Sunday, September 13, 2009

Grecian Variants

I've stumbled on something strange in the fourth stanza of Keats's Ode on a Grecian Urn. Here's the text:
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.
An 1884 edition of Keats's poems by one F.T. Palgrave has a note that offers a variant reading in the seventh line: "Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?" This alternative ("its" instead of "this"), he says, "has less improbability than the great majority of the alterations which the ordinary editions present."

So here's the funny thing. "this folk, this pious morn" returns 5480 hits in Google; "its folk, this pious morn" returns 4610. I can't find anyone who discusses the difference. In Google Books (now we're dealing with published material), "this folk,"&c. gets 628 hits, "its folk,"&c. 612. "This folk" seems to turn up more often in modern work on Keats, though I can find "its folk" in a book from 1998. If you search for a book that has both phrases together, you get no hits. [Now you get one.]

Bear with me, for I'm about to make an unconscionable proposal! The 1884 edition writes most of the poem's past participles with the e elided: "unravish'd" rather than "unravished" in the first line, for example. I suppose this is to make sure we don't pronounce the -ed as an extra syllable. A glance at the earliest manuscript of the poem (of which I can find only the first page) shows that this practice corresponds to the original orthography.

The poem has just two participles with the -ed written in full. One is in our line; the other is in the third line of the third stanza. Here are the first four lines of that stanza:
Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
and, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
Aha! This is iambic pentameter, but the third line will be missing a beat if "unwearied" has only three syllables. It needs to be four, "un-wear-i-ed," with that -ed distinctly pronounced. (All the other lines can be scanned as ten syllables, as required by the meter.) So -ed, when written out, is meant to be spoken.

Back to the line we started with. My argument suggests that "emptied," the other participle with its -ed intact, should be three syllables (emp-ti-ed). But then the line is one syllable too long! The solution is:
  1. to note that something screwy is going on with "this" versus "its";
  2. to realize that someone who didn't understand about trisyllabic "emptied" might have stuck in an extra word to heal the meter;
  3. to remember that such intrusions often give themselves away because they vary from version to version (different people stuck in different words); and finally
  4. to knock out the word entirely as being not what Keats wrote! Huzzah!
So my indecent proposal is to read (pronouncing "emptied" as a trisyllable):
Is emptièd of folk, this pious morn
That version of the line turns up a grand total of one hit apiece in Google and Google Books: the former is obviously just someone who's misquoting the standard version; the latter seems a genuine attestation, but Google doesn't give access to the full text.

I suppose most people would think my version sounds unnatural. I'll just say that even if that manuscript I mentioned above has "this" or "its" in the fourth stanza, my case is not disproved: Keats's autograph manuscript is lost; the earliest one is a transcription by his brother (who, according to my theory, is perhaps the poem's first interpolator).

(PS: I think it's bad that modern editions alter Keats's spellings without telling you.)


  1. having never read this poem before (i know, horror) my opinion doesn't count for much. but i will say, for a first time reader, that your version of the line doesn't sound unnatural at all...i think it sounds more natural than the versions with its or this. so there.

  2. Excellent! Let's write a petition about this and send it to the Gods of English Poetry. :-)