in verse #40 : owed to Keats

Have you ever wanted to correct a classic of literature? One that makes an egregious error, but that can be easily corrected? Like, say, this:

On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like Balboa when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Where is the error? Well, as most of you well know, I have replaced “stout Cortez” with “Balboa.” I figure I owe that much to Keats, considering what he gave us with his Greek odes. There are two advantages to this correction: it removes the adjective “stout,” which is only there for the iambic rhythm, and nowadays is more a polite version of “fat” (at least in America) when it doesn’t refer to a dark, highly malted beer favored, according to Wikipedia, by porters in London streets and docks[i]. And, it is historically accurate. (Something that might only matter to an obsessive-compulsive old fart like me.) Incidentally, this is not the Elizabethan sonnet you would expect in praise of someone whom “Some have considered … to be the ‘rival poet’ of Shakespeare’s Sonnets,” George Chapman.[ii] Keats is praising a translation 200-plus years old, one that was only superseded by Alexander Pope’s.

So, having corrected a debt owed to Keats (I know, it’s an old pun, and certainly not original with me), let’s see what Keats owed to Grecian urns. This is considered one of the greatest odes in the English language. Note that, unlike Wordsworth’s “Immortality” ode (discussed earlier here), this ode does not vary the line length, only the indents and the rhyme scheme; it’s all that damned Greek iambic foot, five iambs to a line:

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
—–Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
—–A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
—–Of deities or mortals, or of both,
—–—–In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
—–What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
—–—–What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

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!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
—–Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
—–For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
—–For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
—–—–For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
—–That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
—–—–A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

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 this 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.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
—–Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
—–Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
—–When old age shall this generation waste,
—–—–Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
—–“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
—–—–Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”[iii]

Note that in this version of the pastoral, the “sylvan historian,” or vase, freezes several scenes from this “Cold pastoral:” the piping of the shepherds, never to be heard; young love, never to result in marriage, or even sweet splendor in the grass; trees forever clad in Springtime leaves (talk about being trapped by fashion). When Keats writes “All breathing human passion far above” he does not mean that far above this scene is all breathing human passion; he means that this is scene is “Far above all breathing human passion,” his syntax being inverted for the sake of rhyme. Keats is presenting a scene idealized of the life pastoral, his version of life ideal. In the stanza next he brings in religion, the sacrifice of the heifer lowing, with garlands drest, to the sacrifice led. Notice that the posited but not pictured “little town” is left desolate, emptied of its inhabitants (all attending the sacrifice) with not one escaped alone to tell us what the hell happened. No wonder Keats calls the scene on this vase a cold pastoral.

So what do we make of this poem in light of Roger Sales’s argument (presented in that previous post) that in the Romantic authors we find apologists for the destruction of English rural life. Repeating myself, and Sales, he says “Pastoralism is composed of the famous five Rs: refuge, reflection, rescue, requiem and reconstruction.”[iv] The first four, he continues, “all sustain the illusion that pastoral deals with universally acknowledged truths. It is, however, deceptive and prescriptive. It offers a political interpretation of both past and present.”[v] This is a pretty fair description of what Keats has done in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” denigrating the present moment.  Sales identifies the deception as intended to “provid[e] sheep’s clothing for aristocratic wolves, or indeed for anybody who was on the side of the victors in the civil war which was fought for control of rural society.”[vi] I’m not sure that Sales is right, but, having finished reading God’s Englishman (that apology for the life of Oliver Cromwell I’ve relied on in several posts), I can report that Christopher Hill agrees with Sales’s assessment of the consequences of the English civil war.

He says, to begin:

In the great seventeenth-century struggle to decide who was to benefit from the extension of cultivation which was necessary to feed the growing cities, the common people were defeated no less decisively than was the Crown. The abolition of the Court of Wards and of feudal tenures was a great relief for the gentry, but only for them; the Acts of 1656 and 1660 specifically retained copyhold unchanged.[vii]

Copyhold was a form of tenant farming in which the farmer held tenure based on an arrangement with the lord of the manor who owned the land. The tenure was evidenced by his copy of the arrangement made from the manorial roll where it was recorded. It could be a life tenure with inheritance rights, or could be passed to others.[ix] This helps explain what Hill next says about this issue:

The radical movements to win security of tenure for copyholders were defeated. Squatters and cottagers who had no written title to their holdings could be evicted. The Barebones Parliament was the last to contemplate legislation against depopulating enclosures.

That would be enclosures of the land in which said squatters and cottagers were evicted so it could be farmed more efficiently, with larger fields of crops or larger herds of meat animals being accommodated — the beginning of industrial farming. The Barebones Parliament was dissolved on 12 December 1653[x]; it was the last Parliament before Cromwell was declared Lord Protector. Bearing in mind that Hill is a Marxist historian, note the following analysis, in which “corn” means, of course, “wheat:”

In 1654, for the first time, Parliament authorised the export of corn when prices were low; by 1700 England had solved its own food problems and was regularly exporting corn. Fen drainage alone extended the country’s arable area by ten per cent. Expensive clover and root crops enabled cattle to be kept alive through the winter, thus not only increasing the meat supply but also breaking the manure barrier which for so long had held back agricultural expansion. But smaller cultivators did not benefit by this agricultural revolution.[x]

