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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography
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About this Person
Born: October 21, 1772 in Ottery Saint Mary, England
Died: July 25, 1834 in London, United Kingdom
Nationality: British
Occupation: Writer
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c. 1789

Romanticism as a literary movement lasted from 1798, with the publication of Lyrical Ballads to some time between the passage of the first Reform Bill of 1832 and the death of Wordsworth in 1850. With political revolution on the Continent and the industrial revolution underway, the period witnessed the breakdown of rigid ideas about the structure and purpose of society and the known world. During this period, emphasis shifted to the importance of the individual's experience in the world and one's subjective interpretation of that experience, rather than interpretations handed down by the church or tradition.

Romantic literature is characterized by several features. It emphasized the dream, or inner, world of the individual and visionary, fantastic, or drug-induced imagery. There was a growing suspicion of the established church and a turn toward pantheism (the belief that God is a part of the created world rather than separate from it). Romantic literature emphasized the individual self and the value of the individual's experience. The concept of "the sublime" (a thrilling emotional experience that combines awe, magnificence, and horror) was introduced. Feeling and emotion were viewed as superior to logic and analysis.

For the romantics, poetry was believed to be the highest form of literature, and novels were regarded as a lower form, often as sensationalistic
Romanticism Page 706  |  Top of Articleand titillating, even by those most addicted to reading them. Most novels of the time were written by women and were therefore widely regarded as a threat to serious, intellectual culture. Despite this, some of the most famous British novelists wrote during this period, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott. In addition, this period saw the flowering of some of the greatest poets in the English language: the first generation of William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth, followed by Byron, Shelley, and Keats.


Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Jane Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, England, the youngest daughter of a clergyman. Her six novels were set in the provincial world in which she lived, that of the comfortable, rural middle class, and were often based on her observations of people she knew and her assessments of human nature. The novels depict young women entering society, many of whom make mistakes or become confused but ultimately find their way to a happy marriage.

Austen began writing as a teenager and initially shared her writing only with family and friends. When she eventually published, she did so anonymously. Not well known in her own time, she soon garnered a reputation for her precision, irony, and delicate touch. Her best-known works are Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Emma (1816). She influenced many later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. Austen's books have endured into the twenty-first century as some of the few classics widely read for pleasure. She died from illness on July 18, 1817, in Winchester, England.

William Blake (1757-1827)

Artist and visionary poet William Blake, born November 28, 1757, in London, England, to a hosier, was apprenticed at age fifteen to the engraver JamesBasire, forwhom Blakemadedrawingsat Westminster Abbey. In 1783, Blake's Poetical Sketches were printed, and in 1789, he engraved Thel and The Songs of Innocence. The increasing turmoil caused by the French Revolution and the
Lord Byron Lord Byron(© Bettmann / Corbis) war between Britain and France influenced Blake to engrave America (1793) and The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793). In the following year, he produced the combined Songs of Innocence and Experience,aswellas Europe and The First Book of Urizen.

In 1803, Blake was accused of sedition (inciting resistance or insurrection against lawful authority). He was tried in 1804 but acquitted of the charge. During this time, he finished Milton and began Jerusalem. However, for the next two decades he was increasingly despairing, poverty-stricken, and obscure. He was regarded as insane by some observers and eked out a living by illustrating a pottery catalog and selling his print collection. However, late in his life he found supporters and patrons, and in 1820 Jerusalem was finally engraved. He died August 12, 1827, in London. While he was known primarily as an artist and engraver during his lifetime, Blake came to be known as a leading romantic poet and philosopher, influencing other poets such as William Butler Yeats.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

George Gordon Byron was born January 22, 1788, in London, England, inheriting his title of Page 707  |  Top of Articlethe sixth Lord Byron when he was ten years old. He grew up at the family estate near Nottingham, Newstead Abbey, and received an education at Harrow and Cambridge. His first publication, the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, was based on a tour of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey he took between 1809 and 1811. The work was immediately successful, and he followed it with a series of tales featuring exotic Middle Eastern settings and hero-villains.

Byron's marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke in 1815 lasted only fifteen months, largely due to rumors spread by Byron himself about his homosexuality and incestuous relations with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1816 he left England permanently, undertaking a series of trips which inspired cantos three and four of Childe Harold (1816, 1818). Eventually, he settled in Venice, Italy, where his immersion in the Italian language and culture had a profound influence on his work, particularly Don Juan (1819-1824). While in Italy, he was the lover of Countess Teresa Guiccioli and became involved with Italian independence movements. In 1823 he went to Greece to participate in the Greek movement for independence from the Turks. He died during a violent electrical storm on April 19, 1824, in Missolonghi, Greece, after suffering from fever-induced illness for almost two weeks. His body was returned to England, but burial in Westminster Abbey was refused because of his scandalous past. He was eventually buried in his family's vaults near Newstead Abbey. In his time, Byron's work was noted for its emphasis on freedom, its overtly sexual themes, its pessimism, and its use of tormented, villainous heroes.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born October 21, 1772, in Ottery St. Mary, Devon, England, the youngest child of a clergyman and his wife. At the age of ten he entered Christ's Hospital School in London, where he read a wide variety of classical and political works. In 1791, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, and became interested in revolutionary politics and Unitarianism. He left school without earning a degree. In 1794, he met poet Robert Southey, with whom he planned a utopian community to be built on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States. As part of this plan Coleridge married Southey's sister-in-law Sara Fricker.

In 1794, he published his first poetry in the Morning Chronicle. As chronicled by Daniel Robinson, Coleridge tried his hand at sonnets but failed utterly and abandoned the form. In 1795, he began giving a series of lectures to finance the utopian scheme, but when the idea was abandoned, he returned to writing poetry. From 1797 to 1798, he lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset, and completed the poems "The Ancient Mariner," "Frost at Midnight," "Fears in Solitude," and "Kubla Khan," some of his best-known works. In 1798, with William and Dorothy Wordsworth, he traveled to Germany, where he became deeply interested in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Coleridge's addiction to opium gradually overtook him and his marriage. He traveled to Malta in 1804 in an attempt to restore his mental and physical health, as well as his marriage. He returned to England in 1806, but by then his marriage had fallen apart.

By 1813, he had returned to Christian beliefs and was being treated for his opium addiction. He began working on Biographia Literaria (1817), a discussion of poetry and a critique of Wordsworth, drawing on the work of German philosophers such as Kant and Fichte. He died July 25, 1834, in Highgate, England.

John Keats (1795-1821)

John Keats was the youngest of the major romantic poets. He was born October 31, 1795, in London, England, to a lower-middle-class family. His father's accidental death in 1804, and his mother's death in 1809 after a long bout with tuberculosis, marked him with a sense of life's precariousness, a theme that recurs in his poetry. He was apprenticed to a surgeon and in 1816 was licensed as an apothecary and surgeon. This training in science helped to ground his poetry in the sensory details of nature and everyday life.

His first published poem was "O Solitude," which appeared in The Examiner in 1816, and aroused the interest of Leigh Hunt, the periodical's editor, who encouraged him to quit his medical practice and devote his life to poetry. Keats viewed this as the noblest goal one could have and was filled with a deep sense of the continuity of poetry and literature through the ages, a great love for the English language, and a desire to return poetry to its roots in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Spenser. His first published collection entitled simply Poems 1817 (1817) Page 708  |  Top of Articlewas dedicated to Leigh Hunt. His second work, Endymion (1818), fell short of his own expectations, but his third collection, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems (1820) contained "some of the greatest poems in the English language," according to Jean-Claude Sallé in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson). Keats died of tuberculosis February 23, 1821, in Rome, at the age of twenty-five.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Alexander Pushkin is Russia's most famous and beloved poet. He was born June 6, 1799, in Moscow and began writing at an early age. His first poem was published when he was fifteen years old. By the time he finished school, he was already a recognized literary figure. As a young man, he became involved in social reform and was chased into exile by the government for his political activities for nearly a decade. He married Natalya Goncharova in 1831, and they soon were given titles and joined royal society. Push-kin challenged a man who insulted his wife to a duel. He was wounded and died soon thereafter on February 10, 1837. He was only 37 years old. He came to be considered a romantic and the father of modern Russian literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is best known as the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). She was born August 30, 1797, in London, England. The daughter of two well-known authors, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary experienced early years full of instability. Her mother died ten days after her birth, and she was raised by her father and stepmother. In 1812 she met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, a friend of her father, and in 1814 they ran off together, though Percy was already married. During Mary and Percy's subsequent travels in Europe, Mary began work on Frankenstein. Percy's wife Harriet committed suicide in 1816, and shortly afterward Percy and Mary were married. Four years after Frankenstein was published, Percy drowned. Mary died of a brain tumor on February 1, 1851, in London.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the oldest child and only son of a baronet. He was born August 4, 1792, in Horsham, Sussex, England. He attended Eton, where he was mercilessly harassed because of his acute sensitivity and distaste for physical activity. He then attended University College in Oxford, but was expelled after a few months because he published a pamphlet promoting atheism. Shortly after his expulsion, he eloped with Harriet Westbrook as part of a plan to help her escape from her boarding school.

By 1914, his marriage was failing, and when Shelley met Mary Wollstonecraft through a friendship with her father, he decided to leave with her for Europe. Harriet committed suicide in 1816, and shortly after this Shelley married Godwin. By 1818 the couple, with Mary's step-sister Claire Clairmont, decided to move to Italy, and Shelley never returned to England. He and Mary wandered throughout Italy, and between 1818 and 1822 Shelley wrote some of his most important work, including Prometheus Unbound (1820) and his odes and lyrics. His work is noted for its reflections on a great variety of fields—including science, history, philosophy—and for his attempts to synthesize seemingly conflicting theories in these fields. Shelley was drowned in a storm while sailing on the bay of La Spezia July 8, 1822. His body was cremated on the beach a few days later.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

William Wordsworth was born April 7, 1770, in Cockermouth, Cumberland, England. His father was a law agent, and after his mother's death in 1778, he was sent away to school, where he enjoyed a great deal of freedom. His father died in 1783, leaving Wordsworth and his four siblings in the care of relatives. Throughout his life, Wordsworth remained very close to his sister Dorothy.

Wordsworth began writing poetry as a young man, but his most notable works were composed after 1803 and many of them were collected in Poems in Two Volumes (1807). These volumes include the famous "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" and "Resolution and Independence." His long poem The Excursion was published in 1814 and was widely read. In 1835, a major collection of his poems was published, and in 1843 he became poet laureate of England.

Wordsworth's poetry is notable for his vision of the sublime, or the divine, in ordinary people and places. He believed wholeheartedly in the redeeming power of nature, and saw Page 709  |  Top of Articlemystery and wonder in both people and natural things. Wordsworth died after a bout of pleurisy on April 23, 1850, in Rydal, Cumbria, England.


Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Byron published cantos one and two of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812, canto three in 1816, and canto four in 1818. The poem is based on Byron's European travels and describes exotic landscapes and people, along with contemporary military and political events, presenting them from the viewpoint of Childe Harold. Harold is a typical Byronic hero: Tormented by guilt over an unnamed sin, he is bitter, cynical, and melancholy, but also proud, and at times filled with remorse. Because of these feelings he is isolated from other people, cut off by the intensity of his feelings and by his intense suffering. He wanders in search of some release, but never finds it.

Byron's descriptions of current political events, such as the Spanish resistance to the French invaders and the battle of Waterloo, show the senselessness of war as well as the human drive for freedom from oppression. In his hero's unsatisfied wanderings through a great variety of places, he presents the idea that the only human permanence is found in writing and the lofty creations of the human mind.

Early reviewers praised the poem for its originality, despite Byron's scandalous reputation, and Byron secured lasting fame because of it. It was widely imitated and translated, and was the basis of a symphonic work by Berlioz. According to J. R. Watson in A Handbook to English Romanticism, "It is a poem about Europe, and Europe was delighted to recognize itself in this passionate, elegiac, conservative yet liberal and revolutionary masterpiece."

Eugene Onegin

Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin was published serially from 1825 to 1832. It is considered a classic of Russian literature. Eugene Onegin is the story of a young socialist who moves to a family estate in the country. He makes the acquaintance one evening with a young, romantic woman named Tatiana who quickly falls in love with Onegin. Contrary to acceptable behavior, she writes him a letter professing her love, only

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  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was first filmed by inventor Thomas Edison in 1910 and directed by J. Searle Dawley. This film has since been lost from public archives, but many more versions were made. These include the most famous adaptation, filmed in 1931 by Universal Pictures, which starred Boris Karloff as the monster.
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has also spawned numerous spin-offs, including Bride of Frank-enstein (Universal, 1932), Son of Frankenstein (Universal, 1939), GhostofFrankenstein (Universal, 1942), and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (Universal, 1943).
  • Frankenstein was made into a comedy in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Universal, 1946) and Mel Brooks's Young Frankenstein (Twentieth Century Fox, 1974). In 1994, a more serious version, which claimed to be faithful to the book, was produced by Columbia/Tristar, titled Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
  • Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was filmed as a television miniseries in 1995 by BBC Television and the A&E Network. It was first shown on the A&E Network beginning in January 1996 and as of 2008 was available on video and DVD. The program starred Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. It was directed by Simon Langton.
  • Alexander Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin was made into a film, Onegin,in 2000. Directed by Martha Fiennes, it stars her brother Ralph Fiennes as the title character and Liv Tyler at Tatiana. As of 2008 it was available on DVD from Lions Gate.

to be rejected by Onegin. Soon thereafter, Onegin insults Tatiana's sister at a party and kills her sister's future brother-in-law in the resulting duel. Three years later, in St. Petersburg, Onegin Page 710  |  Top of Article
Illustration of the poem The Tyger by William Blake Illustration of the poem "The Tyger" by William Blake(Blake, William, illustrator. From an illustration in William Blake at the Huntington, by Robert N. Essick. Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, and The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1994. Copyright 1994 The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery) meets Tatiana again but does not recognize her because she is now mature, refined, and married to royalty. When he realizes who she is, he tries repeatedly to win her attention even though she is married. Tatiana rejects him because she is a loyal wife, despite that fact that she still loves him.


Mary Shelley's novel, published between 1816 and 1818, is classically romantic in its emphasis on feelings over intellect and the dangers of relying exclusively on intellect; the frightening, awe-inspiring nature of the sublime; the loneliness of the sensitive hero; and the sadness inherent in the human ability to corrupt what should be naturally good. In the novel, arrogant scientist Victor Frankenstein creates a man using dead bodies, and animates him. The childlike monster wants only to be loved, but horrifies everyone who sees him.

Shelley subtitled the novel "A Modern Prometheus," linking Frankenstein to the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. Prometheus was ultimately punished by Zeus for meddling in this way. Shelley makes the point that, in taking the power to create life for himself, Frankenstein is heading for a fall. He loses touch with other people and with all human feelings. By the end of the book Frankenstein is even more alienated than the monster he created. The idea of a protagonist whose ambition defiantly knows no bounds was attractive to other romantic writers, including Shelley's husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Coleridge, and Byron.

Frankenstein shocked readers of its time, who were horrified by the idea of digging up the dead and reanimating them. Many initial reviewers attacked the book. However, the book was immediately famous with the general populace, despite its shocking nature. The first stage adaptation of it occurred in 1823, the first film was made in 1910, and adaptations continued being made through the twentieth century into the twenty-first. In Exploring Novels, George V. Griffith wrote, "Frankenstein lives well beyond its young author's modest intentions to write an entertaining gothic tale to pass some time indoors on a cold Swiss summer evening."

Pride and Prejudice

Austen's 1813 novel, which she originally published anonymously, is her second and best-known work. She wrote it for her family's amusement, but readers everywhere have enjoyed its wit, amusing dialogue, and insightful characterizations. It is a "novel of manners"; in other words, it portrays comfortable middle-class rural people and dramatizes the complex web of customs and manners holding everyone in their social places. Anyone who transgresses this code is destined for a fall. The novel, like all of Austen's books, shows a young woman learning how society and human nature operate. Throughout the book, Austen shows the results of improper behavior; some characters learn from their mistakes, while others do not. But as for a mate, each character gets the partner he or she deserves.

