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things 6
summer 1997
Rosemary Hill
Cockney connoisseurship: Keats and the Grecian Urn

John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in the spring of 1819 and first published, anonymously, in January 1820, in Number 15 of the magazine Annals of the Fine Arts.

Since then, there have been many attempts to identify the subject of Keats’s Ode. Was it Greek or Greco-Roman; funerary or ornamental; ceramic, marble, glass? It has been thought at times to be based on the Portland Vase, or the Borghese Vase, even – the equivalent of Baconism in Shakespeare studies – to be a piece of Wedgwood jasper ware.

Before adding to so much speculation, it might be wise to pause and consider whether it matters. There is an argument for finding such enquiriesliteral-minded. The Ode is a work of art. It is, or should be, complete in itself. The urn is of no more account than the nightingale.

The swing of critical debate on the point is in itself significant. It is – broadly – revealing of the fluctuating interest of succeeding generations in the question of the relationship between the arts. The hunt for the urn was largely called off from the First World War to the 1960s, a period which saw the rise of English literature as an academic discipline. Specialisation, in particular the theory of ‘practical criticism’, encouraged the close analysis of texts in isolation. Since the 1960s, there has been a return to contextual study.

That such questions were a focus of intellectual debate for Keats’s generation, and of considerable interest to Keats himself, is one reason for returning to the urn. Another, in these pages, might be to consider the urn as a ‘thing’, an object of applied art of a particular kind. Much has been written on the relevance of Lessing’s Laocoon and of Winckelmann. These were indeed the works of philosophical art criticism that influenced Keats directly. What concerns us here is the more oblique light cast on his poetry by theories of applied art; romantic antiquarianism and the picturesque. The Zeitgeist is a curious thing. Sometimes ideas are developed by people who hardly know they have them. Keats was, if anything, rather bored by the picturesque, yet his sensibility was so saturated by it that, almost casually, he twitched it into art.

This essay seeks to cast more general light on the background to Keats’s poem by looking at it in the context of romantic antiquarianism and the English picturesque, theories of applied art of which it is, in part, a product.

The cross-currents of aesthetic speculation among which Keats wrote are nowhere better exemplified than in the magazine in which he chose to publish the Ode on a Grecian Urn. As well as one of the greatest English poems, Number 15 of the Annals carried reviews of new prints, an account of ‘the Flemish way of making drying oil’, and an article on a new palace for the Prince Regent. The Annals of the Fine Arts was edited by an architect, James Elmes. It regularly included poems: the Ode to a Nightingale had appeared two issues previously, and William Wordsworth and Robert Southey both published there. It carried essays addressing the relations between the arts – ‘On the Analogy between Language and Architecture’, for example – accompanied by articles on the gothic, on stained glass, porcelain and such technical questions as ‘colours used in painting by the ancients’, this last written by the already eminent chemist Humphry Davy.

The magazine was a short-lived experiment, but in its range of subject matter it was not exceptional. Ackermann’s The Repository of the Arts was the best-known of the periodicals that, albeit at a more popular level, combined similar topics.

To turn their pages is to be reminded of the fluidity with which categories that were soon to be distinct and, to some extent, opposed could still intermingle in the first third of the 19th century: fine and applied art, classical and gothic antiquarianism, art and science. It was a period in which Humphry Davy’s lectures could be reviewed and praised for their ‘elegance’ of delivery – his poetry was admired by Coleridge. The great pundit of taste, Richard Payne Knight, could live in a house he built for himself, Downton Castle in Herefordshire, that was gothic outside and classical within.

The age of ‘truth to materials’ was about to dawn – but not yet. Casts, composite materials, stucco, mastic, Wedgwood’s jasper ware, Tassie’s paste, Mrs Coade’s stone, were all acceptable artistic media. The language of the picturesque overlay the industrialising landscape, so that the Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel thought Birmingham looked Egyptian, with its ‘pyramids and factory furnaces’.1.The English Journey, Journal of a Visit to France and Britain in 1826, ed. by David Bindman and Gottfried Riemann, London, 1993, p.126.

