What do I, or can I, know about the artist?


I need you to review this journal for me. here are the notes from my professor about these three poems:

Many of us have experienced the joy of looking at a work of visual art: a drawing, a painting, a sculpture, a photograph. We ask it questions. What are you telling me? Is there some kind of symbolism here? What do I, or can I, know about the artist? Is this piece worth the time to stop and look at it? Perhaps it’s worth our time; something about it attracts us to the point that we look carefully. We never know exactly what. We cannot choose our favorites; they choose us, whether it’s a movie we can’t stop talking about, a song we can’t stop hearing, a snatch of melody, a hook in a pop song, a bridge or chorus that becomes that earworm… Again, we have no control over that response, we cannot suddenly decide to like a song. It is like falling in love. It’s either there or it isn’t.

John Keats wrote “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” in October 1816, shortly before his 21st birthday, after reading George Chapman’s (1569-1634) Elizabethan Era translation of the great epic poems of Homer, The Iliad, and The Odyssey. He wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in May of 1819, when he was not quite 24 years old, having been born on October 31, 1795, and less than two years away from his death from tuberculosis on February 23, 1821. Yes, one of the most important and loved poets of the English Romantic period never lived to see his 26th birthday. His younger brother had died of TB in 1818, and his reaction to that was to produce an astonishing amount of first-class poetry until he succumbed to the disease. He approaches both of these poems with all the enthusiasm of youth and discovery, though I might suggest that “Urn” has a more philosophic tone.

I first discovered these poems when I was a college student, an English major at Seton Hall University, only a bit younger than Keats was when he wrote them (I graduated forty years ago, Class of 1980). One of the things I learned about reading “The Classics,” or what we then called The Great Books, was that translation matters. The problems with rendering poetry written in an ancient and long-forgotten language into compelling modern English cannot be ignored. Someone fluent in modern Greek would not be able to easily read Homer, just as you and I would be thoroughly mystified by Beowulf in Old English, or Chaucer in Middle English, or even Shakespeare in Early Modern English, written only 400 years ago. I had read The Odyssey in high school and had hated it. When I read it again in college, the words and situations fairly jumped off the page, making it a very different experience. Upon investigation, I discovered that it was the translation that made all the difference, and which finally made The Odyssey the exciting and compelling adventure story that Homer intended. And, of course, as it relates to translation, and since many of you are fluent in other languages besides English, you know that there are phrases and ideas in one language that just don’t translate easily into the other, and it requires some ingenuity and imagination to get you meaning across or explain yourself.

Mark Twain famously wrote, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” This sums up the problem of writing, and specifically translation, in a neat and compact nutshell.

Keats’ poem, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” attempts to capture that level of excitement, when the story or idea or concept or artful phrase just blossoms. I often think that what attracts us to one author or artist over another is a vocabulary, or a style of phrasing, that is unique to that artist and speaks, inexplicably but directly, to some aspect of ourselves. Keats, as a poet, wants to find the aptest metaphor, the exact comparison, that will communicate his idea. Since so much of what poets write about is inexact and abstract, it is the right metaphor that will often get the idea, or even just the feeling, across. After describing the reading Keats has done in the Greek classics by using the metaphor of travel for reading specific to a region or culture, and describing the Greek poetic landscape as “the realms of gold…which bards in fealty to Apollo hold,” Keats evokes a comparison: “yet did I never breathe it’s pure serene/Till I heard Chapman sing out loud and bold.” Greek poetry was never so pure as when Chapman “sang” it lyrically and poetically.

A bit of a technical note, here. The poem is in the form of a sonnet, which is defined as 14 lines of rhyming Iambic pentameter. We will learn exactly what all this means when we read the sonnets of Shakespeare, but for now, just know that the sonnet often divides into an eight-line section called the octave, and a six-line section called the sestet. It is the octave that Keats uses to establish his experience reading the classic Greek poets and then introduces the comparison to Chapman’s translation.

The sestet is the six-line conclusion, which will describe the feelings of joy, excitement jubilation, etc., that Keats gets from Chapman’s Homer, and which is the point, or theme, of the poem. His metaphors are to the feeling an astronomer feels when he discovers a new planet, or an explorer finds an entirely new, to him, ocean. In this instance, Keats makes a mistake. It was not the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortes who “discovered” the Pacific Ocean, but Vasco Nunez de Balboa who was the first European to see it, thereby “discovering” it in purely Euro-centric terms. Factual inaccuracies aside, we get the trembling excitement Keats is trying to communicate. Whenever I talk about this poem, which is my usual mode of teaching, I am always reminded of a quotation from the 19th Century American poet Emily Dickinson. “If I read a book, and it makes me so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I read a book, and it makes me feel as if the back of my head were torn clean off, I know that is poetry.” Dickinson, too, uses metaphor to describe this otherwise indescribable feeling of seeing, or reaching, something good and true and real, which is the prime goal of poetry. Perhaps the best way for you to determine if a poem, or any work of art, has value for you is to ask if it is true.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is another attempt to describe what a work of art does, and, like “Chapman’s Homer,’ spends some time in the description. While visiting The British Museum, Keats came across a Greek jar, or amphora, or urn. Being of a contemplative nature, Keats sat down to think about it, made a drawing of it (pictured above), and thought about it further as the subject of a poem. The form he chose, the ode, has its roots in Classical Greek and is usually an elaborately structured poem which is designed to praise, which was originally performed to musical accompaniment. The exact structural form is up to the poet, and Keats chose five stanzas of ten lines each. The narrator, or the speaker or persona, uses intense and energetic poetic language chosen for its beauty and ability to arouse excitement to describe the scenes which illustrate the sides of the jar. The Greeks, and many other ancient cultures, used jars such as these, of various sizes, to transport or store things like water, wine, grain, in other words, things that were essential and precious. The way they would decorate them attests to their importance within their culture. The decorations would illustrate activities important to them, in this case, a piper playing music, a young couple, presumably in love, about to kiss, and a bull being led to a ritual sacrifice. What strikes Keats is the frozen-in-time nature of the scenes and the mysteries they invoke: What is the sacrificial festival and what people are celebrating it? What song is the piper piping? We will never know, but the joy of the poem is in the imaginative faculty that is invoked, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” in other words, they become the stuff of art.

