Ode To Psyche: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Summary

      Keats commences the poem by imploring the goddess Psyche to listen to his unmusical verses and to pardon him for singing the secrets of her life. That very day he had a dream or rather a vision of the goddess. He saw her in a state of perfect consciousness with his eyes open. It happened at that time when he was aimlessly wandering through the forest. There all of a sudden he saw two lovely figures lying side by side on a couch of soft and thick grass. The place where they lay was exceptionally charming. Above them the leaves of trees rustled and flowers gently shook. All round them, there were lovely flowers of all shades, colors, Scents and forms. Quite near to them flowed a brook practically hidden in the long grass. In such a heart of captivating place Keats saw Psyche and Cupid in each other’s close embrace. Their hands and wings were intertwined with each other. Their eyes were closed in soft sleep. Their lips were parted though they seemed ready to kiss on waking up.

      The poet then describes the matchless beauty of Psyche. He calls her the loveliest of all the Greek gods and goddesses who were once thought to live on Mount Olympus in Thessaly. Her loveliness is much greater than that of the moon-goddess, Phoebe, who shines brightly in the blue sky, or that of the evening star, Vesper. Considered from point of view of beauty, even the loveliest of the Greek goddesses stand in no comparison to her. Yet. she is not honored and adored by the p.eople like them. She has no temple, no altar decorated with flowers, no band of virgin singers attending her. To praise and please her, no one raises his voice, or plays on lute or pipe, or burns incense. She has no shrine or grove sacred to her. She has no oracle and no priest to proclaim her divine message to the people.

      Keats, then, gives the reasons why Psyche does not occupy an honored place like the other Greek gods and goddesses. He says that it was very late when Psyche got a place among the Greek deities. By that time many of them had been chosen by people, who had begun to worship them and sing on lute in their praise and honor. The time when Psyche was recognized as a goddess, the worship of Nature was at its zenith. All the objects of Nature—forest, groves, air, water, fire—were considered holy. They had their presiding deities. As such, Psyche could not get a place of honor.

      Since those times the views of the people have been gradually changing. As a result of this, they have become materialistic now. They have almost forgotten the Greek gods and goddesses. Such, however, is not the case with Keats. Even now he has strong faith in them. It is this faith which enables him to see the image of Psyche, among the Greek deities on Olympus. This inspires him to sing in her honor. Hence, he requests her to let him become her singer, voice, flute, pipe and incense. He prays to her to let him become her temple, her grove, her oracle and her priest to proclaim her divine message.

      Keats decides to become the priest of Psyche and build a temple for her in some unexplored region of his mind. He then, develops a beautiful metaphor of the temple and gives a wonderful description of nature. He imagines his mind to be a forest, full of the various beauties of nature and myth and his thoughts to be pine trees. In the midst of such a forest of mind, he will build a Temple of Poetry dedicated to the worship of Psyche. The Temple will be decked with roses which are his verses tended by the gardener Fancy, who always creates new poems, not produced before. A bright torch will be kept burning in the Temple and one of its windows will be left open to let the goddess in at night.

Critical Analysis

Introduction

      With reference to the Ode on Psyche, Keats himself says: “It is the first and only one with which I have taken even moderate pains. I have, for the most part, dashed off my lines in a hurry; this one I have done leisurely; I think it reads the more richly for it”.

Significance of ‘Psyche’

      Psyche in ordinary English meant ‘Soul’. But in mythology, Psyche is not presented as a goddess. Keats, however, wants to present Psyche as a goddess of supreme beauty, but he frankly acknowledges that Psyche has place in the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses. In our opinion, Keats wants to present Psyche as not only a goddess of beauty but also as an incarnation of love, and as such, he wants to regard her as the embodiment of love and beauty. According to certain critics and scholars, Psyche is Keats’s own soul, or rather the soul, of his soul, because she stands in his lady love Fanny Browne, who has been immortalized in the present ode in the form of an imaginary goddess of love and beauty.