The intermingling of different kinds of objects and experience, of one sense with another, is one of the most discussed characteristics of Keats’s writing. He constantly returns to those states of mind – half- sleeping, half-swooning, half-dying – in which the outer world and the individual imagination begin to flow into one another and familiar objects become strange.

At the simplest level, he would toy with the appearance of things and their relations to each other. He told his brother and sister-in-law about a bust of Shakespeare he bought in the Isle of Wight: ‘I never look at it but the silk tassels on it give me as much pleasure as the face of the poet himself.’2.Letters of John Keats, ed. by Robert Gittings, Oxford 1970, p.214. In the satirical fragment, The Castle Builder, he amuses himself by conjuring up a room cluttered with ill-assorted and crudely iconographic props:

A guitar-ribband and a lady’s glove,
Beside a crumple-leaved tale of love;
A tambour-frame, with Venus sleeping there,
All finished, but some ringlets of her hair;
A viol, bowstrings, torn, cross-wise upon
A glorious folio of Anacreon;
A skull upon a mat of roses lying,
Inked purple with a song concerning dying.3.Keats’s Poetical Works, ed. by H. W. Garrod, Oxford 1956, p.394.

Later on, the castle-builder reflects on his own want of taste in preferring gothic pottery to the ‘marble fairness of old Greece’. But in fact Keats moved freely between the medieval and the classical, from The Eve of St Agnes to the Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Given such eclecticism in public taste and Keats’s own work, it should not come as a surprise to discover that the urn itself is a composite. Attempts to tie it to a single model have all failed. No such combination of figures and scenes as the Ode describes has yet been found on a single vase. It is most unlikely that one was known to Keats.

In the Keats-Shelley house in Rome there is a tracing or drawing attributed to Keats of the Sosibios Vase in the Louvre. The figures on it are taking part in a religious procession. In the British Museum one section of the south frieze of the Elgin marbles shows a heifer ‘lowing at the skies’, and bears a caption that tells the visitor it was the inspiration for that line in the ode. Keats certainly knew the marbles well. Beyond that, we have the evidence of his reading and of his studies among the paintings and engravings belonging to his friends, especially the poet and critic Leigh Hunt and Benjamin Haydon, the history painter.

Hunt referred to the urn as a ‘sculptured vase’, suggesting that it was marble – not, in other words, an Attic red or black figure vase in clay, but a neo-Attic product of the period 50BC to AD50, made in Rome.4.Quoted in Ian Jack, 1967, p.217. This view is generally accepted, although the fact that Keats describes the figures alone as marble has encouraged some to think of them as standing against a darker background, such as the glass of the Portland Vase, or indeed, a Wedgwood urn. Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin are among the painters from whose work the ‘little town’, deserted for the day of the sacrificial rite, is thought to have been taken.

The sources summarised so briefly here have been discussed ably and exhaustively elsewhere, and are detailed at the end of this article. What concerns us, in the attempt to relate Keats’s urn to the general aesthetic temper of the day, is simply the fact that it is a synthesis, and one peculiarly typical of its time in its bringing together of classical and picturesque, primary and secondary sources. It speaks of a sensibility about objects characteristic of the age. It was essentially the taste of the urban, intellectual middle class to which Keats belonged.

Keats’s was the first generation in which men and women like himself, unable to afford to travel, to collect valuable objects or to re-ceive a classical education, could have easy access to important antiquities. The Napoleonic wars, which brought a flood of art works into London, the largest, richest city in Europe, created an interest in art un-known among the English since the reign of Charles I. The market for prints blossomed and as the techniques of reproduction – especially aquatinting – developed they were seen as objects of considerable in-terest in their own right.

At the same time, the public museum now began to supplant the private collection. Much as the English wanted to conquer Napoleon, they also wanted passionately to imitate him, particularly his creation of the galleries at the Louvre. In 1805 the Government gave £20,000 to buy Lord Townley’s collection, and paid to have them housed – along with the Rosetta stone, captured from the French – in galleries intended to copy Paris down to the very colour of the walls. The arrival of the Elgin marbles in London in 1803 and the debate about their authenticity, in which Keats’s friend Haydon played a typically voluble part, was a national issue.