Although Austen was not well known during her lifetime, her books influenced later writers, including Charles Dickens, W. M. Thackeray, Page 711  |  Top of Articleand Anthony Trollope, as well as George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. In addition, she helped to raise the novel to a respected art form and paved the way for other women to write even when they did not share the extensive education that was then reserved for men. Despite her relative obscurity during her lifetime, Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice has sold more than 20million copies since its original publication and has never been out of print.

Prometheus Unbound

Percy Bysshe Shelley's long verse play Prometheus Unbound (1820) portrays the epic struggle between the Roman god Jupiter and the Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. In the four-act play, Jupiter personifies the forces of tyranny and Prometheus is a symbol of revolution and liberty, making the poem a commentary on the current political situation in England, as well as a depiction of the human struggle for freedom and truth throughout history.

According to Murray G. H. Pittock in the Reference Guide to English Literature, writer C. S. Lewis called Prometheus Unbound "the best long poem written in English in the nineteenth century." Pittock himself comments, "Prometheus Unbound is a stupendous vision of human potential," while the play also makes clear "human beings are limited by the very desires they so long to fulfill."

Songs of Innocence and of Experience

Blake wrote the earliest poems in his Songs of Innocence prior to 1784 and completed the collection by 1789. In 1793 Songs of Experience was published, and the two collections were combined in 1794. Blake subtitled the combination, "Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," indicating that they were meant to complement each other. These beloved poems are both simple and remarkably complex. In some of the more transparent, such as "London" and "The Chimney Sweeper," Blake uses his poetic skill as a vehicle for social protest. He is indignant about the suffering among the urban poor and accuses both the Church and the monarchy for ignoring the situation.

In Songs of Innocence Blake presents childhood fears and hopes couched in the perspective of individuals who have had only a little experience. He also identifies the purity of country life with innocence and the depravity of city life with what he calls experience. Some of these poems celebrate the joyful potential of childhood, for, like Wordsworth, Blake believed children are closer to the divine than adults are.

In Songs of Experience, by contrast, Blake provides the street-wise cynical perspective that only children who have suffered in the world or been betrayed by adults can possibly know or understand. Like all of Blake's poetry, the gullibility and naiveté of innocence with the jaded cynicism of experience.

Blake illuminated each poem, the images of which in many cases offer another perspective or slant on the meaning of the poem. Some of Blake's art work and some of the illuminations that appeared with these poems can be seen at the Web site maintained by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

According to Francois Piquet in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), this was "the only one of Blake's books that attracted the admiration of his fellow writers during his lifetime." Piquet notes that Coleridge said of Blake, "He is a man of genius . . . certainly a mystic, emphatically."

"To Autumn"

John Keats's ode, "To Autumn," written in September 1819, was the last ode he wrote that year. According to Douglas Brooks-Davies in the Reference Guide to English Literature, "There is virtually unanimous critical acclaim for the poem's supremacy among Keats's works." "To Autumn" is simply a description of the fall season and seems to serve as a conclusion to the odes Keats wrote before it. Like his other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poem can be seen as a commentary on grief, most likely in response to the death of Keats's beloved brother Tom in December 1818.

"To Autumn" expresses the poet's deep love of and sensual connection with nature, and his view of nature as a place of spiritual contemplation and renewal—typical of the romantics. According to Salléin Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson), "With the odes, Keats invented not only a new and influential mode of symbolic poetry but also discovered the form most appropriate to his agnostic, questing genius." Klaus Hofmann, in a study of Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn," analyzes the transformed Page 712  |  Top of Articlepurpose of an ode, which must claim its aesthetic value, its purpose, and its reason for being.


Dreams and Visions

Perhaps the most notable example of the emphasis on dreams and visions in romantic literature is Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan" (1816), which he claimed to have written during a dream while deeply asleep. While transcribing the lines from his dream, he was interrupted by a visitor, and later claimed that if this interruption had not occurred, the poem would have been much longer. The idea that a person could compose poetry while asleep was commonplace among romantics. Although critics at the time were not particularly enthusiastic about "Kubla Khan," people tended not to question whether it was possible for someone to dream such a long poem.

Coleridge was not the only person who claimed to dream the lines of his poetry. In the seventeenth century, John Milton also claimed to have received verses while sleeping, and Keats, like others, believed that poets were endowed with a special gift to translate dreams into words. In addition, Coleridge was known to use laudanum as a stimulant and for inspiration. Thomas De Quincey wrote Confessions of an Opium Eater in order to expose the addictive nature of opium and warn against its use.


Pantheism, which is the belief that there is no difference between the creator and creation, holds that God is not separate from the world, but manifested in it. This idea was popular among romantics. For example, Wordsworth writes in his poem "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798":

    And I have felt
    A presence that disturbs me with the joy
    Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused,
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
    And the round ocean, and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.

This sensation of a divine "presence" in all things marked a shift in public perceptions of nature. Until this period, most people were busy struggling to eke out a living, largely through

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  • Read Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein and watch one or more of the many films that were inspired by the book. How do the book and film differ? How are they similar? In particular, how is the character of the monster portrayed in each?
  • During the romantic period, opium was cheap, available, and widely used, and people did not know its use could be harmful. Read Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822). Write an essay about de Quincey and the way this drug affected him.
  • Read some of Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience and find the accompanying artwork online or in a book. Write an essay on the poem in which you describe the art work and speculate about what interpretation of the poem can be drawn from it.
  • Read about the life of Mary Shelley or Jane Austen. Write an essay explaining how they were affected by cultural attitudes and expectations of women in their time period? How did their literary works convey their response to their milieu.

farming, and viewed nature as the resource that could be used and harvested, not as a place of renewal and purity. However, with the rise of the Industrial Revolution, cities became more crowded and dirty. To the growing urban middle class, the green countryside became more attractive as a place of recreation and an escape from the ever-increasing filth and disorder that industry brought to towns. The romantics likewise viewed nature as a place of spiritual purity and peace, where people could be redeemed by contact with the divine force immanent in the natural world.

The Self

During the romantic period, for the first time in history, people became aware that there were Page 713  |  Top of Articleparts of each individual's personality beyond the access of ordinary consciousness. This idea was further developed during the twentieth century as part of modern psychological theory, but at the time of the romantics it was a novelty. The romantics were fascinated with self-exploration and with the particulars of the individual's experience in the world. Previous writers had focused on politics, business, trade, and the lives of royalty or other famous people. The lives of ordinary people had been deemed unworthy of general interest. However, the romantics were influenced by the events of the American and French revolutions and their underlying political theories, and like the revolutionaries they believed the ordinary individual had the same rights and worth as any leader. This sociopolitical theory inspired writers to consider the worth of the individual in their work and to focus more on the experiences of ordinary people.

Emotion and Feeling

In keeping with an emphasis on the individual self, the romantics valued emotion, intuition, and feeling over logic. They sought "the sublime," a state of being in which a person was simultaneously awed, frightened, and filled with a sense of majesty and wonder. A poet's response to a wild, remote, and grandiose place in nature often invoked the sublime, as did the immense night sky, gigantic geological upheavals, and rivers. They appreciated the ruins of cathedrals and ancient religious sites. Romantics also relied on their intuitive sense of things—as opposed to physical facts—to interpret the world. If a writer sensed the presence of the divine in a natural spot, for example, the reality of this presence was not questioned, but accepted as a given because the person had felt it.


Rejection of Rigid Poetic Forms

In keeping with their glorification of the unlimited freedom and potential of the individual, the romantics rejected old poetic conventions—such as the heroic couplet used by Alexander Pope—and asserted the value of the language spoken by ordinary people. They believed that the form of a verse should be shaped by the subject matter, in contrast to the neoclassicists before them, who used rigid forms and shaped their material to fit them.

Emphasis on Poetry

An interesting aspect of the romantic period was the emphasis on poetry. Most of the great romantic writers were poets instead of novelists, as novels were widely regarded as inherently inferior to poetry. Critics have offered various reasons for this prejudice. Some suggest it arose from the fact that most novelists were female, and because women were devalued during the romantic period, their work was discounted. Others note that many novels were of poor quality, giving the entire genre a bad reputation. In addition, as Bradford K. Mudge notes in his foreword in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the poets themselves, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, campaigned against the spread of popular fiction, claiming it would lower the tastes of the reading public and lead them away from poetry. According to Mudge, Wordsworth wrote that newspapers, novels, plays, and even some poetry, would "encourage mental lethargy" and reduce readers to "a savage, uncivilized state."


American Romanticism

In the Emerson Society Quarterly, James E. Miller Jr. writes, "America has traditionally incarnated the romantic in almost every sense," and that "The American adventure, the great democratic experiment . . . are the essence of Romanticism." Romanticism in the United States flourished between 1812 and the years of the Civil War. Like English Romanticism, its writers emphasized the dignity and freedom of the individual; rebellion against restrictions, whether political, cultural, or social; the importance of emotion over intellect; and the need for a personal relationship with God as provided by and in the natural world.

American Romanticism differed from the English movement in so far as it was shaped by factors unique to U.S. history, culture, and geography. Americans, unlike the English, lived in a more directly democratic society in which the ordinary individual had political power and was free from the dictates of a king, the aristocracy, and an established, landed upper class. In addition, rebellion and freedom of all kinds were encouraged, at least among white people, by the presence of an apparently limitless supply of Page 714  |  Top of Articleland; if whites felt restricted, they would simply move farther west, where there was less social restriction and seemingly more opportunity. In small, insular England, this feeling of personal freedom and the lure of "the open road" were experienced differently. The romantic poets were great walkers. Indeed, Wordsworth' long poem, The Prelude begins with the speaker heading out of London on foot, intent on walking north toward the Lake District.

Because the United States was a new country, it did not have a separate set of literary forms, traditions, and masters. This lack of a creative structure or ceiling encouraged writers to experiment with new forms, genres, and styles. Americans felt a certain rivalry with Britain and wanted to prove that they, like the British, could create works of lasting merit that reflected the uniqueness of the American character. Thus, American romantic writers focused on American settings and themes. In addition, the vast and largely unspoiled beauty of the American landscape provided perfect material for romantic musings on nature and spirituality.

Writers considered part of the American romantic movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman. According to Mark Bevir in the English Historical Review, these writers differed from their British counterparts in their "close relationship to both Unitarianism and frontier individualism."

Unitarians opposed the concept of a divine Trinity and believed that God had a single personality or manifestation. They rejected the concepts of damnation and eternal hell, the innate sinfulness of humanity, and the belief that Jesus had atoned for human sins. Bevir notes these beliefs "readily opened the way to a belief in a single spiritual deity existing within nature, rather than a transcendent God standing outside nature." He comments that although English romantics believed nature could inspire or renew people, American romantics typically believed God and nature were one and that God's purpose was achieved through the action of natural forces.

Many romantics in England and the United States looked to the past for inspiration. In England, Coleridge believed that a national church could provide stability and balance against the onward forces of social progress, and art critic John Ruskin was interested in reviving the medieval importance of trade guilds and craft skills. However, American romantics such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman were inspired by the democratic ideals of U.S. presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. American romantics emphasized material simplicity, living close to nature, and the honest manual labor of the self-sufficient farmer and frontier dweller. Thoreau—perhaps the greatest proponent of the simple, self-sufficient life—lived alone in a cabin by Walden Pond, trying to simplify his lifestyle so he would be able to time away from work for contemplation, the study of nature, and his writings.

Celtic Renaissance

The Celtic Renaissance is a period of Irish literary and cultural history at the end of the nineteenth century. Followers of the movement aimed to create a romantic vision of Celtic myth and legend. The most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance typically present a dreamy, unreal world, usually in reaction to the reality of contemporary problems. William Butler Yeats's The Wanderings of Oisin is among the most significant works of the Celtic Renaissance. It is also known as the Celtic Twilight.


Platonism is the philosophy attributed to Plato, popular among the poets of the Renaissance and the Romantic period. Platonism stressed the ideal over the real, asserting that a world of ideal forms exists beyond the material world perceived by humans. Platonism is expressed to varying extent in the love poetry of the Renaissance, the fourth book of Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, and the poetry of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Friedrich Holderlin, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens.


The Pre-Raphaelites were a circle of writers and artists in mid-nineteenth-century England. Valuing the pre-Renaissance artistic qualities of religious symbolism, lavish pictorialism, and natural sensuousness, the Pre-Raphaelites cultivated a sense of mystery and melancholy that influenced later writers associated with the symbolist and decadent movements. The major members of the group include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Swinburne, and Walter Pater.

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  • Nineteenth Century: Women are not expected or encouraged to have professions or to make a living. There are no women diplomats, lawyers, or judges, and professions such as medicine, law, engineering, architecture, and banking refuse entry to women. A woman must marry to ensure that she will be financially supported. It is considered immoral for an unmarried woman to live alone. If a woman does not marry, she is expected to earn her keep and remain "respectable" by living with and taking care of a male sibling or her parents.

    Today: Although there are still differences in pay scale and status between men and women in many fields, women in many countries are now working in all professions and can choose to be educated in any field. In addition, a majority of women are not required to marry and can choose the type of household or family that is most suitable to them.

  • Nineteenth Century: The Industrial Revolution results in a greater variety of goods for consumers as well as in the growth of cities. It also leads to pollution, urban overcrowding, labor problems, and the exploitation of laborers, including children. The growing blight in the cities leads people to view nature in a new light and to value it for its own sake rather than simply as a resource to be exploited.

    Today: Factories are still polluting the environment, and people are still trying to find a balance between industrial growth and the preservation of natural resources. However, children in most industrialized nations are no longer permitted to work and laws require factories to provide safe workplaces. A computer/Internet revolution is occurring, leading to widespread changes in industry, communications, and consumer habits.

  • Nineteenth Century: Novels are largely regarded as "trash," not something serious, intelligent people should spend time reading. Many novelists are women. Poetry is considered the highest form of literature.

    Today: Novels are written by both men and women and are widely read. They range from light reading to serious, award-winning fiction, and some novelists make millions of dollars on their books. In contrast to the romantic age, poetry has been marginalized in popular culture, and it is difficult for poets to make a living from their works.


American and French Revolutions

The French Revolution, which drew upon some of the principles enacted in the American Revolution, resulted in the overthrow of the monarchy of France and the spread of interest in democracy, nationalism, and socialism throughout Europe. On the eve of the revolution, France was in crisis; the monarchy, which claimed to rule by divine right, had spent so much money that the country had a massive deficit. A poor harvest and bitter winter in 1788 plunged the country into famine and drastically increased prices. In addition, British textile makers were underselling their French counterparts, leading to the closure of some French manufacturers and the spread of unemployment among the workers. The increasingly restless poor found that the wealthy nobles, clergy, and upper middle class made good targets for their anger at this situation.

The revolution was not a clean victory for either the poor or democracy, as by 1799 France was a military dictatorship. However, intellectuals throughout Europe were thrilled and inspired by the notion of revolutionaries rising Page 716  |  Top of Articleup and demanding their rights. Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and others wrote glowingly of the revolution, and Bysshe Shelley and Byron thoroughly supported its radical principles. In general, the romantics believed in the worth, potential, and freedom of the individual, and exalted this freedom over the then-traditional acceptance of social hierarchy and political repression.

Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a period of social and economic change that began in the mid-1700s and lasted until the late 1800s. This change was instigated by the invention of various mechanical means of producing goods more quickly and cheaply than by hand. For example, textile mills allowed the production of vast amounts of cloth, with far less labor and cost, than if the cloth were produced by the traditional method of individual weavers working in their homes. Factory ironworks produced iron items more quickly than individual craftspeople could, and the "spinning jenny," a device for spinning thread, could make more cotton thread than many human spinners.

The Industrial Revolution was also fueled by declining mortality rates, which resulted in rapid population growth. The increasing numbers of people provided both a workforce for the factories and a market for the goods produced.

The new factories necessitated improved transportation routes for raw materials and finished goods, as well as housing and other services for the laborers. These needs caused roads and canals to be improved or constructed, and swelled the cities with cheaply built housing. The first British railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was built in 1821.

The factories hired women and children as well as men, and were often unsafe. Housing built for the workers was often substandard and unsanitary. The factories themselves polluted both air and water, belching out smoke from coal-fired furnaces and releasing dye and other wastes into rivers. The regimented hours and repetitive work in the factories were viewed as dehumanizing and numbing by the general populace.

