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The urn's "silent form": Keats's critique of poetic judgment.

In John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the most enigmatic phrase is "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" (49). The equation of beauty and truth in this phrase has generated numerous interpretive responses to the nature of aesthetic experience represented in the poem, leading many critics to ponder the relationship between the sensory experience of beauty and the intellectual understanding of truth. Helen Vendler, for example, reads the ode as Keats's attempt to affirm two different responses to the urn as an aesthetic object: "sensory participation in the represented scene and intellectual awareness of the medium" (127). According to Vendler, both of these responses to the urn are authentic and aesthetic, but they cannot happen simultaneously and thus alternate, "one always canceling the other" (127-28). (1) Although he does not directly address the issue of sensory experience versus intellectual comprehension, Arnd Bohm posits a similar oppositional relationship between beauty and truth, arguing that, in the ode, Keats offers the beautiful as an alternative to the sublime, which cannot serve as an avenue of truth because it instigates intense feelings of pain and terror without any healing influence. Bohm maintains that beauty is made "into truth, truth into beauty, beauty into truth, and so on endlessly" without one being sacrificed for the other, and this dialectic interaction between beauty and truth creates the meaning of the urn, or, in Bohm's words, "the unlimited energy of cosmic flux" (21).

This dualistic understanding of beauty and truth, however, seems to underestimate the seriousness of Keats's endeavor to illustrate through his poem how sensory experience can provide access to that which transcends sensory grasp. As shown in his contradictory remarks on sensations and thoughts in his letters, Keats intensely struggled between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of philosophy. On 22 November 1817, in his famous letter on the imagination he wrote to Benjamin Bailey, Keats declares, "O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts" (Letters 1: 185), intimating his predilection for aesthetic sensations rather than intellectual thoughts. In his letter to his publisher John Taylor dated 27 April 1818, however, Keats resolves to "turn all [his] soul to" the pursuit of philosophy and knowledge after admitting that he has "been hovering some time between an exquisite sense of the luxurious and a love for Philosophy" (Letters 1: 271). (2) Keats's conflict between the sensuous real and the metaphenomenal ideal is intricately connected to the problem that has long been a crux in the interpretation of "Ode on a Grecian Urn": the thematic opposition between transient yet immediate life and transcendent art. (3) In "Ode on a Grecian Urn," Keats seems to have found a way to resolve the conflict between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of philosophy. Immanuel Kant's aesthetics, particularly his concepts of the productive and reproductive imagination, can illuminate how Keats seeks to resolve this conflict by blending the sensory, empirical realm of life and the timeless, abstract, intellectual sphere of art in the ode.

There have been attempts to confirm Keats's knowledge of philosophy, especially Platonic idealism. (4) There is little substantial evidence, however, to verify the exact contents of Keats's philosophical education, and there is no consensus regarding Keats's philosophical affiliation with Plato. (5) While Keats's "affiliation with Plato is too controversial" (White 13), it is equally controversial to establish the influence of any one philosopher on Keats, and it is beyond the scope of this argument to establish some influential relationship between Keats and Kant. As Rene Wellek observes in his seminal book Immanuel Kant in England, 1793-1838, except for Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, British Romantic poets and thinkers only had indirect and superficial knowledge of Kant's philosophical doctrines, and even "thinkers who had found a positive relation to Kant somehow managed to put him back into the framework of English tradition and English orthodoxy." According to Wellek, with none of these early nineteenth-century British thinkers, "Kant succeeded in breaking or changing their traditional turn of mind" (260-61). Yet Kantian terminology and concepts can provide a useful framework in which to analyze Keats's thoughts on beauty and truth, primarily because of Kant's so-called "Copernican revolution" in philosophy, which had a significant influence on Keats's contemporaries, especially the German idealists and Romanticists for whom one of the central questions was how to represent the truth that is beyond the access of sensory or sensual experience. In synthesizing empiricism, which claimed that all our knowledge comes from our sensory experience, and rationalism, which postulated reason as the only source of knowledge of ideas that exist prior to our sensory experience, Kant sought a new way to explain the compatibility of phenomenal reality and metaphenomenal reality, which he calls noumena. Without denying the existence of noumena, Kant argued that our knowledge of noumena is always filtered through our mental abilities, thereby turning the Platonic ontological question about what reality consists of into the epistemological question of how we know what we know. Kant's attempt to mediate between empiricism and rationalism is reflected in his view of imagination as an instrument for synthesizing the real and the ideal, and as James Engell notes in The Creative Imagination, Kant's preoccupation with the "uncertainty and complexity about the triggering, force, direction, and processes of the imagination had great repercussions for romantic notions about the ways in which art is produced and the artist creates" (135). Engell also comments later in his book that "many poets discovered the zest and importance of philosophic or religious ideas to their art" and mentions Keats as one of those poets (291) as examples. Furthermore, Kant's recognition of the role of the human mind in constructing reality is of particular importance in comprehending to what extent the Romantics are indebted to Kant, especially in terms of their view of language. As Angela Esterhammer aptly states, "[a]nyone reflecting on the relationship between language and reality at the end of the eighteenth century seems obligated to redefine language in light of the way the Kantian system redefined reality" (104). Keats's interrogation of the possibilities of ekphrasis as a representational mode can shed light on his attempt to grapple with how to represent the unrepresentable through poetic language. Specifically, the poem's rendering of the urn in terms of sensations that involve the passage of time evinces Keats's belief in the creative power of language, which ultimately distinguishes Keats as a Romantic poet from Kant as an enlightenment thinker despite some important similarities in their thoughts about productive imagination.

