Keats’ Ode to Autumn

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About Keats’ Ode to Autumn

The Ode to Autumn was the last of the famous odes Keats wrote – and some would argue his greatest. Helen Vendler, a “close reader” who can turn limericks into three hundred page dissertations and the bar room drunks who wrote them into towering geniuses, wrote an exhaustive book on Keats’ odes. odes-of-john-keats1Even if two thirds of her analysis is sheer conjecture, her ebullience and knowledge makes her every sentence worthwhile. You may be no closer to knowing what Keats actually intended, but you can safely skip your MFA.

Vendler writes, for example, that Keats “must have” remembered Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Evidently she could find no correspondence suggesting this to be true but, who knows, maybe she’s right.

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple trees, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in the silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet moon.

Vendler then proceeds from the conjectural “must have” to “Keats borrowed” in the next paragraph. So… without clearcut documentation, take what Vendler writes with a grain of salt. Whether or not Keats ever read or knew of Coleridge’s poem should remain conjecture. Nevertheless, what the similarities between these two passages tells us is that the Romantic Era had begun. This was the beginning of the age that emphasized the pastoral over and above the urban – an intuitive grasp of the world began to supercede the classical emphasis on reason. The world’s natural state was a central metaphor for the Romantics with its the inevitable cycle of creation and loss.

My main reason for mentioning Vendler, however, is her assertion that reaping serves Keats as a metaphor, throughout his poetry, for the act of writing:

As the act of conceiving poems is paralleled to natural fruitfulness, his books are the garners into which his grain is gathered. A teeming brain becomes a ripe field; the act of writing is the reaping of that field; to have written all the poems one has been born to write is to have gleaned the full harvest from that teeming brain; and to have compiled one’s poems in books is to have stored away riches.

She continues:

The ode To Autumn… contains Keats’ most reflective view of creativity and art… (p. 234)

Vendler’s entire chapter elaborates on this central premise. She may or may not be right about Keats’ intentions, but in this case at least, Keats’ own letters show that he liked to think along these lines. Vendler’s chapter is worth reading; and even if you don’t read Vendler, knowing this much might help you read the poem in a different light. Keats knows that autumn will inevitably destroy all that he’s found beautiful within the ode, but knows as well that Autumn has its music too – its song, its “wailful choir”, a part of its own dissolution and impossible without it. Autumn must achieve its fruition through its own dissolution. Bear in mind, as well, that Keats knew that he was likely to die when he wrote this poem. The symptoms of his tuberculosis were already underway. Keats once wrote that life was metaphor. Perhaps, with this ode, he is metaphorically describing his own dissolution and the harvesting of his mind – his poetry.

But there’s another possibility – one that possibly sends tenured professors, lit majors and the Helen Vendlers of the world into fits of apoplexy. And that’s that Keats may simply have been writing a beautiful poem. If there was any poet in the history of poetry who could write beautifully for the sake of writing beautifully, that was Keats. His skill with language and imagery rivaled Shakespeare’s. The writing of the “Ode to Autumn” may have given him a venue for an exquisite expression of poetic thought.

Indeed, in a letter to Reynolds written in September of 1819, Keats writes:

‘How beautiful the season is now–How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather–Dian skies–I never liked stubble-fields so much as now–Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm–in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.’

It’s thought that Keats was referring to his Ode to Autumn. He was communicating an ineffable experience through sheer poetic expression. That is, he was communicating an experience, not meaning. Don’t underestimate the genius required to pull this off. The possibility doesn’t diminish the poem one iota. There is not a poet alive today who could accomplish the same feat (though I hope one shows up). By way of analogy – not every line of music in a suite by Bach or  a concerto by Mozart conceals a subtext. It is music – meant to be enjoyed as music. Likewise. Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” may be a kind of music in words. The “point of the poem” is in the beauty of reading or reciting the poem – meant to be enjoyed as a poem. And this was, in fact, an aesthetic pursued by Keats – (see  critics like W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle). (The poem, in its language and imagery, becomes the embodiment  of its own subject matter.)

