A further note on Keats’s “Grecian Urn”

I had planned to deny you any visual aid to envision the object of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but then in class I ended up looking around for examples. What I showed you in class needs to be supplemented a little.

In the early twentieth century scholars worked hard to find an actual Greek urn with all the things on it that Keats describes: a piper, a bold lover, trees, a sacrificial procession. There isn’t one, but scholars did find urns Keats might have been familiar with in making up his own imaginary one. Two often-cited models are the Sosibios vase (ca. 50 BCE; now in the Louvre, Paris) and the Townley vase (2nd century CE; now in the British Museum, London). These are both marble vases with decorations in relief, as it seems Keats’s urn is.

Sosibios vase, Louvre
Townley vase, British Museum

Greek marble was also a hot topic in Keats’s time, as I mentioned, because of the exhibition in London, starting in 1817, of the so-called Elgin marbles or Parthenon sculptures (5th c. BCE; now in the British Museum). This exhibition signals the elevated prestige of classical Greek culture; it’s characteristic of Romantic (late 18th-early 19th century) literature and art across Europe to be particularly fascinated with ancient Greece.

Marble relief, Parthenon North frieze, British Museum

But it is equally important that there is no actual Grecian urn. Keats could and did see real ones: why does he imagine a fictional one instead for the purposes of the Ode?

Notes on readings for 1/28

In the readings from January 28, three poems should receive special emphasis.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 129 (“Th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame”)

For notes on this dense poem, please consult the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the sonnets. Whenever I put a Shakespeare Sonnet in a handout, the sonnet number (printed in blue on the screen) is a hyperlink to the page of notes in this edition.

George Herbert, “Prayer” (1)

As with Donne’s “Valediction: forbidding Mourning,” I’m giving this to you in its seventeenth-century spelling. A modern-spelling version is here:

Prayer” (I), ed. N.J. Endicott, in Representative Poetry Online (University of Toronto, n.d.).

The number “(1)” is not part of Herbert’s (or his printer’s) title; in modern texts it distinguishes it from the other poem titled “Prayer” in Herbert’s book The Temple.

The PDF on Sakai includes dictionary links for some words that may be hard to guess the meanings of. In addition:

Christ-side-piercing spear (6)

during the Crucifixion, according to the Gospel of John, a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus with a spear; John 19:34 q.v. Cf. Wikipedia s.v. “Holy Lance”.

The six-daies-world (7)

in the Book of Genesis, God is said to have taken six days to make the world.

in ordinarie (11)

likely in the sense given in OED, 3rd. ed., s.v. “ordinary,” n., P2: “in an official capacity.”

Stevens, “The Snow Man”

A good poem for a pandemic winter.

Notes on Jan. 25 readings

In the readings from January 25, three poems should receive special emphasis. Here are a few further aids to comprehension:

Donne, “A Valediction: forbidding Mourning”

I judged it useful to present this poem to you in a form similar to its first printing. The spelling is Early Modern rather than modern, and that reminds us that Donne’s English was rather different from ours, and his world was really different. However, if the spelling is getting in the way, please refer to the modern-spelling version here:

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” ed. N.J. Endicott, in Representative Poetry Online (University of Toronto, n.d.) .

That version has some extra explanatory notes, though many things will still be hard or impossible to explain. Explanation may in some cases be beside the point here (re-read line 18, and think why). Still:

trepidation of the spheares (11)

an idea from Ptolemaic (geocentric) astronomy, which was the dominant system from the Middle Ages, still taken seriously in Donne’s time. If the poem is from around 1611, it is almost exactly contemporary with Galileo’s 1610 publication of the results of his telescopic investigations (on this see Wikipedia). The Copernican revolution was well underway already. Donne plays with both geocentric and heliocentric cosmologies in his poems.

Dull sublunary lovers love / (whose soule is sense) (13–14)

obscure, but I think it means that earthly lovers’ souls are dominated or constituted by the senses, as opposed to the more “refin’d” faculties Donne attributes to “us.”

twin compasses (26)

the instrument for drawing circles.

Pound, “In a station of the metro”

the metro

the Paris metro, opened 1900.

Armantrout, “Will”

There’s a nice short profile of Armantrout on the Poetry Foundation (which also has a number of her other poems).

the past / perfect (15–16)

in grammar, the “past perfect” refers to constructions like “she had gone” or “I had eaten.”