The critical discussion of Keats's use of verbal ekphrasis as a representational mode has in most cases engaged with the debates over verbal and visual representations launched by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, whose Lacoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry argues against the tendency to use Horace's ut pictura poesis as an aesthetic criterion for literature. Murray Krieger, for example, challenges Lessing's sharp distinction between poetry and painting in terms of time and space and proposes that "the poetic context can defy the mutually exclusive categories of time and space" (346). Grant F. Scott criticizes Kreiger's reading of "Ode on a Grecian Urn" for seeing the ode "through the rigid categories prescribed by Lessing's Lacoon, and hence in terms of temporal and spatial limits," maintaining the need to interpret the ode "not only in terms of genre but of gender and sex role" (120). Though he extends his focus to the political and sexual dimensions of Keats's employment of the ekphrastic mode, Scott, like Krieger, seeks to demonstrate how Keats goes beyond the strict distinction between verbal and pictorial art, arguing that "what absorbs Keats about the agon between word and image is the agon itself" (147). Theresa Kelley also examines Keats's reaction to Lessing's objection to the sister-arts tradition by illustrating Keats's exploration of "the permeability between works of art frozen in time and the poetic expression of temporality" (183) that Lessing tried to suppress. Most recently, Klaus Hofmann asserts that what is at issue in the ode is not the beauty of the urn but "the intricacies of representation" (261) and of ekphrasis. Hofmann brings in Derrida's notion of parergon as "the forming frame which becomes manifest after any substance has been whittled away, but vanishes at the moment of its pure manifestation" (Hofmann 262) in order to draw attention to the ode's blurring of the conventional opposition between the visual and the verbal, and, more importantly, of the distinction between reality and representation.

These critics are right in pointing out that Keats's ekphrasis turns away from the simple dichotomy between word and image and that his ekphrastic poems are fundamentally about the issue of representation. Yet the urn represented in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is not really intended to excite readers' visual sensations, and thus it is questionable how valid it is to focus only on the conflict between verbal and visual representations in the discussion of Keats's ekphrasis. Moreover, none of these critics fully considers how the urn represented in the ode can induce aesthetic response in readers when it is not a material object that can be sensually experienced. It is true that the speaker's vivid description of the scenes drawn on the urn gives an impression that he is describing the urn as he is actually looking at it, raising a question about the extent to which Keats's composition of the poem was grounded in his own sensory experience of the Grecian urn(s) he encountered. According to A. W. Phinney, "Keats knew antique art only through books, such as Musee Napoleon, and, most especially, through frequent visits to the British Museum" (212). Although the identity of the urn that rendered itself to Keats's aesthetic experience has not been verified, (6) it is difficult to assume that the description of the urn in the poem is purely a product of Keats's imagination, and critics like Sidney Colvin and Ian Jack have suggested some specific urns as possible sources of inspiration for Keats. Granted, the poet's own immediate sensory experience of the urn(s) does not automatically guarantee his readers' sensual experience of the urn no matter how vivid the description of the urn is. The poem implies that the speaker describes the urn as he is looking at it, but what the reader actually "sees" is not the urn but the speaker's verbal description of the scenes on the urn. What is more, unlike such poems as W. H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" or Nancy Sullivan's "Number 1 by Jackson Pollock" that verbally represent and comment on specific paintings that actually exist, Keats's ekphrastic poem does not allow its readers to compare the verbal representation with the original, complicating the issue of representation and imagination. (7)