Yeah, I didn’t know there was a manure barrier, either, but since at root “manure” means “to work by hand,” perhaps the barrier was broken by mechanized spreaders flinging dung about the landscape. In any case, Hill goes on:

Commons, wastes and fens, like royal forests, were enclosed and cultivated by the private enterprise of capitalist farmers and improving landlords. ‘I know several that did remember the going of a cow for 4d per annum. The pigs did cost nothing,’ wrote John Aubrey in the 1680s, looking back to the disafforestation of earlier decades. ‘Now the highways are encumbered with cottages, and travellers with the beggars that dwell in them.’[xi]

Does this sound at all familiar? Our beggars are homeless today, and many of the small farmers that are forced out of farming are bought out cheaply, or have their holdings sold to pay debt, but the net result is the same: the wealthy persons that we call corporations are doing today what capitalist farmers and improving landlords were doing in the 1650’s, but they are producing a different kind of “corn,” to be made into ethanol, which cuts into food production, and to feed cattle which should be grazed on clover and root crops like lucerne, and which cannot digest corn well, so we pump them full of antibiotics to keep them healthy and end up — but that’s a rant for another post. Hill comes full circle with this observation:

The yeomen, who had formed the backbone of Cromwell’s army, lost their hold on the land. Enclosure and eviction helped first to create and then to feed a proletariat for the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution, and to create a market for its products. The French Revolution guaranteed the survival of the peasantry in France: the English Revolution ensured its disappearance in England.[xii]

“The French Revolution guaranteed the survival of the peasantry in France: the English Revolution ensured its disappearance in England.” Surely Wordsworth, Keats and the other celebrants of the pastoral ideal knew about the enclosures, the loss of the commons, and the radicals who had fought the process, at first with Cromwell’s encouragement? Isn’t their idealization of the supposed pastoral a turning of their backs on the end result?

But enough of these long blocks of undigested text. In any case, Keats exhausted the ode as surely as Milton did the use of blank verse in the epic, exhausted it by doing it so well that no one else could follow in his footsteps. Successors using the form produce but pale imitations, a contention I will take up next month.

Your turn.


[i], accessed 24 April 2014

[ii], accessed 9 April 2014

[iii] Stolen from, accessed 24 April 2014 and edited by Brooke.

[iv] English literature in history. 1780-1830 : pastoral and politics / Roger Sales.—New York : St. Martin’s, c1983, p. 15. The quote comes from chapter 1, “The propaganda of the victors.” Sales does not say whose “famous five Rs” these are).

[v] Ibid., p. 17.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] God’s Englishman : Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution / Christopher Hill; [Folio ed.] / introduction by Tristram Hunt. — (London : Folio, 2013), pp. 241-242.

[viii] The Wikipedia article at, accessed 24 April 2014, does a really good job of explaining how complex this was. And for our purposes, for all you anti-Wikipedians out there, it is sufficient, so don’t be disappointed in me for relying on an online encyclopedia, which could use your support, too.

[ix]’s_Parliament, accessed 24 April 2014. Note that Hill does not use the apostrophe in his text.

[x] Op. Cit., p. 242.

[xi] ibid.

[xii] Op. Cit., p. 242.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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2 Responses to in verse #40 : owed to Keats

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I still find the connection of the Romantic poets (and this poem in particular) with the enclosure movement and suppression of the peasantry a bit far-fetched, for several reasons:
    - I doubt that the Romantic poets (given their politics) had any such intent. Which, granted, does not guarantee that they might not have had this kind of impact unintended; but —
    - I doubt any real-world political impact from the work of poets on the economic-political struggles of the 18th and 19th centuries.
    - Finally, I see nothing in the celebration of pastoralism here that is specific to post-enclosure society. The enclosure movement did not invent shepherds or sheep. Nor, as I see it, is poetic celebration of pastoral life more aligned with large worked farms and enclosed lands than with smaller farms and flocks. Indeed, I would think it would be the opposite. Although I also acknowledge that there may be details here I’m missing.

    Don’t get me wrong: I think there is a definite negative side to poetic celebration of the pastoral life, one which ignores the very real hardships of that life. (Robert Frost provides a good corrective to this romanticized view, in my opinion.) But the elision of romanticized pastoral into unwitting support for a political agenda favoring the wealthy seems to me like an exercise in critical yellow journalism: scandal for its own sake, as opposed to reasoned argument.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      You may be right, Jonathan. I’m not sure that the idea holds water. But Keats’s father was a stable-master, and he himself was trained as a surgeon, a wound-dresser and an apothecary. Where does any of that background find place in his poems? He took on the “poetic” rather than, as Frost did, as Whitman did, the practice of daily life. Keats managed to irritate Byron by attacking Pope, whom Byron liked a lot. I read in that a kind of clash of the classes, much like the early reviews attacking him as a part of the “Cockney school” of poets, for presumption.

      Why did Keats not write out of his own experience? Even in “To Autumn,” his last great ode, he practices the poetics of the elevated voice. I don’t know if he ever read John Clare, but I think he would have scorned him as too rural, too rustic, too much a poet of the byways. I think that there is something, if not a fully-developed thesis, in Sales’s yellow journalism.

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