It was also an aesthetic that Robert Frost referred to as “a revel in the felicities of language”. He used this phrase in reference to the late E.A. Robinson’s poetry, but it was a felicity he also claimed for himself. In my recent post on Interpreting Frost’s “Stopping by Woods”, I cover some of that ground. As it pertains to this post, the author Mark Richardson offers up  the most pertinent comment:

Frost directs our attention not to the poem’s [Stopping by Woods] theme or content but to its form: the interlocking rhyme among the stanzas. He once remarked to an audience at Bread Loaf, again discouraging biographical or thematic readings of the poem: “If I were reading it for someone else, I’d begin to wonder what he’s up to. See. Not what he means but what he’s up to” (Cook 81). The emphasis is on the performance of the writer and on the act of writing. [p. 191]

Although we have no comparable comment from Keats (to my knowledge) it probably wasn’t necessary for Keats to make it. The whole aesthetic of poetry was different. The successful poem was frequently the one that was aesthetically beautiful – in content and style. In other words, how the poem was written was the message and content. In the case of Ode to Autumn, what makes the poem is it’s style and expression.

Remember, when reading “close readers” like Vendler and others, that unless the interpretation comes from the poets themselves, any interpretive reading is outright conjecture. Period. There is no reason to think that Vendler, in any of her analysis, reflects what Keats actually intended. Vendler spends over 50 pages of prose to unfold a one page poem. There’s not a professor alive who can persuade me that Keats thought all the thoughts Vendler ascribes to him. Not every single line has to mean something.  But… there are other reasons to read Vendler’s book. You will learn a tremendous amount about the philosophical currents of Keats’s day,  what Keats thought along those lines, and how they may relate to his odes.

In the scansion below, I’ve left iambic feet unmarked. The colors of the scansion are as follows: Trochaic Feet are reddish, Spondaic Feet are purplish, Phyrric Feet are yellowish.


Keats: Ode to Autumn Scansion

On the Shape of the Poem

The first thing to notice, as to the form of the poem, is its division into three stanzas. These three stanzas, in turn, most likely find their inspiration in the Petrarachan Sonnet. John Keats - StatueKeats’ temperament (along with the temperament of the era) was ill-suited to the argumentative terseness which the Elizabethans preferred – most perfectly summarized in the Shakesperean Sonnet with the sting of its closing epigrammatic couplet. The Romantics were after a different aesthetic – one of intuition and, in some ways, gnosis.

The stanzas are almost like foreshortened Petrarchan Sonnets. Instead of two quatrains and a concluding sestet, Keats reduces two quatrains to one, and expands the sestet by one line – a septet. In the final stanza, there is even a kind of volta between the quatrain & the final septet, as though the whole of the poem were built on the Petrarchan model but in a much expended form.

The couplet isn’t held off to the end of the poem, as in a Shakespearean Sonnet, but is enclosed within the septet, discouraging the feel of discursiveness (the working out of an idea in the Shakespearean sense). The couplet nonetheless has the effect of subliminally grounding or halting each stanza before the final line. The whole of it produces a kind of nested, self-enclosed completeness – a calm and contemplative feel.

[I love the image at right – the statue of Keats. What a pity that he died so young!]

Writing the Ode to Autumn

The meter of the poem might seem conservative, but in Amy Lowell’s biography on Keats, she finds the following comment from one, Lord Houghton:

Uniformity of metre is so much the rule of English poetry, that, undoubtedly, the carefully varied harmonies of Keats’ verse were disagreeable, even to cultivated readers, often producing exactly the contrary impresssion from what he intended. (p. 500 – John Keats)

Lowell then discusses Keats’ compositional practice. I love it, being a poet. It’s an aspect of biography all too frequently overlooked by biographers who are not themselves (unlike Amy Lowell) poets.