Romantic writers were aware of these changes, which presented such a contrast between the hellish life of the city laborer and the purity and peace of nature. The industrial changes convinced many romantics the natural world was purer than the industrial one, and that nature was a place of spiritual truth, release, and renewal. In The Excursion, Wordsworth applauds the advances in science and technology that made the mills possible, but also criticizes the exploitation of women and children, the dehumanizing work shifts, and the all-encompassing greed of the factory owners.

Religious Influences

The Church of England was the official religious body during the Romantic period, but it had lost touch with much of the population. Some parishes were run by parsons who never actually visited them, while other parsons pursued their own material and physical pleasures. The growing urban population of uneducated laborers often went unserved, and in the largest cities many people were disillusioned about the church. David Jasper notes in the Handbook to English Romanticism (edited by Jean Raimond and J. R. Watson) that on Easter Day 1800, there were only six worshipers in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Coleridge (as quoted in the Handbook to English Romanticism), whose father was a clergyman, was so skeptical that he wrote about his own son's baptism, "Shall I suffer the Toad of Priesthood to spurt out his foul juice in this Babe's face?" In general, the romantics believed the established church was stale and complacent, and they sought other avenues to express their spirituality.

The Unitarians, at the time a small sect that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and believed that Christ was not divine, were highly educated and had a great deal of influence on the romantics. Coleridge, who was a Unitarian for some time, preached in their churches. Romantics were also influenced by the views of Immanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic who promoted a pantheistic worldview particularly attractive to William Blake, who attended a Swedenborgian conference in 1787.

However, of all religious groups, the Methodists had the most impact on the romantics, who were moved by the Methodist portrayal of humans as sinners seeking redemption and the grace of God. In addition, the Methodist emphasis on emotional conversion rather than intellectual contemplation, as well as their joy at Christ's gift of salvation, fit the romantic worldview.

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The writers who are now called "romantic" did not consider themselves to be part of a movement while they were writing. The term "romantic" was applied to them much later. At the time they were writing, their work received a mixed reception. Some works, like Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience were immediately praised, and others, such as Austen's novels and Blake's other work, did not receive recognition until long after their original publications.

As John R. Greenfield points out in his fore-word in the Dictionary of Literary Biography,contemporaries of the romantic poets saw them "not as a monolithic movement all agreeing upon the basic premises of Romanticism, but as belonging to various schools with different orientations concerning taste, religion, and politics." Greenfield also notes that much literary criticism was based not on the work in question but on the writer's political stance; if the critic objected to a writer's politics, he simply gave the writer a bad review. The critics divided the poets into various schools: a "radical circle" of Blake, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley; the "Lake Poets," including Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey; the "Cockney School," which included Keats and Leigh Hunt; and the "Satanic School" of Percy Shelley and Byron. The latter group received its name because of Byron's scandalous reputation and Shelley's atheism and radical beliefs, which shocked readers of the time.

In the early twentieth century, Romanticism was strongly criticized by writers such as T. S. Eliot, T. E. Hulme, and Cleanth Brooks. In Midwest Quarterly, Asad Al-Ghalith writes, "Throughout most of his writing career, Eliot attempted to write poetry that would reflect his antiromantic taste and preferences," and that Eliot

wanted to break away from the romantic development of poetic structure. However, despite Eliot's dislike of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, he shared with [Wordsworth] a profound kinship in his concern for spirituality within nature, in his stress on the present in relation to past and future, and in the emphasis on the role of memory to recapture the fleeting moments of childhood.

Some critical work on the romantics has focused on resurrecting the almost-forgotten contributions of women writers, many of whom have historically been marginalized. In Midwest
Nineteenth-century print of a scene from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge Nineteenth-century print of a scene from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge(Hulton Archive / Getty Images) Quarterly, Stephen C. Behrendt points out that readers "are beginning to study a 'British Romanticism' that looks and feels very different from the one that most of their predecessors studied." Behrendt and other scholars have focused on the connections among romantic writers, instead of studying them as if they lived and wrote in isolation. Behrendt also observes Romanticism "involved women far more prominently than has traditionally been acknowledged." He maintains the traditional critical image of the romantic poet wasthatof"the lone male poet whose visionary experience places him beyond domesticity," a view that has persisted since the romantic period, when cultural values prevented people from seeing women's contributions as equal to those of men. Women who dared to enter the "male" territory of poetry were considered unnatural. They were allowed to write novels because novels were considered unimportant. According to Behrendt, this idea of male poets and female novelists has persisted to the present day, but, he comments, "a whole new model has to be generated, one that incorporates men and women authors alike, in all genres."

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  • Christopher Hibbert's The Days of the French Revolution (1999) discusses the political and social ideals underlying this revolution that influenced the romantic movement.
  • Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life provides a fascinating biography of the popular author.
  • Renowned critic Harold Bloom's The Visionary Companion: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1971) delves into the works of many of the great English romantic poets.
  • Edited by Thomas H. Johnson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1976) has all 1,775 poems arranged in the chronological order of their writing (as far as could be determined). Dickinson was a poet of the American Renaissance in the nineteenth century. Her style is distinctive and unparalleled, noted for its brevity; its beautiful, sometimes morbid, imagery; and for its occasional obscurity.
  • Edited by Pamela Woof in 1991, The Gras-mere Journals (1800-1803), by Dorothy Wordsworth, gives a picture of the domestic life of the Wordsworths and descriptions of William Wordsworth's manner of composition. Dorothy's journals also show how Wordsworth used subjects and metaphors from her private writings for the poems that made him famous. The journals show Dorothy Wordsworth's photographic eye, knowledge of botany, and fine writing style.
  • French romantic novelist Victor Hugo penned his most famous book Les Misérables in 1862, which was a successful bestseller in its day. Les Misérables is the story of a poor man who is transformed by the generous kindness of another person. Jean Valjean eventually rises to success, despite the fact that his past continues to haunt him.
  • Alexander Dumas was a novelist of the romantic style who became famous within his lifetime. His book, The Three Musketeers (1844) continues to be a favorite among young readers today as it is unabashedly filled with adventure, intrigue, and romance.

Despite occasionally falling from critical favor when literary tastes change, the major romantic writers are still considered among the greatest poets and novelists in the English language. Their work continues to influence writers into the twenty-first century.


Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer. In this essay, Winters considers the persistence of romantic ideas in current attitudes about nature and the environment.

Romantic odes may be out of style, and few novels are now written in the style of Jane Austen or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, but some romantic ideas and ideals are still deeply embedded in our own popular culture, particularly in popular attitudes about nature. Most people do not know it, but our current ideas about the environment and our relationship to it were born during the romantic era.


For the romantics, the vast, uncontrolled wilderness of nature was a holy place, a place where people could retreat from the increasing filth and falsity of civilization. Nature was viewed as "wiser" than humans; it had existed since before humans existed and, if left alone, would continue to flourish. Humans could not produce anything as complex, beautiful, and grand as nature, and they could certainly not improve on anything nature had created. However, by going to wild places, people could align themselves with the harmony and wisdom inherent in nature, and be renewed.

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In addition, ecological movements encourage people to think of themselves as kindred to, and part of, the natural world, rather than standing apart from it. This feeling of kinship and oneness is a hallmark of Romanticism.

These views, which persist in our own culture, were new during the romantic era. Until the eighteenth century, people had little time to spare for appreciating nature; they were busy farming, fighting wars, and simply trying to survive. However, the Industrial Revolution gave the new urban middle class time for recreation. It also resulted in pollution and overcrowding in the cities, so these people looked to natural areas, rather than the increasingly unpleasant urban ones, for their recreation. Gardening, nature walks, and appreciation of natural beauty became common pastimes for the first time in history. As Lucy Moore writes in the Ecologist, "For the first time, nature became an object, and this may be the moment the modern environmental movement began."


Through the influence of romantic writers, ordinary people became interested in experiencing nature. For example, Wordsworth, who wrote poems about the beauty and spirituality of nature, was a highly successful poet in his own lifetime and was even appointed poet laureate in 1843, but his guides to the area where he lived were even more popular than his collections of poetry. He lived in the Lake District of England, and his writings about the natural beauty of the area made the Lake District a tourist attraction in the mid-1800s. Travelers visited the area hoping to partake of the same natural beauty, inspiration, and spiritual renewal the poet describes in his writings. Although it seems commonplace now to retreat to nature for renewal, at the time this was a novel idea, and walking in the Lake District and perhaps encountering the poet on his own walks became a kind of fad of the romantic era.

Coleridge, who also lived in the area and was a favorite of Lake District tourists, likewise saw nature as a redeeming and purifying force, and loved wilderness and wildness. According to Moore, Coleridge wrote, "The farther I ascend from animated Nature, from men, and cattle, and the common birds of the woods, and fields, the greater becomes in me the intensity of the feeling of Life."

For a time, Coleridge believed he could build a utopian community that would partake of the spiritually purifying aspects of nature, and he and Robert Southey planned to construct such a community on the then-wild banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Although, like many such utopian dreams, the plan ultimately fell through, Coleridge retained his belief that nature could provide solace and wisdom to people.

Percy Shelley, who was not quite as active in outdoor pursuits, nevertheless wrote, "I love all waste / And solitary places, where we taste / The pleasure of believing what we see / Is boundless, as we wish our souls to be."

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley reflected the romantic view of nature as a place of peace and redemption in Frankenstein. In the book, unlike in the films based on it, the monster is a peaceful and gentle creature. When the monster discovers how cruel humans are, it dreams of fleeing to South America, where it will live peacefully in the forest with a mate Dr. Frankenstein will make for it. They will live simply on the fruits and nuts of the forest, sleeping among the trees: a romantic ideal, a return to the spiritual innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden. However, Dr. Frankenstein, who is afraid of the monster's potential, destroys the female, forcing the monster back to civilization—and civilization's destruction.

Keats was also keenly aware of the destructive human impact on nature, and that appreciation of nature often occurs only when people become aware that natural beauty is fragile and can be destroyed and lost forever. In short, the romantics believed that untouched nature invoked a sense of awe and grandeur within people; that experiencing this awe could allow people to experience a feeling of purification and redemption; that untouched nature was superior to humanity; and that the long-term presence of people in nature could only be detrimental to it.

These principles have long guided attitudes toward the preservation and use of wilderness areas, and continue to the present day. The U.S. Wilderness Act of 1964 provides for the protection Page 720  |  Top of Articleand preservation of areas untouched or little-touched by human intervention, where humans can merely be temporary visitors, and where permanent human settlement or construction is not allowed. This idea of nature as pristine and separate from the degrading presence of people goes back to the romantics.

In addition, most campers and hikers have heard the popular phrase "leave no trace," which urges people to minimize their impact on nature to such an extent that, after they leave the wilderness area, it would be difficult or impossible for observers to tell that they were even there. Campers are asked to carry out everything they carry in, and to "take only pictures; leave only footprints" behind. While in the wilderness, people are also asked to respect wildlife by keeping their distance from it, to be as quiet as possible so that the sounds of nature are the only ones heard, and to avoid crowding or overusing any one area. As R. Bruce Hall notes in the Journal of Leisure Research, this philosophy, like other currently prevalent wilderness-use principles, "encourages people to think of themselves as temporary visitors whose presence can only harm nature. . . . [and] emphasize[s] the negative consequences people have on natural areas and on recreation experience." It also emphasizes the benefits that people can gain from experiencing nature in its purest, least-disturbed state.


Wordsworth wrote in his poem "The World Is Too Much With Us," "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!" What he means is that in the frenzy of economic expansion and exploitation of the environment, people have lost touch with the spiritual and creative powers that true contact with nature can provide. Thus, we are out of touch with both the environment and ourselves.

The Industrial Revolution began over two hundred years ago, but we are still experiencing it and its effects on society and nature; the problems of pollution and waste have only increased since that time as industry has grown and become ever more complex. According to James Pinkerton in Foreign Affairs, David Malin Rodman of the World-Watch Institute, an environmental group, noted that it is "the very nature of industrial economic systems to degrade the environment on which they depend." This idea first became prevalent during
Draft page from Endymion by John Keats Draft page from Endymion by John Keats(William C. Shrout / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images) the Industrial Revolution, when coal-fired factories began spewing black smoke over England's green countryside and dumping toxic wastes into previously clean rivers.

This worry about the negative effects of industry is still widely held today. Toward the end of the twentieth century, with increasing environmental destruction, people became increasingly aware that irreplaceable natural treasures were being degraded or lost, and increasing numbers of species were becoming extinct. Pinkerton writes, "Many people have become aware that unbounded cultivation, extraction, and construction have disastrously degraded the ecosystem of the planet."

As a result of this awareness, previously marginalized ecologically-based political movements, often rooted in romantic ideas about nature, grew and gained so many adherents that they became a part of mainstream political debate. In 1997 in Europe, according to Pinkerton, the ecological political parties had a potential electorate that was almost as large as that of the Christian democratic parties. In the United States, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader came in fourth in the 1996 presidential election Page 721  |  Top of Articleand came in second in many areas that were heavily populated by college students. In 2000 Nader came in third in the national election, and some observers claimed that his presence on the ballot diverted a substantial number of voters from the Democratic Party and thus lost the election for Democratic candidate Al Gore. These victories for the environmental parties show that many people, like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and other romantics, still believe that nature, as a source of renewal, transcendence, and peace, should be celebrated and protected.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Romanticism, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Klaus Hofmann

In the following excerpt, Hofmann explains that Keats's poem Ode on a Grecian Urn is rooted in a tradition of religious hymns.

They who misquote the title of Keats's ode may not be aware of the truth in their mistake. Indeed, Keats's poem is an ode not "on" but "to" a Grecian urn, most conspicuously so as it opens with a threefold apostrophe and thereby fulfils the requirements of the genre more faithfully than most odes. This faithfulness exposes the poem to the question whether the apostrophe addresses a being worth the effort. Is the addressee an at least potentially responsive partner in the communicative situation of the ode, which is essentially a dialogic one though the utterance may be one-sided in the manner of the dramatic monologue. From its origins in the cult hymn, the genuine partner of an odic address is a divine being, a god, goddess, or a godlike authority, capable of hearing, of understanding, of fulfilling a request. The invocation may not be received, the god may not listen, may not care, may not be willing or able to help—the precariousness of prayer—yet there must be a confidence in, and a possibility of, a gracious reception. This requirement is not withdrawn or diminished in post-religious circumstances with no established godhead to address. Then, the demand on the poem is even heavier. It is now the poem's task to create the authority to which it turns. The post-religious ode has to assume the status of poetic self-sufficiency, of, in Miltonic terms, Satanic self-creation, of being the poet's prayer to himself. Put in philosophical terms: It has to assume aesthetic autonomy. Religious belief is being replaced by the poetic

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faith of Coleridge's definition. Now the ode has to prove by its very performance that its address is a valid one, the foremost act of such performance being, in Keats's case, the poetic creation of the urn. To the degree this creation succeeds in the course of the poem, the urn will have proved eligible for the odic address.

In itself, an urn seems an unpromising addressee. An ode to a pot is bound to be ridiculous. Then, what about an urn, an earthenware, at best a marble, pot? Can it bear the burden of an odic apostrophe, its serious solemnity? Is not the danger of bathos unavoidable? Would not the title "Ode to a Grecian Urn" announce a travesty? The embarrassment is evident in some literary critics' endeavor to upgrade the urn, notably into a funeral urn, a move which finds no support in the poem, but provides the opportunity for the critic to enrich the poem with ponderous thoughts on death and transitoriness, or with a plethora of symbolic lore. Conversely, other critics have valiantly embraced the precariousness of the inappropriate object with an emphasis on the abject state of the disused utensil, the piece of debris, which through this abasement is elevated to the state of art. From this point of view Keats's Ode is regarded as ancestral to surrealist translations of discarded utensils into art objects. Mentioning Duchamp's ready-mades, K. S. Calhoon barely suppresses the punning, though etymologically correct, connection between urn and urinal. Obviously the predicament has been noticed and there is no reason to assume that Keats was not aware of it. Is this why Keats avoids the obvious title and Page 722  |  Top of Articleswerves to "Ode on a Grecian Urn," a phrase which does not immediately expose the poem to the doom of bathos? But can the poem escape this doom? Do not the first lines quickly give away what the title may have tried to hide: that the poem is an ode to a Grecian urn, boldly confident of its success in establishing the urn's dignity?

