‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
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!
Summary and Analysis
Ode on Indolence is one of the important odes of John Keats. This ode is the depiction of a transient mood and may be the description of a half-wakeful vision.
The theme of the poem is that in this transient mood of indolence the poet imagines himself lying on a lawn. Three figures appear before his eyes which pass and repass and it seems as if they are carved on the sides of an urn which is slowly moving. Twice they move by him but he is sunk in a quiet indolent mood and fails to recognise them. The third time when they appear, he recognises them to be Love, Ambition and Poesy. Their sight wakes him up from a dreamy state and he wants to pursue them but checks himself. When they return the fourth time, he bids them farewell because in this mood of lethargy he loves indolence better than Love, Ambition and Poesy. The poet is reluctant to face the hard labour and strife to which they call him.
In the summer of 1819 Keats wrote to his friend:
“You will judge of my 1819 temper when I tell you that the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an Ode on Indolence.” In the same letter he says:
“I have been very idle lately, very averse to writing; both from the overpowering idea of our dead poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am a little more of aphilosopher than I was, consequently a little less of a versifying pet-lamb”.
In the same year Keats wrote in another letter to a friend about his temper and his indolent careless mood:
“This morning I am in a sort of temper, indolent and supremely careless… in this state of effiminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable power.Neither poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me;they seem rather like figures on a Greek vase – a man and two women whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of the advantage of the body overpowering the mind.”
These passages are very significant in explaining the mood of the poet and the ode. In the opening lines the poet imagines himself lying on a lawn half asleep. Three figures appear before his dreamy eyes, they pass and repass like figures on an urn which is slowly turned round. The figures depicted on vases move by him twice with their heads bent making it difficult for him to recognise them. Even a skilled artist of Greek sculpture cannot recognise them at one sight.
In the next stanza the poet is sunk deep in a mood of quiet indolence and the figures appear to be ‘Shadows’ who come quietly disguised in a mask. They poet suspects that the shadowy figures had deliberately disguised themselves so as to join in a secret plot to shatter the visions so dear to him in his mood of indolence. It is noon, the poet feels drowsy in summer, the sensibility of his eyes is deadened, the pulse rate is slow and he is in a state when he feels no sharpness in suffering and no real delight in the pursuit of pleasure. His mind is blank and he is conscious of nothing but its own vacuity and asks the figures:
“O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quiet of all but – nothingness?”
When the figures pass the third time he knows them to be Love, Ambition and Poesy.Since he recognises them, he is filled with a burning desire to have wings and to chase them. The first figure is that of a beautiful lady called Love, the second is Ambition with pale cheeks because in order to realise ambition, one has to scorn delights and work hard. The poet says that the third figure, “ whom I love more” is poesy. The creative energy of poesy is irrepressible that is why she is “maiden most unmeek.” In this stanza a reference is also made to bitterre views of Keats’ Endymion in these lines;
“The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek, -”
He loves Poesy all the more for the unreasoned attacks as he writes in one of his letters:
“Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a serve critic of his own works … and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary repurcussion and ratification of what is fine.” The poet is a drowsy watcher and the sight of these figures wake him up. Soon they fade and he is filled with a momentary desire to pursue them:
“They faded, and forsooth! I wanted wings:
O folly! What is love? and where is it?”
In a moment he realises the foolishness and the futility of it all. The poet is haunted by such questions as: “What is love?” “Where is it?” He knows it well that ambition which springs from the desires of the heart, can be fulfilled by “short fever-fit.” In Ode to a Nightingale it is described as:
“The weariness, the fever and the fret”
These questions make him restless momentarily. He realises that neither Poesy, nor Ambition nor Love seem to bring him any joy because his mind and body are under the influence of indolence. He is no more willing to face the labour and strife to which these figures call him. He wants to sink deep into an indolent mood and forget how time passes.
In the fifth stanza the figures appear again for the fourth time but he loves indolence better and is not moved by them. He imagines his sleep as a dress which is embroidered by soft beautiful dreams and his soul as a lawn over which sweet scented flowers are scattered.“Stirring Shades” of light and shade add to the sensuous dreamy atmosphere of the garden. A lovely metaphorical painting of soft cloudy days of spring and early summer is drawn in these lines:
“The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;”
The poet wishes that the shadowy figures of Love, Ambition and Poesy should leave him while he was still indulged in dreamy indolence. It is time to say goodbye to them without any feeling of regret.
In the concluding stanza he bids them farewell and relapses into dreams as he has ample store of them. He asks these “masque – like” figures to vanish into the clouds and never return again. He knows very well that he does not wish to be petted by the public praise and fed with flattery:
“For I would not be dieted with praise,
A pet-lamb in a sentimetal farce!”
An important aspect of Keats’ genius his sensuous, dreamy, pleasure element is reflected in this ode especially in the description of spring and early summer. The metaphorical description of the morning with clouds hanging on her lids and the air smelling of the approaching vernal shower which has not yet burst forth from the clouds as “Tears of May” – stands out as a painting.
The poem has some forceful images and felicitous phrases such as “ye muffled in husha mask”, “the blissful cloud of summer indolence,” “drowsy noons”, sleep “embroider’d with dim dreams”, soul imagined as a lawn “be sprinkled ov’r with flowers” and “the sweet ters of May” hanging in the lids of the morn.
Love, Ambition and Poesy are personified and human characteristics are attributed to them.
This ode is composed of six stanzas of ten lines each. The iambic pentameter lines are divisible into a quatrain of alternate rhymes and a sestet introducing two more rhymes.