In a letter to Taylor, a confidant of Keats, here is what Keats himself wrote about the composition of poetry:

In poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their centre.
1rst. I think poetry should surprise by a fine excess, and not by singularity; it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
2nd. Its touches of beauty should never be half-way, thereby making the reader breathless, instead of content. The rise, the progress, the setting of Imagery should, like the Sun, come natural to him, shine over him, and set soberly, although in magnificence, leaving him in the luxury of twilight. But it is easier to think what poetry should be than to write it. And this leads me to
Another axiom – That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.

There you have it, advice from one of the language’s greates poetic geniuses.

Lowell then provides a description of how Keats first wrote the poem (p. 503). I’ve recreated what the manuscript might have looked like based on her description (I’ve marked additions in Italics):

Who hath not seen thee? For thy haunts are many oft amid thy stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks (for thee abroad) may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
Thy hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
While bright the sun slants through the bushy barn
Or sound asleep in a half-reaped field
Or on a half reap’d furrow sound asleep
Dosed with red poppies; while thy sleeping hook
Spares from some slumbrous
Spares some minutes while warm slumbers creep

At this point, Lowell tells us, Keats decides to rewrite what he’s already written:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid they stores?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad my find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor
They hair soft lifted by the winnowing wind
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep
Das’d with the fume of poppies while thy hook
Spares for some slumbrous minutes the next swath
Spares the next swath in all its twined flowers

This insight into Keats’ compositional practice probably won’t be of interest to anyone but other poets and even then, only to poets and readers interested in an older poetic style. One thing to notice is the italicized bushy in the 5th line of the first sketch. Apparently, or so Lowell tells us, Keats’ line read:

While bright the sun slants through the barn

But this line isn’t Iambic Pentameter. It’s missing one foot.It’s Iambic Tetrameter.

While bright | the sun | slants through | the barn

So Keats, almost casually, adds the word bushy before barn. It was a terrible addition and an anemic adjective. Fortunately Keats didn’t keep the line. However, it goes to show how meter can guide the language and subject of the poem in ways that the poetry of free verse does not. Meter frequently forces the poet to rethink first thoughts, to plumb a layer of ingenuity in a way that free verse poets rarely plumb.

Another aspect which Lowell stresses is how Keats plays with the sounds of a given line. She conjectures that the line that began with: Spares from some slumbrous, was to heavy with the consonant m in both some and slumbrous. You can see Keats, she conjectures, tinkering with the line as he tries to eliminate the heavy alliteration.

Reading the Meter

There are only a couple of lines that will trip up a modern reader unfamiliar with Iambic Pentameter:

the-songs-of-spring

Instead, the modern reader would probably be tempted to read the line as follows:

Where are | the songs | of Spring? | Ay, where | are they?

In the first foot, this puts the emphasis on Where rather than are. A trochee in the first foot is an acceptable variant, in Keats’ day, but I suspect Keats meant us to read the line as iambic. Emphasizing are in the last foot, making the last foot a trochee, is an out-and-out no-no – especially in poetry of this time. Keats would never have written a line like this. Just remember Houghton’s comment on Keats’ variants which, by our standards, are dazzlingly mild. A trochee in the final foot would have caused apoplexy. If we read the last foot as iambic, as it should be, then the first foot makes more sense if it is also read as iambic.

Why?

Because it’s a lovely use of meter.

The shift in emphasis (with the same word) between the first and last foot is a virtuosic use of meter and just what we would expect from a poet of Keats’ caliber.

The only line that might be a stumbling block for modern readers is the following:

while-barred-clouds

Readers in Keats’ day would have automatically pronounced the –ed in barred – (even if they no longer pronounced the ending in common parlance). Four hundred years before the full pronunciation of –ed was actually a part of everyday speech. However, the extra syllable never stopped being useful to writers of metrical poetry – and so the full pronunciation of –ed continued as an artifact, a poetic convention, right up to the start of the 20th century.

