Among the Odes, Grecian Urn is rather famous for its interrogations of an inanimate object, a work of art, as though it was a sentient being, or a kind of sentience inhered in it. In Grecian Urn, we get, indeed, two sets of interrogations: into a generalized “what” (“what mad pursuit?/ “what struggle to escape?”), and into a generalized “who” (“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?”). An incision I’d like to make into narratives around the Odes, and specifically around Grecian Urn, has to do with the difference between the two interrogative pronouns in Keats (“what” and “who”), and why the difference is significant, both in our perception of Keats’ place among the Romantics and his Odes, and in metaphysics in poetry and major high art consonance generally. As to the significations, in Grecian Urn, of “who” (inverting the fact that it appears after “what” in the poem): I take the interrogations around “who” to suggest an appreciation (Keats’ appreciation) of humanity as knowable, decipherable in both their thoughts and in their activities, and as worthy of praise, when represented gracefully and rigorously, as anything or anyone else in the universe. Keats’ vision of humanity is horizontal: he looks directly at humans, and at the broadly “human,” along a horizontal axis which includes himself and his quotidian perceptions. The interrogations around “what” suggest something else, something transcendental and bordering the ineffable, and charted along a vertical axis: Keats’ relationship to art, to major high art consonance, and to what in it is sublime, and past being merely comforting and companionable, “post-human.”
As to what in Grecian Urn, and Keats Odes, binds him most firmly to the “what” of things, rather than the “who” of things: his visionary sense of the Urn itself is indicative, but it is the exquisite prosodic element of Keats’ language itself, its ornate scaffolding having been manifested from a power base of enormous intelligence, that replicates the exquisite “what” of the Grecian Urn itself, what is embedded on it, narratives and figures. In addition, the exquisite molding and scaffolding of Keats prosody can be taken as a representation of the enchanted forest itself, what in it is Other to human consciousness, what in it holds and maintains mysteries in the direction of humanity. This is a key idea in Keats, especially in relation to the other major Romantics— what exquisite prosody signifies, in/of itself— because Keats’ prosody is the major distinguishing characteristic of his best poetry over that of Wordsworth especially, Byron and Shelley certainly. If there is a direct causal link between the forest’s enchantment (as had been handed down to Keats from the Greeks, on the Grecian Urn and elsewhere) and the quality, ambience, and “what-ness” of Keats’ prosody, it reinforces the sense of the transcendentalism of the Odes and the odal cycle, and the fact that Keats’ critical reputation in century XX, which pegged him for a sensualist against transcendentalism, were investigating the Odes on a superficial level, against the kind of “deep hermeneutic” which finds pertinent significations in exquisite prosody itself.