Nonetheless, the poem invites readers to engage in sensory enjoyment of the urn as an aesthetic object by using their imaginations. Emphasizing the importance of readers' use of their own imaginations in inferring what is absent in the poem, Douglas B. Wilson states, "the reader engages in the process of greeting 'semireal' marble 'things'" (826). While Wilson is correct in noticing the importance of the readers' participation in imaginative activities prompted by the poem, his discussion does not extend specifically to how readers use their faculty of imagination. Positing that Keats complements the Platonic system of aesthetics by emphasizing the significance of imagination as well as reason in approaching Beauty and Truth, Thomas C. Kennedy asserts that Keats "demonstrates rather than talks about imagination" by creating the urn for readers through the transformation of his experience of the urn "as a series of sensuous impressions" into the medium of language (93, 96). Though Kennedy's reading raises important issues regarding the role that the language of the poem plays in mediating between the poet's and the readers' respective sensual experiences of the urn, his discussion of "the Platonic influence on the poem" (97) leans toward stressing Platonic idealism reflected in the poem and does not thoroughly examine how the readers of the poem use their imaginations to negotiate their conceptual understanding and aesthetic experience of the urn.

Kant's aesthetics can prove more useful than Plato's in understanding the paradoxical situation concerning the urn represented in the poem: while the urn is essentially a concept with no empirical reality for the readers, it induces (or at least is intended to induce) powerful and complex sensory experience. As stated earlier, one of Kant's major contributions to the philosophical debate of his time was raising awareness of how the human mind is involved in the perception and construction of reality, and his theory of productive imagination as opposed to reproductive imagination is particularly focused on exploring how the human mind negotiates sensations and concepts. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant defines productive imagination as "a faculty of a priori synthesis" that "aims at nothing but necessary unity in the synthesis of what is manifold in appearance" (A 123), while contrasting it with reproductive imagination that is "the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present" (B 151). To put it simply, reproductive imagination provides a mental image of an object that we have visually perceived before, and its main principle is association of ideas or objects. Productive imagination, on the other hand, extends beyond the reproduction of perceptions to the production of perceptions, mediating between sensibility and understanding. In the middle of his discussion of genius in the Critique of Judgement, Kant further elaborates on the notion of productive imagination:
  The Imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very
  powerful in creating another nature [...] out of the material that
  actual nature gives it. [...] Thus we feel our freedom from the law
  of association (which attaches to the empirical employment of
  imagination), so that the material supplied to us by nature in
  accordance with this law can be worked up into something different
  which surpasses nature. (sec. 49, 5: 314)


What Kant emphasizes here is that although productive imagination does not create the material aspect of the phenomenal world, it creates our perceptions of empirical existence.

Kant's concept of productive imagination as an ability to help us transcend "the world of sensibility and empirical laws to the realm where our supersensible powers seem to be effective of our purposes" (Crawford 166) sheds light on the important aspect of Keats's investigation of the possibilities of poetic experience in his ekphrastic poem. The speaker's privileging of unheard melodies over "heard melodies" in the second stanza supplies a good example of Keats's use of ekphrasis for stimulating the exercise of productive imagination:
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
  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! (11-20)


The speaker's reason for finding unheard melodies sweeter is that "Heard melodies" are for "the sensual ear" while "those unheard" are for the spirit. This oppositional relationship the speaker establishes between the two forms of melodies has provoked perceptive interpretations of Keats's thoughts on the actual versus the ideal. Finding the superiority of unheard melodies in the fact that "they exist only in a potential form that allows the imagination a certain freedom in the process of actualizing them" (221), Phinney intimates that heard melodies are less efficient in instigating the exercise of imagination as an avenue of transcendent truth. Marshall Brown's illustration of how the idea of "unheard melodies" has actually been utilized by such composers as Robert Schumann and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky also offers a fascinating account of the way Keats represents a dynamic play between the expressed and the unexpressed in the ode. What these critics disregard despite their insights is the significance of the fact that the same criterion of aesthetic judgment is used for heard and unheard melodies as if unheard melodies as well as heard melodies qualify as the object of aesthetic enjoyment. Brown does acknowledge the power of unheard melodies to elicit sensory response when he notes that although the unheard melodies are silent, they "are not unplayed [and that] they are the undertone that makes its presence felt through its persistence" (473). Even though I agree with Brown on the importance of understanding the "energy, expression, and movement" (479) of the form of the unheard melodies that are silent yet not unplayed, there is a crucial difference between Keats's unheard melodies and the examples of "real, nonexistent music" Brown finds in Schumann's or Tchaikovsky's compositions: Keats's unheard melodies cannot even be represented on a musical score. Keats's unheard melodies are "ditties of no tone" (emphasis mine) lacking the empirical reality of the inner voice in Schumann's Humoresque. In considering how "melodies" that do not exist in the empirical realm can provoke a powerful aesthetic response, it is important to note that for people who are clinically deaf from birth and thus have had no experience of hearing musical sounds, the distinction between heard and unheard melodies is fundamentally meaningless. What this fact signifies is that readers can imagine unheard melodies at all--despite the differences in specific forms of imagined sounds--only because they have a wealth of aural experience on which they can draw.