One last thing I can’t help but notice, having just analyzed Milton’s versifying, is how Milton’s metrical habits seem to have brushed off on Keats. Keats, at different stages of his short career, idolized Milton’s verse. Keats, like Milton, mostly limits trochaic variant feet to the first feet of the lines. Keats, on the other hand, shows a greater willingnes to vary the Iambic Pentameter pattern with Spondaic feet and Phyrrics. This flexibility is probably what Lord Houghton meant when he referred to Keats’ varied harmonies. It’s probably impossible to imagine ourselves back in the day, reading Keats’ poetry the way his contemporaries read them.

Suffice it to say, though these days his verse may seem conventional and conservative, in his own day his metrical style was as unique and unconventional as the language of his poetry.

Write (G)reatly!

12 responses

  1. Alright, but what or who is the “thee” and “thy” of the first line of the second stanza?. “thy store” goes one way, but the lackadaisical way of whomever Keats addresses reminds me of a cat??? Or is it autumn itself, as someone suggests? Is it then: in the first stanza the season is “conspiring” with “him” (the sun?) and in the second stanza the “season” sits amid the store of the “season?”

    Does it matter that in my own life “hazel” is a bitter story? I planted two hazelnut trees with visions of nuts in my pantry, the hazelnuts grow plentiful but the squirrels and even blue jays take all the nuts way before they are ripe and I don’t get one… Last year we wrapped the nuts, pair by pair, as many as we could and the squirrels were slowed down enough for me to be able to harvest one jar-full, but finally they figured out what we had done and how to tear the wraps off “their” nuts. Nuts to them, from now on. The kids say the trees are beautiful and won’t let me cut them down.

    Wow, one time I really embarrassed myself in discussing a poem at length without knowing who “Merlin” of the poem was. This was in a letter to my mother from Seattle to Vienna. She, of course knew, and told me, and deflated my point. Am I wandering into a similar trap with Keat’s “Autumn,” and my too-simple, sacrilegious??? cat?

    • It looks like you answered your own questions! The he of the first stanza is the sun. Poets, up until the twentieth century, typically used the masculine or feminine pronoun when referring to inanimate objects. Even so, the Elizabethan poets were much more liberal in their usage of masculine and feminine pronouns as compared to the poets of the 19th Century.

      The thee and the thy of the second stanza refer to Autumn. (Odes are generally addressed to someone or something and, in this case, Keats is addressing Autumn.) In the poem, Autumn is both the season and the things which it produces – both asleep on the half-reaped furrows and the furrows themselves; the barred clouds and the soft dying days. It’s as if I were to write an Ode to a beautiful woman. I might write something like: I have seen thee oft amid thine evening moods. In this case, you are both your moodiness and the maker of your moods. (If that makes sense?)

      P.S. If you lived in Vermont, you would shoot them too.

    • Hi Manish, buy, or loan from a library, Helen Vendler’s “The Odes of John Keats“. There you will find discussion as to whether “the swallows are migrating or not” and “whether their migration means they ‘join a warm south’. etc… If a poem were an atom, she would split it into Planck lengths.

  2. Aha, so I find the longer version of your Amazon review! Quite delicious! I must say, whatever our disagreements I’m tremendously excited that you pointed me towards this blog. I’ve been looking for someone online to engage with regarding my own thoughts and theories about poetry. Yet, in this post I can clearly see where our thoughts diverge on certain matters. Let me quote the most relevant parts:

    [[[That is, he was communicating an experience, not meaning… Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” may be a kind of music in words. The “point of the poem” is in the beauty of reading or reciting the poem – meant to be enjoyed as a poem. And this was, in fact, an aesthetic pursued by Keats… Remember, when reading “close readers” like Vendler and others, that unless the interpretation comes from the poets themselves, any interpretive reading is outright conjecture. Period. There is no reason to think that Vendler, in any of her analysis, reflects what Keats actually intended.]]]

    This cuts right to the heart of a long-running debate I’ve had with many people across the internet regarding all artistic mediums, and I hesitate to try and “summarize” my position for fear I may overly simplify a complex problem. Perhaps the best quote I ever read on this subject was by Stanley Kubrick when he stated: “A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” But where I think Kubrick tripped up is that he should’ve replaced “film” with “art” and simply left out the comparison to music, because music, IMO, is no different than other arts when it comes to this topic.