The gesture of avoidance in the poem's title which after all announces what it refrains from announcing, namely an ode, which is generally an "ode to," may on the other hand not be a sign of embarrassment by the addressee's lowness, but a symptom of awe in the face of the silent work of art, even fear of the unmediated impact of beauty. Grant Scott senses this: "The prospect of paralysis before the silent beauty of the unravished bride is never far from the speaker's mind. . . . " This anxiety has been explained along psychological and gender lines. In the light of such explanations the sister arts turn out not to be sisters but siblings of different sex with visual art taking the female, verbal art the male part. The Medusa myth has been enlisted to contribute the motif of the petrifying female gaze "that so often charges the ekphrastic encounter between word and image." Awe and fear may turn to resentment which is nourished by the iconophobia traditional to Jewish-Christian culture. But the resentment also inherits iconophobia's ambivalence, oscillating with the desire for what it shuns. This ambivalence may motivate a dialectic which makes ekphrasis reject the image and yet aspire to a pictorial mode of existence in its own, literary ways as Murray Krieger argues in his exposition of the "ekphrastic principle." The Ode's title dares not announce what the Ode is in fact about to venture: to establish a communicative relationship with the urn which, indeed, exists beyond the range of communicative exchange. The Ode is bound to attempt the task of drawing the incommunicative phenomenon into the domain of language and thereby translate language into the urn's aesthetic mode. This amounts to an endeavor to transcend the sphere of communication to which the poem, however, is genuinely attached by its medium, language. The ekphrastic negotiation which a poem addressing a work of visual art is bound to inaugurate will ineluctably be caught in this aporia, which is constitutive of literary art. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory devotes its attention to the dialectic evolving from this aporetic foundation of poetry. Adorno's remark on language and "Etruscan vases in the Villa Giulia" could apply to the Attic urn and Keats's Ode:

Owing to its dual character, language is a constitutive principle of art as well as art's mortal enemy. Etruscan vases in the Villa Giulia articulate something without using communicative language. In fact, the true language of art is speechless.

Will Keats's poem attain the speechlessness of the true language of art? Or will it remain in opposition to the urn, unable to transcend "art's mortal enemy?"

One more hint, to pass over less convincing guesses, issues from the poem's title, suggesting a factual as well as conceptual attachment of urn and poem. The ode is announced like, even as, an epigram, in its Greek origins an inscription in verse usually placed on a statue, tomb, or funerary column. In this regard the most plain and simple-minded inference to be drawn from the poem's title would be to perceive the text of the ode inscribed "on a Grecian urn." This would enrich the poem's discourse on ekphrasis by a recourse to the prototypical encounter of visual and literary art, the epigrammatic fiction of a speaking stone set in relief by the silent stone on which the epigram is inscribed, an encounter devised by the antagonistic collusion of the stonemason and the epigrammatist versed in the rhetoric of prosopopoeia. The epigrammatist gives a fictional voice and, as it were, face, prosopon, to the stone; the mason silences this voice into writing chiselled into the stone, reducing language to a lapidary materiality, which the passer-by may again redeem into speech.

To follow this suggestion made by the title and to assume that Keats meant the Ode to be perceived as an inscription on the urn would, however, stretch poetic license to a degree which seriously strains the poet's credit. Putting an ode in the place of an epigram might be appreciated, even relished as a Romantic disdain of genre rules. But a Greek vase or urn with an English Romantic ode inscribed on it would be too grotesque an invention. The poem rejects this imputation line for line as its speaker inspects the urn's surface without registering, except, perhaps, for the last lines, an appearance of his own words. Nevertheless, the title's suggestion of a collusion or competition between the two genres—ode and epigram—is intriguing and has elicited wily remarks such as Martin Aske's hint at the poem being written "on" the urn, not literally, but as "a parergonal trace Page 723  |  Top of Articlewhich seeks to reinscribe itself on the silent, ineffable space of the absent image of the urn" or "as a parergonal inscription over an absent, or at least never completely represented object." In the final lines of the Ode the epigrammatic genre will emphatically assert its claims and the negotiations between an "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and an "Epigram on a Grecian Urn" will be resumed.

The opening of the poem does not follow the evasive strategy and the oblique suggestions of the title. It sets out with an uninhibited odic paddress, yet avoids both the embarrassment of addressing an unworthy object and the intimidation by an inaccessible phenomenon by avoiding the name— as does, indeed, the rest of the poem. It never, through all its five stanzas, has recourse to a plain "O, urn!" The strategy of getting away from—and with—the odic address to an urn is, in the first three lines, the rhetoric of metaphor. The poem tropes away from the risk of banality or presumptuousness, transfiguring the urn into the "still unravished bride," the "fosterchild," the "sylvan historian." The urn fades behind the images imposed upon it. In this manner the poem establishes a responsible partner. It does so in a halting manner: the ode is in search of its addressee. The first two attempts are inconsequential, suggestive as they may be. The "still unravished bride of quietness" surprises as a conceit of an incipient allegory which does not develop into one. The prospect of such a development is awkward, to say the least. What kind of marriage to the bridegroom "Quietness" may be envisaged? What consummation? What ravishment? Death? A less radical reading may avoid the allegorical personification of quietness and take the word simply as a qualifying genitive, presenting the urn as a quiet virgin. In either case the word "still," read as an adverb, sounds a premonition of doom threatening the virginity of the "yet" unravished bride. Could it be that the ode, with a coy cynicism, emphasizes what it is eager to destroy: the integrity of the urn as a silent, a non-speaking entity, existing beyond the reach of communicative intimacy, a thing of beauty? Was the urn secure in its unravished state as long as it was a bride of quietness, from which this very address tries to abduct her? Whatever the reading, this opening conceit proves a barren one and is not pursued beyond the first line. There is, however, a note struck here which will recur. The notion of stillness and silence will return as a leit-motif throughout the poem. It will soon be taken up and continued in the figures of the frieze on the urn—though with a difference: The stasis, which keeps those figures "for ever" in their position and from achieving what they aspire to, is brought about by their being frozen into an image, while the urn's stillness is qualified by the ambiguity of the word "still," which, as an adverb, suggests the temporality of "not yet." The urn is, after all, subject to the ravages of time.

The second conceit, the one of the "foster-child of silence and slow time," emphasizes the temporality of the urn's stillness. As a fosterchild of "slow time," the urn is capable of a history which, perhaps imperceptibly, may bring about change, fruition, ravishment of whatever kind. The third attempt at a valid invocation seems to take its cue from the second line's emphasis on time and history. As a "sylvan historian" the urn is supposed to know history and to be a source of historical knowledge.

The sequence of three figurative attempts to open a channel to the urn raises doubts about the aptness of the procedure. The rhetoric of metaphor is, after all, grounded in aporia. Metaphor, like its extension, allegory, is resorted to when the proper term is deemed inappropriate or unavailable and a non-proper term is inserted in its place—to the effect of a hovering validity which is held in suspense by the knowledge that the term is not the proper one. The paradox of the wrong term being the only appropriate or possible one accounts for the precariousness of metaphoric speech. The three initial apostrophes of the "Ode" are impaired by this precariousness. They are misnomers. In addition, the attempt at establishing familiarity by inventing a figurative family may block rather than open the way to the urn's identity. The erotic note which is struck by the first address—and which has occasioned numerous interpretations along gender lines— has the awkward courtesy of someone trying to be amorous to another man's bride. The fact that the first two conceits are abandoned is indicative of the speaker's insecurity. The third attempt, "Sylvan historian," seems to hit an appellation capable of carrying the poem. Or does it? Does it perhaps divert the poem into a string of futile digressions, from which it cannot desist and from which it only just reverts in its last stanza? Is the ode by these digressions deferring its end and thereby maintaining its existence—beyond the pleasure principle?

As it stands, the poem settles for the "sylvan historian," whose "flowery tale" will soon absorb the speaker's interest. The approach remains Page 724  |  Top of Articletentative. Vagueness veils the probably female figure, sylph or not, of the "sylvan historian." Is s/he supposed to be a teller of tales, a "storian"? Or is there a historical dimension to what s/he is expected to deliver? A probing into the Greek past, as may well be expected from the fosterchild of "slow time?" And why "sylvan?" Does the epithet refer to the florid style of the teller of a "flowery tale." Does it refer to the leaf-ornament bordering the frieze? Or does it characterize the historian herself? Does it mark her/him as a natural source of intimation whose medium is the symbol, which, in Walter Benjamin's poetic phrase, contains meaning "in its hidden and, if one may say so, sylvan interior." Or is the emphasis on the "naturalness" of the history delivered by the urn, which is not the antiquarian's or the scholar's production but that of the poetic genius who has his authenticity as an instance of nature, writing "history without footnotes," as Cleanth Brooks put it. Obviously, the sylvan historian's history is set in the aesthetic mode; it is a work of art, the sculpted relief on the urn's surface.

Figured as a "sylvan historian," the urn is shifted from the position of addressee to that of the speaker's consort, colleague and competitor in the poetic function of expressing a flowery tale, which the urn, in its sculpted frieze, is said to perform "more sweetly" than the speaker can. The confrontation of the visual against the linguistic mode, of visual art against poetry, of Malerei und Poesie, is broached in these opening lines. Judged by the sensuous, aesthetic criterion of sweetness, visual art is given precedence over verbal art. Yet by attributing to visual art the same task to which he himself is dedicated, namely to tell a tale, the speaker moves the confrontation into the domain of language and loads the dice in favor of the literary mode. Whatever the advantage of visual art in the contest, its achievement will be the same as what the speaker aspires to. Now, to expect pictures to tell a tale is certainly not extraordinary. The narrative element in the visual arts is a prominent issue in art scholarship. It tends, however, to be converted into an issue of literary scholarship. In the context of the Ode's opening stanza the pronounced interest in tale and legend betrays a reluctance to appreciate visual art. The speaker disregards the possibility of a radical heterogeneity of visual art. He asks for tale and detail instead of aesthetically appreciating art and image. He is determined to read, not to behold. To him, the frieze presents a "legend" which he is bound to decipher. The "sylvan historian" is approached as a source of information and the epithet seems to activate the traditional meaning of silva as a source of material: story as store.

The pictorial medium does not readily deliver what the speaker expects. The flowery tale which the sylvan historian is said to express so sweetly is nor forthcoming. The speaker's expectation may have been wrongly placed. He may have been deceived by his own metaphor: The urn may just not be a historian—sylvan or other. Indeed, it insists on its own mode of presentation: a marble relief of figures, frozen into their position, not able to move into the continuum of a tale.

The speaker is undaunted. He is determined to have a tale told him through the pictures of the frieze. With the question "What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape" he loses sight of the urn and its metaphoric disguises and enters a sphere distinct from the urn as such. The pronoun "thy" is the last reference to the sylvan historian or the urn before the latter will be invoked again in the last stanza. The leaf-fringe may be taken as the frame constituting this sphere—as the parergon which Derrida, taking his cue from Kant, develops into the concept and emblem of the margin delimiting the aesthetic mode. The fringe in Keats's ode, to be precise, does not circumscribe the sphere of art as a whole but severs non-representative from representative art within the aesthetic sphere, thereby breaking up the integrity of that sphere. It distinguishes the urn—the "shape"—from the zone of pictorial representation, which, beyond its material reality as part of the urn, is of a different quality: It is an apparition of reality, it "haunts about thy shape." The speaker is intrigued by the urn's display of sculpted images and neglects the possibly beautiful shape of the urn. The urn does not interest him the way the frieze does. The urn's silence may be impressive, yet it is the obvious and plain property of the thing. The silence of the piping piper, by contrast, is of a logical intricacy which will absorb the speaker's interest. The urn's—slow time's fosterchild's—lasting through the ages is venerable, yet it is a durability it has in common with any cup, horse-bit or axe preserved through the centuries. The suspension of time which exempts the youthful singer, the trees, the bold lover from temporality challenges the understanding in a different manner. It is this challenge which the speaker is about to meet—with questionable Page 725  |  Top of Articlesuccess. Aesthetic considerations are faded out. What occupies the speaker in these stanzas is not the beauty of the frieze's images. Beauty is not a topic in the ode until it is broached in the last stanza. This decisive strategy of the poem is ignored in the ubiquitous critics' opinion that the beauty of the urn or its frieze is the poem's concern right from the beginning. The word "fair" does occur in stanza two, but it refers to a maiden's beauty, not to the work of art. What is at issue in these stanzas are the intricacies of representation and, by implication, the intricacies of ekphrasis, not beauty.

The speaker's absorption into the pictorial world of the frieze begins as inquisitiveness, manifest in a series of standard questions: What is the story? What is the site? Who are the persons? What is going on? No explicit answer acknowledges the propriety of this inquisitiveness: A lesson whose teaching may eventually be registered, when the last stanza states what is needful to know. Yet critics protest too much when they point out the urn's refusal to meet the speaker's request and expatiate on the urn's secretiveness. After all, it may not tell a tale, but in its own way it provides a wealth of detailed information, which the speaker—and the reader of the poem—can perceive without effort. Nor need the speaker's questioning be denounced as an intrusion when it may more appropriately be perceived as a wondering, even admiring acknowledgement of a sight—with an ekphrastic side-effect of divulging what is being seen. The enquiry clearly shifts towards astonishment as the pronoun proceeds from the interrogative to the affective, exclamatory "what!" "What wild ecstasy?"—pace the question mark—no longer asks a question but expresses amazement. Observation and inquiry give way to empathic participation, which continues through the following stanzas, as the speaker drifts further into an empathic involvement in the imaginary world of the urn's relief, from storied urn to animated bust.

The speaker's naïve participation comes to an end when he suddenly becomes aware of the representational mode, the duplicity of representation and what is represented, the difference of art and life: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter." The initial consciousness of the unreality of the haunting legend of deities or mortals has faded to some degree in the last four lines of the first stanza. Now it is regained in the puzzling insight that there is a presence of something absent—"unheard melodies." As if taking a hint from Adorno's use of the passage as the epigraph to his Schönberg essay in Prisms, Marshall Brown has developed the topos into a negative dialectic which vindicates the presence of what is materially absent as a constitutive feature in art. In tacit propinquity to Kant who, in elaborating the third moment of the judgment of taste, distinguishes "form" as the constituent of the true judgment of taste from "matter" ("Reize und Rührungen"/"charms and emotions"), Brown demonstrates the formative function of what is unheard, unseen, unread in given passages of a work of art, passages in which the artist achieves the logically impossible: produces absolute form which is not the form of anything, but "performs" by sheer absence of something formed. The argument comes close to Derrida's elaboration of the parergon, the forming frame which becomes manifest after any substance has been whittled away, but vanishes at the moment of its pure manifestation. Being neither within the work nor without, it disappears in the abysmal gulf of negativity from which, however, it performs the function of framing. Taking its cue from the praise of "unheard melodies" in Keats's ode Brown's vindication of form against "base materialisms and empty formalisms" (Turning Points 267) discovers in those lines more than the poem's speaker does. The speaker puts into a nutshell what he does not unfold. By him the unheard melodies are not considered in the context of the musical performance where they may function as "structure, skeleton, attitude, feeling" (Turning Points 255). They are perceived as melodies silenced by their transference into the sphere of visual art. Here the poem briefly exhibits a case of ekphrasis involving the other sister art: Music is presented by visual art, with a certain sleight of sculptor's rhetoric presenting the piper as a metonymy of his music. The sculptor's ekphrasis of music is ekphrastically presented by the ode, which in turn is a musical, at least an audible, presentation, muted into a written text. A cunning introduction to the poem's central topic! The recourse to the criterion of sweetness recalls the previous confrontation of the sylvan historian's tale and the speaker's rhyme and again sides with the greater sweetness of the mute art which—if the term applies—enchants the speaker, the singer of Keats's verse. What are we, readers and listeners, to make of his chant? Or is it cant? Is he not up to appreciating the Page 726  |  Top of Articleheard melody of the song he is singing, of which he is the source and the instrument? Does he disavow the aural quality of his own utterance, the rhymes and rhythms of his verse, its sound effects and paronomasias? Evidently, an ode, aoidh, is not a "ditty of no tone." Would he prefer his song, a "heard melody," to be muted into the representation of a song, a melody unheard? Does he aspire to a marble image of himself chanting the ode? Is the desired upgrading indeed performed by the written text which may be read without being heard? Is the text to the speaker what the urn is to the piper—the cold pastoral transfiguring his song into a written poem? This consideration, of course, breaks open the closed entity of the poem which harbors no writer, only a speaker. The written text of the poem is not contained within the poem. The notion of the frame, the parergon, again asserts itself. The text of the ode is there to frame and present the speaker's or singer's performance, which itself is not a writing performance and therefore excludes the text. The poem is contained in and by the text, not by itself. Not being self-contained it foregoes the absoluteness of aesthetic autonomy. It depends. On the written text, as this text depends on its writer, the poet, perhaps on the poet's amanuensis, who received the poet's words as the poet, in Milton's conceit, received the call of the muse: as a "ditty," a dictation prospective of its mutation into a written, eventually printed, text.

