"Life Is Motion": Keats and Faulkner
in the Classroom
The "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.
Keats's poetry, and the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in particular, is a continuing presence in Faulkner's writing. Like other instances of literary influence and affinity, that presence is significant and interesting; but while perceptions of it, including perceptions of its ubiquity and variety, may stimulate us as critical readers, they may also challenge us as teachers: Of what significance can Faulkner's allusions to Keats be to students who are new to reflective literary experience? Among more advanced students, how do we approach topics like influence or intertextuality in a way that enlivens a student's sense of a writer's relation to literary inheritance or of the multiple interconnections among literary works? What do we gain from emphasizing Faulkner's relation to Keats as distinct from any number of other writers? Having taught a variety of Faulkner's works at various levels with reference to the Keatsian legacy, I'd like to share a few perspectives and strategies for approaching the topic, focusing on three primary texts.
One of the most obvious instances of allusion to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in Faulkner's writing involves a rendition of a scene of instruction. It takes place in a colloquy between Ike and McCaslin in section four of "The Bear," a work accessible but challenging for students at an introductory level, and rewardingly complex for students at all stages of study. The passage draws together a number of themes central to the work, such as the relation of reading to interpretation, the meaning of the quest, and the status of the "verities":
McCaslin . . . returned with the book and sat down again and opened it.
"Listen," he said. He read the five stanzas aloud and closed the book on his
finger and looked up. "All right," he said. "Listen," and read again, but only
one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. "She cannot
fade though thou hast not thy bliss," McCaslin said: "Forever wilt thou love,
and she be fair."
The passage continues with a narration of the sequence of Ike's thoughts ("Somehow it had seemed simpler than that . . .") and culminates with McCaslin's reiteration of his interpretation and his question, "Do you see now?" (284)
Many students, perhaps most, will not at first identify the allusion in the passage, direct as it is, so the teacher who chooses to explore its significance with them will need to prepare the way. Most probably, that means supplying students with a copy of the poem. And that in itself is a significant pedagogical act and a comment on reading; in effect, it asserts that a literary work does not take its meaning solely from the plain sense of its words but from their relations to the words of other works as well. In teaching "The Bear," I do not assume that students will come to this passage with a knowledge of Keats's poem, but assign it along with the reading of section four. Having read both works, we begin to explore implications of the premise that the interrelationships among literary works has something to do with their standing apart for us from ordinary discourse.
Our discussion of the passage, then, either in an introductory or a more advanced class, begins with some questions about the poem and about the positions of the two characters: What is the significance of emphasizing the second stanza of the ode? How can we describe the difference in the reading of the two characters? What is McCaslin trying to prove? Why does Ike appear to resist? Students can readily identify the difference between the readings of the two characters as one between a "literal" and a "metaphoric," symbolic," or "poetic" reading of the poem. More difficult are the latter questions because they send us back to the context of the colloquy in order to understand who Ike is and who McCaslin, and to the overriding question of how we are to read the "The Bear"--as a literal story of the South, the inheritance of slavery, and "miscegenation," or as a metaphoric story about something else?
I encourage students to consider that articulating the interpretive difference in this way points not so much to a difference between a "right" reading and a "wrong" reading as to a difference in acquired styles and habits of interpretation. This is salient for many students at the introductory level who feel that they "don't get poetry" because it enables us to begin some conversations about what they "don't get" in the story without supposing that the information is locked up in the words rather than in our experiences as readers and performers of the text. It is salient as well at more advanced levels because it enables us to explore what students may have learned to call "reader-response." Generally, for undergraduate students, "reader-response" identifies the position that "one reading is as good [morally, intellectually] as another" or "it depends on your perspective." In short, it refers to a subjectivist (or reader-dominant) framework for understanding reading and interpretation. Having identified these styles and habits, we can explore how Ike and McCaslin, among others, read history and its ledgers (as well as poetry) to come to an understanding of themselves. Then we can weigh, in whatever scales the students bring forth, the actions of the characters from a perspective of their self-understanding, and not merely from the perspective of our own time and place. (Teachers who wish to review the terminology and methods of reader-response criticism and pedagogy might begin with the classroom-focused work of Patrocinio P. Schweickart.)