    But the general notion is this: First we experience art, then we understand it. What we understand, what that “it” is, can dramatically vary depending on how we look at things. Sometimes what we understand is an artist’s intentions, other times it’s the art-object itself, other times it’s our own experience. These are all things to be “understood.” Yet I think the mistake too many lapse into is to trying to pin these things down to definitives. I once said that great art is not created by logically reducing meanings to a few definites, but by intuitively expanding possible meanings into infinity. The reason Shakespeare is such a monumental genius is because he had a vast ability to depict life and thought as it was on a multitude of levels (and when I say “as it was,” I’m not talking about a banal realism), and that depiction opens itself up, like the grain of sand in Blake’s poetic philosophy, into an infinity of possible interpretations. The more lenses we view Shakespeare under, the more levels of relevant meanings we find.

    Close reading is an attempt to extricate possible meanings without the aid of socio-biographical historicism. By ignoring the latter it radically “frees up” the meanings we can extract from poems. Does this ignore an artist’s intentions? Yes. Does it ignore certain historical facts that would make many readings “wrong”? Yes. But that’s precisely the point: New Criticism, and the schools of thought that came after it, like formalism and close-reading, rebelled against the tyranny of other modes that tried to “pin down” and dictate meaning instead of allowing poems to speak for themselves, to communicate meanings beyond intentions or certain contexts.

    But, as Cleanth Brooks said in The Well-Wrought Urn, this “setting aside” of these other elements doesn’t have to be permanent. Indeed, I’ve come to think that any school-of-thought is valid when interpreting art, because it all shows us meanings on other levels, from other perspectives. This approach doesn’t (IMO) work in life, because life is what is regardless of how we perceive it, and we can very easily get things flat wrong about what reality is because of how we mentally distort reality. But this doesn’t apply to art, because art is not about capturing reality-sans-experience and perception, but rather more akin to the reverse. So I think it only makes sense that a near opposite approach to what one should use in reality would be more fitting to art and poetry.

    Although, I don’t meant to imply that any and all readings are equally valid, equally likely to be “true” on any level. Any reading still requires evidence and some semblance of logical coherence and persuasion, and we can still say that some readings are more-or-less likely to be “true” on whatever level we’re discussing based on that evidence. It’s still not allowable for a reader to make things mean whatever they want them to mean without some reason that’s rooted in reality, whether that reality be the work itself or its various external contexts.

    Ok, so with that out of the way, I agree that Keats was attempting to communicate an experience, not a meaning, but what does this really mean? If we think of reality and experience as a boundless (in the literal sense “lacking bounds”) continuity, then all “meaning” is just an attempt to parse that experience of it, to categorize, abstract, label it, and put into into some logically coherent framework. Language itself is one such act by which we try to “draw lines” through reality. So by creating an experience through language and form Keats is attempting to approach the “boundless experience of reality” more closely. But, and here’s the thing with ALL art that does this, rather than LIMITING meanings, such a recreation actually opens itself up to a multitude of possible meanings. It’s those possible meanings that close-readers like Vendler and other formalists are after.

    I don’t want to reignite our discussion about the validity and problems with the “conjecture” label so I’ll just say that, IMO, such readings merely express one kind of meaning, one kind of truth, and one that doesn’t necessarily have to eliminate others, even if others are contradictory. Likewise, I’ll reiterate that I don’t believe that artist’s interpretations of their own work is any way more correct or more definitive than outside interpretations. Artists have one view like anyone else and, as Neil Gaiman said of his own work, he doesn’t consider that perspective privileged. I guess if I had to chide Vendler it would be over the fact (besides that one nasty habit we discussed that’s rampant in academia and criticism in general) that she discusses what poets think (or what she thinks they thought) too much. There’s too much of the “intentional fallacy” going on. I’m even surprised that given her formalism tendencies she would be concerned with such a thing.

