Ode on Indolence: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Summary

      This ode expresses the mood of perfect indolence of the poet. He has not the least desire for love, ambition and worship of poetic art. He wants to be left entirely to enjoy his physical and mental languor.

      One quiet morning, he was in this state when he saw three figures. Their heads were bowed down. Their hands were joined. They were wearing comfortable sandals. They were dressed in white robes. They followed one another. Only one side of their face was visible to the poet. They passed and passed before him as if they carved on some urn which slowly turned round. As it moved round, the figures appeared once more before his eyes. Though he was an expert in sculptor’s art, he failed to recognize them.

      The poet failed to understand the reason of the coming of the three figures. He thought they had a plot to disturb his happy indolence. At that hour of the summer season he was in a state of a happy drowsiness. His eyes were benumbed. His pulse was feeble. The fibers of his brain were relaxed. He was insensible to both pain and pleasure. In that quiet torpid he felt disturbed by the mystery of the three figures. So he wished them to vanish.

      The figures came for the third time. They turned their faces pr a moment towards the poet. He at once recognized them to be Love, Ambition and Poetry. Love was a beautiful maiden. Ambition was a pale-faced and was looking for an opportunity to learn and improve. Poetry was a proud, persistent and exacting maiden. Thus of the three figures he saw one was a Man (Ambition) and two were Women (Love and Poetry).

      For the third time when the figures appeared and disappeared, Keats recognized in them his own dear passions. This woke him for a moment from his drowsiness. A longing to follow them was produced in him. He, therefore, wished for wings. But he soon realized that it would be a folly. He considered the enjoyment of his sweet physical and mental lethargy a much better thing. In that state he wanted to be free from all worries and even of the passage of time.

      The figures came round for the fourth time. By that time the poet’s mind had been adorned with idle but fine fancies. His soul was like a beautiful lawn covered with flowers of various colors. There were patches of clouds in the sky. The sweet scent of the vine and the pleasant song of the throstle were coming through the open window. The poet wished to enjoy his idle fancies and the beauty of atmosphere. So he wished those figures to leave him.

      The poet had no thirst of love, ambition and poetic feme The ideals and passions of his life had become meaningless to him. He felt contented with his idle fancies of which he had an ample store. He wished to be left to himself to enjoy them by day and night. He, therefore, bade adieu to the three figures. He asked them to vanish into the clouds and return do more.

Critical Analysis

Date of composition

      Keats wrote this Ode in March, 1819. It was the year when he wrote all his great Odes. The “Ode to Autumn” was written in September, while the rest in a little earlier, in spring.

Keats’s mood at the time of composition of this Ode

      Keats composed this Ode in a mood of perfect indolence. It becomes evident by what he wrote to a friend in the summer of 1819: "You will judge of my 1819 temper, when I tell you that thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing as Ode on. Indolence". In the above letter, he also wrote: “I have been very idle lately, averse to writing both from the over-powering idle poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am little more of a philosopher than I was, consequently a little less of a versifying pet-lamb”.

The mood underlying the Ode

      The mood with which Keats is seized is not difficult to explain Possessed of an ardent and emotional spirit as he was, he was bound to become a victim of lethargy under the pressure of personal sorrows His brother, Tomb, had died of consumption. His other brother, George had married and left him. He himself was in the clutches of the fatal disease of consumption. Fanny Brawne, for whom he had developed a hopeless infatuation, delighted in flirting and tormenting him. Naturally enough, there were moments when he was in lassitude. In that state of body and mind, it is not surprising if he considered world and all its objects not worth the pain and effort of a zealous chase. “The world is a vanity, love and fame. Vanities—life itself a vanity of vanities”. The ardent soul now and then relaxed into vacuity and the wearied flesh sank into indolence.

Allegory in the Ode: Its objective picture

      There is a beautiful allegory in the Ode. Love, Ambition and Poesy do not only present abstract ideas, but something more. They have been personified. They are allegorical figures. By their help, Keats depicts for us an objective picture of passing mood of his mind. These three figures appear before him four times. They represent the chief passion of the poet’s heart which urged him to mental and imaginative activity. These are the emotions of love, the desire to become great and the devotion to the art of poetry. These figures appear and disappear before his dreamy, lethargic eyes of indolent imagination. They tempt him to become active and follow them to make them his own. He does not remain unmoved. He recognizes them at his favorite pursuits. Hence he wishes to bring them under his control. He “burn’d and ached for wings”. But his wishing does not carry him far. He is tired of body which wants to sink into an agreeable stupor with benumbed eyes. His soul, too, is so wearied that desires to have no further relations with love, ambition and poetry. Keats wishes only to dream away the rest of his life with half-open eyes and half-awake sense. We can only wish with Sidney Colvin: “Well ! had it been for him, had such moods come more frequently to give him rest”. The flame of his life was flickering before going out.

Presentation of the mental state of the poet

      In the Ode, there is a beautiful presentation of the mental state of the poet. It reveals how Keats who had made love, ambition and poetry the passions of his life, became indifferent to them. He says:

“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”.

      The poet then did not surrender his soul to these passions as he did in the past. Its reasons are not far to seek. Fanny’s flirting and tormenting attitude had cooled the very ashes of his love and had forced him to court disappointment. His ambition to shine like a star in the firmament of English literature was rudely shaken by the delightful and mocking platitudes of the reviewers. Poetry had proved to be too strenuous a task to a sincere soul like him. Above all, Death in the form of consumption was constantly haunting him like a shadow. All these factors combined together to rob him of his hopes, his gaiety, his joy in life. So despondent did he become that a spirit of lassitude overwhelmed him. He found no attraction in the passions to which once he had offered his most sincere devotion. With his body and mind in a state of perfect lethargy, he found a rare pleasure in indulging in idle fancies and in passing his time in indolent dreaming and seeing vision at night. He, therefore, says to the three figures—

“Farewell: I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions therein store—
Vanish, ye phantoms: from my idle spright.
Into the clouds, and never more return”

Inferior to other Odes

      Ode on Indolence has close affinities with the five great Odes of 1820 volume. “The thing I have most enjoyed this year” says Keats in a letter to Miss Jeffrey, “has been writing "Ode on Indolence" “This must not be taken too seriously”, writes- H.W. Garrod, “for four of the five great Odes were already written; and to any one of them Indolence, is, I should suppose, plainly inferior. So, indeed, Keats himself must have thought—there can be no other reason for its exclusion from the 1820 Volume. Bridges, it is true, seems doubtful whether to rank it above or below the Grecian Urn. That, I cannot but feel is to deprecate the merit. Yet its merit is sufficient to entitle it to be considered with the other five Odes”.

Description of Nature

      This Ode shows the poet’s power of painting scenes of Nature. Here we find the poet’s love of external nature. Though the Ode lacks i6 the ardor and vigor and fertility of imagination, yet the faithfulness of the description of Nature arrests our attention. By various realistic touches a vivid picture of summer morning scene when there are clouds in the sky and the throstle is singing, is brought before our eyes:

“The morn was clouded, but no shower fell.
Though in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press’d a new leaved vine, Let in the bidding warmth and throstle’s lay”.

Its artistic Beauty

      Though inferior to the other Odes, Indolence does not lack artistic beauty. “The allegorical figures are nicely conceived; they are concrete figures picturesquely objective and move and pass before our eyes. The description of the drowsy hours, the image of soft sensuous luxury of nature called into serve as background to the poem?’’

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