When the search for the urn was resumed in the 1960s, critics found it necessary to demonstrate that Keats had an interest in the visual arts, as if this were a particular hobby of his. But in the context of London in the early 19th century, it would have been more surprising if he had not. However remarkable his response to them, there is nothing unusual about the kind of objects that caught Keats’s visual imagination. His taste was not unconventional or erudite. He was no gentleman connoisseur.

Often, as with the tassels on his Shakespeare souvenir, Keats would find his visual imagination seized or pleased by slight things. Stansted chapel, near Chichester, is a light neo-gothick confection described by Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘disarming’, ‘not trying to be anything more than a bit of fun’.5. Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England, Sussex: Middlesex, p.335. Keats, as he sat through the dull dedication ceremony, turned it in his mind into the ‘golden broideries’ of The Eve of St Mark, and the ‘twilight saints and dim emblazonings’ of The Eve of St Agnes.6.Keats’s Poetical Works, 1970, pp.357 and 195. These poems evince an intensity of spiritual and sensual identification with the medieval that did not come to architecture itself until 20 years later, with Pugin.

Of course, to Keats’s contemporaries, Stansted would have looked more convincingly medieval than it did to Pevsner, but the mood of such buildings was intentionally light. The glass is really grey and yellow. Only when it is refracted through Keats’s imagination does it assume a ‘fiery blaze’ or contain ‘Azure saints in silver’.

The theory that the urn was based on a Wedgwood vase does not bear close scrutiny, but it is not inherently implausible. Keats liked the popular ‘Tassie gems’, inexpensive glass paste reproductions of classical and neo-classical cameos and intaglios sold in a shop in Leicester Square. He owned some and bought them for his sister. One inspired his lines On a Leander Gem.

The fact that Keats drew his inspiration from local, often second-hand or low-status, sources did not escape his contemporaries. It was one of the chief accusations of Blackwood’s Magazine in characterising him – with Leigh Hunt – as a member of the ‘Cockney school’. These famous attacks of 1817-18 accused the Cockney (as opposed to the Lake) school of being ill-educated, sexually licentious and tasteless. To a remarkable extent, the satire is cast in terms of tawdry material taste.

Hunt’s poem Rimini inspires, apparently, the same disgust as ‘the gilded drawing room of a little mincing boarding-school mistress.... Every thing is a pretence, affectation, finery and gaudiness. The beaux are attorneys’ apprentices, with chapeau bras and Limerick gloves.... The company are entertained with lukewarm negus, and the sounds of a paltry piano forte.’ In praising nature, Hunt ‘raves’ as a ‘Cheapside shop keeper does about the beauties of his box on the Camberwell Road.’7.Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, October 1817, pp.38-41.

It was actually to Camberwell that Keats had walked, in October 1816, from his Southwark lodgings to visit Charles Clarke, who showed him a borrowed folio of Chapman’s translation of Homer. Keats had no Greek – a major plank of Blackwood’s attack. It was, in several senses, a secondary source that inspired his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer – a translation, a book on loan.

When he wrote its first line, ‘Much have I travelled in the realms of gold’, he had travelled, in the material world, very little.8. Quoted in Timothy Hilton, 1971. He had never been abroad. He had seen the sea for the first time only three months before, at Margate.

To this extent Blackwood’s attack on ‘Johnny Keats’ had some substance. It was made, too, before most of his best work was written. But when the great poems of the 1820 collection did appear, they were also largely based on secondary, synthetic or domesticated sources. The Ode on a Grecian Urn and The Eve of St Agnes have already been mentioned. The Ode to a Nightingale was written in Hampstead, in the garden of his friend Charles Brown, not in some natural wilderness. Of the Ode to Autumn and the Ode to Psyche there will be more to say.

Direct encounters with nature and great art often failed to evoke Keats’s best work, although in time they might have done. He remained a town poet, not a lake man. When he first saw Windermere, in 1818, he said to Charles Brown, ‘How can I believe in that?’ It was a cry of admiration, but it was also true. He did not believe it as he believed the landscapes of his imagination, or at least he never made his readers do so. In Scotland, the romance of Staffa and the lyrics of Burns were overcast by the realities of Calvinism and cold weather.