    Anyway, there’s more to be said on this subject, and I didn’t even touch how art uses established representational mediums in a way that attempts to free them, to some degree, from their representational element so as to approximate experience more closely. It’s always a tight-rope act. You can’t strip a medium grounded in representation (especially language) from its representative aspect completely or it becomes chaos (one can see an extreme example of this in Finnegans Wake), yet if an author sticks by it faithfully then it ceases to be art and becomes banal statement. That’s one reason art usually creates meta-systems on top of its base medium (like form and meter in poetry, or narrative in fiction), to try and dislodge the dominance of language meaning exactly what it says and no more, to create greater expressive possibilities. Again, that’s almost the antithetical purpose of scientific and mathematical language.

    • Wow. You are hypographic, Miss Suzanne! Your thoughts are fascinating but I can’t possibly keep up with three posts like this. This will take time. So, I’ll extract what I think is the nugget of the whole thing:

      “Close reading is an attempt to extricate possible meanings without the aid of socio-biographical historicism. By ignoring the latter it radically “frees up” the meanings we can extract from poems. Does this ignore an artist’s intentions? Yes. Does it ignore certain historical facts that would make many readings “wrong”? Yes. But that’s precisely the point: New Criticism, and the schools of thought that came after it, like formalism and close-reading, rebelled against the tyranny of other modes that tried to “pin down” and dictate meaning instead of allowing poems to speak for themselves, to communicate meanings beyond intentions or certain contexts. “

      I’m familiar with that whole school of thought. Ignoring socio-biographical historicism can make for fascinating reading, but anyone reading this sort of criticism needs to be aware of what they’re reading. Take an analysis of any given sonnet by Keats, Donne or Shakespeare. These three were geniuses. Can the same be said for the New Critic who is analyzing the sonnet? If ‘X’ is analyzing the poem and doesn’t give two figs for socio-biographical historical considerations, then the poem is no longer Keats’, Donne’s or Shakespeare’s, but a sonnet by ‘X’. He or she may be a half-wit compared to the poets, and so we’re presented with a half-witted understanding of the poem. As long as the reader is cognizant of this, then I have no problem with it. But it’s when ‘X’ begins to draw conclusions about the poets that trouble begins. Both Helen Vendler and Stephen Booth offer a complete edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. They are as alike as night and day. If you want to get as close to Shakespeare as we can, read Booth. He provides extensive commentary on the words and their meanings in Shakespeare’s day. He provides summaries of possible allusions in the poems and whatever else might provide some historical context. If you want to read Helen Vendler reading Shakespeare (and that may or may not have anything whatsoever to do with Shakespeare) then read Vendler. I couldn’t make it through the book.

      I think the average reader would like to know, or get an idea of, what the great poet was thinking when he wrote the great poem. They’re unlikely to get that by reading the New Critic. Calling historical context “tyranny” is self-rationalizing twaddle (as far as I’m concerned). And there’s no such thing as “letting a poem speak for itself”. When “new critics” say that they’re being insultingly disingenuous. What they’re really saying translates as “letting the new-critic speak for himself rather than for the poem“. I’m OK with that, let’s just be clear about what’s going on.

      There’s a lot else you’ve written, but I suppose this will have to do for the moment. :-)

    • [[[You are hypographic, Miss Suzanne! Your thoughts are fascinating but I can’t possibly keep up with three posts like this. This will take time.]]]

      Hehe, I’m glad I could at least be fascinating. I swear I don’t usually write this much, but this is the first forum I’ve found with anyone that could really engage with me on these subjects. The lack of serious interest in poetry is appallingly scarce, even amongst other poets whom I’ve been around!

      BTW, is there anyway on here to edit one’s post after posting? And how do you properly quote another post? I’ve never really posted on a WordPress blog before. FWIW, my real name is Jonathan Henderson. Nearly a decade ago I posted on Amazon under my mother’s account on Amazon and her name was Suzanne. But so many people on there got to know me by that name that I didn’t want to change it, so my mother just let me keep it and she opened a separate account.

