What are the main arguments in "Keats’ Sylvan Historian: History Without Footnotes"?

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Cleanth Brook's essay "Keats's Sylvan Historian" is not merely a persuasive reading of Keats' great poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," but also a textbook example of the close-reading strategy of New Criticism in action. Brooks revels in contradictions and paradox in the poem, in contrast to critics who insist on the poem's yielding up one straightforward meaning. Thus, problematic aspects of the poem (such as the fourth stanza, in which the speaker imagines a town not depicted on the urn, bereft of its residents who have travelled to perform a sacrificial rite) defy "reduction to any formula." Instead of being a defect, for Brooks this is an aspect of the poem's greatness.

The poem's famous last lines "Truth is beauty, beauty truth...", which T.S. Eliot found to be a weakness, are one of the poem's great strengths for Brooks. These lines resist easy translation into a theme or meaning, and instead call for the reader to adopt an attitude of healthy "distrust." Brooks's essay revels in this aspect of Keats's poem, one of the greatest examples of the poet's theory of "negative capability."

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In his 1944 essay, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” Cleanth Brooks offered an analysis of John Keats’s famous poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” A key feature in the analysis is part of the last line, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty . . . ” Brooks used this line to challenge the prevailing opinion, first voiced by TS Eliot, that this line was a flaw, which seemed tacked on rather than an integral part of the poem.

Looking at the entire poem in a different way than Eliot, Brooks argued that Keats had established a central paradox that unified the poem. That central paradox, Brooks claimed, was the relationship between “beauty,” as embodied in the poem, to “truth” as the message of the poem. In this interpretation, the subject of the poem is poetry and, by extension, art.

The paradox of the urn recurs in each stanza, reiterating the theme of tension between the dynamism depicted in the scenes on the urn and the frozen character that holds them in place. In each stanza of the poem, as in each location on the urn, that paradox of motion contained in stillness is reestablished. An example is the depiction of sexual activity contrasted to the purity of a vessel which is “still unravished . . . ” Brooks argues that Keats thereby effectively prepares the reader for the final line, which is the reconfirmation of that paradox.

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