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PRATAP BISWAS Keats's Cold Pastoral Is there in trllth no beallty? George Herbert, Jordan I I During the last fifty years so much has been written about Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' that it sounds now like an old gramophone record. The hisses and scratches left by the styluses of innumerable critics have almost stifled the original voice of Keats. Some of these studies have undoubtedly been of considerable help in explaining some isolated passages in the poem, but few of us can avoid an uneasy feeling that, however interesting the discussions may otherwise be, they get us no nearer the meaning of the poem as a whole. And what is more disturbing is that the cheap soft-cover critical anthologies have made some of these commentaries so widely popular that it is now extremely difficult for young readers to respond to the poem without being constantly monitored and frequently misdirected by these influential critical opinions. This is perhaps to some extent unavoidable in a world where appreciation of literature is fast becoming an exclusively pedagogical concern. But the way we have persisted for about a century in refusing to listen to what Keats says in the poem, and tried at the same time to squeeze our favourite interpretations into it, constitutes one of the most disquieting episodes in the history of Anglo-American literary criticism. To go into the roots of this aberration would take us far beyond the limits of this study. Here we can only examine some of the interpretations that have affected our responses to Keats's poem. Robert Bridges was the first important critic to study the ode in some detail and he started the now quite familiar practice of inventing a meaning for the poem and then birching the poet for not saying clearly what we would like him to say. But since it was really H.W. Garrod who carried this process to its 'logical' conclusion, we must turn to him for a closer look at the typical symptoms of this rather obstinate case of critical astigmatism. Garrod deserves some speCial attention also because he was the creator of that fundamental myth about the poem: it has something mysterious about it. UTQ, VOLUME XLvn , NUMBER 2 , WINTER 1977/8 0042-0247/78/0200-0095 $01 .50/0 © University of Toronto Press 96 PRATAP BISWAS In spite of Bradley, Colvin, and all that had been written on Keats in the first quarter of the present century, Garrod tenaciously clung to the late nineteenth-century view of Keats as a lush and languorous aesthete. In his Oxford lectures on Keats, published in 1926, Garrod said confidently : 'I think him the great poet he is only when the senses capture him, when he finds truth in beauty, that is to say, when he does not trouble to find truth at all. '1 He had earlier remarked: 'The Eve ofSt. Agnes has its origins in the same "exquisite sense of the luxurious" as that from which Isabella was born. It takes us back to the Keats whom we know; the true Keats.'2 This bumptiousness showed no abatement even in 1939 when the second edition of his Keals was published. Garrod's was not an isolated view. Until the late sixties he had been one of the most widely read and influen tial writers on Keats. We may not like to believe it, but Garrod remains the central figure looking back to Byron, the Pre-Raphaelites, Tennyson, Symons, Pater, and Bridges, and forward to some of the most respected names, both British and American , in contemporary Keats criticism. Most of the misconceptions that still befog our approach to the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' gained their 'respectability' from Garrod. In his reading of the ode we have found such a strong reflection of some of our deep-seated aesthetic preferences that the enormous gain in perspective achieved over the last fifty years has failed to bring about any significant change in our basic attitude to this unfortunate poem. Garrod confessed that he was not quite sure about the connections in the final stanza. But that did not deter him from inferring that the first...


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