‘Ode to Psyche’ was one of the final works of poetry that was published. His collection, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems was published in 1820, a year before Keats’ death and before his final visit to Rome. Keats’ mastery of poetic art in such short a time is perhaps one of the reasons why he is still so prolifically worshipped today.
Although nowadays, John Keats is renowned as one of the unsung heroes of the Victorian era, it was hardly the case for him throughout his life. For the majority of his life, Keats was, in fact, a surgeon, supporting himself through working at Guy’s Hospital, and it was only when he was 23 years old that he bothered leaving his comfortable career at Guy’s to pursue writing – only two years before the final stages of tuberculosis were to coax Keats on to the next life. Indeed, his illness was so acute that his friend and confidant Severn, who nursed him through the worst of the illness, wrote that Keats would sometimes wake up, and sob to find himself still alive, he was in so much pain.
Summary of Ode to Psyche
The myth of Cupid and Psyche was the first of his 1819 odes, although it was only published a year later. It is therefore considered to be the most experimental of all of Keats’ odes, as it was written during Keats’ attempts to play about with the tried and tested method of the ode to deliver a product that was wholly different from what Keats imagined. Throughout, the staple Keatsian imagery of imagination, mythology, and sensuality reign supreme. The beauty and lyricism of Keats’ work are still evident, despite the fact that this was the first of the famous 1819 odes, and perhaps one of the most ambitious poems that a new poet could have attempted to write.
Keats had a few background sources for the myth of Cupid and Psyche, among which were Mary Tighe’s Psyche, which he had read as a child, though later grew out of.
The story of Cupid and Psyche goes as thus: there was once a king and queen who had three beautiful daughters. The youngest of which, Psyche, was the most beautiful, and was considered by many to be the second coming of Aphrodite, which annoyed the real goddess Aphrodite, who commissioned her agent, Cupid for her revenge. Cupid, by accident, scratches himself, with his own dart, and falls in love with Psyche.
Her father the king, suspecting that they have caused some offense to the gods, and worrying as his youngest daughter is still not married, consults the oracle of Apollo, who tells him that Psyche is to be taken to a meadow and left there to meet her husband, who is a beast. Her father does as he is told, abandoning her in a beautiful meadow, and leaving Psyche alone to wander on until she finds a beautiful house. Cupid, unseen, tells her to make herself comfortable, and she is allowed to enjoy herself at a feast, with an invisible lyre.
There she lays with Cupid and soon becomes pregnant.
As this is Greek mythology, and there is no such thing as a happy ending in Greek mythology, things escalate. Her sisters, jealous of Psyche’s life, convince her to try and find out the identity of her husband. She does so and is so taken by Cupid’s beauty, that she accidentally scratches herself with one of his arrows, and wakes him when she spills hot oil from his lamp – thus waking him. Cupid, in a panic, flies away from her.
The myth then continues on to the staples of Grecian myth: trials, angry gods, and ultimately, a happy ending where Cupid and Psyche end up together.
However, Keats, in his poem, does not follow the traditional and lauded tale of Cupid and Psyche, but instead concerns a narrator witnessing the life of the neglected goddess Psyche, who is new, but mostly ignored while other goddesses are worshipped ahead of her.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even into thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:
‘Ode to Psyche’ starts similarly to Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci: a narrator, wandering alone in a haze of beauty, comes across ‘two fair creatures’. The meeting of Psyche and Cupid is written with a kind of tamed sexual intensity, hinting very briefly at strong emotions through the words ‘trembled blossoms’, ‘brooklet’; the glorious overabundance of nature seems to imply fertility, which in turn implies sexual appetite. This is as close to sexual imagery as Keats gets in this poem, but, after all, Keats is one of the most sensual Romantic poets.
There is an almost seamless shift from reality to fantasy, as ‘Ode to Psyche’ moves from the real world – the world where the poet wanders – to fantasy, or a dream world. This was not strange to Keatsian poems, and in fact, a similar shift took place in Ode to a Nightingale.
Mid hush’d, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing, on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!
‘Their arms embraced, and their pinions too; / their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu’ – the closeness of the two creatures who lie on the grass makes it difficult for the author to spy them out, but when he does, he is agog. He recognizes the winged boy – Cupid – but he is left confused as to the presence of the other figure, the ‘happy, happy dove’ that attracts his eye the most. Notice the beauty of Keats’ verse- the references to colour lend a flowing reality to the poetry; the studs of colour help to soften the idea of the two creatures lying entwined in the grass.