      [[[If ‘X’ is analyzing the poem and doesn’t give two figs for socio-biographical historical considerations, then the poem is no longer Keats’, Donne’s or Shakespeare’s, but a sonnet by ‘X’… Both Helen Vendler and Stephen Booth offer a complete edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets… Calling historical context “tyranny” is self-rationalizing twaddle… And there’s no such thing as “letting a poem speak for itself”. When “new critics” say that they’re being insultingly disingenuous. What they’re really saying translates as “letting the new-critic speak for himself rather than for the poem“.]]]

      I’m afraid I’d turn into a Tyrannosaurus Hypograph if I responded to all of these statements in depth. Simply stated: I don’t agree.

      I don’t know what about New Criticism makes a work by Keats, Donne, or Shakespeare NOT still a work by then. Perhaps it’s analyzed as if it could be anyone’s, but you stated in another post a distaste for giving out awards for poetry merely based on someone’s name and not the poetry itself; how is this any different? If Shakespeare et al. were the genuine artistic geniuses they’re made out to be then their work itself should bear that out without us having to constantly be reminded that “this is a work by Shakespeare so it needs must be great!”

      And, to hoist you by your own petard, what you said here about the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry:

      “Are we to attend Trethewey’s poetry readings because her subject matter is deserving? Or is it because she’s a good poet? Evidence seems to argue for the former. There are numerous examples of poets being awarded recognition not for the quality of their poetry but because of their poetry’s subject matter and who they are. How do we know? Because poets have entered contests giving false names and ethnicities. Some of these poets won the competitions they entered; but when their identities were revealed, their awards were revoked. The question begs to be asked: If not the poetry, then what exactly were the jurists awarding?”

      sounds very much like a defense of New Criticism and close readings. Are we praising Shakespeare’s poems as poems or because he was Shakespeare and we’re over-awed by the connotations of the name? And if it is, indeed, the poetry, then why can’t the poetry bear that out without extensive appeals to historical, biographical, sociological context? Sure, we need to understand the language, but that’s as simple as saying we need to understand the tools that went into the work itself.

      I have both Vendler’s and Booth’s edition of the sonnets. I prefer Vendler’s. Why? Because I feel I gain infinitely more insight into what makes the poems work so well as poems, as arrangements of thought and expression. That’s not to say I learned nothing from Booth (I certainly did, and I’d highly recommend his edition), and this isn’t to say that I believe every claim Vendler makes. I do think she sometimes takes what could’ve easily been coincidences and makes more out of them than is warranted. But there are just as many cases where she unearths things that are so blatantly obviously there that when she points them out you wonder how anyone ever missed them to begin with, like the plays on the word “king” in the final quatrain of 87. Do you really think Shakespeare was unconscious of this? I find it hard to claim so, because there are numerous examples of him very cleverly playing with words on such visual levels.

      Historical context IS tyranny to the effect that it says “one can only read a poem in THIS context and all meanings must be extracted from there and limited to that.” I don’t know how to see that as anything BUT tyranny, especially when it tries to disallow any method outside of it.

      To deny that a poem can speak for itself is to essentially deny that art, poetry, and even language itself lacks any automatism, or any coherent qualities that carries itself across socio-historical borders. I don’t know how anyone can convincingly argue such a thing. To say that shades and nuances are lost over time because of that is fair, but to say that everything is lost doesn’t work. That would mean nobody could read, enjoy, and extract any meaning from a Keats poem unless they immersed themselves in the 19th century, Keats’ life, his society and culture, etc. That’s simply not true. Do you really deny that To Autumn loses all its power if we are not aware of such contexts? If not, then what allows its power to transcend, and is that not it “speaking for itself?”

      As much as you think such a statement is disingenuous, you’re equally being disingenuous in saying that new critics are only speaking for themselves, as if their arguments and interpretations are never born out by the text itself. You may (rightfully) be skeptical of, eg, some of Vendler’s claims about some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but can you really dismiss every single one as not being convincingly argued given the evidence? And what is that evidence if not the text speaking for itself? I don’t think any new critic would say that their interpretations are not guided at all by personal biases, but, hell, our tastes in art is governed by the same thing to begin with. Ben Saunders convincingly made the case for how individual biases drive ALL criticism in his book on Donne.