As we work through these issues, students are able to expand their view of the ways in which the theme of the quest and of "love" are developed as descriptions of the relationships between men and women, or between men and animals in the hunt, reflect and refract the images and themes of Keats's poem. For instance, we may discuss how the theme of unfulfilled desire is handled in the stanza of Keats's poem that McCaslin reads twice and in the passage about Ike and his wife that concludes section four. In addition, it may be helpful even at introductory levels to examine the structure of Keats's ode, as it evokes through the speaker's voice several tableaux of action, and the structure of Faulkner's narrative, also composed of a series of intercalated tableaux that comment upon one another. Visual representations of Grecian urns and an explanation of their story-telling functions can provide useful background for students in exploring these metaphors and structural similarities (see Ian Jack, Kenneth Gross). In all, even for students with little formal background in literary studies, these strategies can begin to open up the story as something more richly textured than they might otherwise experience; and the scene of instruction embedded in the story, the dialogue clustered around the meaning of lines in Keats's poem, gives a point of reference for discussing how we arrive at an interpretation anyway.
With more advanced classes, it may be profitable to expand on the implications of Faulkner's allusions to Keats as they relate to issues of "representation" and gender identification. To illustrate these possibilities, let me suggest two additional focal points and ways of approaching them (among many others): the first in Light in August and the second in Flags in the Dust.
Most of us come to our reading with the expectation that we are reading about something, and begin with the naive assumption that what we are reading about something that might really have happened really happened. But literature and other arts, not being "life" but representations of life, play upon or call for us to engage in a play upon the complexities, ironies, and paradoxes of a representation being "like" life. Beyond the particular paraphrasable "meanings" that we might derive from reading them, the writings of Keats and Faulkner have a claim on our imaginations for the ways in which they help us to explore the complexities of the phenomenon Pierre Klossowski has called "life giving itself as spectacle to life" (The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes 100), and that Faulkner alludes to in his remark that "the aim of every artist is to arrest motion" ("Interview" 253). (Surely, Keats's Grecian urn is a prime example of such "arrested motion," his speaker's imaginings an example of what Faulkner means by "it moves again.") Those complexities in the works of these writers are present to the degree that new readers may feel themselves at a loss to say "what is going on" and even experienced readers may be pleased (or chagrined) to find new complexities regarding their sense of "what is going on" in a text. Students acculturated only to reading for paraphrasable meaning or to follow the narrated "action" will miss out on the play of meaning in literature as a game of knowledge that has no determined end. Yet it is no easy task to induce such acculturation. Unless we handle such abstract notions carefully, the result can be off-putting and deadening. What we want is to enable students to get at some of the complexity without losing a sense of excitement--or actually expanding their excitement--about the possibilities of literary experience. Both Keats and Faulkner, and Faulkner in invoking Keats, provide opportunities for opening up that imaginative domain; more, it is the heart of what they do.
For example, let us look at the remarkable passage describing Lena Grove on her joumey westward through rolling hills toward fictional Jefferson at the beginning of Light in August:
Stylistically,this is as complex a passage as one will find in Faulkner (or nearly any other writer). A close analysis of it with Keats's ode at hand will assist us and our students as we explore questions regarding the functions of style in the novel. In particular, it can enable us to draw out matters of narrative focus and of the structure of the narrative itself with its doublings and reversals.
We begin by examining the narrative voice and implied narrative "eye" in the passage. If this is a narration of Lena's travel westward, where would the narrator need to be positioned to see her from the perspective suggested by the concluding simile--"like something moving forever and without progress across an urn"? Clearly, to attain this panoramic (or, more properly, dioramatic) perspective the narrator would have to be distanced from the scene, since both spatially and temporally the point of view is more encompassing than would be possible for any actual observer to take in at a glance. We might ask, then, about the implications of comparing the setting or grounding of the images here to something "like...an urn": If the loess hills of north-central Mississippi are "like ... an urn," then the action that takes place on them is like ... ? Perhaps we could turn here and suggest that they are "like" a story or the dioramatic or cinematic progress of figures on an urn, which is not a "real" progress but an imagined one. To keep such observations from seeming to be simple wordplay, I provide students with the passage from the public presentation at the University of Virginia in which Faulkner spoke of the origin of the title of Light in August:
Suppose we take this statement to say not just that for Faulkner the atmosphere of mid-August in Mississippi is like some other time and place, and that he uses description to suggest a comparison or metaphoric equivalence? Suppose we take it to say that the actors are like "nymphs and fauns and satyrs"? What I am suggesting is that we might encourage students to develop a sort of double vision, looking at both the novel and Keats's poem and comparing the actions of the characters in the novel--especially Lena in quest of Lucas and Byron in quest of Lena--as like a "flowery tale" represented on a cylindrical urn. Who is a "nymph," who a "faun," and who a "satyr," in the novel? What is the significance of the reversal of the quest beginning with Lena's pursuit of Lucas and ending with Byron's pursuit of Lena? What analogy does this have to the representation of pursuit on an urn? Does the analogy hold, or does it break down? What do these equivalencies amount to?
