John Keats talks about three mysterious figures that he has seen engraved on an ancient urn in this poem, ‘Ode on Indolence’. Those figures appear in the poet’s vision and disturb his mind. His indolent mind gets puzzled after seeing those figures appearing and vanishing momentarily. To understand the reference to those three allegorical figures, one has to read the previous ode, ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Hence, this poem is a complementary piece of the previous one. However, the overall idea of this work is unique and quite different from the previous ode describing the engravings on a Grecian vase.
This poem concerns the theme of indolent. Moreover, it is about how an indolent speaker sees three figures that he has noticed recently on a vase. Those figures which appear in his imagination are the embodiments of love, ambition, and poesy. The first two figures are somewhat controllable. But in the case of the third one, the poetic persona is unable to be out of the grip of her dominance. At the end of this poem, he requests those chimeric figures to fade away and leave him alone with his other dreams.
This ode, on an abstract idea “Indolence,” is about a speaker who is daydreaming about the three figures noticed on an urn. Indolence or laziness is an inclination to lethargy. To be specific, it is about a poignancy and immobility that hinders one from active pursuits. Under the impression of indolence, one forgets the role of hard work. Therefore, that person yields to fancy to do all the activities imaginatively. Such a person, or the poet himself, is the speaker of the poem. He is somehow puzzled by those three allegorical figures. Their appearance and absence trouble his imagination. In this context, the poet composed the verses of this poem.
Keats’ poem ‘Ode on Indolence’ consists of six ten-line stanzas. The first four lines of each stanza form a Shakespearean quatrain. For this reason, the rhyme scheme of the first four lines is ABAB. Thereafter, employing Miltonic sestet, the poet uses the CDE CDE rhyme scheme in the next six lines. So, the overall rhyme scheme of the poem is ABABCDECDE. This model is also famous by Keats’ name. Apart from that, the poet uses a conventional meter scheme in this poem. Each line consisting of ten syllables is in iambic pentameter. However, some lines are in iambic tetrameter too. Lastly, there are a few metrical variations in this poem.
This poem begins with an inversion or hyperbaton. In the overall poem, Keats inverts regular sentence structure in several instances. Thereafter, the poet uses a personal metaphor in “placid sandals.” There is a simile in the line, “They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn.” The last line of the first stanza contains an allusion to the Greek sculptor Phidias. The second stanza begins with an apostrophe. Along with that, the first two lines of this stanza contain anaphora. Thereafter, the poet uses a metaphor in a “silent deep-disguisèd plot.” Here, the phrase, “deep-disguisèd” contains alliteration. The line, “Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower” is an example of an epigram. In the third stanza, the poet uses personification.
Moreover, the phrase, “maiden most unmeek” contains a repetition of the “m” sound. This is an example of consonance. This phrase also contains hyperbole. Thereafter, in the fourth stanza, the poet uses rhetorical exclamation and rhetorical questions. In the last stanza, the line, “And for the day faint visions there is store” contains irony.
‘Ode on Indolence’ presents several themes. The most important theme of the poem is indolence or laziness. As the title of the poem highlights the theme of this piece, the work follows this thematic unity. Here, Keats’ poetic persona is daydreaming about the characters namely Love, Ambition, and Poesy. His lazy mind is responsible for creating this illusion of those transient figures. Thereafter, the poet presents the theme of imagination, romanticism, dream, illusion, and self-awareness. By incorporating all these themes, Keats makes this poem more interesting to read and think about.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowèd necks, and joinèd hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced;
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn,
When shifted round to see the other side;
They came again; as when the urn once more
Is shifted round, the first seen shades return;
And they were strange to me, as may betide
With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.
Keats’ ‘Ode on Indolence’ begins with a maxim, “They toil not, neither do they spin.” It seems that before beginning this poem, the poet refers to the three fate sisters. After getting into the poem, readers can understand why the poet has referred to these mythical sisters, responsible for controlling one’s destiny. However, the poem begins with a direct reference to the incident that happened with the poet. One morning he saw three figures. Those figures had bowed necks, joined hands, and interestingly “side-faced.” They stepped together, and each of them was walking one after another. Moreover, they had “placid sandals” and were dressed in “white robes.”
It occurred to the speaker that he had seen them before engraved on a marble urn. Here, the poet alludes to his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. Whatsoever when the speaker shifted round to see the other side of their faces, they also shifted around. Hence, he saw them from the previous frame again. It seemed strange to him. He thought as he had observed the vase made by the Greek sculptor Phidias he was having a vision of those figures engraved on it.
How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?
How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?
Was it a silent deep-disguisèd plot
To steal away, and leave without a task
My idle days? Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower:
O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness?
In the second stanza, the speaker asked those shadowy figures why he did not know them. He thinks they might have come in disguise. For this reason, he could not recognize them. Whatsoever the poet refers to this vision as “a silent deep-disguisèd plot” that stole away his works and made him idle. Those thoughts made his “drowsy hour” ripe. Thereafter the poet uses a personification and says that the “blushful cloud of summer-indolence” had benumbed his eyes. Here, the poet refers to the vision. However, the thought took him into a state of trance.