The coincidence of frieze and text both transposing the audible into silence highlights a connection of what is conventionally arranged in opposition: the visual and the verbal. As a written text the word dwells like the melody unheard in the visual realm, transcending the aural sphere. To the speaker's mind and the poem's logic the negation of aural sensuousness overrules the positivity of visual sensuousness and attributes to mute visuality a non-sensuous, spiritual quality: A curious revision of the traditional affiliation of spirit, voice and hearing on the one hand and body, image and beholding on the other arranges visually mediated spirituality against aural sensuality. What elevates those inaudible melodies is that they are piped "to the spirit." In the same vein the poem, which has saved the speaker's odic utterance into the permanence of a written text, plays to the spirit. As "ditties of no tone" both may be perceived by intellectual intuition, the Romantic philosophers' stone.

The visual as the spiritual medium is played off against the aural as the sensuous medium and this resumes the reflection on the representational mode which has been the poem's concern since the speaker's attention turned to the frieze's images. Spirituality is ascribed not to the visual sense as such but to the world of semblance which is brought about by visual mimesis. Aural mimesis, though well established in onomatopoeic practices, hardly sustains a separate sphere corresponding or referring to a first world but tends to fall back into the continuum of sound and noise. It repeats rather than represents. Music—"heard melodies"—is, pace Aristotle, not a mimetic art and derives its claims to spirituality from other quarters. Visual representation genuinely establishes the realm of semblance in its ambiguity of illusion and deception on the one hand and apparitional spirituality on the other. Oscillating between deception and epiphany, between idol and ideal, Schein conditions the relation between beauty and truth in a precariousness which quivers in the word specious.

The speaker falls for both, the deception and the ideality of a realm far above "all breathing human passion." True, he has achieved an awareness of the peculiar mode of representational art. He ought to be conscious of the different modes of existence and not to perceive the scene in an in appropriate immediacy. There, behind the mirror, is the realm of melodies heard, here the zone of melodies unheard. But the neat distinction is immediately blurred. In an inconclusive conclusion— "therefore"—the speaker exhorts the "soft pipes" to play on, an exhortation lost on pipes whose metonymic softness has changed into hard marble. They do play on—unheard melodies have to be performed too, as we have learned—but the art of performing unheard melodies has been taken over by the art of representation behind which the live music has vanished. This is what the speaker half knows and half forgets. He gets entangled in an interpolation of the two levels or modes, resulting in the paradoxical statements which posit the coexistence of mutually exclusive qualities. The coalescence of life and art, endowing the life processes with the atemporality of the sculpted image, is an achievement reserved to verbal, denied to visual presentation. The poem is, in these passages, an exercise in and comment on the possibilities of verbal ekphrasis, which comprehends both representation and the life represented. Its lesson is confirmed by default in critics' unthinking attempt to Page 727  |  Top of Articlegrasp the verbal performance again in a visual image. Helen Vendler's recourse to the well-known duck/rabbit sketch misses the point. Whilst the picture insists on an either/or perception, though this may speed up to a vertiginous flickering, language can embrace the alternatives within its regular syntax. Misled by the example in the other medium, Vendler believes that there is a "quick shuttling back and forth in the speaker's mind between immersion in the fervent matter and recognition of the immobile medium" (128). In the same vein James Heffernan argues: "Up to the very moment when the urn finally speaks, the poem seems to tell us that we cannot have both [i.e. fixed beauty of visual art and the language of narrative] at once, that we must choose between the narratable truth of a passionately mutable life and immutable beauty of graphic art" (114). Yet it is this distinction which the poem tries to obliterate. The poem, unlike the sketch, confounds the two modes of existence, though it does not fuse them into a unio mystica as Wasserman contends.

The speaker loses orientation in his confrontation with three tiers of existence—the live scene, its pictorial representation, the verbal ekphrasis. He is fascinated—and fascinates the reader willing to go along with him—by bizarre contaminations of the three. He is tricked into seeing breathing human passion transported beyond the realm of breathing human passion. He reim-ports the petrified figures into an imaginary life-world to the effect of a perpetual "now." The atemporality of the representation is converted into perpetuity. The speaker does not reflect on the logic of this prestidigitation. He simply falls for it, answering effect with affect. Like the naïve playgoer, who encourages and warns the drama-tis personae, he takes part in what he half sees, half imagines—exhorting the pipes to play on, giving instruction and consolation to the youthful singer and to the lover. The next stanza parades the speaker in a state of abandon, whipping up happiness, "More happy love! more happy, happy love!" The "more" may even lose the function of the grammatical comparative and turn into a hungry cry for "more." As he attributes "happy love" to the marble figures, he wallows in it himself, getting carried away in the rhythm of "happy, happy" which pulls the poem down to a child's performance on a hobby horse, mocking the "Hoppe, hoppe Reiter" of the German nursery. Closer to home and to the text is, of course, "The Idiot Boy," the galloping rhythm of "happy, happy John," which in turn echoes that of Wilhelm's horse, the "Hurre, hurre, hopp hopp hopp," in G. A. Bürger's "Lenore."

This loss of distance and control has been remarked on, has given occasion to blame and ridicule, or to awkward excuses, though it may also be read with an ear for an interlacing of sympathy, envy and rejection. To extol the stanza, as Thomas McFarland does, as an outcome of "the white-hot moment of genius" reflects unfavorably on the concept of genius and suggests that the poet may have burnt his fingers. Indeed, the stanza may be called silly, the more so if the old meaning of "seely," preserved in the German selig, is recalled. Yet it has its place in the poem. James O'Rourke ascribes its poetic failure to the speaker's futile attempts at ekphrasis—by extension to the generic futility of ekphrasis—which will only be overcome when the speaker extricates himself from his subservience to visual art and moves "beyond the recycling of the imagery contained on the urn, andtoofferits ownantithesis. ... Solongasthe poem attempts to reproduce the imagery contained on the urn, it can only repeat itself. . . . The repetition of 'happy, happy boughs' . . . demonstrates, in its monotony, what happens when the simultaneity of the visual arts is transposed directly into poetry. . . . " O'Rourke concludes that "the speaker is disabled to a degree that verges on stuttering." His very involvement alienates the speaker from the condition he tries to render verbally. The verbal medium turns the sameness of the happy still-life into repetitiveness, and the imaginary participation in the blissful state of the frieze's figures in fact throws the speaker into the condition of a "breathing human passion," which "leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy'd," the very condition he thought he had evaded. His reaching out for those figures' happiness leaves him atbestina state of being too happy in their happiness. Eventually he abandons this futile attempt and reflects, in the stanza's last lines, on the contrast between the two conditions.

These explorations take the poem far beyond a simple deliberation about the respective advantages of life and art, a question which preoccupies the Stillinger collection of 1968, with Wasserman's book of 1953 and Cleanth Brooks' essay of 1945 in the background, and makes a recent handbook fall behind the state of current discussion. Nor does the poem offer information on Keats's personal preference of art to life or vice versa. Speculations whether Keats's predilection was with "his fair love's Page 728  |  Top of Articleripening breast" rather than with marble ones may be appreciated in a jocular mood which made Cleanth Brooks cite e. e. cummings' funny rhyme, "A pretty girl that naked is / Is worth a million statues." The ode does not provoke, even less satisfy such curiosity, nor does it let us overhear Keats in person.

As the poem proceeds, the activities which suggested happiness are superseded by a scene which, while presenting the festiveness of a communal sacrifice, suggests desolation, victimization, down to details like the "peaceful citadel" the peace of which reverberates with the threat of war for which a citadel, after all, provides. The urn's presentations now extend beyond the state of bliss. If the image of the lowing heifer intimates to Paul Fry (256) another unheard melody then this is certainly not a sweet one. Reverting to the questioning of the first stanza, the speaker is not satisfied with what the urn's frieze presents but supplements the scene of the sacrificial procession to the green altar with the conjectural "little town by river or sea-shore, or mountain-built." The threefold option is another comment on the advantage of literary as against visual presentation. Literary art can propose three versions of the little town's site; visual presentation, short of giving three different pictures, would have to decide where to situate it. The extension of the poem's vista beyond what the urn exhibits overrules the limitations of ekphrasis as a, however fictive, description of a given work of art. In an act of "ekphrastic rivalry" a sample of verbal poesis not subservient to a preceding sculptural poesis is inserted. This allows a fleeting glimpse into the poet's workshop. For once the speaker practices what is otherwise the poet's privilege, which, in reverse, amounts to a Hitchcockian cameo appearance of the poet in the guise of the speaker. There is a difference, however, between the poet devising the sculpted urn and the speaker's invention. The latter is equivocal. It may suggest a little town and it may suggest the picture of a little town, an imagined addition to the urn's frieze. The town is temporarily silent as its inhabitants have left for the procession and will be back by evening or next morning. As an image, however, the deserted little town is frozen in its desolation. The silent rendering of actual silence—more so than the previous metamorphosis of heard melodies into unheard ones—invites the equivocation of two spheres and a conflation of the world of history and the world of art. In previous stanzas a confusion of both sides of the mirror of representation brought about the perturbation of a charmed victim of art's delusive power. In stanzas two and three the speaker was intrigued, puzzled and duped by the paradoxes he himself conjured up by his mixing with the marble creatures of the Greek artist, insisting on their timeless existence and at the same time insinuating life and a temporal continuum. Now, in stanza four, the speaker has progressed from dizzying entanglement to a stance of intellectual control, even sophistication, displaying Romantic wit and irony. Intersecting the level of reality with the level of semblance he sees the town desolate because its inhabitants have moved into the sphere of art from which there is no return: an Attic Hamlin Town. The complaint that not a soul can return to tell that not a soul can return adds to the absurdity of the surrealist joke and superadds the notion of the revenant, the Gothic figure of the returnee who cannot return. The aesthetic sphere throws its spell over the historical world, the little town, and assimilates it to its timeless state.

Many critics discover in this stanza's reference to a little town, which is not actually pictured on the urn, the poem's reaching out to historical reality, a break-through to a new dimension. Here, it is alleged, the poem achieves its genuine identity which has been thwarted up to this stanza by the speaker's fixation on the urn's figures. In addition, the engagement in historical reality and its temporal dimension is said to bring about the poem's turn to narrativity. Such interpretations attempt to recruit the poem for historicist discourse. Temporality is the shibboleth which a poem has to master in order to be worth considering. A variant of the historicist approach is offered by James O'Rourke who, while critical of the McGann school, also sees the poem coming into its own in stanza four, no longer idolizing the "sentimental beauty" of illusionary art but presenting "a beauty that is real." The rhetoric of temporality is extended to that of allegory which this stanza is said to offer. The lack of evident allegory is made up by the critic's allegorizations: For O'Rourke the empty town "becomes an image for the final destiny of these figures who vanish into the abyss of time," a conceit in the wake of Wasserman's earlier invention of a pilgrim's progress, a "passage of souls from the world-town to a heaven-altar, from which there is no return" (43)—a construct which provoked Page 729  |  Top of Articlemocking remarks from Leo Spitzer (80, n. 12). Helen Vendler's remark that the procession is invested "with the weight of life's mysteries of whence and whither" (125) is another instance of the allegorizing approach.

Both ways of inculcating a historical dimension, a straightforward one or an allegorized one, disregard the fact that the inspection of the frieze continues in this stanza and that the poem continues exploring the effects and perplexities of representation, notably the interplay of temporal event and still image. By missing the joke about the exodus of the little town's community through the looking-glass of art and seeing the poem open a door out to historical reality critics are in fact victims of the joke. Temporality has been on the poem's agenda all along, in the mythological and pastoral scene of previous stanzas as well as in the scene from communal life in the fourth. Rather than invent a sudden shift in the poems—or its speaker—from being under the spell of images to being aware of historical reality one might pay attention to the poem's persistent negotiation of the representational relation, which juxtaposes the temporal and atemporal modes of existence. This attention may bring about an awareness not only of the poem's historical sensibility but also of the Romantic poem as a historical phenomenon. The poem's reflecting on art's vampiric power of draining life and assimilating the victim to its own mode of existence, oscillating between ideality and an uncanny "apparitioning," may be a valid contribution towards a definition of the Romantic moment in history.

The fifth stanza—perhaps following the cue given by the last syllable of the fourth stanza's last word, the only appearance of the sequence "urn" in the poem—resumes the invocatory pose, incidentally the rhyme pattern, too, of the first stanza and, in one respect, confers symmetry on the poem, in another respect breaks the poem up by practically restarting it. The restart is remarkable for the poem's or the speaker's change of attitude. At last he faces the urn again. He is still aware of the sculpted frieze, but its pastoral scenes now stand in metonymically for the urn, the "Cold Pastoral." He has extricated himself from his absorption in the world of the urn's relief and resumes the odic invocations of the first stanza, even venturing the odic "O." But now he is on different terms with the urn. Gone are the metaphoric transfigurations. With "Attic shape" the poem comes closest to calling the urn an urn. The mocking sound of the paronomasia "fair attitude" somewhat dilutes the factuality of the new approach, but sticks to the facts, the Attic provenance and character of the urn, risking a pun rather than resorting to an awkward "fair Atticness." The new approach is firmly established in the—at last and for the first time—factual description of the artefact. The urn's figures are now recognized as "marble men and maidens." Silence, formerly turned by a troping fancy into a foster-parent, is now simply attributed to "form," a term which recalls scholarly rather than poetic diction. "Cold Pastoral" acknowledges the quality of the artefact which has previously been ignored. "Pastoral" is the technical term for the genre in question. All in all, the fifth stanza brings a thorough revision of the previous performance, even an invalidation of the four previous stanzas. Invalid and inappropriate, so the final stanza's verdict, was the previous approach to the urn, the absorption into the world of representation and the neglect of truly aesthetic judgment. Involved in logical puzzles and equivocations, first as victim, then as master, at times indulging in an affective consumption, even consummation, of the picture-frieze, the speaker had lost sight of the urn. Now, he shows a new regard for the urn, contemplating instead of inquiring. Above all, he introduces the concept of beauty—with the word "fair" in the stanza's first line, eventually in the urn's message. The revision of the last stanza is a new vision, an aesthetic vision. At last the urn figures as a thing of beauty. It is the speaker's new insight that the encounter with the work of art was foiled as long as the aesthetic judgment of its beauty was displaced by usage— intellectual or emotional. However, he does not remain in an attitude of adoration and aesthetic appreciation. Eventually his newly won attitude is cast into knowledge presented as the urn's teaching, articulated by the speaker: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." By this dictum and the confirmatory comment on it the poem stands corrected and redeemed. After a process of erring and mistaking it has eventually worked out its aesthetic salvation. Or, has it?

The message itself is by no means as vapid as detractors would have us believe, nor is it in need of a silly scatological joke in order to reveal its meaning. The point it makes may have been blunted by ubiquitous use, yet it governs the idealistic aesthetics of the Romantic era, most Page 730  |  Top of Articleexplicitly in F. W. J. Schelling's System of Transcendental Idealism, which, through the mediation of S. T. Coleridge, was brought into the English discourse on art, aesthetics and the imagination. Schelling appoints, in an ontologizing development of the function of the power of judgment in Kant's Critique, the production of the beautiful work of art as the anticipation of what philosophy aspires to establish: truth. In the final section of System Schelling states that

it is self evident that art is at once the only true and eternal organ and document of philosophy. . . . Art is paramount to the philosopher, precisely because it opens to him, as it were, the holy of holies, where burns in eternal and original unity, as if in a single flame, that which in nature and history is rent asunder, and in life and action, no less than in thought, must forever fly apart. . . .

Philosophy was born and nourished by poetry in the infancy of knowledge, and with it all those sciences it has guided to perfection; we may thus expect them, on completion, to flow back like so many individual streams into the universal ocean of poetry from which they took their source. . . .

