This ode was written in spring 1819, between mid-March and early June. On 19 March Keats wrote of his ‘sort of temper indolent’ in a letter to his brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana. And on 9 June, he told one Miss Jeffrey that ‘the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an ode to Indolence’. The ode was first published in 1848.
In the letter to George and Georgiana, Keats described his indolence: ‘This is the only happiness; and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.’ The ode itself is the least well-known of the six great odes of 1819. Most critics consider it the least accomplished of the group.
The epigraph is from Matthew 6:28.
‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’
One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined 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 masque?
Was it a silent deep-disguised 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 fatigued 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 honied 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!
A third time 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,
Though 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 dreary 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!