Keats uses the senses heavily in all his poetry, relying on synaesthetic description to draw the reader into the poem. It works especially well here because Keats’ fantasy world is dark and sensuous.
It is worth noting that ‘Tyrian’ was originally ‘Syrian’, and changed by Keats’ editors when ‘Ode to Psyche’ was published in the 1820 collection.
Near the end of the stanza, the poet recognizes who the figure in the grass is: Psyche.
O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heap’d with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.
Pysche, according to the narrator, is the ‘latest born’ and the ‘loveliest vision’ – the youngest of all the Greek gods and goddesses, and the most beautiful. This is in line with the original myth, where Psyche was the youngest daughter of the unnamed king, and far more beautiful than the goddess Aphrodite, whose enmity of her leads to the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Though the first poem of Keats’ Odes, one can tell quite easily that it has elements that will be carried on in Keats’ further poetry – the imagery, for example, is very much a Keatsian trait. The line ‘Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star’ is one of the loveliest in Keats’ ‘Ode to Psyche’, and this caliber of beauty-drenched writing appears later on in the other odes, as well, in particular the Ode to A Nightingale, and the Ode to a Grecian Urn.
Here, the Narrator laments the fact that, although Psyche is the most beautiful of the goddesses and gods, she is the poorest in terms of worship: she has nothing to her name, no altar, no choir, no praying public or shrine or grove. The ‘pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming’ could be a reference to Keats himself, who was perhaps one of the most prevalent writers of Grecian mythology poetry at the time, and well aware of the fact that he was more or less a dreamer, as he states in Ode to a Nightingale: ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music — Do I wake or sleep?’
O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyre,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir’d
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspir’d.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.
‘Brightest’ seems to be a Keatsian high-caliber compliment; he uses the same word to address his poem, ‘Bright Star’, which was written for Fanny Brawne, the love of his life, and the subject of which his romance to her was addressed in the Keats biopic of the same name. In ‘Bright Star‘, Keats writes: ‘Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art—’ Here, in the same vein, he writes the term ‘brightest’, to reference the young goddess Psyche, who is more or less forgotten in worship. The Narrator mourns the fact that it is ‘too late for antique vows’, regretting the fact that he can’t merely go back in time and revisit ancient Greece, in order to worship Psyche the way that Psyche deserves – he nevertheless promises to worship her in all his capacity of the contemporary day.
There also seems to be an element of nostalgic longing for a simpler time – not so uncommon in Keatsian poems, but as this was the first of his infamous Odes, it is interesting to see that it is an element that crops up from the very beginning; that Keats’ yearning for the past has always been present in his poetry, even the very earliest of poetry.
Near the end, the phrase ‘pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming’ once again appears, and once more, Keats references himself with it. By this stage in his life, Keats was in the habit of taking long walks and daydreaming days away on the sofa at Charles Brown’s house, where he stayed for the majority of the composition of the six Odes.
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
The melancholy and nostalgia of the final stanza is particularly poignant and draws similarities with Keats’ other, more famous Ode, the Ode to a Nightingale. As with Nightingale, there are heavy allusions to mythology: Lethe, the river of forgetting that flows through the underworld; Hippocrene, the fountain of the Muses made by Pegasus’ hooves which brings inspiration; dryads, the spirit protectors of the forest; Bacchus, the God of wine and debauchery; Ruth and the corn-field is a reference to the book in the Bible; hemlock, the poison that killed Socrates; Flora, the Roman goddess of nature. Here, there is a reference to zephyrs and dryads, and sleeping again – though it is well worth pointing out that ode to a Nightingale is a far more unhappy poem than Ode to Psyche. Here, although Ode to Psyche is nostalgic and melancholy, there is a kernel of hope in the final stanza, where the narrator brings forward the point that ‘a bright torch, / and a casement open at night’ can let in a new and renewing Love to sweep away the darkness of Psyche’s former forgotten state.
Critics have been divided whether or not Ode to Psyche is as deserving of acclaim as the other Keatsian odes.
Kennet Allott, in defending against any possible harsh criticism of Ode to Psyche, argues that the poem “is the Cinderella of Keats’s great odes, but it is hard to see why it should be so neglected, and at least two poets imply that the conventional treatment of the poem is shabby and undeserved”. Allott then cites Bridges and Eliot as views that he sympathizes with, and he believes that Ode to Psyche “is neither unflawed nor the best of odes, but to me, it illustrates better than any other Keats’s possession of poetic power in conjunction with what was for him an unusual artistic detachment, besides being a remarkable poem in its own right. This may be another way of saying that it is the most architectural of the odes, as it is certainly the one that culminates most dramatically.”