'Impassioned Clay': Reading the Grecian Urn

William Christie


The critical distinction between two voices or consciousnesses in Ode on a Grecian Urn that David Simpson takes as 'a starting point' for his discussion of the poem I want to adopt as a starting point for my own. However historically contingent or merely fashionable, the distinction itself is surely a difficult one to deny. One might argue as Coleridge does of Wordsworth's 'The Thorn' that, as a dramatic monologue, the Ode is unevenly sustained, creating occasional confusions2. Or as Simpson himself does that the 'speaker' and 'poet', commentator and metacommentator, dissolve into a paradoxical synthesis at a crucial point. The distinction may be said, technically, to obtain between two personae or to inhere within a single persona3; mayor may not be seen to represent 'a dialogue of the mind with itself'4 and may even be interpreted as reflecting a contradiction at the heart of early nineteenth-century petty bourgeois ideology with regard to its yearning for cultural appropriation5. But for the moment at least, the relative validity of any or all of these readings is of less concern than that the distinction they assume is there, in the poem itself. The speaker, wilfully misreading or overreading the urn, says too many things that are irrelevant or self-preoccupied or just plain silly for him to be trusted as an authority. On the contrary, what becomes apparent quite early is an authority to distrust him.

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