    • Unfortunately, there’s no way for anyone but the blogger to edit comments. If I see that you’ve made a mistake or typo, I usually correct them, just to be considerate. I don’t think any less of any commenter who misspells or mistypes. I do it all the time. If there’s something you want me to change. Say so (within limits!).

      Here are some useful codes for you. Substitute the dollar signs with the greater or less than brackets.

      $strong$Bold$/strong$
      $em$Italics$/em$
      $blockquote$block quote$/blockquote$
      $del$delete or strike-thru$/del$

      I don’t know what about New Criticism makes a work by Keats, Donne, or Shakespeare NOT still a work by them.

      To me, it’s when a poem is analyzed with no regard for historical or biographical considerations. Any time a critic or close reader applies a 20th century sensibility, in terms of ferreting out a poem’s meaning, to a pre-20th century poem (for example), then that poem, in a sense, becomes the critic’s. He or she is using the poem as a springboard for her own agenda – be it political, aesthetic, whatever. Marjorie Perloff has to be one of the worst poetry readers and critics I’ve ever read. She’s an inexhaustible source of bad readings and a perfect example.

      And, to hoist you by your own petard, what you said here about the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry…

      Not sure how that hoists me on my own petar (not pitard :-) ?

      Are we praising Shakespeare’s poems as poems or because he was Shakespeare and we’re over-awed by the connotations of the name?

      The choice is somewhat more complex than that. What makes Shakespeare great is the whole gamut. In terms of poetry, he possessed a genius for figurative language, metaphor and language (in general) that has been objectively examined.

      And if it is, indeed, the poetry, then why can’t the poetry bear that out without extensive appeals to historical, biographical, sociological context?

      Well, I don’t know what criticism you’re reading, but there are many treatments of Shakespeare that make claims for his greatness without reference to historical, biographical or sociological context. To avoid having this sound condescending let me start by saying that I think you have a deeper knowledge of critical theory than I do (and necessarily more patience for it) but whenever you bring up pre-20the century poetics, your knowledge seems to grow thinner by the decade. Nothing wrong with that, we all have our specialties and interests, but I get a little perplexed when you make statements like the one above.

      I have both Vendler’s and Booth’s edition of the sonnets. I prefer Vendler’s. Why? Because I feel I gain infinitely more insight into what makes the poems work so well as poems, as arrangements of thought and expression.

      Just remember that, in some instances, the arrangements of thought and expression you so appreciate are Vendler’s and not Shakespeare’s. If you’re OK with that, then enjoy. And yes, Vendler makes many observations I agree with and learn from.

      Historical context IS tyranny to the effect that it says “one can only read a poem in THIS context and all meanings must be extracted from there and limited to that.

      Well, OK, but by definition this is what historical context demands. To call that “tyranny” is simply posturing. I don’t have a problem with anyone who wants to ignore historical context when they analyze a poem. I do have a problem with them when they claim that their analysis represents the poet’s thinking rather than their own.

      To deny that a poem can speak for itself is to essentially deny that art, poetry, and even language itself lacks any automatism…

      What I mean is this: To say that a poem can speak for itself is saying that there’s an objective, consistent “voice” (in quotes) or meaning inherent in the poem that will be imparted to any and all readers. That’s just nonsense. Every poem is understood through the lens of the reader’s experience. That expression is another one of those to which I have an allergic reaction.

      …you’re equally being disingenuous in saying that new critics are only speaking for themselves, as if their arguments and interpretations are never born out by the text itself.

      I don’t recall being quite so absolute as that. I don’t think a wrote that their arguments and interpretations are never born out by the text. If I did, show me and I’ll change it.

  3. Pingback: Rhythms Of Richard Cureton, Shapes Of Keats « Editions Of You

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