Here Kant's theory about poetry as a site for the free play of productive imagination nicely illuminates the complex imaginative processes that take place when readers imagine unheard melodies. As stated above, productive imagination is significant in aesthetic experience for its ability to mediate between sensory perception and intellectual understanding. More specifically, on the one hand, aesthetic experience is rooted in the enjoyment of a sensible particular through an act of intuition. On the other hand, aesthetic experience seeks to re-cognize and restructure sensory data and reach beyond sensed experience toward aesthetic ideas, and this re-cognizing and restructuring of the multiplicity of sensual perceptions is possible through the operation of productive imagination, which is not subject to the "law of association" but capable of original presentation of the object. According to Kant, the synthesis of sensory perceptions by productive imagination is transcendental because it is inherent in the unity of apperception (i.e. self-perception) and thus cannot be derived from empirical experience. This view of imagination as an a priori faculty that synthesizes sensual data and generates other a priori knowledge (i.e. aesthetic ideas) proves applicable to the "sweetness" of unheard melodies. As the object of sensory perception, the phrase "those unheard" might evoke some images or feelings, but the phrase itself is not sufficient to explain why it can at least vaguely conjure some kind of musical sounds. In the imagining of unheard melodies, then, the primary source of sensual data that the productive imagination processes is provided by readers' previous aural experience, which is less dependent on senses and less bound by the "law of association." That unheard melodies evoke a powerful aesthetic response grounded less in immediate than in mediated sensory experience thus elucidates the ways in which Keats endeavors to make the imaginary urn available for readers' aesthetic judgment. By providing readers with an opportunity to exercise the power of productive imagination to create new perceptions of empirical reality using their previous sensory experience, Keats experiments with the possibilities of ekphrasis to transcend the limits of sensory experience to provide access to transcendental reality.

The "sweetness" of unheard melodies is in fact only one of the many ways Keats tries to make the imaginary urn empirically "real" for the readers. The ode asks the readers to utilize not only their previous aural experience but also their other sensory experience such as smell, touch, or taste. In addition to the fact that there is no original urn that can visually aid the readers in their perception of the urn represented in the poem, what is unique to Keats's use of ekphrasis is that the poem invites its readers to draw on all of their five senses in their aesthetic enjoyment of the poet's representation of the urn. For example, in representing the scene of the lovers' "mad pursuit," the poem mentions "happy love" that is "For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd" (26) as well as "A burning forehead, and a parching tongue" (30), appealing to readers' tactile sense. Also, the word "sweeter" that is used to describe unheard melodies played by "soft pipes" pertains to both smell and taste, as well as sound. Considering that an urn is in reality a three dimensional object meant to be visually enjoyed, it seems a curious decision on the part of the poet to ask the readers to use their senses of hearing, smell, touch, and taste as well as sight in imagining the urn. In fact, the use of visual sense almost seems least necessary for the perception of the urn represented in the poem. While the speaker mentions important figures and objects such as the lovers, pipes, or boughs that are supposedly drawn on the urn, many of the details of the urn are not quite readily available for visualization. For one thing, it is not easy to visualize the shape of the urn, the only comment on the urn's shape in the poem being "What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape / Of deities or mortals, or of both" (5-6). The difficulty of conjuring specific visual images of the urn's shape or the scenes depicted on the urn arises not only from the poem's employment of abstract, conceptual language that defies simple or facile visualization, but also from the necessity of using all five senses to imagine the urn. The poem's investment in exploring the complexly intertwined layers of sensations thus makes negotiating sensed experience and intellectual understanding through productive imagination a challenging yet important task for the readers.

Another great example of the poem's evocation of multiple sensations is found in the speaker's description of the sacrificial rite and the imagined scene of the empty town in the fourth stanza:
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
  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
   Is emptied of its 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. (31-40)


The scene of the sacrificial procession here is one of the most visual representations of the urn in the poem. Even though the speaker does not offer a visual description of the "mysterious priest" who leads the heifer, the heifer is described in much detail that can provoke visual sensation. The word "silken" may be related to tactile sensation, but when combined with "flanks with garlands drest," it nicely aids a visualization of the heifer in the scene. Unlike the sacrificial procession that is allegedly visually present on the urn, the "little town [...] emptied of its folk" is completely "imagined" by the speaker, and it is not surprising that the representation of the little town depends much less on visual sense. What is remarkable, however, is that the speaker utilizes aural sense rather than visual sense in order to contrast these two scenes. Specifically, the scene of the procession is characterized by the sound of the heifer "lowing at the skies," and the streets of the little town are described as "silent." While the heifer's lowing sound signifies action and energy, the silence of the streets indicates the absence of action and energy. Here again, to imagine these two different scenes, readers are invited to make use of their previous aural experience that is less bound by the law of association.