Hegel affirms the truth of beauty when, in the introduction to his Aesthetics, he states that "art's vocation is to unveil the truth in the form of sensuous artistic configuration." The urn's dictum can be seen in close propinquity to Hegel's central definition of the concept of beauty as "das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee," the "sensuous appearance of the idea":

Now we said that beauty is Idea, so beauty and truth are in one way the same. Beauty, namely must be true in itself. But looked at more closely, the true is nevertheless distinct from the beautiful. That is to say, what is true is the Idea, the Idea as it is in accordance with its inherent character and universal principle, and as it is grasped as such in thought . . . Now, when truth in this its external existence is present to consciousness immediately, and when the Concept remains immediately in unity with its external appearance, the Idea is not only true but beautiful. Therefore the beautiful is characterized as the pure appearance of the Idea to sense.

Hegel's careful distinction states the identity of beauty and truth "in one way" (einer Seits) yet does not admit reciprocity, truth not exhausting itself in beauty but coming into its own as thought. The urn's chiastic assertion of the identity of beauty and truth, truth and beauty, seems to override such reservation and therefore expose itself to questions as to its tenability, though the slight disturbance of the chiasm—the sylleptic omission of the second "is"—has been read as indicating a non-reciprocity. The commentary, in any case, shifts the issue of truth in a Hegelian fashion from the confines of beauty to its epistemic homeland. With this move the assertion of identity pronounced in the maxim is again subject to the criterion of truth in the commentary's emphasis on knowing. Taken as knowledge, the definition of truth as beauty may not be true after all, or, in a historical dimension, it may have passed its moment of truth, the epoch of classical Kunstreligion.

The qualification of the urn's dictum as sufficient knowledge relegates both the urn's dictum and the urn's commentary on it to the status of a possibly superannuated and self-serving wisdom, from which the poem may very well distance itself. And what authenticates the dictum as the urn's wisdom in the first place? The imputation of the dictum as the urn's direct utterance is proposed by interpretations, which, supported by the officious editorial act of hedging the two lines in quotation marks, attempt to isolate the urn's message from the poem in order to keep the latter free from "aestheticist teaching" or to keep it at an ironic distance. Such interpretations establish the very sphere of aestheticist irresponsibility which these critics denounce. Meaning to demonstrate a no-nonsense realism they indeed fall for the delusion of a speaking urn—in Spitzer's words "a Grecian miracle"—whilst the poem realistically counts on the mediation of a speaker. This, of course, complicates the issue. If the speaker lends his voice to the urn, why not his words, in a ventriloquist fashion? Then, who is talking?

One way of attributing the final pronouncement to the silent urn is to assume it being written on the urn's body, with the speaker acting as the reader of the inscription. What the title of the Ode suggested may at last have come true—in a modest, yet credible, version. A Romantic ode written on a Grecian urn would have been a preposterous proposition. An epigram written on a Grecian urn, however, may be acceptable even to the fastidious reader. The "leaf-fringed legend" of the first stanza may in this case be read as a first reference to the inscription, although this would raise the question why the speaker could not read it right away—granting the poetic licence of an English text on an Attic urn. . . .

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And yet—Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" has charmed and will charm readers into the persuasion of having read a beautiful poem. The last stanza's acclamation of the urn's beauty throws the impression of beauty like a veil over the poem which, not least by this same stanza's manoeuvers, keeps its generic as well as historic distance from the manifestation of beauty. The poem's claim to beauty is thoroughly exploded by its performance, and yet, like the condensation of a previously evaporated substance, a secondary beauty settles on the poem's surface, spreading a bloom which suffices to win over the aesthetic judgment. This bloom may be taken to be a reflection of the poem's desire which is denied fulfilment for generic and historic reasons. In this manner Keats's ode exerts the power of a nostalgic reminder of a vanished condition which lends it an aura of beauty.

Source: Klaus Hofmann, "Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn," in Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 45, No. 2, Summer 2006, pp. 251-84.

Susan J. Wolfson

In the following essay, Wolfson examines four poetic works of the Romantic period, including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , to show why interpreting an "uncertain" poem "must become an active seeking and generating of meaning."


In 1799 William Blake reminded the Reverend Dr. Trusler, "The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction, because it rouzes the faculties to act." This comment may be applied to the rhetorical activity of much Romantic poetry as well, especially in poems in which logical structures—the plots of an argument, a tale, or an informing legend—are the expected means of instruction. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, The Thorn, "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" all unfold mysteries against potential sources of interpretation: moral lessons, arguments, glosses, village testimony, portentous encounters, spectral legends. Yet however much such sources may "rouze" the mind to render intelligible "what is not too Explicit," in these poems, the materials invoked for that purpose themselves become invaded by what Keats calls "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts." If these poems arouse expectation that there is a secure logic to be discovered for their perplexing

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circumstances, they tend to dramatize the difficulties of such discovery more than its success.

These are poems, in other words, about problems in interpretation, involving questions that go to the heart of the Romantic concern with language itself: What is the status of explication or logical argument in poems that appear to frustrate such modes of discourse even as they put them forth? What kind of poem, or poetry, does this activity produce? One effect, certainly, is to cast into doubt the principles of coherence (the causal sequences) on which plots and arguments alike rely and to foreground the less certain, uneasy motions of mind attempting to describe such principles in the circumstances that have compelled its attention. Such stress yields a poetic syntax more psychological than logical in organization, more affective than narrative in its procedures. These poems all show the degree to which interpretation cannot consist simply of deciphering hidden patterns of meaning or discovering causal sequences, but must become an active seeking and generating of meaning.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Thorn dramatizes the efforts of their speakers to elucidate mystery through recourse to the logic of moral argument and the logic of narrative, respectively. The Mariner's "Rime" itself involves several kinds of interpretation, but the most blatant sense-making scheme in Coleridge's text—the Marginal Gloss—is amassed against the Mariner's "Rime" as a parallel commentary, making the poem as a whole bear the signature of two distinct intelligences: that of the riming Mariner and that of the Marginal Editor. In The Thorn, Wordsworth entertains dilemmas of interpretation in the body of the poem itself; Page 732  |  Top of Articlemoreover, he diminishes the locutional differences between the narrator of the tale and the voice of his logic-seeking questioner—as if to suggest a unity of enterprise. In both these lyrical ballads, the sources of interpretive authority and the logical patterns they promote or delineate never quite emerge as "points and resting places in reasoning" independent of "the fluxes and refluxes of the mind" trying to interpret.

So psychological an emphasis (and the poetic texture it effects) must have impressed Wordsworth and Coleridge alike as a revolutionary enough experiment in the language of poetry. Yet Coleridge's belief that "the best part of human language derived from reflection on the acts of the mind itself" was not to be given its most radical poetic treatment until a generation later. Keats explicitly features the questions of interpretation that haunt The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Thorn in his own lyrical ballad "La Belle Dame sans Merci"—a poem that bears a structural resemblance to The Thorn. Not long after, he was at work on a series of odes (of which "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is the most striking example) in which he not only makes a premise of the problems of interpretation all these lyrical ballads trace with increasing intensity, but extends that negotiation with uncertainty to the reader's engagement with the play of his rhyme.


Today, most readers of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner are probably not as bothered as was Coleridge's acquaintance, the poet and essayist Mrs. Barbauld, about the "improbable" nature of his story. The second "fault" of which she complained to the author, however, remains something of a notorious vexation for many modern readers—namely, that the poem "had no moral." Coleridge is willing to cede the point on "probability"; but "as to the want of a moral," he counters, the poem's "chief fault, if I might say so, was the obtrusion of the moral sentiment so openly on the reader as a principle or cause of action in a work of pure imagination." Yet in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge not only seems to deplore "moral sentiment"; in this work of pure imagination, he seems to want to baffle the effort to discover any principle of action. Indeed, he continues his remarks by declaring that his poem "ought to have no more moral than the Arabian Nights' tale of the merchant's sitting down to eat dates by the side of a well and throwing the shells aside, and lo! a genie starts up and says he must kill the aforesaid merchant because one of the date shells had, it seems, put out the eye of the genie's son." Coleridge emphasizes the causal vocabulary with knowing irony, for to the mind of the date-eater, the genie has produced moral necessity from a chance event and consequence.

But before considering what kind of moral paradigm that tale offers to the reader of Coleridge's poem, we need to turn to the Mariner himself, who finds moral uncertainties in the central circumstance of his "Rime." The world he describes, as readers from Wordsworth to the present have noted, is one informed by inscrutable forces; nature is unpredictably solicitous or persecutory, benevolent or tyrannous. As in "Dejection," the language that can be read from nature's appearances often seems barely more than the fiction of a desperate imagination. Indeed, the foggy atmosphere from which the Albatross emerges, and which always surrounds its presence, suggests both inner and outer weather:

    At length did cross an Albatross,
    Thorough the fog it came;
    As if it had been a Christian soul,
    We hailed it God's name.

Despite the appealing rhyme of "Albatross" with "cross" (here and subsequently), the Mariner's "As if" has the effect of raising a question about what "principle or cause of action" (if any) is actually involved. For the conjecture, uttered in fogbound misery, seems to describe primarily the hopes of an anxious crew, rather than anything positive about the bird itself. The Mariner and crew attempt repeatedly to convert conjecture into a syntax of event and consequence that can join the Albatross to the fate of their ship: when the splitting of the ice and the rising of a good south wind follow the advent of the bird, they hail it as the agent of their release; when the fog disperses (along with the ice and snow) after the Mariner kills the bird, the crewmen reinterpret the Albatross as the cause of the fog, and their release into sunshine and fair breezes as a consequence of its death; and when the same breezes fail and the "glorious" sun becomes "bloody," the crewmen imagine themselves plagued by the Mariner's killing of the Albatross and rue that act. What are we to make of this continual shuffling of logic? Even Wordsworth, usually not averse to making the reader "struggle," sides with Coleridge's perplexed readers Page 733  |  Top of Articleand against his "Friend" in the "Note to the Ancient Mariner" he wrote for the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. He cites, among other difficulties, the "defect" "that the events having no necessary connection do not produce each other." The arbitrary interpretations that gather around the Albatross are a case in point. Each new scheme of causality does not clarify any "necessary connection" between the bird and the state of the weather, as much as all together expose the fiction of interpretive acts: ascertainment of the bird's value emerges after the fact, as a logic of cause and effect is imposed on a mere sequence of events. As in the tale of the genie and the date-eater, cause and effect are matters of convenient collation rather than of inevitable connection. We begin to sense that if the Albatross signifies anything, it is the very ambiguity of signs—that is, the ambiguity with which the external world vexes a desire for interpretive certainty.

The language of cause and consequence not only surrounds the Albatross but is the very principle upon which a narrative must proceed, and so the problem of collation and connection extends to the listener of the Mariner's tale. How is one supposed to coordinate the two key events upon which his story depends: the killing of the Albatross and the blessing of the snakes? The way the Mariner himself represents these acts makes more of their irrationality than of their moral dimensions: "I shot the ALBATROSS" merely joins subject and predicate, rather than explains the act; and even when that act is apparently redeemed by the blessing of the water-snakes, this, too, is given without reference to a conscious motivation: "I blessed them unaware." The parallel syntax of "I shot" and "I blessed" does make a neat pattern for the sampler homily with which the Mariner caps his tale: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small: / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all." Nonetheless, a listener cannot escape awareness that this moral is for its bearer embedded in a self-denying context: the Mariner is doomed to eternal exclusion from the love and prayer he preaches. Ironically, he isolates and terrifies his auditors more than he consoles them with any sense of God's inclusive love. The would-be Wedding-Guest's "wiser" state notwithstanding, that listener at least is also left "sadder" for having heard the "Rime"—perhaps more "stunned" than instructed by the Mariner's will over him. Denied the "goodly company" of the marriage feast, the Wedding-Guest's very name is rendered meaningless. Left "of sense forlorn," this student of the Mariner's lesson finds himself, instead, a participant in the Mariner's alienation: listener and tale-teller alike seem at the end of their encounter "forlorn" of common "sense"—the comfort of living in a world of rational cause and consequence. As Coleridge remarks in the "Conclusion" of his own biography, "there is always a consolatory feeling that accompanies the sense of a proportion between antecedents and consequents . . . giv[ing], as it were, a substratum of permanence, of identity, and therefore of reality, to the shadowy flux of Time."

What denies the Mariner and all his listeners this sense of proportion is that the question that is the efficient cause of his narration—"What manner of man art thou?"—eludes certain answering. What is his "substratum" of identity? Is he a killer of an Albatross, a blesser of water-snakes, a preacher of God's love, or an agent of contamination? The question is voiced originally by the Mariner's first auditor, the Hermit, and as we learn, it wrenches the Mariner "With a woful agony" that requires nothing less than a retelling of all the events of his ordeal. Yet as tortured and elaborate as the Mariner's response is, it remains indeterminate: the question generates his "Rime," and his "Rime" regenerates the question. Its conclusion, in fact, gestures toward its perpetual rehearsal in the shadowy flux of time:

    Since then, at all uncertain hour,
    That agony returns:
    And till my ghastly tale is told,
    This heart within me burns.

Endlessly navigating about a core of mysterious events, the Mariner can never capture their informing logic: his text circles about this absent center but always begins and concludes in agonizing uncertainty. Nor does Coleridge's ballad itself secure the tidy closure of "moral sentiment," ending instead with a register of the aftereffect of the Mariner's tale in the mind of his stunned, forlorn auditor. If the Mariner himself "Is gone," he leaves the trace of his mystery in that interior realm, making the truest issue of his "ghastly tale" the way it haunts a listener's imagination. "I was never so affected with any human Tale," Charles Lamb wrote to Wordsworth; "After first reading it, I was totally possessed with it form any days...the feelings of the man under the operation of such scenery dragged me along like Tom Piper's magic Page 734  |  Top of ArticleWhistle.—" Another listener confessed to feeling "insulated" in the wake of hearing the poem recited by its author: "a sea of wonder and mystery flows round [me] as round the spell-stricken ship itself."

The effect of the Mariner's "Rime" in leaving its readers thus "possessed," despite the patent moral at its close, is amplified by the interpretive apparatus with which Coleridge surrounds the text of the "Rime." The "Argument" at the head of the 1798 poem is primarily descriptive, concerned mainly with the course of the Mariner's ship and alluding only briefly to "the strange things that befell" as if by chance, accident, or inscrutable agency. With the "Argument" of 1800, however, Coleridge introduces terms of moral logic and potential instruction: "the Ancient Mariner cruelly and in contempt of the laws of hospitality killed a Sea-bird and . . . was followed by many and strange Judgements." Yet in the 1802 and 1805 editions of Lyrical Ballads Coleridge dropped the "Argument" altogether, as if he had decided not to prejudice his reader with authorial signals, but to let his poem work its own effect. The next publication of the poem in Sibylline Leaves (1817) strikes a compromise, supplying a marginal gloss instead of an argument. Like the "Argument" of 1800, the Gloss often brings a moral interpretation to bear on the Mariner's story. Unlike the "Argument," however, the Gloss is a parallel text, in effect competing with the "Rime" for the reader's attention, rather than supervising it. It presumes to order the Mariner's ordeal with a logic that his own "Rime" does not disclose—if supplying the "necessary connection[s]" whose absence Wordsworth, among others, regretted. "And lo! the Albatross proveth a bird of good omen," it declares with the authority of biblical exegesis. "The ancient Mariner inhospitably killeth the pious bird of good omen," it avers, judgment in its every other word. Or taking as a cue the Mariner's fervent hope that "Sure my kind saint took pity on me," the Gloss confidently interprets a necessary connection: "By grace of the holy Mother, the ancient Mariner is refreshed with rain." The voice of the Gloss confronts the reader as the genie does the date-eater, starting up to declare moral necessity at every turn. Yet far from clarifying whatever connections between events the "Rime" may have left obscure, the very presence of a Gloss emphasizes their absence and points to the need for explicit terms of instruction in a circumstance where all is interrogative ("Why look'st thou so?" "wherefore stopp'st thou me?" "What manner of man art thou?"). Indeed the final marginal comment, "an agony constraineth . . . [the Mariner] to teach, by his own example, love and reverence to all things that God made and loveth," gives the rehearsal of that lesson a psychological urgency ("agony") even as it declares a moral principle. Despite the faith readers such as Robert Penn Warren have placed in the authority of the Gloss, it persists as another fiction—a parallel account of the ordeal recounted by the Mariner's "Rime," or an account of another ordeal: the attempt to make sense of the Mariner's language.

