E212: British Literature since 1760
John Keats Study Questions
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
1. Keats respectfully opposes Wordsworth's poetry of the "egotistical sublime." How does the present poem offer an alternative focus for poetry?
2. What makes the speaker question the urn in the first stanza? What state of mind does Keats' poem seem designed to bring about?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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.
6. 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?
7. 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?
8. 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?
9. 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"?
Edition: Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2. Seventh edition. New York: Norton, 2000.