That the word "silent" is used to represent the absence and desolateness of the streets of the little town is highly significant here. First of all, the heifer's lowing sound is closely related to unheard melodies that are "sweeter" than "Heard melodies." Though the contrast between the heifer's lowing sound and the silent town highlights the power of the heifer's sound to excite aural sensations, the heifer's lowing sound--like unheard melodies--is in essence silent for the readers. This similarity between the heifer's lowing and unheard melodies in their effects on the readers' perceptions suggests that the meaning of silence in the entire poem is complicated. More importantly, "silent" is the most significant characteristic of the urn. In the first two lines of the poem, the urn is introduced as "bride of quietness" (1) and "foster-child of Silence and slow time" (2), and in the last stanza, the urn is referred to as "silent form." Given that the aspects of human life depicted on the urn are immune to the flow of time, there seems to be nothing strange about characterizing the urn as a silent entity, for sound is fundamentally temporal. Yet, right after calling the urn "bride of quietness" and "foster-child of Silence," the speaker refers to the urn as "Sylvan historian, who canst thus express / A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme" (3-4), and here the parallel between the silent urn and unheard melodies or the heifer's lowing sound is quite noticeable. Just as unheard melodies or the heifer's lowing sound is silent yet not unplayed or unuttered, the silent urn can tell a story "more sweetly than our rhyme." The silent urn's ability to instigate powerful sensations through its storytelling is manifest in the phrase "more sweetly," and it does not seem a coincidence that sweetness is used as the criterion of aesthetic judgment for the urn's "flowery tale." In this sense, the urn's silence is quite different from the silence of the little town that signifies the notion of absence. (8) Whereas the urn's "silent form [...] dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity" (44-45) through its sweet expression of a "flowery tale," the little town is devoid of a soul "to tell / Why [it is] desolate."

The paradox of the silent but eloquent urn that is in reality a visual medium is not simply one of the many examples of the poem's attempt to transcend the limits of visual representations by appealing to readers' other senses. It is instead at the core of Keats's project of representing in poetic language what is beyond representation. What Keats ultimately seeks to represent in the ode is the concept of immortality, and the most obvious symbol of immortality is the urn itself. Interestingly, Keats represents the urn, the symbol of timelessness, in terms of sensations of hearing, smell, taste, and touch that require the passage of time. Drawing on readers' previous sensory experience involving all five senses may be a good way of offering to readers an opportunity to exercise their productive imagination and generate aesthetic ideas, but there is more to Keats's representation of a visual medium in terms of aural or other sensations that cannot take place in timeless space. Through this curious framework Keats seeks to help his readers to experience sensually the concept of immortality. That is, what Keats's ekphrastic poem creates for the readers is not a mere verbal representation of a visual artwork. Through his use of ekphrasis and poetic language Keats creates for the readers an urn that can exist nowhere in the empirical realm--for it is the embodiment of immortality, a pure concept--but that can still be sensually enjoyed. Notably, the "reality" of the urn cannot be located in any part of the poem, nor can the urn be equated with the poem. It is nonetheless holistically contained in the poem through the poet's handling of the complex dimensions of language. It is not that Keats's use of individual words is insignificant but that language for Keats is a much more comprehensive concept than word usage. Esterhammer's explication of the Romantic philosophy of language as a theory of the performative is quite enlightening here. Post-Kantian writers, states Esterhammer, attributed "a constitutive role to words" (13).

The poem therefore evinces Keats's belief in the power of language to create reality that can be empirically experienced, and this belief in the creative power of language has significant implications for Keats's conceptualization of truth. Considered by many critics the best gloss to the mysterious comment on beauty and truth in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the following passage from the aforementioned letter Keats wrote to Benjamin Bailey offers an enlightening glimpse of Keats's view of truth: "What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth--whether it existed before or not" (Letters 1: 184). Keats is basically positing here that the act of imagination seizing beauty leads to truth, and this theory is quite similar to Kant's theory of the power of productive imagination to synthesize sensual perceptions and produce aesthetic ideas. Yet the phrase "whether it existed before or not" insinuates that Keats does not entirely share the Kantian dualism of phenomena and noumena, according to which ultimately noumena cannot be known and thus remain separate from phenomena. In stressing the power of imagination to cognize truth that might not have existed before--in other words, to create truth--Keats departs from Kant's view of truth as transcendental reality that always already exists independent of empirical experience.