In addition, as the class explores these questions and the implications of a novelist writing against "naturalistic" or "realistic" imperatives, I distribute copies of Poem X in A Green Bough--a poem not published until 1933 but written more than a decade earlier. Two particular stanzas warrant quotation:
Michel Gresset, among others, has commented on the centrality to Faulkner's development of the parallel imagery and structure of his early sketch "The Hill"--a precursor as well of the posthumously published story "Nympholepsy" (Faulkner Chronology 16; see also his comments on the origination of the "germ" of Faulkner's works in a "scene" FC 55.) Initially, observing features of Faulkner's writing like his use of the urn metaphor in this poem can raise fundamental questions as to what he gains (or loses) by doing so. Such tracings of images and words in their collocations in what we call "literary structures" can lead to discussions of more than scholastic interest--more than a matter of enabling us to inventory the contents of Faulkner's famous "lumber room" of materials. They can stimulate an advanced class to consider how a writer can exploit the possibilities of language or other media as being "not life."
Culturally, we are oriented toward naturalistic and forensic uses of speech and language, as for instance when in reading Light in August we focus on the question of whether Joe Christmas is "really Black or white." (I take critical reflection on such uses of language, and our habitual orientations to them, to be a central purpose for teaching literature.) But that is only partially the orientation of Faulkner's fiction, and it is sometimes an orientation that his fiction blithely by-passes or profoundly questions. In any case, it is a readerly orientation or motive that his work handles complexly. For students, and for readers in general, this may be more than they bargain for or are accustomed to receiving. Our schooling and our life in organizations continually reinforce the imperative to use words "accurately" to represent "what actually happened." But in Faulkner's figurative use of language we discover, in addition to these "compulsions" (to use a word from the poem just quoted that fits the context), other orientations and motives. Principally, the alternate motive or orientation is the will to pleasure. Depending on the scope and context of our teaching this is a contrast and conjunction that we might address in exploring the Keatsian inheritance in Faulkner, for the dialectic of knowledge and pleasure is a continuing one in the romantic tradition from the early Wordsworth and Keats through Tennyson and Yeats (as well, of course, as in Shakespeare and others). Pleasure asks: "What good is a story if it is merely true? How true is a story if it is not good [in the sense that pleasure understands]?" These are questions that, perhaps, return to us a question embedded in the colloquy between Ike and his cousin examined earlier: If the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is about "truth" and "beauty," how are these to be seen or understood in relation to each other? It is a question not to be answered definitively, since each student will have a somewhat different way of exploring it, depending on his or her temperament and prior persuasion.
Finally, the association in Keats's ode of "beauty" with "truth," and of both with the feminized urn ("Thou still unravished bride ......" ) and the feminine figure represented on the urn, implies for critical readers some questions about the assumptions on which those associations operate--assumptions that are invoked again in the exchange between Ike and McCaslin. Under what circumstances are two literate readers able to say of a passage (1) "He's talking about a girl" and (2) "He was talking about truth"? Students may readily answer that a point uniting literal and figurative readings may be that as the "girl" is unattainable in the poem so are "7beauty" and "truth" in real life; and that answer has considerable validity. But we might want to explore further the implications of these approximate equations as they relate to issues of gender, and to look at how the associated issues of gender play out in one of Faulkner's texts, such as Flags in the Dust.
