Variations on a Vase” is the title of a piece of literary criticism written by John Bellairs.  Its original written date is unknown although it was published in 1965 during his teaching stint at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona, Minnesota.

The piece features Bellairs confronting three scholars (Cleanth Brooks, Earl Wasserman, and Kenneth Burke) and their analysis of the John Keats poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819-20).

The essay was published in the Southern Review of Adalaide, South Australia.  Two University of Adelaide professors, Manfred Mackenzie and Philip Waldron, each wrote a response taking issue with Bellairs’s criticism.

Sample text

One of the great characteristics of modern criticism has been the study of poetry as a form of action, and since the play is so literally and physically dependent on action, it is not surprising that many contemporary critics should think of the poem in dramatic terms and indeed consider poetry as a form of drama. Three of these writers, Cleanth Brooks, Earl Wasserman, and Kenneth Burke, have written interrelated essays on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," essays which, in attempting to see the poem as a play, grasp at parts of the work, wrench them from the context, and use them as the nuclei around which dramas are spun. This perversion of the poem in the name of dramatic action produces, as I shall attempt to prove, a critical "performance" in which the critic takes the stage, and, by using the poet's words as mere cues, drowns out the theme, movement, and meaning of the poem with his own voice[1].
Mr. Bellairs's treatment of Cleanth Brooks's essay is miscomprehending and distorted. I will take three examples of his mistreatment of Brooks's essay, and show how his remarks give a false idea of what that essay is like, fail to take Brooks's points properly in context, and set up their own targets in order to knock them triumphantly down[2].
I am prepared to allow very few of Mr. Bellairs's criticisms, the majority of which seem to me to do the wrong things-make Burke out as a man of straw, for ostensibly attractive right reasons, a dislike of critical "egomania" that everybody would support[3].


"John was always much more of a writer than a critic and it doesn't surprise me that the part of the essay he felt proud enough of to publish was the witty demolition of the other critics' readings.  I suspect [this] was a reworking of a paper written for a graduate class at the University of Chicago.[4]"

The fact this was published in Australia amused Bellairs[5].

External links


  1. "Variation on a Vase". John Bellairs. Southern Review; Volume 1, Number 4; 1965 (pg.58-68).
  2. "A Reply". Philip Waldron. Southern Review; Volume 1, Number 4; 1965 (pg.68-70).
  3. "A Reply". Manfred Mackenzie.  Southern Review; Volume 1, Number 4; 1965 (pg.70-73).
  4. Correspondence with Charles Bowen.
  5. Correspondence with John Murphy (2003).