Here it is significant to note that Keats is not one of those "proto-Romantic poets [who] claim to grasp the great beyond through pure force of imagination" (Penny 376) and whom Kant held in great contempt. Though Kant prized poetry as a site for the free play of imagination that can produce aesthetic ideas, he was "exceedingly critical of the Sturm und Drang notion that genius is a mystical form of insight, a direct knowledge of the supersensible" (Penny 376). Keats's definition of the selfless, chameleon-like poetical character in his letter to Richard Woodhouse on 27 October 1818 intimates that Keats aspires to write poetry that transcends the poet's subjective and personal sensations: "As to the poetical Character itself [...] it is not itself--it has no self--it is every thing and nothing--It has no character--it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated--It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen" (Letters 1: 386-87). Influenced by William Hazlitt, who envisioned a poet as a being who is "one and the same intellectual essence, looking out from its own nature on all the different impressions it receives, and to a certain degree moulding them into itself" (150), Keats emphasizes a poet's ability to transcend through his sympathetic imagination the boundaries of the ego and completely merge the self in the world. The term "gusto" is also borrowed from Hazlitt, and Engell's explication of the notion of gusto in his chapter on Hazlitt is helpful in understanding Keats's affinity with Kant in their views on the imagination. After defining gusto for Hazlitt as "the intense feeling and awareness associated with a particular object or idea," Engell states, "Gusto 'is power or passion defining any object.' Distinction between object and subject blurs as the mind fuses itself with the thing at hand. Sensual and intellectual faculties work together. [...] We see more externally, feel more internally, and the two experiences join and magnify each other until a 'more striking degree' of feeling awakens" (204). Though the phrase "intense feeling" might make it sound as if gusto is allied less with thought than with feeling, Engell is emphatic about the fact that both sensual and intellectual faculties are at work and that "see[ing] more externally" is closely bound with "feel[ing] more internally." It is true that in positing his famous concept of "Negative Capability" as the ability to be in the state of "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (Letters 1: 193), Keats is clearly rejecting cold, hard facts obtained through rational reasoning. Keats struggled, however, between the poetry of sensation and the poetry of philosophy throughout his poetic career, seeking to reconcile feeling and thought, and Keats's remarks on the significance of the philosophic imagination in his later letters suggest that Hazlitt's emphasis on the unity of thought and feeling is in fact carried on in Keats's poetics. (9) The kind of truth that Keats believes the perception of beauty can produce through the exercise of imagination, then, does not seem too different from Kant's "Ideas," which "seek to approximate to a presentation of concepts of Reason (intellectual Ideas)" (CJ, sec. 49, 5: 314).

Despite this crucial similarity in their thoughts on the role of imagination to mediate between empirical experience and intuition, Keats and Kant differ in their understanding of the relation between the phenomenal and intelligible worlds, and this is closely related to their different views of language. While Keats does not give imagination free reign to elevate subjective and personal intuitions to the status of truth, he does not deny to language the ability to create a reality for aesthetic experience that leads to the production of aesthetic ideas. On the contrary, Kant's aesthetics sees language merely as an instrument used to articulate categories in spite of the fact that Kant values poetry among all the arts. As Tomas Hlobil pertinently observes, Kant conceives "poetry not as an art of language, but as an art of representations involving aesthetic ideas which do not depend on language at all" (42). Given Kant's view of language, it is especially noteworthy that what Keats seeks to render through his creation of the urn is none other than the concept of immortality, which is one of the three postulates of practical reason for Kant (the other two are God and freedom). In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant states that a postulate of practical reason is "a theoretical proposition, not demonstrable as such insofar as it is attached inseparably to an a priori unconditionally valid practical law" (5: 122). In calling a postulate of practical reason "a theoretical proposition," Kant implies that immortality (or God or freedom) is a concept that can only be thought and cannot be known or empirically experienced. Whether he knew Kant or not, Keats's attempt to represent the idea of immortality in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" significantly challenges Kant's understanding of immortality as a pure concept that is inaccessible to human knowledge, and what made it possible for Keats to undertake this kind of ambitious project is his belief in the creative power of language.

