What Would a Formalist Do?

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From Allen C. Austin’s “Toward Resolving Keats’s Grecian Urn Ode”:

“At the time that Keats wrote the Ode, his life was uncertain and unhappy.  It is not surprising that he imagines an eternal love that has to him none of the disadvantages of earthly love” (Keesey 54).

Well, despite whatever the Formalists may think and what T.S. Eliot may think about the author’s personality being irrelevant, it would seem that Austin thinks that what was going on in Keats’s life when he was writing his poem was important.  In addition, Keesey comments that, “…when we ask which of these meanings John Keats is most likely to have meant, the number of possibilities diminishes rapidly” (47).  It would seem to me that both Keesey and Austin are of the opinion that taking the author’s situation into account is a valuable tool in eliminating possible readings of a text and finding the most probable meaning.  It is undoubtedly futile on my part to struggle against formalism, but I find it very difficult to leave the author out of my interpretations of most works.  Austin readily admits that the idea of never consummating one’s love is probably not palatable to many of the people who read Keats’s poem, yet he also realizes that Keats in his “uncertain and unhappy” position would much prefer a love that goes on forever and ever (as he hopes eternity/heaven allows) to a love that must end, no matter what the sacrifices may be.  While the reader may therefore wish to attribute a negative attitude towards these immutable lovers to Keats, Austin argues very convincingly that this eternal limbo appeals to him.  However, if we rule out the possibility of taking the author’s intentions and life into consideration, we destroy the possibility of narrowing down our search for the most probably interpretation.  What would a formalist do with the six possible readings Austin lists, say that they are all equally true and that there is no way to eliminate any?      


Erica Gearhart said:

Greta, I definitely have to agree with you-I find it really hard to leave history, society, and, most importantly, the author out of a critical reading of a text. I think it is because, at least in my experience, many teachers choose to incorporate information about the author and time period into the lesson before the text is read. Sometimes, even knowing the author's name may invoke some emotion into the reader. I think that, although difficult to emulate, the Formalist style of criticism is valuable. I actually tried to analyze Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" using the Formalist perspective, but I'm not quite sure how successful I was. It is definitely difficult and sometimes limited to think in this way, but there is some value in it, if only the fact that it provides a more objective way to analyze a piece of literature.

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