Complete our study of Keats' technique by charting his progress
and analyzing the form of the ode
We have saved the best for last! Your first job for this week will
be to read and SAVOR the odes of Keats. For this class, we will focus on "Ode to a Nightingale,"
but read "Melancholy" and "Indolence" for contrast and
enjoyment. Read the main odes (Grecian Urn, Nightingale and Autumn)
more than once, twice, even three times.
Become familiar with the poem as a meaningful set of stanzas that communicate
to you -- some see these as process poems, others as symbolic arguments.
Understand as best you can what is happening in these poems. THEN --
Promise me that you will read them out loud, slowly and deliberately --
enjoying the beauty of the sensation.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions
Continue to consider questions on form:
Ode: A single, unified strain of exalted lyrical verse, directed
to a single purpose, and dealing with one theme. The term connotes
certain qualities of both manner and form. The ode is
elaborate, dignified and imaginative. In form the ode is
more complicated than most lyric types. (from Holman and Harmon's
A Handbook to Literature).
Recall Keats' dissatisfaction with the sonnet form, especially the
"pouncing rhymes" caused by repeated couplets. Bate shows us how
Keats integrates Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnet forms into a
new stanza for the odes: "This ten-line stanza starts with a single
Shakespearean quatrain (a b a b) and, instead of continuing with the
alternate rhymes of more quatrains, concludes with a Petrarchan
sestet (c d e c d e): "pouncing rhymes," "elegiac" alternate rhyming,
and concluding couplet tags are all avoided. This is the essential
pattern of the four odes that follow -- the "Nightingale," the "Grecian Urn,"
"Melancholy," and "Indolence." He now had a form capable of extension for
a poem many times the length of a sonnet, yet one that was also 'interwoven
and complete'" (Bate 498).
Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn
While the ode generally involves a single unified theme, critics have
recognized in these odes more of a debate or drama of ideas. Bate,
in his introduction to the collection of Twentieth-Century Views on
Keats, says that these odes, written in April and May of 1819, "may
be said to begin the modern lyric of symbolic debate" (4).
Each poem is built upon a symbol -- recall from Perrine and Oliver what a symbol
is -- with a voice that speaks to the poet. Examine the symbols of
each poem and the debate that engages the poet.
Kipperman writes in his biographical essay on Keats, "it is the
nature of poetry, unlike painting -- a distinction we know Keats
often debated with Haydon -- to create its meaning sequentially" (206).
How does this happen in each of the odes?
"For this is no simple dialogue of the divided heart with itself
before two choices. Divisions of loyalty and sympathy are forced
upon it by the inevitable nature of things, and only as the poem
evolves; and the drama emerges through the actual experience that
the 'greeting of the Spirit' and its object -- however eager the spirit
-- can never be complete or lasting. Nor are the limitations solely
the result of our own finite nature. In each poem the dominant symbol
-- the urn, the song of the nightingale -- is given the major voice
and offered the every resource of empathy and hymnal tribute that
the poet can bring; and it is as much through its own limitations
as through those of the finite spirit attempting to approach it
that hesitation, question, even misgiving, begin to arise" (Bate, 500).
What is the inevitable nature of things that the poem represents
and that acts as a limitation to the human spirit?
What are the limitations of the urn and the nightingale that
initiate the misgivings and questions?
David Perkins discovers in the progress of these two Odes a
"process" -- an imaginative escape initiated with the symbolic
"death" of the poet (drowsy numbness) that leads to the desire
for permanence and the limitations/impossibilities of that state.
Chart the "process" of ideas in each of the poems. What are the
central positions explored? What is resolved, if anything?
Douglas Bush writes: "At first sight Keats's theme in the Ode to
a Nightingale and the Ode on a Grecian Urn -- the two cannot be
separated -- is the belief that whereas the momentary experience
of beauty is fleeting, the ideal embodiment of that moment in art,
in song, or in marble, is an imperishable source of joy. If that
were all, these odes should be hymns of triumph, and they are not.
It is the very acme of melancholy that the joy he celebrates is joy
in beauty that must die" (Twentieth-century views, p. 25). Comment.
David Perkins suggests that the difference between "vision" and "dream"
in the last lines of "Nightingale" is the difference between "truth" and
"illusion." How does this affect your understanding of the poem? How does
this poem develop the Keatsian interest in the role of poetry?
Recall Kipperman's reading of "forlorn!": "With these beautiful words
the poem turns about, the word forlorn shocking the poet into
awareness. The beauty of an imagined "long ago" suggested by this word
(forlorn = "long ago") turns by a sad pun (forlorn = "sad")
into a remarkable moment of pained self-consciousness" (206).
Of the lyric "Belle dame sans merci" Kipperman writes: "More fundamental,
though, is Keats's growing sense, here and in his letters, of the dark
ironies of life, that is, the ways in which evil and beauty, love and pain,
aspiration and finitude, are not so much 'balanced' as interwoven in ways
that resist philosophical understanding." He goes on to suggest that these
questions are not answered in the odes; rather the poems "explore the ironies
of our attempts to answer them and of poetry's attempts to articulate them"
(203). What does this mean? To what extent do you agree?
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