Well, so far we have gone from Aristotle to the New Critics. For the midterm, I asked them to look at “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats from at least two different critical perspectives. They had 65 minutes. I really didn’t know what to expect. I designed a 20 point grading rubric that had five categories: response to the question, knowledge of critics and texts, use of theory to interpret texts, development, and academic writing style.
I read the poem to them, and I gave them a few cultural details and some textual issues, in case they wanted to go there. Still, a couple of students seemed to be unclear about what an “urn” was, or that the urn had pictures on it that Keats was describing. One never knows what sort of missing background knowledge is going to send a reading in the wrong direction.
A number of students pointed out that Plato argued that art was three times removed from reality because the object in our world is a representation of the ideal form of that object, and the artistic representation is thus a representation of a representation. This poem about the art on an urn is thus four times removed from the truth. That is a good point. However, many of them also argued that Plato would despise the poem, when in fact he would undoubtedly agree with the maxim in the last two lines: Truth is Beauty, Beauty, Truth. Well, excellence is rarely unmixed.
Many of our students are of the Romantic persuasion. They want literature to be about individual creativity, expression, emotion, and deep insight. Thus Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” speaks to them. Fortunately, this approach works well with Keats. However, what they take from Coleridge is the distinction between the primary and secondary imagination, and the fancy. They try to identify elements in the poem that correspond to these different aspects of the mind. This doesn’t really work. Nice try, though.
Students tend to like Victor Shklovsky and the concepts of habitualization and defamiliarization. This ode does give us a new way of thinking about ancient urns, at least if you have seen a Greek urn before, so this works. However, Shklovsky is arguing against the idea that art is imagery. Sometimes students read 180 degrees wrong. They read the opposition as the position, or read the hedge and don’t read the conclusion, so they think that Shklovsky is arguing that imagery is all. Some of my colleagues have noted this tendency as well. Perhaps students are not used to academic writing that takes the opposition seriously enough to lay the position out in a nuanced and fair way. The same thing happened with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s article about “The Intentional Fallacy.” They argue that while it is clear that authors have intentions, it is neither possible nor desirable to know them. My students were discussing authorial intentions and citing Wimsatt and Beardsley as the authorities for doing so.
When I first started reading these midterms, I was disheartened. There was so much misunderstanding! However, I have reconsidered. They have actually learned a great deal, as have I, and we still have half the quarter to go.