The Speaker’s Rhetorical Question Can Be Real for the Reader

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From Marjorie Garson’s “Bodily Harm: Keats’s Figures in the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’”:

“And that question—though a real one for the reader, at the end of the first stanza—is already a pseudo-question for the speaker, who could not formulate it the way he does unless he had in fact already answered it” (456). 

Garson brings an interesting and new reading to “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”  Kayley, in her presentation, drew our attention to the words “unravished bride;” however this did not make me consider the possibility that “Though the lover cannot seize the maiden, Keats can seize the urn: the lover’s failure to possess masks Keats’s studding success” (458).  Garson’s historical explanation of Britain’s appropriation of Greece’s culture and its relation to the female reminded me greatly of Irish Literature.  As Garson commented, “A ravaged culture is metaphorically female...” (454).  We have discussed this idea repeatedly in Irish Lit.  Why is Ireland always referred to as a she?  Why is it represented by a woman (who alternatively does or does not transform from old to young)?  The question has many answers, but one of them is that as “a ravaged culture” Ireland is “weakened” by being referred to as female.    

The main reason I picked the quote above though again relates to Kayley’s presentation.  She had us relate “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to “Among School Children” by Yeats.  She asked us to look at the questions in the poem and determine whether they were rhetorical or literal.  The class focused particularly on these lines: “O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,/ Are you the leaf, the blossom of the bole?/ O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?”  My response was that I thought that the questions were rhetorical questions for Yeats himself, but literal questions for the reader.  Yeats wanted to make us think and ask ourselves the questions he had already asked himself.  Here, Garson applies this same idea to Keats’s poem.  I much prefer this reading than reading his questions literally or rhetorically, it’s more of a middle ground.  Anytime we see a question mark we are going to pause for a moment and think, whether the question is meant to be answered or not.  In this way, the question can function doubly making the reader consider what their own answer would be, while still being a rhetorical question for the speaker of the poem. 

Read more on Garson’s article.    


Yes, Greta, I agree with you. I think that these questions are rhetorical too. The idea is to make the reader think. We are the ones who must answer the questions . Garson also refers to this on page 456. I wrote about it in my blog.

I think the rhetorical question is important especially when used in poetry. It captures the readers attention and forces us to think outside the box. Sorry to use such a cliche. But, we can discover more through the images in the questions than we could if Keats had said, okay this is what is taking place on the right side of the urn and this is happening on the left.

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