The legend of ‘Psyche’

      The legend of Psyche is told in Cupid and Psyche an allegorical episode in the tale of the Golden Ass of Puleius (middle of second century A.D.) Cupid (the god of love) becomes enamored of Psyche, daughter of a king, and visits her every night, but remains invisible and forbids her to attempt to see him. Her sisters tell her that her lover is a serpent and will finally devour her. One night she takes a lamp and looks at Cupid while he sleeps, and agitated by the sight of his beauty lets fall a drop of hot oil on his shoulder. The angry god departs and leaves Psyche solitary and remorseful. She wanders over the earth in search of her lover. Venus, Cupid’s entreaties, taking pity on her, makes her a goddess and reunites her to Cupid.

Indian parallel

      Dr. Iyengar writes: “There is an Indian parallel, Urvasi? the celestial nymph, falling in love with King Pururavas, but bidding him not to reveal his naked body. His rivals, die Gandharvas, with a lightning flash bring about the separation of Urvasi and Pururavas; the latter wanders in distraction and is, at last, made a god and reunited with Urvasi in heaven. The room is rendered in various forms from Rig Veda in modern times.”

Keats’s hankering for the worship of Psyche

      But why has Keats written the Ode to Psyche? What is the significance of his hankering for the worship of Psyche? Many critics and scholars have given different interpretations of the motive of Keats ; but in our opinion Psyche is nothing but an embodiment of Keats’s own hankering of love and beauty which was incessant and forever unfulfilled in his short life of twenty-four years. He has, of course, drawn something from the interpreted and closed in the light of his own understanding and imagination. Psyche is the quintessence of Keats’s conception of love and beauty—both of which were to him a passion and a religion. We know how he died young not by being snuffed out by any article of the critics of his time but by being killed slowly and gradually by the burning desire of unfulfilled love, which we find in every one of his sensuous words in almost all his poems. Keats wanted to put up a goddess, call her Psyche or by any other name—a goddess whom he would like to worship all his life with all the passion and veneration with which the pagans used to worship the elements of nature or gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. Like Wordsworth, Keats would like to be a pagan in order to worship Psyche like a goddess of beauty, youth and love as the ancient heathens used to worship all the elemental powers believing that every one of them used to be presided over by a deity.

Pictures of Nature painted by the poet

      In the poem, we get a number of the pictures of nature painted by Keats, but they lack the minute observation and the rich animation that breathes through the pictures of nature painted by Wordsworth with his penetrating insight look into the very heart of a landscape and throws an unearthly radiance even on common objects, so that they appear to be “apparelled in celestial light,” “the glory and the freshness of a dream.” Keats’s pictures of Nature lack romantic imagination, subtle fancy, sense of mystery, wonder, romance, enchantment, the depth of feeling, spontaneity, and the greatness of impulse.

Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees,
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep,
And there by zephyrs, streams and birds and bees.
The moss-laid Dryds shall be lulled to sleep.

      Such are lifeless, unanimated, dull and uninteresting pictures of Nature given by Keats.

Greek Mythology in the Ode

      The poet introduces a thought into the body of the poem that takes us back to the Greek mythology with its nature worship. Then the imagination of the people was so fresh and young that they imagined the gods and goddesses to be living on Mout Olympus in Thessaly and various objects of nature to be holy, e,g.

O latest boon and loveliest vision far Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire.

Greek allusions in the Ode

      The ode, as may be seen, has a number of Greek allusions, y We are introduced to Cupid, Psyche, Phoebe, Vesper and Dryads. Then we make our acquaintance with “shrine”, “grove”, “oracle”, and “pale mouthed prophet dreaming”.

Style

      The poem is remarkable for the sublimity of its style. The following lines are worthy of appreciation:

O latest born and loveliest vision far,
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy.
Fairer then Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky.

      The poem reveals Keats’s fondness for compound words e,g, ‘soft-couched’, ‘cool-rooted’, ‘fragrant-eyed’, ‘soft-handed’, ‘saphire- regioned’, ‘pale-mouthed’, and ‘wild-ridged’. The poet is also fond of coining adjectives from nouns, e.g. ‘budded’, ‘bedded’; ‘winged’ and ‘wreathed’.

      Unlike the other odes, the lines and stanzas of this ode, differ in length. Lines 10 and 15 have no rhyming with them.

