So today was the day I had the chance to read some poetry to my World History classes. I secretly love it — the chance to expose them to new and different words and ideas, the feelings and imagination of the writer, the silence in the classroom as I finish and the shock on their faces when they find out what the poem was about.
We talked about Romanticism — the intellectual movement of the mid-1800’s. With Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, and Keats. Beautiful, vibrant words.
But here’s what I do:
I read a portion of a poem and ask them to think about what the poet is writing about. For today, I chose Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats. Here’s a portion:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
Forever panting and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead and a parching tongue.
Those are but two of the five stanzas in the poem. After I read, I asked my students, “What do you think he was writing about?”
Cows (there is a reference to a heifer in another stanza)
Boy were they shocked when I put up a picture and told them it was a poem about a pot. A fancy pot, but a pot.
That’s right — the lyrical prose that Keats used in his poem was to describe what he saw when he viewed a pot. But, when we started really breaking down the words, the light bulbs going off above their heads illuminated the entire room.
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed / Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu — the trees on the urn are in bloom and full. They are continuously in a perfect state, but in that perfection, they are still. Frozen in time. They won’t ever experience the loss of leaves, but they also won’t see the rebirth of spring.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on; / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone — The music we can play and hear is beautiful yes, but the sounds that the musicians on the urn play can be the most beautiful song in the world, yet we would never know it. The bard will continuously play his pipes, forever in silence, but forever in perfection.
We could go on and on with this wonderful poem — a poem about a pot. And that’s the entire beauty of it. That we can find striking details and stroke our imagination even in the simplest of objects. I compared it to them lying on a hill and looking at the clouds. We see puppies and whales; pianos and jet planes; a T-Rex and a hot dog. What will our imagination show us when we perceive the simplest of objects. What can we bring to life through just our words?