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Keats’s “Ode” and its Perpetuation of Social Inequality By Robbin Zirkle In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Romantic poet

John Keats deals with the scene depicted on an urn and its different implications at length. This class has dealt with the poem from a New Critical perspective, but after closer examination, it seems that there may be more at work in “Ode on a Grecian Urn” than can be identified by New Critical interpretation. Instead it would seem that Marxist critical theory is an ideal tool to use to understand both the poem itself and the class discussion of the poem because it analyzes context , because it deals with socioeconomic inequality and tension, which are more present than it might seem at first glance. When applying the Marxist critical theory, it becomes clear that both the class conversation about “Ode on a Grecian Urn” from a New Critical perspective and the poem itself reinforce cultural conceptions that perpetuate socioeconomic inequality and class struggles. Marxism deals most essentially with how the relations and means of production (base) relate to the culture, institutions, et cetera that allow a society to reproduce itself (superstructure). It is this relationship that Marxists believe defines and replicates socioeconomic inequality. Therefore, a Marxist would assert that it is worthwhile to examine poems such as Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” because it may define and/or replicate socioeconomic values. In dealing with the poem using Marxist critical theory, two major issues become apparent. The first is that the poem centers on a fictive piece of perfect art—a Grecian urn that depicts a number of scenes that are poignant social commentaries in themselves. This urn is


significant because, despite its fictive nature, fine art is only accessible for a certain class of people, and in 1820, those people were primarily wealthy aristocrats. At this point, the second issue with the poem comes into play: the urn is frozen, depicting the happiness of the individuals portrayed, especially the young lovers. The pastoral setting also suggests that the lovers are likely of underclass status. They are stuck, inches away from a kiss, and inches away from happiness. From a Marxist perspective, we can identify the potential for happiness that will never be attained because it is trapped on the sides of a piece of fine art. Putting it simply, the underclass lovers are bound because of the will of the wealthy. A number of issues also became clear during the discussion in class that might not be identified from any perspective but a Marxist one. Because we dealt with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” from a New Critical perspective, we completely ignored the poem contextually. While we were permitted to research allusions and terms, a number of issues were left unaddressed, such as the class of the people depicted on the urn or John Keats’s own social class. Furthermore, because we ignored the context into which to poem fit, we lost sight of our own biases and were unable to gain insight into people we began to view as “others.” Simply put, we may have unconsciously oppressed the spirit of the underclass in that conversation. The other issue that becomes clear after the application of Marxist critical theory on our conversation connects to the first issue: we disregarded our own place in the relationship between the base and the superstructure. Realistically, each student at this university has the opportunity and means to attend college, so they are not true members of the underclass and likely fall into the middle and upper echelons of the class structure. We refused to acknowledge that our potential oppression of the underclass could, in fact, perpetuate class


struggle and the superstructure that is responsible for a great deal of inequality in the eyes of Marxists. The realization that our class and Keats play a role in perpetuating unequal class structures and values is the ultimate result of applying Marxist critical theory to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and our discussion. This replication of social values also works to reinforce the structure that we already live in, which Marxists see as imperfect. It is only in recognizing this reality that we can come to appreciate Marxism and take our own experiences as well as poetry for what they are, and realize that we must consider context and interpret carefully, considering how different ideas are influenced by the base, the superstructure, and class inequality.