In such an elevated mood, he could not feel the stings of pain nor pleasure. For this reason, he implored them to melt away and leave his senses back to normal again. What he was observing was nothing but a dream. But, he could not detach himself from the vision of those mysterious figures.
A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
Each one the face a moment whiles to me;
Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d
And ached for wings, because I knew the three;
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name;
The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye;
The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,—
I knew to be my demon Poesy.
Thereafter, in the third stanza of ‘Ode on Indolence’, the speaker remarks they had passed him three times. While passing each of them glanced at his face for a while. Then they faded. Their sudden departure made him so excited that he wanted to be a part of their flight. Here, the speaker finally makes it clear that he knew those three figures.
The first one was a fair maid named “Love”. She was followed by “Ambition”. Her cheek was pale and her ever-watchful eyes were fatigued. The last of them whom the poet loves the most is the poet’s “demon Poesy.” Here, the poet ironically remarks that he blames poetry the most as she is the “maiden most unmeek.” Poetry makes Keats’ heart more intoxicated than the other two, “Love” and “Ambition.”
They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings:
O folly! What is Love? and where is it?
And for that poor Ambition! it springs
From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit;
For Poesy!—no,—she has not a joy,—
At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,
And evenings steep’d in honey’d indolence;
O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,
That I may never know how change the moons,
Or hear the voice of busy common-sense!
When those three figures had faded, the speaker felt a strong urge to be with them. However, after coming back to reality, he realizes that love is nothing but folly. As none can find true love on earth. Here one can understand the poet’s disappointment in love. Along with that, he thinks ambition springs from self-centered man’s “fever-fit.” So, desire sparks like the fits one encounters while suffering from fever. This emotion is temporary; when achieved, fades away.
While “Poesy” is as sweet as drowsy noons. She makes one feel as if he has stepped in the evening’s “honey’d indolence.” As the poet has wedded with Poesy mentally, he has lost his touch with reality. Being intoxicated in poetic pleasure, he can transcend his inner self to the heights that others crave for.
And once more came they by:—alas! wherefore?
My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams;
My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er
With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams:
The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press’d a new-leaved vine,
Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay;
O Shadows! ’twas a time to bid farewell!
Upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine.
In this stanza, the speaker remarks that they came to him once more. After reading this stanza, it becomes clear that the speaker was sleeping at that time. Here, the poet metaphorically compares the souk to “a lawn besprinkled o’er/ With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams.” In this section, the image connects the human soul with a beautiful garden. Moreover, the speaker imagines that the morning was clouded but no shower fell. In this section, the poet personifies the morning and the sun as well. According to him, the “sweet tears of May” hung in morning’s lids.
Alongside that, the open casement of his mind pressed a “new-leaved vine.” Opening his mind’s window he let in the “budding warmth” and “throstle’s lay.” However, as the speaker was about to wake up, it was time to bid farewell to those shadowy figures. Lastly, the speaker ironically remarks, “Upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine.” It seems that the poet was again coming back to his senses, leaving those chimeric thoughts behind.
So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise
My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn;
Farewell! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store;
Vanish, ye Phantoms! from my idle spright,
Into the clouds, and never more return!
In the last stanza of ‘Ode on Indolence’, Keats bids adieu to those “three Ghosts.” They cannot raise his head from the “flowery grass. Those three maidens cannot satisfy his thirst as he does not long for “praise.” His mind is like “pet-lamb” observing the sentimental farce enacted by those ghostly figures. Thereafter, the speaker tells them to leave and be the “masque-like figures on the dreamy urn.” Using irony, he remarks he has several such visions in store. Lastly, the poet reiterates, “Vanish, ye Phantoms!” and expresses his desire to be active again.
‘Ode on Indolence’ by John Keats is one of the odes he composed in the spring of 1819. The other odes are:
After writing the spring poems, Keats wrote this ode in June 1819. Its composition gave him more pleasure than Keats’ other poems written in that year. However, this ode was not published until 1848. In early 1819, Keats left his job in London to completely devote his time to poetry. It was during the months of spring, he wrote his major odes including those mentioned above. He wrote his last major work, ‘To Autumn’ on 19 September 1819. This major work rang the curtain down on his literary career.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly showcase the thematic elements present in John Keats’ ‘Ode on Indolence’.
- The Butterfly’s Dream by Hannah F. Gould – This poem is about a lazy butterfly which is similarly daydreaming like the speaker in Keats’ poem. It’s one of the best butterfly poems.
- In My Craft Or Sullen Art by Dylan Thomas – It’s one of the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas. This poem describes the poet’s writing practice, ideal reader, and preferred legacy after his death.
- Hamatreya by Ralph Waldo Emerson – This poem is about human ambition and fate. It is regarded as one of the best works of Emerson.
- The God Called Poetry by Robert Graves – In this poem, Graves compares poetry to a two-headed god. Like Keats’ work, it also glorifies the role of poetry and poetic imagination.