The hours he spent in front of the Parthenon frieze, his famous hazel eyes glowing with pleasure, resulted directly in two sonnets on his inability to write about them: ‘My spirit is too weak.’ 9. Keats’s Poetical Works, 1956, p.376, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles. The heifer, transplanted and transformed in the Ode on a Grecian Urn, is as much reality as Keats can bear – or needs – within the poem.

It begins to seem clear, from another point of view, why the urn should have no single model. Nor, despite Keats’s lament, ‘I know nothing I have read nothing’, does he attempt to remedy or conceal his ignorance of classical antiquity within his work.10. Timothy Hilton, 1971, p.73. Indeed, it is in part his subject. We are never told what men or gods tese are, or whether we are in Tempe or in Arcady. Similarly, in the Ode on Indolence, in which figures on an urn also appear, they are ‘strange’ to him, ‘as may betide, / With vases to one deep in Phidian lore.’ 11. Keats’s Poetical Works, 1956, p.355.

This play between knowing and not knowing, between archaeological information and imaginative elaboration, is characteristic of early 19th-century romantic antiquarianism. This is not to say that Keats was an antiquary any more than he was a connoisseur, or that he involved himself particularly with such questions. There were other, more direct influences. But he shared that contemporary English tendency, so deplored by his friend Haydon, to have ‘no notion of the abstract beauty of things’ independent of their associations. 12. Quoted in Ian Jack, 1967, p.101. (Haydon singled out the vogue for Tassie gems as an example.) The antiquarianism of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was formed, as much as the popular interest in fine art, by the Napoleonic wars. A European tour was impossible, even for those who could afford one. Those who could not were thuse on equal terms with them. The result was a shift of interest toward domestic scenery, as expounded by the theorists of the picturesque, and local artefacts. The gothic revival fuelled an interest in English vernacular history. Oral history, folklore, what we would call socio-archaeology, all began to take hold around this time. In its literary form, it was responsible for Keats’s in-terest in the Spenserian stanza. It was, as it were, Cockney connoisseurship.

The antiquary – a figure who broke the surface of the national imagination with Walter Scott’s novel of that title in 1816 – was often a clergyman, schoolmaster or architect of varying social and educational background, and always with limited funds. A man, and in not a few cases a woman, in Keats’s own situation. The antiquary dredged the nearest lake, excavated locally – often in his own garden – and was prone to mistake recently disregarded pieces of farm machinery for Roman utensils. Blackwood’s included such anecdotes. In the notes of Keats’s near contemporary, the architect Edward Willson, we hear the this creature of the age talking, or rather muttering, to himself:

quaere how these [Lincolnshire] towns came into the possession of the Danes.... Inscription on a sword found in the river Witham... mem. to have an exact drawing made... the larger spur was found amongst some old brass in an ironmongers shop... notes collected from the remembrance of old people... mem. I suspect that the incident of the skeleton was only an imaginary circumstance.13. The papers of Edward Willson (1787-1854) are held by the Society of Antiquaries in London.

It would be wrong to suggest that the antiquaries did not mind making mistakes: they were, as Willson’s notes show, interested in accuracy. At the same time their desire to see objects in context – both historically and aesthetically – meant that they were also interested in their grouping, in the effects of one on another and the psychological or dramatic potential of the ensemble. For this reason they would incorporate new – we would call them reproduction – pieces.

George Hammond Lucy had the date of his house, Charlcote (1558), carved on what he believed to be an antique sideboard, with no historical link with the building. Sir John Soane included a Monk’s Parlour in his museum house, where reconstructions, reproductions, real and misattributed antiquities, classical, gothic and modern, were combined in ‘forcible and appropriate’ chiaroscuro. 14. Thomas Griffith Wainewright, quoted in Ian Jack, 1967, p.103.

