History, Poetry, and the Footnote: Cleanth Brooks and Kenneth Burke on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

In the summer of 1943, two critics were - unbeknownst to each other—finishing essays on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn." One of these, Cleanth Brooks's History without Footnotes: An Account of Keats' Urn, would grow to become an icon of literary science; the other, Kenneth Burke's Symbolic Action in a Poem by Keats, faded into relative obscurity. Today, one of the few traces that remain of the link between both essays is a footnote in which Brooks acknowledges the similarities between Burke's analysis and his own. My paper aims to recover the rhetorical dynamics of this footnote's moment of composition by framing it against the backdrop of the war of independence which the emergent field of literary criticism waged against historicist scholarship. Brooks, I will argue, sought in Burke a much needed ally that would help him recover and defend poetic language as a valid gateway into the historical real. This alliance, however, forced Brooks to exaggerate the convergence of their respective "dramatic" ways of reading: their superficial similarities mask substantial differences in opinion on the methods and evidence used to substantiate one's reading of a literary text—differences that have severe implications on the way literary texts are connected to, and can act upon, the past.