)?

The scene on the urn that Keats depicts in his poem is full of movement, a flurry of activity that races around the urn–around and around, you might say. How is such a scene, however, paradoxical in the context of its depiction?  What is, in short, ironic about the constant activity that Keats observes on an urn.

Paradox is the central trope of “Ode on a Grecian.” Can you try to come up with the varioius paradoxes that structure this poem?  It is helpful to think of the many bipolar-oppositions in the poem: life / death; movement / stasis; youth / age; visual / verbal; inner / outer, etc.

What effect does the poem have that Keats is not writing about “nature” in its natural context — he is not looking at the world around him and holding a mirror up to represent it — but he is looking at “nature” as it is depicted on a work of art. In other words, Keats is creating a work of art — the poem — by looking at another work of art — the urn. If Plato were alive at the time, he would have claimed that Keats looks at an inferior object because it is one step removed from reality, and creates an even more inferior object, because his poem–an imitation of an inferior reality–is therefore two steps removed from reality. The genre in which an artist creates a work of art (or a poet writes a poem about a work of art) is known as ekphrasis. In what ways do you think that Keats plays with reality by using ekphrasis? Consider the poem as resembling (although not the same as) how Shakespeare would create a play-within-a-play.

Near the end of the poem, Keats calls the urn a “Cold Pastoral!”  Why? Is this not a rather sudden and unexpected judgment?  Why cold? How can a “pastoral” be “cold” in the first place?

OK, the mysterious final two lines.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ 50

What do they mean?  Why does Keats end the poem with what sounds like an adage, or a little golden-nugget of philosophical wisdom? What does he mean by beauty, and what does he mean by truth?  And why are they equivalent? Why does he claims that this “adage” is “all” we “need to know?”

April 11, 2010 at 11:34 am Leave a comment