There is one frame, however, that Coleridge retains in every edition, namely, the voice of the anonymous balladeer with which the poem begins and ends. Readers tend, as Lionel Stevenson does, to treat this frame voice as no more than a "perfunctory" device. Yet in a poem so fundamentally involved with issues of tale-telling and tale-listening, this view deserves reconsideration. The relative situation of the Mariner's "Rime" is what lyricizes the ballad, making it as much about the feelings the "Rime" develops in its tellers and listeners as about the supernatural character of its events or the moral wisdom of its instruction. Its concluding focus on the Wedding-Guest suggests, furthermore, the frame narrator's muted but overall interest in the relation between "forced" tale-telling and "forced" tale-listening. The Wedding-Guest, now possessed with the "Rime," may have found a motive for narrative similar in power to that which possesses the Mariner with his ordeal. The poem leaves open to question whether this newly haunted listener might himself become a haunted purveyor of the Rime's repetitive life: Will the Wedding-Guest rise the morrow morn, compelled to reach toward an audience of his own, to say in the manner of the ballad's frame narrator, "It is an ancient Mariner, / And he stoppeth one of three"? The ballad's opening word, "It," hears the same sense of perplexed indeterminacy with which the Mariner has left the Wedding-Guest, while the present tense of narration, both here and in the ballad's penultimate stanza ("The Mariner, whose eye is bright, / Whose beard with age is hoar, / Is gone"), suggests the perpetual presence of that figure in the mind that contains his "Rime." The affinity the balladeer's language bears to the psychology of the Mariner's haunted listener is further enhanced by the copresence of their voices in the poem's inaugural stanza, before the actual character of the Wedding-Guest is introduced. The opening two lines flow immediately into a question—"By Page 735  |  Top of Articlethy long grey beard and glittering eye, / Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?"—in which the pattern of meter and rhyme and the as-yet-unspecified identity of the questioner momentarily create the sense of a single mind moving from observation to speech.

The self-circling energies of this narrative frame and the would-be containment offered by the poem's interpretive frame (the early Argument or later Gloss) suggest an extended rhetorical figure for the motions of a mind left stunned by the Mariner's "Rime" and attempting to sort out its mystery. Could the interpretive apparatus surrounding what Coleridge thought of as "A Poet's Reverie" be the textual signatures of a previously sense-forlorn auditor trying to make sense by obtruding (for himself and for his own audience) a "principle of action" on the intolerably inconclusive tale that has possessed his imagination? The Latin epigraph that in 1817 takes the place of earlier Arguments and subtitles indeed brings a problematic perspective to bear on the Mariner's mysterious experience. An excerpt from Archaelogiae Philosophicae by the Anglican divine, Thomas Burnet, it offers scholarly speculation on the existence of the invisible and the supernatural in the things of the universe. Yet Burnet cautions that in circling about but never attaining knowledge of the unknown, the mind must be vigilant for truth, careful to distinguish the certain from the uncertain. The action of circling about a center that defies final understanding describes the relation of the Mariner's "Rime" to its enigmatic core of events; it also figures the relation of the Gloss to that "Rime": each text surrounds a mystery, attempting to negotiate moral certainty in the face of what haunts and rouses the imagination. And the comprehensive text of Coleridge's 1817 ballad, equivocating between Marginal Gloss and Mariner's "Rime," now poses that problem to the reader. For the apparatus criticus and the "Rime" together shape a fuller text that, while denying unambiguous principles of instruction, offers an explicit figure for the ultimate uncertainty of interpretation.


In leaving its reader so "struggl[ing] with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness," TheRimeof the Ancient Mariner achieves one of the revolutionary goals of Lyrical Ballads. Deriding the "mere artifices of connection" that characterize the "falsity in the poetic style" of the day, Coleridge points to Wordsworth's contributions to their volume and praises the way such poems reveal compelling "resemblances between that state into which the reader's mind is thrown" by the "confusion of thought front an unaccustomed train of words and images" and "that state which is induced by the...language of empassioned feeling." The reader's "confusion" in the presence of such language is the note on which The Thorn begins, and Wordsworth even supplies an inter-locutor to give voice to the inevitable protests. The ballad opens plainly enough, with an unspecified speaker reporting a simple fact: "There is a thorn." But as in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the world of positive fact ("It is . . .") dissolves rather quickly into the shadows of imagination: this is no mere bush, we find out, but one of a mysteriously charged constellation of objects that has taken possession of the speaker's imagination. He hopes a village tale will supply terms by which he can explain "why" this "spot" should produce such impressive effects out of its simple elements. His initial gesture in this direction is to claim that he "saw" a "woman" at this spot, beside that thorn, crying to herself, "Oh misery! oh misery! / "Oh woe is me! oh misery!"—namely Martha Ray: betrothed, seduced, abandoned in pregnancy on her wedding day, bereaved of her child, and perhaps guilty of infanticide at "the spot." The interpretive appeal of this rural legend for the speaker is that it plots an objective chain of events that culminate in the affective power of "the spot," allowing him to displace his obsession with "the spot" to Martha Ray; he is merely an accidental witness.

But as with the Gloss attached to the Mariner's "Rime," here too the very pressures that introduce the cause-and-effect logic of the tale call into question the validity of the proposed explanation. The speaker's insistence that it was Martha Ray whom he "found," "saw," and "heard" "Ere [he] had heard of Martha's name" may indicate no more than a desperate effort to release his imagination from the grip of a mist-bound panic on a lonely, stormy mountain ridge. Stephen Parrish argues persuasively that the credulous and superstitious speaker may have traced into his account of "the spot" the details of Martha Ray's history after the event of his own witnessing, converting mere objects into intelligible signs of her ordeal. A psychological urgency shades the explanation promised by the tale into language that expresses the reach for explanation by a mind invaded by mystery. The questioner in the speaker's audience may plead, Page 736  |  Top of Article"But what's the thorn? and what's the pond? / "And what's the hill of moss to her?" But that plea, despite its relentless repetition, fails to make the speaker clarify an account suspended uneasily between what he professes to know, or swears is true, and what he "do[es] not know," "cannot think" or "tell."

That the poem dramatizes the motions of interpretation as much as it displays the materials of interpretation constitutes what Geoffrey Hartman has, termed the "double plot" of The Thorn, in which "the action narrated and that of the narrator's mind run parallel." The question for the speaker is "why?": what is the connection between the "tale" and "the spot"? But for the reader, that question is compounded with another, about the agent of that second psychological order of action: "What manner of mind is this?" we may ask. Wordsworth himself takes up this last question in his own version of the Coleridgean Argument and Gloss: the long Note he appends to the poem in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads. Addressed to "Readers who are not accustomed to sympathize with men feeling in that manner or using such language," the Note supplies a sort of second text—that "Introductory Poem" Wordsworth felt he "ought" to have adducced to The Thorn "to give this Poem its full effect." But unlike Coleridge's Gloss, Wordsworth's Note is not concerned with clarifying a principle for the "action narrated"; he means instead to clarify his intent to exhibit what happens to the language of discourse in the absence of such a principle—particularly in the case of a "credulous and talkative" discourser with an imagination "prone to superstition." Wordsworth argues that the speaker's particular "manner," especially his "repetition of words" (a chief complaint among the poem's first readers), is meant to dramatize an effort "to communicate impassioned feelings"—an effort spurred by "something of an accompanying consciousness of the inadequateness of [his] powers, or the deficiencies of language" to do so.

The speaker's frustration of plot and his larger struggle with the language of cause and effect thus become a general struggle with all modes of articulation—except the repetition of verbal fragments "which appear successfully to communicate" a feeling, and "the interest" thereby "which the mind attaches to words, not only as symbols of the passion, but as things, active and efficient, which are of themselves part of the passion." "During such efforts," Wordsworth explains, "there will be a craving in the mind" which, to the extent that it remains "unsatisfied," will cause the speaker to "cling to the same words." Though Coleridge deplored this effect, the circumstances of his own Mariner's narrative suggest a certain amount of sympathy for its motivation. For the implicit repetition of the Mariner's "Rime," and the actual repetitions in The Thorn that play in the voices of both Martha Ray and the ballad's speaker, all describe motions of mind engaged with what is not too explicit: repetition becomes re-petition, re-asking. As such an interrogative attempt, repetition emerges as another version of the questions that provoke the telling of each tale, that "craving in the mind" for a certainty it cannot locate. Indeed, the voice that actually utters questions in The Thorn is itself a repetitive one. This voice never quarrels with the narrator but merely echoes his tentative discourse in interrogative tones. Both the echoing locution of this voice, as well as its indeterminate origin, suggest that Wordsworth may even be shading the poetics of dialogue into monologue, as if to represent a colloquy within one intelligence, between a voice seeking fact and reason ("But why. . .?"), and a write helplessly burdened with mystery ("I do not know"). The play of these voices, like that between Coleridge's "Rime" and his framing apparatus, becomes an extended figure for the mind's engagement with uncertainty. There is a difference, however, for in Wordsworth's poem the two writes we hear are scarcely distinguishable, and neither presumes interpretive authority.


The effort of Wordsworth and Coleridge in these "lyrical ballads" to dramatize the uncertainties of interpretation opens a field of rhetorical activity in English Romanticism in which the play of interpretive strategies emerges as a primary subject—a "principle of action" in itself. Shelley writes an ode the whole point of which seems to be to question whether "the human mind's imaginings" work against a "vacancy" of information in the external world (Mont Blanc); Byron chants playfully: "Apologue, Fable, Poesy, and Parable, / Are false, but may be rendered also true, / By those who sow them in a land that's arable: / 'T is wonderful what Fable will not do! / 'T is said it makes Reality more bearable" (Don Juan XV:89). Keats's Odes Page 737  |  Top of Articleare perhaps the consummate Romantic instance of a poetic design in which the primary principle of action is a psychological event—a mind exploring and testing its own fictions of interpretation. But narrative, too, becomes arable land for such testing in a poem such its "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Keats's version of a lyrical ballad. As in The Thorn and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the central event (the perhaps fatal entanglement of a knight with an enigmatic woman of the meads) emerges only as a troubled memory, the primary action becoming instead the exchange between a perplexed questioner and a would-be tale-teller. The poem opens on an explicitly interrogative note, as a voice arrested by a strange impression queries its cause: "O what can ail thee, knight at arms, / Alone and palely loitering?"

Like the questioners of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats's balladeer seeks a reason for a peculiar phenomenon: what explains this unexpected sight on the meads, a knight absent from his wonted world of quest and romance? What sort of tale awaits the telling? The tone of the question reflects its speaker's uncertainty, for it suggests at once a moment of puzzled concern for an ailing countryman and a slightly chiding "what-ails-you?" reproach for the appearance of negligence. The description of the landscape that completes the stanza—"The sedge has wither'd from the lake, / And no birds sing"—extends the mood of inquiry by stressing the incongruity of figure and place. Yet there is a gap between the stanza's questions and its voice of description that raises a question for the reader: are the comments on the landscape a cryptic but potentially meaningful reply to the questioner or a further effort by the questioner to provoke a reply from the knight? That ambiguity, and its mysterious circumstance, persist in the second stanza:

    O what can ail thee, knight at arms,
    So haggard and so woe-begone?
    The squirrel's granary is full,
    And the harvest's done.

This stanza compounds rather than clarifies the indefinite relation between question and statement, an ambiguity to which I shall return. For now it is enough to note that both the landscape that frames the knight and the statements that frame the questions announce a world of depleted vitality, no longer productive of any harvest, even, apparently, the harvest of inquiry: the field is unyielding for all. The principle of inaction seems the profoundest absence of all; indeed, the questioning voice is the singular movement in this otherwise barren circumstance.

The adjectives "haggard" and "woe-begone" (as well as the previous stanza's "Alone" and "loitering") begin to play against this vacancy of information, however, by hinting at anterior events: "woe-begone" and "Alone" suggest diagnoses of an ailment for which "loitering" may be a symptom, while the etymology of "haggard," along with what Keats might describe as "its original and modern meaning combined and woven together, with all its shades of signification," suggests an intuition of cause. The modern meaning of "drawn, gaunt, exhausted" is enhanced by the status of "haggard" as an adjective derived from "hag," implying prior bewitchment. The word points even more specifically to the effects of commerce with a "haggard": "a wild or intractable female," and—with special relevance to Keats's La Belle Dame—with a "'wild' expression of the eyes." May the knight's present "haggard" appearance be the effect of a contagious encounter with some haggard's "wild wild eyes"? The latent efforts at interpretation stirring in these adjectives emerge in the overtly symbolic imagery that follows:

    I see a lily on thy brow
    With anguish moist and fever dew,
    And on thy cheeks a fading rose
    Fast withereth too.

As Earl Wasserman remarks, this stanza invites a "symbolic reading": the lily is the harbinger of death (Keats in fact wrote "death's lilly" in an earlier draft); the "fading rose" (also originally "death's fading rose") cannily surmises the fatal fading of romance, while the repetition of the verb "wither" in reference to the knight's appearance can now suggest an affinity between him and a heretofore incongruous circumstance. The elaboration of detail has begun to resonate with an obscure significance which promises a logical connection: the imagery of the whole reports a hollow center whose very vacancy has become significant. Everything speaks of absences, withdrawals, depletions, and abandonments.

The questioner has in effect entered the realm of latent narrative, for with the cue of this "symbolic reading," the knight produces a tale whose information confirms all these intuitions and imaginative surmises. Nonetheless, its sequence of events—far from elucidating the original mystery—only deepens its range, for Page 738  |  Top of Articlehere too details elude definite organization. Wasserman's study of the poem is particularly alert to "the dim sense of mystery and incompleteness" Keats's artistry arouses in us, along with the way certain "overtones" in the "affective and image-making energies of the poem" "drive the mind to ask questions of conceptual intent. What, one wonders, is the larger meaning couched in the absence of song? why a knight-at-arms and an elfin grot? and what are the significances of the cold hill side and the pale warriors?" Like the Marginal Editor of the Mariner's "Rime," Wasserman means to "penetrate [this] mystery", and he thinks he has the answer: La Belle Dame "is the ideal" that entices mortal man "towards heaven's bourne," but which must elude permanent possession in this world. Other readers surmise different causes and propose "Circe" as a more accurate key to interpretation.

Yet the knight's tale yields no certain logic either way, for like his questioner, he too is in struggle with indeterminate appearances. "She look'd at me as she did love," he reports, with a syntax that hovers between a confidently durational sense of "as" as "while" and that of less confident conjecture, "as if." His subsequent assertion, "And sure in language strange she said—/ I love thee true," bears no more certainty than the Mariner's hopefully proffered "Sure my kind saint took pity on me." In both cases the claim only accentuates the gap between the strangeness of signs and their proposed translations. La Belle Dame escapes logical explication even in retrospect—as the syntax of the knight's tale everywhere demonstrates: his narration merely accretes from "and" to "and"—a word sounded in fact in every stanza of the ballad, more than two dozen times throughout. As in The Thorn, the final stanza comes to rest on the original mystery, its terms now intensified by the intervening narrative:

    And this is why I sojourn here,
    Alone and palely loitering,
    Though the sedge is wither'd from the lake,
    And no birds sing.

Despite the withering of lush romance into a death-pale aftermath, the cause remains unknown. The knight's summation simply echoes on a syntactic level the absences noted by the questioner. Though he frames an answer in the syntax of explanation ("And this is why. . ."), it is an answer that doesn't produce much, beyond halting present tenses left wandering between two worlds, one dead and one powerless to be re born. Lacking a clear antecedent, its "this" belies the stress by voice and meter: there is, finally, no "why" to solve the mystery of La Belle Dame or to dispel its lingering effects. Indeed, the knight's final, haunting repetition of his questioner's voice only magnifies the interrogative mood of the whole, whose irresolution now involves the reader too.

