Keats' Urn, Neoclassicism, Sacrifice, and Historicism

John Morillo

North Carolina State University

Delivered at NASSR, Boston, MA, Nov. 20, 1996

Although Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is noteworthy, perhaps notorious for the number of questions that it asks and that have been asked of it, I wish to hazard one more question of detail as a way into the larger issues of interrogation, untranslatability, and Keats' relationship to neoclassicism, aestheticism and historicism. My question begins with that antistrophic stanza which clearly marks a turn in mood and tone within the ode as a pastoral scene is suspended short of any Ovidian metamorphosis, and is then supplanted by sacrifice and a depopulated town: "Who are these coming to the sacrifice? / To what green altar, O mysterious priest, leadest thou" (32-3). I have deliberately truncated the line short of its given answer--the heifer that is being led--in order to emphasize the color of the altar. Why is this sacrificial spot green?

Answers to such questions, especially those starting with visual imagery, have tended to come from the ever-expanding catalog of possible vases, paintings, friezes and fragments of real Greek sculpture and other plastic arts that Keats could have seen or read about. Indeed, the critical tendency is often so strong to turn Keats' words into real marble or real paint that the ode's few definite images--men, gods, maidens, melodists, priest--are obsessively sorted according to whether or not they are on the urn and pictured, or not. But if we avoid this ontological dead end to consider instead the role of classical texts about visual arts in Keats' urn-making, we see that the green altar and the earlier pastoral dale may be one and the same, and that those coming to the sacrifice may well be the very shepherds obliviously piping in brief pastoral bliss.

The text I have in mind as important to Keats' allusive flavor is, like the poem on the urn itself, a compound text: it is Homer's Iliad in both George Chapman's 1616 and Alexander Pope's 1720 translations. From Chapman's Homer, overtly celebrated earlier by Keats, comes a possible outline for something Jack Stillinger has insisted is important to reading even Keats' lyrics: a plot. Looking again into Chapman's Homer we discover, in Book XVIII's description of Achilles' celebrated 12-section shield, two thematically linked sections of interest that move from shepherds to sacrifice. Vulcan casts the characters of a town in peace and a town in war, and Chapman translates as follows: "The one did nuptials celebrate...youths and maids in lovely circles danc'd, / To whom the merry pipe and harp their spritely sounds advanc'd" (18.445;448-9). Though these lines are perhaps already suggestive when juxtaposed with Keats' first stanza, with its own pre-nuptial musical moment accompanied by "pipes and timbrels," Chapman's verse describes a more limited earthly wedding than Keats' suggestive mythic sketch involving mortals, gods, and threat of rape, that traditional catalyst for metamorphosis. Nor does Keats' piping youth in stanza 2 closely follow Homer, who turns instead to a scene in court. But in the antithetical town, the town at war, Chapman's Homer narrates a scene that turns from an initially happy pastoral to a little society whose two representative shepherds share a grim fate with other unfortunate folk of their town:

They straight came forth, with two that us'd to keep

Their passage always; both which pip'd and went on merrily,

Nor dream'd of ambuscadoes there. The ambush then let fly,

Slew all their white-fleec'd sheep, and neat, and by them laid

their guard. (18.477-80).

Homer's ancient story-within-a-story of merry but oblivious shepherds ambushed in pseudo-Arcadia grows into a larger, more deadly one:

Amongst them all perverse Contention rose,

Amongst them Tumult was enrag'd, amongst them ruinous Fate

Had her red finger (18. 485-7).

Chapman's Homer supplies a particular story that ends in a certain kind of cold pastoral, one in which shepherds are killed in a military ambush. Not only does Homer's story of Vulcan's remarkable handiwork offer a possible expansion of the ways that death comes to haunt Keats' impressionistic arcadian scene, it suggests that red-fingered fate is at work as a priest mysterious enough to lead the sacrificial heifer to its death, while also laying waste the happy melodist, the human priest, and eventually the entire little town whose peaceful citadel belies its people's violent fate.

While Chapman's Homer provides one way to make Keats' sketchy urn into a more complete story, Pope's elaborate translation offers even stronger connections with Keats' prominent theme of transforming artistic media. Pope specifically combined his translation of the shield with critical prose "Observations on the Shield" designed to "attempt what has not yet been done, to consider it as a Work of Painting" (TE 8.358). To encourage his readers to see his words as pictures, Pope even added an engraving of the shield, proving to scoffers that all the rich detail that Homer describes could indeed fit a carefully constructed circular canvas. Pope remarks that Homer's "Intention was no less, than to draw the Picture of the whole World in the Compass of the Shield," and then describes part of what Homer drew to encompass it all as "the Pastoral Life in its Pleasures and Dangers" (8.358). Though the point is the same in Chapman, and both translators follow Homer closely, Pope neatly and characteristically condenses and summarizes the action in a way well matched to the two prominent extremes in Keats: ardent and cold pastoral. Similarly, in the "Observations" Pope's summary of the mood of the nuptial scene in Homer comes closer than Chapman to Keats' subsuming the action in sweet melody. Pope writes, "He engraved two cities; in one of them were represented Nuptials and Festivals...Every mouth sang the Hymeneal song." (8.366). This song is as appropriate to frustrated Keatsian satyrs as to the mortal spouses of Achilles' shield. And whereas Chapman's musical accompaniment was carried by "merry Pipes" (18.449), Pope had opted for an evocative "soft flute" (18.574) close to Keats' "soft pipes" (12).

