Anahid Nersessian’s Close Reading of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Anahid Nersessian about her latest book, Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: In your essay about “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I learned the most about that poem that I wasn’t really aware of— what it was really about, and the origin of the Romantic period, and where that term came from. Can you talk about “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” what’s on the surface, what it might appear to be, and then what you’ve learned through your studies?
Anahid Nersessian: “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is probably Keats’s most famous poem. It ends with a very, very famous line: “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty.” What it describes is an urn, and more specifically, a scene that’s painted on this urn of a bunch of people—presumably in ancient Greece, somewhere in the ancient world—going to a sacrifice. So, it’s some kind of religious festival. Some people are going to a sacrifice, and they’re leading a cow through their village. And the other thing that you see on the urn, and it’s probably part of the same festivities, is women being chased by men, and the women are described specifically as “maidens loth.” The word loth means unwilling, but it’s even stronger than that—it means full of hatred for whatever it is that is chasing you, or trying to make you do something you don’t want.
So, Keats scholars have always understood that what is depicted on the urn is, at least in part, a scene of sexual violence. These women are being chased by the men. There’s also a woman who is frozen and described as frozen in time as she runs from the male youth who is trying to catch her. People have always understood that what was on the urn is a scene of sexual violence. And so, the question is, how do you get from that to the lines that conclude the poem:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, an all ye need to know.
There are thousands of interpretations of these lines. One really straightforward interpretation of them and of the poem would be, you know, lots of bad stuff happens, women get raped, cows get killed, lots of bad stuff happens in life. But human beings make art out of that bad stuff. And the art that they make is beautiful. And that’s the truth of human experience. The truth of human experience is not all the bad stuff that goes down, but the redemption of that bad stuff through its representation, through its elevation into art. That is the straightforward back-of-the-textbook answer about the poem.
My reading of the poem is pretty different. I actually think that the poem is spoken not by a voice that ultimately belongs to Keats. I think that the speaker of the poem is a character of sorts; I think it’s a character who we’re not supposed to trust and we’re not supposed to listen to. And I think that that message that is delivered at the end of the poem is actually supposed to fall flat, even if it sounds good, and it does sound good. I mean, those are beautiful, beautiful lines. It almost sounds like a slogan; this is very pat, it’s very accessible. It is something that you can remember easily. And that’s part of the trick of the poem, because actually, I think we’re not meant to believe that at all. We’re actually not meant to believe that the bad stuff that happens in life or has happened through the course of human history is in any way redeemed or made better by being turned into art.
And in fact, what we have to understand when we encounter art, particularly art that represents human suffering, in this case art that represents sexual violence, we have to understand that there is no way to say “it turned out okay because now we have this beautiful urn.” We actually have to dwell in the very, very, very difficult and uncomfortable position of knowing that one of the things art does is aestheticize or beautify or prettify incredible pain. And that’s a very, very hard thing to recognize. If you’re somebody that loves art, if you’re somebody that makes art, it’s a very hard thing to recognize.
And so that’s my reading of the poem. I actually think that the moral at the end of the poem is not pat. I actually think it’s a kind of a trap, and that if you read it and you think, “Oh, yeah, that’s true,” then you’re as bad as the speaker of the poem. You’re as bad as someone who looks at art and forgets the pain that it has come out of it.
Anahid Nersessian is an associate professor of English at University of California at Los Angeles. She is the author of The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life; Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment; and Keats’s Odes: A Lover’s Discourse.