As archaeological knowledge grew and the systematic categorisation of objects in public museums developed, such arrangements came to seem inauthentic, to some extent naïve. But for the moment what Thomas Hope, a gentleman collector of a different kind from the Waverly antiquary, called ‘visible and intellectual beauty’ were of equal importance in the arrangement of objects. 15. Household Furniture And Interior Decoration Executed From Designs By Thomas Hope, Thomas Hope, London 1807, p.7.

E.W. Cooke’s The Antiquary’s Cell shows the allusive interior as it had become, by 1835. The calculated strewing of objects in that painting is reminiscent of The Castle-Builder. But while Keats saw the ridiculous in such interiors, he also appreciated the effectiveness of rooms that evoked states of mind or personality. The ideal interior he described to his sister, in 1819, with its bowls of goldfish in front of stained glass windows opening on to Lake Geneva, includes Keats himself: ‘there I’d sit and read all day like the picture of somebody reading.’ 16. Letters of John Keats, 1970, p.203.

Here, musing idly, Keats, by becoming a work of art in his own room, goes to the heart of the romantic antiquary’s enterprise: the recreation of the self through the arrangement of objects. The antiquarian romantic interior was a projection of the mind of its creator, a way of wandering among one’s own thoughts. It could be stagey, like Cooke’s painting, or trite, like The Castle-Builder. In Soane’s case, it became a work of art, a revelation of the mind of one man expressed through pre-existing artefacts.

The idea of art as a ‘palace of thought’ was articulated by Keats’s friend William Hazlitt – critic, painter, journalist and Liberal – was a fellow member of Blackwood’s Cockney School. In a lecture that Keats heard, Hazlitt described a tour around a picture gallery as an ‘illustration of Berkeley’s Theory of Matter and Spirit’, in other words the projection of a divine imagination. 17. Quoted in Ian Jack, 1967, pp.70-71.

But the effect in Keats’s own work is closer to that of the roman-tic antiquarian interior. The objects that he chose are, as we have seen, often composite – examples of applied art. Even when extrapolating the little town in the Ode on a Grecian Urn, he is using the kind of art that comes to him mediated by the theories of the picturesque.

Keats was as well aware as his contemporaries of the writings of William Gilpin and the Whig squires, Payne Knight and Uvedale Price; the text-books of the picturesque. They were by now the stock-in-trade of cultured middle-class life, parodied by all the best people: Thomas Rowlandson, Jane Austen, Thomas Peacock. From the Isle of Wight in 1819, Keats wrote to Charles Dilke that he had long since lost his ‘Cockney maidenhead’ as far as scenery was concerned, and was ‘an old Stager in the Picturesque’. 18. Letters of John Keats, 1970, p.273.

Nevertheless, just as he moved from the fashionable gothick of Stansted to anticipating the artistic truth of Pugin, so Keats’s vision, permeated, like Schinkel’s, with picturesque perspective, took the most complex elements in its analysis of the psychology of taste, and transformed them.

Here is Uvedale Price’s account of autumn, the picturesque season: ‘all is mature and the rich hues of the ripened fruit and of the changing foliage are rendered still more so by the warm haze which often, on a fine day... spreads the last varnish over every part of the picture.’ 19. An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and Beautiful, and on the Use of Studying Pictures for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape, Uvedale Price, London, 1794, p.158.

It is impossible to read this passage without thinking of Keats’s Ode to Autumn and the ‘last oozings’ of the cider press. In a letter to J.H. Reynolds in September 1819, the month when he wrote the Ode, Keats described how he had been looking at stubble fields, reflecting that ‘somehow a stubble plain looks warm – in the same way that some pictures look warm.’ 20. Letters of John Keats, 1970, p.291. Once again, Keats’s art is being made from the pre-mediated, the premeditated: nature, seen in the light of remembered art, further distilled by theory.

It was Payne Knight, rather than Price, who took the picturesque into the areas of psychological experience of objects, the mingling of the senses, the slippage of subjective and objective, which were of interest to Keats. Knight’s Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste redraws the line between perception and its objects, between the inner self and the outside world. He accuses Price of ‘seeking for distinctions in external objects which exist in the modes and habits of viewing and considering them.’ 21. Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Enquiry into the Principles of Taste, 1805, p.16. While thinking that David Hume went too far in suggesting that objects have no intrinsic qualities, Knight emphasised the importance of imagination in the exchange between viewer and viewed.