Curiously, Kant's theory of the synthetic ability of the human mind greatly influenced the Romantics' view of language as having the power to constitute reality. Why is it, then, that Kant refused to further develop his theory about the operation of cognitive abilities and to attribute to language the status equivalent to that of cognition? Although the issue of language is not addressed in his essay, Vinod Lakshmipathy's discussion of how Kant's critical project is challenged by the Romantics provides a clue. (10) Lakshmipathy begins his essay by noting that while Kant made a great contribution to resolving the dispute between dogmatism (rationalism) and skepticism (empiricism), he had to found his system on the dualism between phenomena and noumena, which the Romantics found deeply problematic. According to Lakshmipathy, "Kant had to rely on dualisms to make room for human freedom" (100) as well as to avoid falling back into a dogmatism that claimed to know what lies beyond sensory experience. If it is true that Kant's dualism between phenomena and noumena was an important philosophical premise to maintain, it is not too surprising that Kant considered it necessary to relegate language to a secondary position in cognitive and imaginative processes. If Kant, like Keats, had ascribed to language the power to create reality, this would have undermined his premise about noumena as a domain inaccessible to human knowledge by holding the inner structure of the mind subordinate to the internal form of language rather than to some external determination. Keats, on the other hand, founds his poetic project on the belief in the power of language to affect our perceptions of reality as well as our cognition of truth.

Through the multiple layers of representations involving different senses, Keats experiments with the possibilities of ekphrasis as a representational mode in "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Through its own existence the poem makes the existence of the urn possible. "Ode on a Grecian Urn," then, is Keats's own literary manifesto on the creative power of language, which clarifies his position as a Romantic poet. While his poetry is characterized by sensuous intensity and beauty, Keats struggled and sought to achieve the union of feeling and thought through his poetic imagination and language. In this sense, Jack Stillinger's assessment of Keats's relationship to Romanticism at the end of his famous essay "The Hoodwinking Madeline: The Eve of St. Agnes" needs some revision. According to Stillinger, Keats's rejection of the dream world and engagement with "reality" make him "a saner if in some ways less romantic poet than his contemporaries, [...] the Romantic poet most likely to survive in the modern world" (555). It is problematic to emphasize the sensuous nature of Keats's poetry only, but it is equally dangerous to stress the intellectual aspect of his poetry to the extent of seeing him as a "less romantic poet than his contemporaries," (11) and reading Keats in light of Kant's concepts of the productive and reproductive imagination helps us better understand Keats's earnest endeavor to resolve the conflict between an imagination that engages with the empirical real and one that creates the immaterial ideal. Keats might have never encountered Kant (or even Plato) in his philosophical education, and it is not easy to tell how philosophically tenable his belief in the creative power of language is. His contribution to the contemporary debate about the relation between sensation and thought nevertheless cannot be underestimated because of the fact that he exemplifies his belief in the power of productive imagination and language through his brilliant use of words. Unlike Kant, who, as a philosopher, offers a theory of poetry that is relatively unenlightening and unsophisticated, Keats, as a poet, pushes the limits of productive imagination through his ekphrastic poem. One can only wonder whether Kant's thoughts about language could have developed in a different direction if Kant had had Keats's poetic sensibility and verbal artistry.

This research was supported by HallymUniversity Research Fund, 2011 (HRF-2011-201).

(1.) On this account, Vendler reads the phrase "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" not as the simple equation of beauty and truth but as two alternating, incompatible messages:
  [The urn] says "Beauty is Truth" when we are looking at it with the
  eyes of sensation, seeing its beautiful forms as actual people,
  alive and active. It says "Truth is Beauty" when we are looking at
  it with the eyes of thought, seeing it, as the mind must see it, as
  a marble inscribed by intentionality, the true made beautiful by
  form. (133)


(2.) In his essay "Poetry of Sensation or of Thought?" John Hawley Roberts contends that by April 1819, Keats settled for sensual pleasures after oscillating between "two kinds of poetry--one of pure sensation, which he accepts with pleasure; the other of 'the strife of human hearts,' which he does not take to naturally, but which he feels in duty bound to accept" (1129). According to Roberts, while such poems as Sleep and Poetry, Endymion, and Hyperion illustrate Keats's mental struggle between the poetry of sensation and philosophical poetry, the five odes and Lamia show that Keats ultimately found "the very essence of poetry in the varying delights of the senses" (1138). Almost two decades later, Newell F. Ford reaffirms Keats's love of the sensuous enjoyment of beauty when he counters the critics who attempt to "rescue the poet from the imputation of an excessive sensuousness" (229) by interpreting "sensations" in "O for a Life of Sensations" as intuitions rather than as a reference