Line By Line Explanation With Critical Comments

Line 1—6 O Goddess.....awaken’d eyes
      Keats addresses the goddess Psyche. He prays to her to listen to his unmusical verses. He is singing them not by choice, but under the constraint of a sweet and dear memory of the past. He beseeches her to pardon him for singing her secrets for her and for her soft and shell-shaped ear. He says that he is quite sure that he had a dream of Psyche that day. He then thinks that it was not a dream but rather a vision because he saw with his eyes quite often the figure of Psyche with the wings of a butterfly as she is represented.

Line 7—12. I wander......espied
      The poet then describes how and where he saw Psyche. He was roaming about aimlessly in the forest. Then quite suddenly he was stunned with wonder on seeing two lovely figures. They were lying hidden side by side in the thickest grass. Over them the rustling leaves of trees and gently shaking flowers formed a kind of roof. Quite close to them, flowed a small stream which could be hardly seen through the thick grass.

Line. 13—23, A brooklet, scarce.....His Psyche true
      The poet then gives a description of the flowers that grew around them. These flowers possessed every beauty that flowers have—scent, form, stillness, coolness, and color. Some flowers were 5weet-smelling with a bright center like an eye. Then there were flowers of blue silver-white colors. In addition to them, there were flowers with crimson buds. This crimson color was like the crimson dye extracted from the shellfish of the Mediterranean sea and exported from Tyre, a city which forms part of the Syrian Empire. These various flowers impressed all the five senses. Surrounded by such charming flowers the two figures lay gently breathing. Their arms and their wings (both Psyche and Cupid are represented with wings) were intertwined with each other. Though they lay in close embrace, yet their lips which had not bade goodbye did not touch. It seemed as if sleep with his soft hand had separated them, which before their sleep were joined in a kiss. The positions of their lips showed that they were ready to kiss. It seemed that when at dawn their eyes would open and they would again become conscious of their love they would start kissing. Then the number of their kisses would be much larger that what it was in the past. Of these two figures one was recognized easily by Keats. He could know that the boy-archer with wings was Cupid, the god of love. He could not know who the other fortunate and loving being was. The very next moment he guessed and guessed rightly that she was Psyche who is even faithful to Cupid.

Line, 24—35. O latest-born.....prophet dreaming.
      Addressing the goddess Psyche, Keats says that of all the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, thought of as living on Mount Olympus in Thessaly, she is the last and the loveliest. He considers her the last because she was mentioned as a goddess by Apuleius in the middle of the second century A.D. whereas the other Greek deities were known long before her. He calls the hierarchy or the dying government of the Greek deities faded because they are no longer bright in men’s memories. They have become so ancient that people have almost forgotten them.

      Keats, then, says why he regards Psyche as the loveliest of all Greek goddesses. According to him, she is lovelier that the moon goddess. Phoebe, who shines brightly and beautifully in the clear blue sky.....Psyche is also lovelier than the evening star, Vesper, who like the glow-worm, is seen shining at evening, the time so dear to lovers. Psyche is more beautiful than both these Greek goddesses, although she is not honored and adored by the people of this world. No temple has been built to install her image and to worship her. No altar has been made and decorated with flowers to offer sacrifices to her. Unlike Phoebe, she is not attended by a band of virgin singers who pour their sweet but painful music upon the deep silence of midnight. None plays on his lute (a stringed musical instrument) or pipe in the praise of Psyche. No sweet-smelling incense is burnt in the censer suspended by chains to give out fragrant fumes to please her. She has no temple and no avenue of trees sacred to her. She has no oracle like that of Delphi where the priest in a state of strong excitement which makes him look pale and in a state of trance, proclaims a divine message.

      In these lines Keats recalls and echoes Milton’s Nativity Ode’s, sixth stanza. Apollo’s temple at Delphi was the most famous of the Greek Oracular shrines and his priestess there, in delivering the god’s ‘Oracle’ foaming at the mouth. So the words “pale-faced prophet” have been used here by Keats. The word ‘‘dreaming” refers to the answers given in dreams to patients sleeping in the temple Aesculapius, god of medicine. In using the words, “shrine” and “grove”, Keats may be thinking of Diana’s (Phoebe’s) most famous shrine that is in a grove at Aricia, sixteen miles from Rome.