Though Keats celebrated his reading encounter with Chapman, Keats' acquaintance with Pope's translation, as Marjorie Levinson has noted, is suppressed by the sonnet on Chapman, even though Keats and Cowden Clarke's later reading of Chapman was guided by their previous familiarity with what Clarke calls "some of the most famousest passages, as we had scrappily known them in Pope's version."(qtd. in Gittings, 82). As Allen Ward has pointed out, the Homer Keats quotes in his letters is Pope's, not Chapman's, and even when Keats vaunts to Haydon in 1817 that Pope's verse seems like Mice to his own, Keats' anxious reaction to Pope--perhaps reinforced by Keats' readings in Wordsworth--is palpable.

In order to pursue the significance of Homer, Chapman and Pope's neoclassical translations haunting Keats' leafy legend it is first helpful to address why Keats might have benefitted from turning to Homer's Iliad in general, and to the ecphrastic episode of Achilles' shield in particular.

Not only had the Iliad long been the touchstone for bringing the art and culture of classical Greece into a more modern world--precisely Keats' concern in his ode--Homer's description of Achilles' shield in Bk 18 exemplified for countless writers before Keats the best in ecphrastic rhetoric, the art of making words into a vivid, lively picture. Although the ancient tradition of ecphrasis is the subject of Grant Scott's recent study of Keats, and Scott begins with Achilles' shield as the icon of ecphrasis, he does not tie his initial remarks on Homer to his reading of the urn. Both Homer's description of Achilles' shield and later commentary on it, however, are well suited to Keats' ode. For just as the episode of the shield constitutes a pause in Homer's narrative, Keats' urn creates a pause in time, or at least in his cryptic story of mortality and all we need know about it. And if Lessing spoke for more Romantic critical opinion in claiming that "We see not the shield [of Achilles], but the divine master-workman employed upon it" (Scott, 3), centuries of respect for Keats' artistry has established a parallel between Homer and the English poet whom Blackwoods snidely lampooned as the "Cockney Homer" (Ryan, 262).

Keats and Homer both attempted to describe in words a work of art that (in turn) epitomized all one need know about the human condition. While many have remarked on and often scoffed at the audacity or naivete of the ode's 3-word answer to that final question--Truth is beauty--it is important to remember that earlier English neoclassicism often had a one-word answer to the same question of what we need to know about ourselves and our world: Homer. Within this cultural moment that lionized Homer as the alpha and omega of all knowledge, Pope supplies a well expressed though controversial summary: Nature and Homer are the same. That is, Neoclassicism was rooted in a belief that if Homer had already fully comprehended humans, their nature, and their world, English poets could comprehend their own world best by translating and imitating Homer. Neoclassicism's remarkably confident epic story of classical culture as indeed "all ye need to know" depended on the belief that Homer's story was fully translatable despite the formidable barriers of an alien culture's time, place, language, and religion. And of all the many neoclassical authors who paid tribute to Homer, few were more confident than Pope about the ability of Englishmen and women to fully understand and apply, in all its details, the full picture of Greek experience. Furthermore, for Pope that experience could remain intact while undergoing a metamorphosis of media that transformed Homer's lost singing voice into written Greek, then into English words indistinguishable in effect from fine painting.

Keats' ode is certainly interested in the possibility of such a transformation, and might initially seem out to imitate Homer by offering a new ecphrastic icon for a new literary culture. But soon the grounding neoclassical assumption, the very translatability of the artifact, is called into question. As the speaker insistently asks not just what is it before me--a relatively minor question often answered by the poems descriptions--but what does it mean to me confronting it now, the ode dramatizes not only frustration and mortality but the slow decay of once-confident English neoclassicism. The urn may directly tell us that beauty is truth, but it indirectly confronts the poem's narrator with collective incomprehension or, more accurately, partial but waning comprehension of an artifact from an increasingly alien past. The story of the many pictures on Achilles' shield, so utterly complete barely one hundred years earlier in both the prose and poetry of Pope's Homer, is barely a story at all in Keats' Homer. When even Homer has all but vanished from being the voice behind the most vital ancient pictures, neoclassicism of the comprehensive kind championed by Pope lies in the ashes of Keats' self-containing artifact.

