Our exploration of literary genres brings us first to poetry, with good reason: Because many people are intimidated by poetry, especially “old” poetry, facing our fears is the first step toward prowess and confidence as scholars and writers. Furthermore, this brave plunge into poetry comes with a bonus: Once we manage to “open up” a poem, we can experience its power and beauty, as well as its insights into human life. We begin with John Keats’s 1819 “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
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:What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape 5
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? 10
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 15
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! 20 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! 25
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d, 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. 30 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? What little town by river or sea shore, 35
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel, Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? And, little town, thy streets for evermore Will silent be; and not a soul to tell Why thou art desolate, can e’er return. 40
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede Of marble men and maidens overwrought, With forest branches and the trodden weed; Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought As doth eternity: Cold pastoral! 45 When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. 50
Upon a first reading of this British Romantic poem, not only does the language elude us, but even much of the imagery may be unfamiliar. If 37 Experiencing the Power of Poetry we have ever seen an urn, it probably contained the ashes of a relative and was likely not decorated with scenes like those described in the poem. So how do we conquer our fears and dive in to unravel the poem’s meaning?
Here are some pointers for getting started:
- Read full sentences (if they exist in the poem) without stopping at the end of the line.
- Look up words you do not know and write their definitions on the page.
- Note recurring ideas or images—color code these with highlighters for visual recognition as you look at the poem on the page.
- Determine formal patterns. Is there a regular rhythm? How would you describe it? Can it be characterized by the number of syllables in each line? If not, do you note a certain number of beats (moments where your voice emphasizes the sound) in the line? Are there rhyming sounds? Where do they occur?
- What is the overarching effect of all these elements taken together? What do you think is the message conveyed by the poem? Here is a copy of the poem after first year composition student Judy Smith reviewed it carefully and annotated it with notes and highlights:
annotated poem here
Considering the poem’s meaning in light of her annotations, Judy makes a few additional observations in her notes:
- The rhythm of each line includes ten syllables, with the accent on the second syllable of each pair.
- The rhymes are almost regular: The first stanza end-sounds follow the pattern of A, B, A, B, C, D, E, C, E, D. The next stanza is close, but varies a bit: A, B, A, B, C, D, E, C, D, E. Stanzas three and four follow the same pattern as two, but the final stanza reflects the switched sounds of the final two lines that we saw in stanza one. So the poem is very formal, generally, but it does feature this one odd shift. Why?
- The positive and negative words and phrases seem to pull against each other. In some ways it might be terrible to be “stuck” in time—the youth wants to kiss his lover, but he’ll never be able to. The figures on the urn can’t leave to go on with their lives. But the urn’s creator has captured a moment where everything is ripe— the tree is full and green and will never lose its leaves. Maybe the feeling of desire the youth feels for the girl is even better than the actual kiss will be.
- In the second stanza, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard” seems to mean that we can’t hear the “heard melodies.” I can’t make sense of that. But if I read the whole sentence, including a bit of the stanza’s second line, it starts to make sense: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / are sweeter.” So the melody played by the urn’s pipers is sweeter than if we could actually hear it! Not sure why yet, but it’s an interesting claim.
- The urn won’t change like the real world will—is this a good thing or not? The speaker says the urn helps us see beyond our ordinary “thought,” maybe to see real beauty, which is rare? And beauty is truth, so the beauty in the urn reveals a kind of truth? What is that truth? It sounds like Keats does have a high regard for art’s place in the world, though I’m not sure being “stuck” in the perfect moment is what we really want.
The process in which Judy has engaged fulfills the process of annotating a text to better understand it, discussed in Chapter 1, refining that process to fit the conventions of poetry. To go a step further, Judy use these notes to form a perspective on the poem and compose an essay arguing for that perspective.
Keats is an example of a poet who employs traditional elements of poetry to great effect. But what about a poem that seems to resist some of the conventions traditionally associated with poetry? Consider Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem, “The Weary Blues,” located at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176785. Try using the process outlined above for unpacking the poem and then spend a few minutes making observations about the poem’s meaning and effects. What do you think the poem might be saying to us?
Questions for Consideration
- You may have noticed that instead of the traditional iambic pentameter used by Keats in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Hughes’s form here sounds more contemporary. Reading it aloud reveals its blues rhythms—its own syncopation, for example, like that the speaker describes in the old blues singer’s song. Why might Hughes have chosen this form instead of the iambic pentameter rhythm in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”?
- The speaker seems to enjoy the performance of the blues singer, but he notes that the singer finishes, goes to bed, and sleeps “like a rock or a man that’s dead” (line 35). What emotions are usually associated with the blues? Why do people sing the blues? Why do people go to clubs to hear someone else sing the blues and maybe even dance to the songs? With these issues in mind, what do you think the poem’s last line means?
- How does Hughes convey the dialect of the singer? Are these dialect features important to the overall effect of the poem? How so?