E212: British Literature since 1760
John Keats Study Questions
"Ode to a Nightingale"
1. What emotions and desires does Keats' speaker describe in connection with the nightingale? How do his feelings and desires differ from those of Shelley's speaker in "To a Sky-Lark"?
2. What value does the speaker attribute to the nighttime setting of his composition--that is, what opportunities does the night open to him? What associations does he make in connection with darkness?
3. How, in Stanza 7, does the bird's song lead the speaker beyond his immediate surroundings? What draws him back to himself in the final stanza? What does the poem suggest about the nature and duration of vision that the speaker has attained as he listens to the nightingale?
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
4. Keats respectfully opposes Wordsworth's poetry of the "egotistical sublime." How does the present poem offer an alternative focus for poetry?
5. What makes the speaker question the urn in the first stanza? What state of mind does Keats' poem seem designed to bring about?
6. Why are the figures on the urn called a "leaf-fringed legend"? [Look up the Latin verb "lego" or the gerundive "legendum" in a lexicon.] What does such a word have to do with the relationship between speaker and urn?
7. What paradox develops beginning with the second stanza and developing through the rest of the poem? What does art give us? What does it withhold?
8. What subjects of address does the speaker draw from the urn? What do they have in common? What don't they have in common--in other words, does the speaker have to address some subjects differently? Does the speaker put them into any working relationship? Explain.
9. People have sometimes said that line 25 is not good poetry: "More happy love! more happy, happy, happy love!" But consider the placement of the line in the poem as a whole--why might Keats have included such a line where he does, rendering it appropriate?
10. Critics argue over the meaning of the poem's last two lines, with or without the parentheses. How do you interpret them? What does it mean to identify truth and beauty--two realms that we generally insist upon keeping separate, just as we separate ethics or morality from aesthetics or beauty?
11. In a sense, the speaker is playing "art critic" when he questions the urn about its meaning. Does the personified urn's response validate this questioning? What does the poem, and especially the final stanza as a whole, suggest about the status of attempts to address the meaning of a work of art?
12. Contemporary critics usually insist on interpreting art in terms of its social and historical context, with the understanding that context is always at least partly constructed by the critic and not simply available as objective data. But how does Keats' speaker suggest we ought to consider a work of art, if indeed you take the poem as offering any insights about "context"?
13. All of the seasons have found poets to sing their praises, or at least their significance. But what is special to Keats' speaker about Autumn? What associations does he draw from the season beyond the natural surroundings and the time of year?
14. How does the stanzaic patterning of this poem, along with other formal features, reinforce the seasonal mood that Keats explores?
15. On 889-90, what is "negative capability"? How does Shakespeare exemplify this capability, while Coleridge, according to Keats, lacks it?
16. On 890, what criticism does Keats make of the Wordsworthian manner in poetry? What does Wordsworth do that he shouldn't, and what does he not do that he should?
17. On 891, Keats writes that "if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." What do you think of that statement as a description of how poetry is generally written? Why is it or isn't it a good description of poetic composition?
18. On 893-94, what comparison does Keats make by contrasting the poetry of Milton and Wordsworth? Does Keats favor one over the other, or is that not the right question to ask? Explain.
19. Why, according to Keats on 894-95, is the poet like a chameleon (i.e. "camelion")? Why, in the view Keats explores, would it be beside the point to praise or condemn poetry for its supposed moral status or tendencies?
Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2. Seventh edition. New York: Norton, 2000.