Keats's ode begins in a moment of enchantment for its speaker; and that moment is parallel to the moment of near ravishment for the speaker at the beginning of "Ode to a Nightingale" and to the already accomplished nympholeptic ravishment of the pale knight in "La Belle Dame sans Merci." For many readers, an initial reading of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is made difficult by the fact that we come upon an action already taking place: There is no scene-setting for the speaker's apostrophe; it simply begins, and the scene is created out of one long apostrophe that, by an accumulating verbal logic, must end with the sententious peroration. (Readings of the poem by Cleanth Brooks and Kenneth Burke, not without their problems, can supply important glosses and insights relevant to teaching this poem in relation to Faulkner.) Eventually, students perceive that the speaker's situation in the poem is one of being overwhelmed by the presence of a beautiful object that does not so much tell the truth about experience or history, in our customary terms, as it tells a tale that is compelling and convincing despite its lack of detail, creating an enlivening myth. (This is essentially Brooks's reading.) But what are the implications of the assignments of gender identities within this myth? What if we consider the speaker male? Can we do otherwise? If the object this presumed he apostrophizes is clearly named female, what are the implications of assigning that gender to an object that is a silent container of stories and images, adopted by "slow time" so that she is not ravished as human beings (men?), slaughtered as animals, and desolated as little towns are? If the vehicle of truth and beauty is feminine in the myth, does that mean that what is feminine is necessarily the vehicle for truth and beauty? Asked specifically of Keats's poem, such questions may send us to complications and reversals of the mythic structure in the other poems mentioned here, and to yet others by Keats, to his letters (especially the letter to Benjamin Bailey, 22 November 1817 [Selected Poems and Letters 257-259), and to his own powerful influences, notably Milton in what Keats called the "Adam's dream" passages of Paradise Lost (principally Book VIII, 460-490). What then to make of the mythic structure in a novel by Faulkner and of those epithets associated with Keats's urn when they are transposed (with some modification) to female characters in the same novel, Flags in the Dust?
Flags is of course generally considered to be the last of Faulkner's apprentice novels and the first of his Yoknapatawpha novels. It remains an apprentice work because many of the strands of verbal influence are not fully assimilated to the verbal texture, and because narrative and thematic lines are developed to suggest broad counterpoint without the kinds of close interweaving characteristic of Faulkner's most aesthetically mature work. But the qualities of the novel that lead critics to say that it is a stylistic pastiche are also those that make it most accessible for the study of allusion or what Northrop Frye has called "displacement." (In The Secular Scripture, Frye defines this process as "the adjusting of formulaic structures to roughly credible contexts" [36; see also "Myth, Fiction, and Displacement"].) As I will illustrate in a moment, and as many readers are already aware, there are a number of refigurings of the language of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" that punctuate the text of Flags. The very fact that these may be more rather than less "roughly" adjusted to the new context of the novel enables students all the more readily to observe and analyze them. For the purposes of analysis, I add to my introduction of Frye's concept of displacement a brief exposition of modes of allusion, based on a typology developed by Earl Miner. The modes include the following:
This outline might be modified or refined, rough-hewn as it is, but it at least provides us with some common terms of discussing the different uses Faulkner (or any other writer) makes of inherited verbal resources. Because I normally teach Flags in a seminar in Faulkner, rather than as the single Faulkner text in a survey or other type course, I will have already assigned some reading in Faulkner's apprentice work as discussed above (namely,"PoemX," "The Hill," "Nympholepsy") as well as some relevant contextualizing works (for instance, E.A. Robinson's "The Man Against the Sky"). In addition, at least some of the students have had a prior course in the critical analysis of literature.
As part of their reading assignment in Flags in the Dust, I ask students to keep a written list in a reading journal of any possible echoes, quotations, or other allusions to Keats's poem they may discover, while noting what aspect of the poem it recalls for them. The lists may include as examples:
The sheer redundancy of Faulkner's glancing echoes of Keats in the novel make it almost impossible for a student to miss coming up with an example, while the most meticulous students will produce very long lists. None of the examples needs to be precise as we begin our exploration; none needs to carry immediate significance. We begin simply with observations. But we quickly move to deeper possibilities for explication and analysis.
By the time we reach the point in the narrative when Horace arrives on the scene, the merely possible connections between Faulkner's language and Keats's we have observed become incontrovertible:
The passage provides, again, a clear focal point for our exploration of the implications of the various allusions. For one thing, it makes explicit the identification of a female character, Narcissa, with both an aesthetic object and with "the meaning of peace." In doing so, it sets up a complex of gender identifications that I encourage students to explore and question from a variety of perspectives. Further, coming as it does at a point when the principal characters have been introduced and principal narrative lines developed, at something like the center of the narrative, it suggests the centrality of Narcissa among the widely dispersed threads, even as it asks us to evaluate Horace as speaker of the lines: Is this a parodic allusion or some other mode?