We should not ascribe that questioning voice simply to ballad convention, however, even if it does perform the conventional service of prompting a tale. For the very presence of this questioner on the meads is itself questionable. As in The Thorn, the status of the poem's conversation remains ambiguous enough to suggest two voices playing in one intelligence, instead of two dramatically distinct speakers. We note, for instance, a curiously shared attraction to the landscape of barren meads, as well as a shared song—the knight reports being spellbound by "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and the balladeer repeats the spell of that language strange in the title of his own song. Keats enhances these provocative affinities by keeping the identity of the questioner anonymous (more a voice than a character) and by withholding any punctuation that might distinguish two separate speakers. There is a quality to the place and play of these voices, in other words, that implies the self-questioning motions of a divided consciousness examining its forlorn state. Even the knight's summary statement, "And I awoke and found me here," points to self-division and the need to heal it, with the location of "here" suspended between a situation in the landscape and a situation in the mind. Like The Thorn, Keats's lyrical ballad allows a reading of its voices as a dialogue of the mind with itself; by the end of the poem, the question that drew our attention to the knight has been utterly absorbed into his own voice. The status of the ballad's dialogue must of course remain part of its mystery—neither clearly an internal colloquy nor a conversation between distinct dramatis personae. But the ambiguity is suggestive, for it points toward the rhetorical play of the odes, which, as many readers remark, is one of internal dialogue and debate.


If "La Belle Dame sans Merci" foregrounds a probing question and a perplexed reply against a set of events that haunt about the shape of present speech, "Ode on a Grecian Urn" Page 739  |  Top of Articleheightens that drama of interpretation. Instead of a narrative organization of tale, tale-teller, and listener (or reader), Keats concentrates the action of the poem on the motions of a single lyric intelligence engaged with an image: a tableau on an urn, which like "the spot" in The Thorn or the appearance of the knight on the meads seems to signify something beyond itself, but for which there is no "legend" forthcoming, problematic or not. Keats's field of action is that of a poet's mind beckoned to interpretation, and the drama he presents concerns the increasingly self-conscious attempts of that mind to describe the significance of the object before it.

Like "La Belle Dame," the Ode begins with a greeting that suggests there is a story to be told, a meaning to be expressed:

    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.

All the vocatives—an "unravish'd bride," a "foster-child," a silent tale-teller—suggest an unfinished circumstance—or from a rhetorical point of view, information on the verge of expression. Keats brilliantly exploits that implication by following these invocations with a series of questions, the syntactic equivalent of these figures of provocative incompletion:

    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?

If the speaker surmises the urn as a silent Grecian "historian," the questioning of his "rhyme" provides a particularly cooperative voice, for historia is the Grecian method of learning by inquiry. Yet the attempt to double the historians on this occasion produces an ironic counterplay in the language of poetic inquiry. Far from recovering the mysterious legend presumably harbored by this "Sylvan historian," the speaker's rhyme doubles back on itself to mirror his own perplexities: he barely launches his greeting before it branches into multiple "or"s, a kind of "wild ecstasy" of syntax that diagrams his "mad pursuit" of his own "maiden loth"—the unravished "what" that might supply the absent meaning of the images he riddles. As Keats's speaker pursues the significance of his object, Keats's rhyme mirrors the course of that pursuit.

Keats's Ode continues to elaborate this double plot, presenting a speaker in pursuit of interpretation in rhyme that expresses, primarily, the ardor of the pursuer. If, however, Keats's readers are inclined to exempt themselves from this mirror-play, they have unwittingly played into an even more subtle irony. For over the course of the Ode, Keats turns the behavior of his rhyme into a dilemma for the reader, fully analogous to the speaker's dilemma of interpretation before the urn. By the conclusion of the Ode, in fact, the reader may have the uneasy feeling that not only have these dilemmas converged, they may even have reversed, for Keats's speaker abandons us with an ambiguously toned "that is all" just before becoming as silent as the urn itself.

The dovetailing of the two dilemmas of interpretation—the speaker's of the urn and the reader's of the rhyme—begins as soon as the speaker stops questioning to muse on the freedom of the urn from any finite significance. If no "legend" can be read into the silent tableau, it may be because "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter." With this new premise, the absent "legend" finds a productive counterpart in "unheard" melodies, those "ditties of no tone" played "Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd . . . to the spirit." The language of Keats's poetry intensifies that paradox with a play of visual repetitions and half-heard echoes. The word "ear," for instance, reemerges enfolded in "endear'd," as if that repetition were both a visual and auditory figure for the inner audience to which it refers. Furthermore, the sound (as well as the spelling) of "endear'd" resonates as "end ear'd," as if to signify audience beyond the bourn of "the sensual ear"— "just below the threshold of normal sound," as Cleanth Brooks puts it. The slant and sight rhyme of "endear'd" with "unheard" adds a further elaborationtothevisualandauditorydesignofrhyme. As readers, we begin to attend to information that haunts about the shape of rhyme, as well as the information it expresses through the logic of paradox. Language itself becomes a provocative figure of interpretation.

Yet that very elaboration of linguistic surface further perplexes these "ditties of no tone," for the speaker has a tone, or rather tones, that correspond ambivalently to the absences he notes:

Page 740  |  Top of Article
    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!

Any effort to evaluate the syntax of these judgments is thoroughly involved with the speaker's own perplexity before the arrested figures he contemplates. On the one hand, "Fair youth" and "Bold lover" present ideal images of mortals whose special stasis insulates them from the normal attritions of human passion and the vagaries of human inspiration; "the negation of these verbs," Earl Wasserman insists, "creates an infinity of mutable or chronological time." But the dependency of surmise on such negatives may be decreative as well, for the tone of the whole is poised between emphatic celebration and rueful irony: "do not grieve; / She cannot fade." The initially bold assurance of "therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" succumbs to the wavering balance of "Though . . . yet . . . though," while the expansive potential of figures seemingly poised on the verge of action yields figures trapped in an eternity of postponements.

The third stanza heightens these tensions of interpretation, both for the speaker and for us, not with syntactic equivocation this time, but with a univocal insistence on gradations of happiness, where the very repetition of positive value exposes the urgency with which it is being declared:

    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 . . .

Like the repetitions of Wordsworth's Sea Captain in The Thorn, here too "words" verge on becoming mere "things" of passionate speech, rather than "symbols:" They render a linguistic event that like the branching syntax of stanza 1 or the seesawing sentences of stanza 2 aligns the reader of Keats's "rhyme" ever more sharply with the interpretive dilemma of the beholder before the urn.

This third stanza concludes with a particularly intense convergence of situation and syntax that invariably trips Keats's readers:

    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.

On a first reading, "All breathing human passion far above" seems to be a summary phrase for the state of "More happy love! ...For ever panting, and for ever young": the semicolon after "young" perhaps marks a pause analogous to a comma, like the semicolons after "adieu" and "new" in the same stanza, while, conversely, the comma after "above" temporarily halts our reading in this field of happy surmise. Moreover, the stanza's syntax encourages us to feel that there is no problem in reading "breathing" as a continuation of those activities that the speaker has also described in present participles, "piping" and "panting"—activities that in fact involve kinds of "breathing." Wasserman puts the case this way: the line "is the syntactical analogue" of a visionary ideal where "breathing human passion" exists in a state "far above," fusing "mortal and immortal, the temporal and the atemporal." We may even be inclined to read "All" as an inclusive noun for the melodist and the lovers, and "breathing" as a verb whose direct object is "human passion."

The comma keeps us reading, however, and as we do, we reject this last syntactic possibility. More important, we find that "far above" is not a place but a value judgment that separates "All breathing human passion" from the conditions of the "happy love" we have been imagining. The value of "breathing" does perplex that judgment with information that will emerge more fully in stanza 5's "Cold Pastoral!"—an obverse evaluation of the same condition. But at this point, "breathing" is realigned only with the "sorrowful" conditions of the immediately ensuing participles, "burning" and "parching," its situation distilled utterly from the possibility of mystical convergence with "for ever panting and for ever young."

What is striking about this line, and the stanza as a whole, is the "phenomenology of reading" it produces. The teetering syntax of "All breathing human passion far above"—first promoting, then subverting, a coordination between the "happy love" on the urn and the highest promise of "human passion"—becomes significant not only for what it would describe, but for the way it behaves. Just as the urn's art resists decisive interpretation, so that one line entangles nearly every reader who has studied Page 741  |  Top of ArticleKeats's Ode. The question of narrative legend ("What men or gods are these?") moves, in this stanza, into a question of grammar and syntax: "What nouns or verbs are these?" Ambiguity is now the common property of urn and rhyme, and the dilemma of interpretation, the common situation of Keats's speaker and Keats's reader.

The return of questions in stanza 4 can be only an ironic event after these doublings of dubious surmise. They seem deliberately calculated to demonstrate the futility of certain interpretation:

    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?

This object of address is not the potentially intelligent "Sylvan historian" of stanza 1 but a "mysterious priest," whose knowledge (like his identity) is beyond possible knowing. Nor is there any possibility of discerning a historical context for this "sacrifice": origin and termination can be a matter of surmise only:

    What little town by river or sea shore,
    Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

The question of "what little town" echoes the earlier inquiry for "what leaf-fring'd legend," but here the configuration of "or"s concerns one of those "Nothings" that have existence only in the "ardent pursuit" of imagination. The circumstance is without a representation and, significantly, without a voice:

    And, little town, thy streets for evermore
    Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
    Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

The connective "And" hardly breaks the flow of the question, for it produces a response that extends interrogative motion into an undoing of its very premises. In stanza 1, the urn as a "bride of quietness" or a "foster-child of silence" suggested a haunting indeterminacy, while the paradox of "unheard melodies" made that "silence" an elusive spiritual extension of sound. Stanza 4 reduces that potential to mere emptiness. Like the landscape in "La Belle Dame" where "no birds sing," here, too, is a tableau of absence: there is finally no "historian," "not a soul to tell/Why," and the voice of bold inquiry, eager to ravish the urn for its "what" and "why," finds itself ironically partnered to her silence. The final stanza completes this movement: all questions are absorbed by the object that had excited them, and the urn relapses to a mere "Attic shape"— the "attitude" of "silent form" that signals the silencing of inquiry.

Yet even as Keats's speaker appears to concede this consequence, Keats's rhyme redeems language by exploiting its multiplicity of interpretive signals. For the profusion of puns and shades of signification that play through the ode's final stanza at once speak of and enact the indeterminacy the ode has dramatized throughout. If the urn's art withholds its spectral legend, flattening illusory possibility to a merely opaque "Fair attitude! with brede / Of marble men and maidens overwrought," Keats takes advantage of the "heard melodies" of poetry to multiply the dimensions of its activity. "Brede," for instance, describes the quality of the urn's figured design, but its punning against "breed" and ironic half-echoes of "bride" and "breathe" subtly reject the "human passion" the speaker had projected onto the urn's fair attitudes. Indeed, "Fair attitude" refers both to the loveliness of the urn's art and to the fairness, or justice, of its silent seeming. "Overwrought" involves similar shadings, for while it refers to the lapidary quality of the urn's design, it also criticizes an eternity where one may never, never kiss. And as a pun on over-"raught" (an archaic or Spenserian version of "reached"), it gently mocks the speaker's previous overreaching to idealize the urn's tableau, as well as implicates his view of the overwrought figures before him with his own overwrought postures of interpretation—that voice given to chanting, "Ah, happy, happy boughs! . . . More happy love! more happy, happy love!" "I found my Brain so overwrought that I had neither Rhyme nor reason in it—so was obliged to give up," Keats reports of one mood of composition in the midst of Endymion.

The transition from the "overwrought" brain to "giving up" is in fact the consequence Keats's final stanza enacts. The resistance of both urn and rhyme to any single pattern of significance is again underscored with the utterance, "Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!" "Cold Pastoral!" is, of course, the speaker's decisive revision of his previous surmise, "For ever warm": the epithet coolly extinguishes the ardor of that pursuit. More important, however, is the way this phrase not only juxtaposes the beholder's conflicting responses ("Cold" marble, Page 742  |  Top of Article"Pastoral" illusion), but translates that perplexity of signification into a compelling linguistic figure. "Cold Pastoral!" is no reconciliation but rather a tensed collation of opposites: a dynamic, because, unresolvable, oxymoron. The disjunctive effect of reading Coleridge's Marginal Gloss against his Mariner's "Rime" is something Keats's "Cold Pastoral" concentrates into a single phrase. It is Coleridge in fact who provides the most cogent Romantic argument for the imaginative value of oxymorons. To defend Shakespeare's attraction to the figure, he urges allowance for the way oxymoron reveals and perpetuates that

effort of the mind, when it would describe what it cannot satisfy itself with the description of, to reconcile opposites and qualify contradictions, leaving a middle state of mind more strictly appropriate to the imagination than any other, when it is, as it were, hovering between images. As soon as it is fixed on one image, it becomes understanding; but while it is unfixed and wavering between them, attaching itself permanently to none, it is imagination...a strong working of the mind, still offering what is still repelled, and again creating what is again rejected.

Not only is this a provocative countertext to Coleridge's favored poetics of reconciliation, but it is the best reading of "Cold Pastoral" ever not written about the phrase, for it speaks to the way the voice of judgment Keats produces in stanza 5 keeps the mind of the reader working hard in a dialectic of constructions and deconstructions. However teasingly silent this "Sylvan historian" remains about its informing "legend," it becomes, through the very provocation of its silence, the historian of urn-readers and urn-reading, a historian of the speaker's activity and our own. The urn befriends its beholders the way Keats's rhyme does—by encouraging their imaginative activity. We come to value its artistry not so much by what it yields to thought as by what it does to thoughtvprovoking questions and refusing to confirm any sure points and resting places for our reasonings.

The voice of the urn, were one to imagine it, is a perfect contrast to the voice that declares "Cold Pastoral!": "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is such a piece of self-enclosed harmony that it merits separation by quotation marks from the rest of the rhyme. Its status is another matter, however. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" emerges in part as the final, desperate surmise of a beholder not happy with an absent legend, nor with being so teased out of thought, and determined to tease the silent form into oracular utterance. And oracular utterance it seems—a rich, cryptic piece of sententiae antiquae. Yet despite the grace of its neatly balanced syntax, its language proves for some a cold comfort; for the ambiguous situation of this voice compromises its high philosophical tone, bringing a special kind of "woe" to "generations" of readers expecting something more accessible to interpretation. The phrase all but requires another "legend" to help us know what it means. Indeed, the words "Beauty" and "truth" seem so inscrutable as an abstract and brief chronicle of the urn's art that they sound its "ditties of no tone" with a vengeance. As with the marble brede of figures on the urn's surface, one may project whatever significance onto the aphorism one wishes: but as with those figures, this phrase contracts to mere opacity if its mystery is too irritably teased.

The statement "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is a lofty answer that in effect plays ironically against the rhetoric of answering, for it simultaneously invites and repels the possibility of understanding, shaping a piece of "charactered language" that is partly like the "hieroglyphics" Keats celebrates in Kean's "music of elocution" and partly like the "{hie}ragueglyphics in Moor's almanack." The two poles of meaning, "Beauty" and "truth," slide across their marker of equivalence, "is," reverse positions at the comma, and so elude syntactic priority that, despite the elegant symmetry of statement, its logic can only be wondered at, like the urn itself. Urn and aphorism together go round and round, each serenely self-enclosed, endlessly circular, resonating with mysterious promise, but "still unravish'd" at last.

The only consequence is a further mockery of the questioner: "—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." This statement, too, has the sound of stable wisdom, but the more one teases it, the more one discovers a tone that unsettles its terms of resolution. That "all" hints at sufficiency, even at mysterious plenitude, and yet it has a ring of dismissal, as if parodying anyone's effort to "know" "all." The irony against interpretation is as wry as Robert Frost's couplet: "We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows." For Keats, however, there may be no "Secret"—only the effect of those dancing round and supposing. Whether the speaker imagines "that is all" as the urn's comment on its aphorism, or himself tells us this, the opacity of the pronoun "that" and the uncertain tone of the whole still leave us wanting Page 743  |  Top of Articleto know "what is all?" Keats takes us only this far, then to relinquish us to an utterance that, like the contemplation of eternity, absorbs inquiry into silent thought. Here, a negotiation with "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" is not merely an act of mind we observe in another (be it Mariner, Marginal Editor, Sea Captain, knight, or poet), but one that the play of Keats's language has produced and sustained in the reader's own experience.

Source: Susan J. Wolfson, "The Language of Interpretation in Romantic Poetry: 'A Strong Working of the Mind,"' in Romanticism and Language, edited by Arden Reed, Cornell University Press, 1984, pp. 22-49.


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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300036