Opening a school anthology, I find this note to Keats's ode "To Autumn": "The magnificent ode is justly famous, and is often regarded as the most perfect of Keats's poems. Its structure is quite complex, but after a couple of readings it will not be difficult to see that the first verse describes the 'positive' side of autumn - the side that looks back to summer and brings it to fruition, while the third verse describes the 'negative' side - a suggestion of chilliness, a series of thin sounds, and the sadness of approaching winter. The middle verse balances these two with four glimpses of a figure representing both the spirit of autumn and a farm-worker engaged in a series of typical autumnal activities."The piece is an advance taste of Paulin's forthcoming book, The Secret Life of Poems. It's a compelling reading, at least to someone who's not a Keats expert; I particularly enjoyed its balance of attention to fine textual details and historical and intertextual contexts. But I can see someone reacting quite differently, along the lines of the discussion that broke out recently in the comments to this post at The Valve. A sample exchange:
This describes, clearly and sensitively, how the poem has been read since its publication in 1820, but in recent years a group of historical critics has offered a more complicated, political reading of Keats. He was passionately interested in politics, and it would be surprising if that interest didn't shape his writing. As a radical, who read and contributed to John and Leigh Hunt's famous weekly journal, The Examiner, he would have seen not so much a "farm-worker", as a member of the rural poor, a gleaner, who has scraped up the grains of corn left after the farm labourers had gathered in the harvest. Gleaning was made illegal in 1818, so by personifying autumn as a gleaner he is characterising the season as a proud and dignified young woman. (read the rest here)
LB: That is to say, let’s imagine two critics who write the same excellent account of the formal, stylistic, and thematic features of Blake’s “The Tyger.” Then let’s imagine that while critic 1 stops there, critic 2 builds on that account and shows in clear, well-supported terms how these features connection to biography, cultural history, economics, etc. In that case, critic 2 has clearly added something that critic 1 cannot offer.It seems a tailor-made example, actually. Paulin reads Keats's Ode as critic 2 would. But is his therefore a better analysis than a fleshed-out version of the one in the 'school anthology' would be? The school anthology has described the poem an ordinary (i.e. non-specialized) reader would be familiar with; Paulin argues that this simpler account is inadequate, even wrong on some counts, and supports his more 'complicated' reading with a lot of specific evidence. Both readings address what is "actually there" in the poem (a phrase all who teach poetry to undergraduates are familiar with)--that is, both infer the meaning of the poem from the words on the page--but Paulin is less literal and inquires further afield in search of its meaning. I think that the result is a richer appreciation of Keats's art. What do you think: is it fair, or reasonable, or problematic, to consider that you can "understand the poem perfectly well" without knowing any of the additional material or ideas Paulin brings to bear on it? Do you just understand it differently, or do you understand a different version of it? Also, how far does this dispute over the limits of "the poem itself" encapsulate the difference between academic and non-academic approaches to interpretation? And how far do readings of this sort, that set out to correct ordinary readings as simplistic or inadequate contribute, to the dislike ordinary readers sometimes express towards academics?
DG: Perhaps, if you’re more interested in biography, cultural history, and ecomonics than in art. I’m not, so the critic who provides such an account does nothing for me.