(3.) Some of the most widely read and influential critics who interpret the ode as Keats's comment on the power of art to capture and perpetuate beauty of the flux of life include H. W. Garrod (Keats. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926), Cleanth Brooks ("Keats's Sylvan Historian." The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947. 139-52), E. C. Pettet (On the Poetry of Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1957), and Earl Wasserman. Though some of these critics show awareness of the static, frozen aspect of the reflection of life in art, they essentially agree that the intention of the ode is "to hold up art as the source of the highest form of wisdom" (Wasserman 49). The opposite view is offered by critics like Pratap Biswas and Jean-Claude Salle. Pointing out that pastoral is a genre that basically tells "a beautiful life" (107), Biswas counters the school of thought that stresses Keats's faith in art as the source of transcendental truth and maintains that the urn "draws our attention to the kind of beauty that goes with change and impermanence" (107). Though much less aggressive than Biswas in opposing the aforementioned critics, Salle also observes Keats's growing reservations about "the transcendental vindication of art" (81). Allen C. Austin, on the other hand, turns his attention away from the issue of the tension between art and life in the ode and asserts that "[t]he Ode as a whole is more concerned with eternity than with art, itself a symbol of eternity" (628).

(4.) See, for instance, Thomas C. Kennedy's "Platonism in Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.'"

(5.) There are quite diverse interpretations of the influence of Platonism on Keats's poetry, "[o]pinions rang[ing] from interpretations that absolutely deny him any access to the Platonic texts, to propositions that support Keats's 'dialogic' contact with Plato through the mediation of his friends--conversations with Bailey, Taylor, Shelley, and readings of Severn" (Kabitoglou 117).

(6.) On the basis of his rigorous research, Sidney Colvin affirms in John Keats: His Life and Poetry, His Friends, His Critics and After-Fame (London: McMillan, 1920) that the Grecian urn in the poem is not a material object but an imaginary urn. Ian Jack, in Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1967) reaches the same conclusion, and Scott shares this view.

(7.) James O'Rourke's interpretation of the "monotony" of the third stanza of the ode is based on a rather simplistic understanding of Keats's use of ekphrasis. Criticizing the speaker's repetition of the word "happy," O'Rourke holds that this part of the ode is "what happens when the simultaneity of the visual arts is transposed into poetry" (36). Considering that the urn's existence is essentially imaginary for the readers, the interplay between verbal and visual arts represented in the ode warrants a more complex discussion.

(8.) Interpreting the urn's silence merely as an embodiment of human absence, Stuart Peterfreund overlooks the difference between the silence of the urn and that of the empty town in his "The Truth about 'Beauty' and 'Truth': Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' Milton, Shakespeare, and the Uses of Paradox" (Keats-Shelley Journal 35 [1986]: 62-82).

(9.) In addition to Keats's letter to John Taylor in which he resolves to pursue philosophical knowledge, there are a few more examples that indicate his favorable opinion of philosophy as the source of truth:
to philosophize
I dare not yet!--Oh never will the prize,
High reason, and the lore of good and ill
Be my reward" (Letters 1: 262);


"if so it is not so fine a thing as philosophy"; "I am convinced more and more every day that (excepting the human friend Philosopher) a fine writer is the most genuine Being in the World" (Letters 2: 81, 139).

(10.) Although Lakshmipathy's discussion is confined to the relation between Kant's philosophy and German Romanticism, it is useful to understand how Kant's dualism is undermined and supplemented by his followers.

(11.) As a matter of fact, Keats is considered less philosophically inclined than Coleridge, Goethe, Schelling, Wordsworth, and Shelley, whom Engell calls "[t]he more philosophically inclined of the Romantics" because they "could always see a union of the scientific and the literary through the mediation and method of imagination" (127).

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KYOUNG-MIN HAN is an assistant professor of 19th-century British literature at Hallym University in Chuncheon, Korea, and is editor of Scholars of English Studies in Korea. She has published articles on George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Catharine Maria Sedgwick in literary journals. to sensitivity. Those who emphasize Keats's pursuit of transcendent truth and knowledge, on the other hand, strive to illuminate how Keats as a poet mediates between material phenomena and imaginative, ideal realm. Clarence D. Thorpe, for example, holds in The Mind of John Keats that for Keats, the process of poetic creation begins with the perception of the empirical world that must be developed into imaginative understanding or intuition of abstract truths (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964). Stuart M. Sperry, Jr. also examines, in "Keats and the Chemistry of Poetic Creation," the process by which the imagination transforms sensations into intuition of higher realm of existence by utilizing Keats's knowledge of the sciences, especially chemistry (PMLA 85.2 [Mar. 1970]: 268-77).
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Title Annotation:John Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn'
Author:Han, Kyoung-Min
Publication:Papers on Language & Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9SOUT
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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