That memory would include experience of art as well as nature was central to the picturesque. Particular aesthetic experience could arise from the accumulation of pre-existing artefacts ‘skilfully divided and arranged in separate compositions’, as in Soane’s house and other romantic interiors. 22. Richard Payne Knight, 1805, p.441. Knight’s description of this, with its account of ‘successively revealed scenes’, each showing the others in a new light, reminds us of the sequence in Keats’s ode in which each vista, including the ‘unseen’ view of the picturesque ‘little town’, modifies our sense of the others.

Payne Knight opposed the purchase of the Elgin marbles. It was a mistake that has done for his reputation what the mis-identification of the Hitler diaries has done for Hugh Trevor Roper. To this day, Knight is often dismissed as a hidebound old fool. But Pevsner knew better. In his essay on Knight he finds himself – almost reluctantly – describing the dissertation Symbolical Language in Ancient Art and Mythology of 1818 (the year before Keats’s Ode was written) as ‘psychoanalytical’ in approach. 23. Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘Richard Payne Knight’, Art Bulletin, Volume 31, 1949, p.297. It was indeed in that direction, toward a theory of reciprocity between mind and art, the complete intermingling of subjective and objective, that Knight is moving.

It was another poet, Coleridge, who coined the word ‘psycho-analytic’, some 10 years later, but Keats, in his Ode to Psyche, describes the garden ‘In some untrodden region of my mind’ where ‘branched thoughts’ create a picturesque landscape, the work of the ‘gardener Fancy’. ‘The wreath’d trellis of a working brain’ is the realisation of what Knight and Price and the landscape gardener Humphry Repton were trying to evoke. 24. Keats’s Poetical Works, 1956, p.211. Shelley noted that the theorists could not, artistically, ‘catch the hare’. 25. Shelley in a letter to Peacock, 21 March 1821, quoted in Nikolaus Pevsner, 1949, p.304. Keats did. Or rather, unintentionally, he carried the picturesque on his coat-tails into poetry.

The urn would be a fitting termination to a walk in a picturesque garden, its neo-Platonic motto taking on a particular propriety in such an artificial, philosophical landscape. But that is not its site. It is a product of Bloomsbury and Hampstead, created a year after Repton’s death, by a poet who did not frequent country houses. The theories of the picturesque are part of its background, not its subject.

So, what kind of a thing is the urn? It is, of course, a work of applied art in the sense that it has no discrete existence. It exists only within the poem – a synthesis of influences formed in an age that did not find synthesis inauthentic. It bears marks of the taste of the urban middle class of the regency, formed from shops, museums and reproductions. As a work of art made from existing artefacts, sequential views, uncertain knowledge and the imagination of the beholder, it is peculiarly characteristic of the English romantic picturesque.

I would like to thank Andrew Motion for reading this essay and discussing it with me.

For the main discussion of sources for the urn, see:
Sidney Colvin, Life of John Keats, London, 1917.
Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art, Oxford, 1967. This is the best account of Keats’s in-volvement with and responses to the arts, and contemporary debates on artistic theory.
Dwight E. Robinson, from Ode on a ‘New Etrurian’ Urn , in the Keats-Shelley Journal, volume 12, New York, 1963.
Timothy Hilton, Keats and his World, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971.

Other works consulted include:
E.T. Helmick, ‘Hellenism in Byron and Keats’, Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin no. XXII, Rome, 1971.
G.S. Fraser (ed.), John Keats’s Odes, A Casebook, London, 1971.
Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983.
Clive Wainwright, The Romantic Interior, London, 1989.
Grant F. Scott, The Sculpted Word, Keats, Ekphrasis and the Visual Arts, New England, 1994.
Antony Griffiths, ‘The Department of Prints and Drawings during the First Century of the British Museum’, Burlington Magazine, 1994.
J. Mordaunt Crook, The Greek Revival, revised edition, London 1995.
Aileen Dawson, Masterpieces of Wedgwood, revised edition, London 1995.
Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his Collection, London, 1996.


things 6, summer 1997

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