The fact that the jar describes scenes from the ancient world might qualify the poem as a pastoral, a poem about an ornamental and often fictional view of the rural and bucolic, or country, life; a willful evocation of a more natural way of life – the “good old days” before technology, invention, mechanization, industrial Capitalism, ruined everything. It is the pastoral that often gives us grounds for comparison, even as it romanticizes the humble and simple – would we enjoy, or even find musical, the music from a humble piper? what savagery is evoked by the bull being led to slaughter?

If a culture is going to sheath that which is important to it in art, what then are we to do with it? Art has become since the Greeks painted their jars, more psychological, more philosophical, and the stuff of importance sheathed in our art are feelings, ideas, things which trouble us. Our art has developed into the ultimate expression of who or what the artist is, and it becomes up to us to decide if what that is is important to us. Hence, the shock and joy of recognition of that importance, the meeting of a sympathetic soul. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the most important American philosopher of the 19th Century, and probably beyond, writes, In “The Poet,” “The poet will tell us how it was with him, and we will all be the richer in his fortune.”

The line that always jumps out at me from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is “when old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of another woe Than ours, a friend to man…” While the line describing the message Keats sees, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is the one that everyone talks about, perhaps I am more interested in the permanence of the art, and the validity of its message to each generation “in midst of another woe Than ours.” Every generation has its woes, and there’s never a shortage of new ones. My generation worried about nuclear war and consequent sudden annihilation. Now we worry about climate change in the long term and Covid-19 in the short term, each of which is an existential threat, on the species and the individual level. Keats died of tuberculosis, a then incurable bacterial disease of the respiratory system which was made immeasurably worse by the horrible air quality in England during the early years of Industrial Capitalism. Now, as we read his poem, we worry about and are not meeting in a classroom because of, a viral infection of the respiratory system which is, as we are told, made worse by bad air quality. Still, the poem survives, and speaks to us each in our own way, as standing in front of a painting in a museum conjures up the generations of humans who have stood in front of it, each with their own unique, but somehow similar, worries and woes. It is that timeless quality of art in vastly different times that I think Keats is getting at. The truth may simply be beauty, and beauty may simply be truth, but each generation, it is found, defines beauty and, in the age of “fake news,” truth, in its own way.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was an older contemporary, and friend, of Keats. I should further note that his birth year, 1770, makes him an exact contemporary of Ludwig Van Beethoven, the German musician who defines the Romantic movement in music for so many. One of the qualities that mark out the Romantic artist is his love and veneration for nature, and the importance of his own very personal response to it. It is the primacy of the personal response that typifies the true Romantic. In this vein, an ultimate romantic work is Beethoven’s Symphony 6 in F, Op. 68 “Pastoral,” subtitled, “The Awakening of Cheerful Feelings Upon Arrival in the Country.” Each of its five movements describes the experience of country life.

Wordsworth warns us to never stray too far from Nature. “The world is too much with us, getting and spending.” The Romantic warns us away from the pursuit of wealth for its own sake and the sake of the possessions it gains us. It “waste[s] our powers.” This poem, too is a sonnet, and the octave describes the distance we are, and the distancing we do, from Nature. “For this, for everything, we are out of tune”

The sestet begins, “It moves us not.” In case you think that modern man is superior because of technology, or religion, or any of the other features of modern life in which we pride ourselves, he tells us he’d reject that in a flash, “I’d rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” rather profess an ancient pantheistic religion, than to miss the majesty of the sea, even if the pantheistic pagan’s relationship to nature is one of personification. He invokes Proteus and Triton, Greek gods of the sea, rather than the monotheism that in his mind inspires all that “getting and spending.” Was humanity better off under the beliefs of Proteus and Triton? What role did belief in what we now call myths to play in human development? The poem was written in 1802 when Wordsworth was 32 and happens in the middle of the first wave of industrial Capitalism, the so-called Industrial Revolution that was busily creating a few non-aristocratic fortunes at the expense of great poverty and suffering for the many and great destruction to the natural beauty of Wordsworth’s England. This is an example of a poem as Social Criticism, and we will see more of it when we turn to William Blake next time.


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What do I or can I know about the artist


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