Line. 36—39. O. brightest.....and the fire
      Addressing Psyche as the loveliest goddess, Keats says that it was very late when she got a place among the Greek gods and goddesses. By that time people had chosen their deities for the purpose of worship... Again, by the time Psyche was recognized as a deity, people who believed in certain gods and goddesses had begun to play on lyres in their praise and honor. That was the time when the worship of nature was in vogue. To the people holy were the objects of Nature-forest groves visited by divine beings, air, water and fire. All these natural objects had their presiding deities.

Line. 40—49. Yet even in......prophet dreaming
      In the poet’s opinion, those good old days have vanished forever. Since then a gradual change has been brought about in the attitude of people towards gods. Neither they attach any importance to them nor do they believe in pious and holy actions. They have become materialistic and worshippers of the new god of gold. But even in such times the faith of the poet has not been shaken. He is able to see Psyche’s shining wings flapping on Mount Olympus among the Greek gods and goddesses, who, no longer, remain bright in men’s memories. In other words, though the people of the world have almost forgotten Olympus, Keats is able to see the image of Psyche among these deities. This image inspires him to sing in her praise and honor. Hence he requests the goddess to let him become her painful melodies. He implores her to let him become her voice, lute, pipe, sweet incense giving out fragrant fumes from the censer. He prays to her that he should be allowed to proclaim her divine message.

Line 50—57. Yes. I will.....lull’d to sleep
      The poet does not want that sleep should remain, thus neglected by the people. If they have failed to accord her a place of dignity and veneration, he will make amends for their unseemly action by becoming her priest. He, therefore, addressing the goddesses, says that he will become her priest to proclaim her divine message to the world. He will build a temple for her, not in a known and frequented place of the world, but in an explored region of his mind.

      The poet then proceeds to develop a fantastic and beautiful metaphor of the temple. In doing so, he gives a beautiful description of nature. He imagines his mind to be a forest. Just as the forest is full of various beauties of nature, colorful myths, and tall trees with branches spreading wide, which have been grown with great labor to give happy shades and fruits, afterward so is his mind full of noble and lofty ideas developed after a painful toil to lead to happy enlightenment and not to meaningless way-ward fancies. Again, as pine trees in the forest produce a rustling sound in the wind, so his thoughts whisper softly to him the grace and charm of the unrivaled loveliness of the goddess, Psyche.

      As the dark mass of pine trees spread to a very great distance is surrounded by steep rocks and wild ranges of mountains, so are his thoughts enveloped by the vast and varied experience of his life. Again, as the tree nymphs, Dryads lying on moss couches are sent to deep by the gentle and sweet thoughts soothed by divine influence, poetic inspiration, rare pleasures and happy dreams.

Line 58—67. And in the midst.....warm Love in
      In the midst of such a wide and peaceful forest of mind which has not yet been explored, Keats will build a temple of Poetry adorned with roses, which are his verse. As A lattice-work of wood is decorated with nameless buds and flowers of the shapes of bells and stars, so will the poet deck the Temple of poetry in his mind with verses and poems unheard before. In other words, Keats’s mind, busy with poetic fancies is like an arduous of lattice with intertwining buds and flowers shaped like bells and stars. Again, as the gardener grows and tends plants, so the poet tends the verses. In other words, Keats hopes that on being inspired by Psyche, he will write new poems not produced before.

      Keats will dedicate this Temple of Poetry to Psyche. It will be equipped with all the pleasures and delights which mind can think of. In other words, Keats will use all kinds of poetic images which his thoughts can create to please the goddess. A bright torch will be kept burning in the Temple of Poetry and one of its windows will be left open to let Psyche in at night. Psyche is represented with a butterfly’s wings and is often called the moth-goddess (moth of the butterfly). Moth is attracted by light. The lighted torch will attract and admit the moth-goddesses to the Temple of Poetry.

Conclusion

      The Ode to Psyche is most purely fanciful. It would be easy to take it as a piece of lovely decorative mythology; but it is probably something more. Psyche is the soul, not recognized as a goddess in the classical Greek mythology. But neither is the soul in the Christian sense. The absence of any specifically Christian feeling, indeed of any kind of orientation to Christianity, is remarkable in Keats. His main religious feeling is a longing for the natural piety of the antiquity.

      With its lovely half inspired, half natural imagery, it is not merely a piece of fanciful devotion to an absolute myth; but a recognition by Keats that his own exploration is to be of the interior landscape, that his ultimate devotion is to be neither to the objective world, nor to any power outside himself.

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