I would emphasize here that it is a heritage of neoclassical appropriation that animates Keats' critical reflection on the classical past and that culminates in the aphoristic 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'/ That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" (49-50). According to Grant Scott, this couplet "belongs in a line of Pope or Dryden rather than a Romantic ode. Its neoclassical balance vindicates a determined return to civilization, to a place governed by quantifiable rules and codes of behavior" (Scott 149). Scott sees Keats resorting to this maxim's cool classicism against the grain of the rest of the earlier stanzas. By in effect labelling the funeral urn containing the remains of neoclassicism as "Pope" Keats may indeed link one demonstration of moribund neoclassical form to his earlier attack on those rocking-horse couplets in Sleep and Poetry that clearly have Pope's name on them. Not only does the voice behind the poem's final line speak in the most regular iambic line, it does presuppose a typically Popean magisterial point of view to say it at all.

Keats, however, can ill afford to take a high-handed approach to neoclassical fools. The ode works less to lament the passing of neoclassical confidence in the translation and transparency of culture, or to trash Pope, than to mark a sober stage in Keats' self-criticism. The urn is self-containing to the degree that the neoclassicism is Keats' own. For no one had set out more adamantly than Keats to make the Greek gods and heroes live again on English ground, and no one would seem so chastened to admit the defeat of that project. But by 1819, as Robert Ryan has argued, one notices in Keats "a detachment and distancing from the world of Greek myths, a new tendency to present such 'religion' as something remote, transient" (Ryan 271). If Keats, by the time of the Grecian ode, has become less sanguine about his earlier neoclassical optimism, has he also chosen an alternative art for a more modern world?

Perhaps Keats places beauty and truth together in his peroration in order to highlight a nascent aesthetic ideal that owes more to Longinus than Plato. Skeptical of the comprehensiveness of the neoclassical version of the story of past and present, Keats ode dwells on a series of fragmented moments more beautiful because less complete, therefore more capable of approaching the Keatsian negative aesthetic of remaining in doubt. Whereas Pope might have given his age a beautiful, animated Homer, Keats leaves a more Byronic corpse of Greece more sublime than either beautiful or picturesque.

And yet even this view, despite support from the letters, too easily resolves into an aesthetic of sublime romantic fragmentation. Aestheticism itself is a problem in the poem rather than a solution. Rather than picturing a world whose perfect completeness masks a too static, too stable view of time and people, Keats' ode becomes in its very incompleteness an historicist critique not only of neoclassicism, but of any kind of aestheticism that sacrifices history. The urn can thus be transformed from timeless icon--the fate of Pope's painterly Iliad--to a virtual image of historical change registered in the recognition of an alien past. What remains at issue in this poem continues to vex our world of art and criticism, an unresolved but productive tension not only between the poetics of the lyric and the codes of narrative, as Marjorie Garson has argued, but between historicism and aestheticism, artistic and critical alternatives pictured in this poem as hot and cold pastoralism.

In the historical and cultural intertexture of the urn, Homer and Greek culture more generally devolves into impressionistic, aesthetic fragments that only stabilize beautifully out of narrative and historical flux when critical parts of the human story as one of fated change and violence have been forgotten or effaced. Keats' dialog with Homer and his followers, by leaving out the critical moment when the shepherds are ambushed, suggests how a cultural story slips into aesthetic security and sterility by forgetting history and, more pointedly, forgetting history as stories of war, treachery, and death.

In both instances the objects that have generated countless aesthetic raptures, Achilles' shield and Keats' urn, are intimately connected to both death and war, those ravages of historical time. However beautiful a canvas Achilles' shield makes, particularly in its Popean form, it is also one of several weapons that make for grimly efficient slaughter. The most god-like art ultimately kills. Nor can Keats' urn, taken in broader historical context, be happily sublimed from its author's knowledge that the British museum had procured countless glorious artifacts beyond the Elgin marbles primarily as the spoils of war. Greece in 1820 was neither still nor unravished, as Byron would too soon discover.

Finally, to return to the altar with which we began, if Homer's shield of Achilles, especially as filtered through neoclassical eyes, supplies a plausible gloss for a green scene of sacrifice, this reading has argued that Keats uncovers further sacrificial victims. For there are necessary sacrifices involved not only in believing in idyllic pastoralism and neoclassicism, but in aesthetic and historicist attitudes toward art. Although historicism often directly counters aestheticism by joining truth with ugliness--epitomized by the ugliness of war--Keats' post-neoclassical paradox hints to our critical generation, so enamored of historicism as a better, wiser answer to what we really need to know about art and culture, that the more we count on the completeness of any historical picture the less likely it is to be true.