This structural and thematic emphasis is confirmed when the violent breakthrough in the relation between Bayard and Narcissa is accompanied by a resolution echoing the language of the ode and the passage describing Horace's apostrophizing:
Here, Bayard's attack on Narcissa apparently leaves her "unravished," and he is subdued, although only momentarily so before he departs on his overwrought quest for death. (I read the passage as not including literal rape, but it is open to either construction; clear arguments can be made for either conclusion.) The emphasis is confirmed yet again in the culminating scene, after Bayard's death, at the close, or dying close, of the novel:
As in the passage in Light in August discussed above, this passage shifts some of the qualities associated with the Grecian urn to the setting as well as to a character, so that the setting seems to have been given a quality not quite possible for life, "which is motion," but only for art, or arrested motion. And the change in the language of the ode, from "foster-child of silence and slow time" to "foster-dam of quietude and peace" opens up a number of interpretive possibilities. In fact, one of the most important features of the study of these patterns of allusion is that it directs students to examine closely the words and syntax in a work. Focusing on these two parallel phrasings with the class, I am able to distinguish syntax as a verbal pattern in which different words can be organized from the words themselves, a distinction students may not habitually make. The questions we ask about the passage become a model for their analysis of other passages in an eventual writing assignment: What difference is registered in the change from "foster-child" to "foster-dam"? Of other substitutions? How is the word "foster" used in either case? What should we make of its multiple meanings--"to foster" meaning "to nurture" and "foster-child" or "foster-parent" meaning not the "natural" or "real" child or parent?
Tracing such patterns of language and imagery in our reading and class discussion of this novel raises a number of possibilities for writing assignments in which students can explore further the use of allusion for formal or structural purposes--developing motifs as in a work of music--or for thematic purposes--developing themes of the relationships between "art" and "life" or of the uses (and abuses) of language in constructing gender identifications. Teachers who have read some of the critical literature on Keats and Faulkner may have been disappointed by its frequent failure to suggest the full richness of Faulkner's engagement with Keats--often because it seems dedicated to arriving at definitive rather than suggestive readings. My experience in asking students to consider, discuss, and to write about Faulkner's encounter with Keats's poetry, and our encounters with both, indicates that there are yet more, and yet more enlivening, things for students to observe in Faulkner's texts and reflect on in their talking and writing. Perhaps these notes will provide a stimulus for more of that work and play in knowing Faulkner's texts.
Brooks, Cleanth. "Keats's Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes." The Well Wrought Urn. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947: 151-166.
Burke, Kenneth. "Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats." A Grammar of Motives. NewYork: Braziller, 1955: 447-463.
Faulkner, William. A Green Bough. New York: Smith and Haas, 1933.
-----. Flags in the Dust . Ed. Douglas Day. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
-----. Go Down, Moses . New York: Vintage International, 1990.
-----. "Interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel." Lion in the Garden: Interviews with William Faulkner, 1926-1962. Ed. James B. Meriwether and Michael Millgate. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska P, 1980.
-----. Light in August . New York: Vintage International, 1990.
-----. Frye, Northrop. "Myth, Fiction, and Displacement." Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1963: 21-38.
-----. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1976.
Gresset, Michel. A Faulkner Chronology. Trans. Arthur B. Scharff. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1985.
Gross, Kenneth. The Dream of the Moving Statue. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP. 1992.
Gwynn, Frederick L., and Joseph L. Blotner, eds. Faulkner in the University. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.
Jack, Ian. Keats and the Mirror of Art. Oxford: Clarendon 1967.
Klossowski, Pierre. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Trans. Austryn Wainwright. New York: Grove, 1969.
Keats, John. Selected Poems and Letters. Ed. Douglas Bush. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
Miner, Earl. "Allusion." Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1974.
Schweickart, Patrocinio P. "Reading, Teaching, and the Ethic of Care." Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy. Ed. Susan L. Gabriel and Isaiah Smithson. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois P, 1990.