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Ode on Indolence
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition and Publication
Summary
Theme
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Poem Text and Notes
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work

......."Ode on Indolence" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. In this famous ode, the speaker addresses Love, Ambition, and Poesy (poetry) as if they were persons.
.......The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the nineteenth century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on his subject. 
.......The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person. The odes of the Greek poet Pindar (circa 518-438 BC) frequently extolled athletes who participated in games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes. 
.......The Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth century, English romantic poets wrote odes that retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets, though, the authors of nineteenth-century romantic odes generally were more emotional in their writing. 

Composition and Publication Dates

.......John Keats completed "Ode on Indolence" in 1819. The London firm of Taylor and Hessey published the ode in 1820 as part of a collection entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems.

Summary and Theme

.......While lying in bed one morning, the speaker sees images of Love, Ambition, and Poetry. They pass before his eyes like the carved images on a rotating Grecian urn. Round and round they go, attempting to rouse him from bed so that he can attend to them. On their third pass, he "burns" to follow them but a moment later says, 

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.
.......The three images pass one more time before the speaker, However, lulled with drowsy laziness, he tells the images to vanish "and never more return." The theme, thus, is the pleasure of indolence, of doing nothing. In a busy world of must-do tasks--especially the onerous task of writing elegant poetry--indolence can be a welcome visitor from time to time. 

End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme of the first four stanzas is abab cde cde. The rhyme scheme of the fifth stanza is abab cde dce. The rhyme scheme of the final stanza is abab cde ced.

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme. Here are examples. 

One morn before me were three figures seen (line 1)
Was it a silent deep-disguisèd plot (line 12)
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name (line 25)
Meter

.......The meter of the poem is iambic pentameter, as the first and second lines demonstrate. 

........1.....................2...............3..............4..............5
One MORN,..|..be FORE..|..me WERE..|..three FIG..|..ures SEEN

........1..................2..................3..................4...................5
With BOW..|..èd NECKS,..|..and JOIN..|..èd HANDS,..|..side- FACED

Text of the Poem
 
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 betide1
With vases, to one deep in Phidian2 lore......................................10

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?...................................20

A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
    Each one the face a moment whiles to me;3
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..................................................30

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!..................................40

And once more came they by:—alas! wherefore?4
    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...............................50

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!...................................60

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Notes
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1.....betide: Happen, occur. 
2.....Phidian: Adjective alluding to Phidias (circa 490-430 BC), a sculptor of ancient Greece. It is believed that he supervised construction of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens and sculpted the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the Seven Wonders of the world. 
3.....turn'd . . . me: Each passing figure turns his face toward the speaker.
4.....wherefore: Why.
5.....throstle's lay: The song (lay) of a thrush (bird).
6.....spright: Spirit, soul, spirit.
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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

One morn before me (line 1)
stepp’d serene (line 3)
as when the urn once more (line 7)
Is shifted round, the first seen shades return (line 8)
deep-disguisèd plot (line 13)
They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings (line 31)
My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams (line 42)
Anaphora
How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?
How came ye muffled in so hush a mask? (lines 11-12)
Apostrophe
How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not?
How came ye muffled in so hush a mask?
The speaker addresses the imges as shadows.
Assonance
Was it a silent deep-disguisèd plot (line 12)
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name (line 25)
Irony
.......The speaker refuses to answer the call of "demon Poesy," which is attempting to rouse him from bed to write verses. Preferring drowsy indolence, the speaker commands Poesy and her partners, Love and Ambition, to vanish. Ironically, however, he must write poetry--that is, answer the call of the demon--to report the pleasure of "honey’d indolence" (line 37).
Metaphor
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Comparison of indolence to a cloud

My soul had been a lawn (line 43)
Comparison of the speaker's soul to a lawn

Oxymoron
sweet tears (line 46)
Paradox
my pulse grew less and less (line 17)
Personification
The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
And ever watchful with fatiguèd eye (lines 26-27)
Comparison of Ambition to a person

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 (lines 28-30)
Comparison of poetry (Poesy) to a maiden 

The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May (lines 45-46)
Comparison of the morning to a person

Simile

They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn (line 5)
Comparison of the images to figures on an urn
 

Study Questions and Writing Topics

  • Write your own poem about indolence.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "Ode on Indolence," and a ballad?
  • Write an essay explaining how the events in Keats's life influenced his poetry.
  • Why does Keats call poetry a demon?
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