Ode to Psyche by John Keats; An introduction, annotations & summary

Introduction

The year 1819 has been variously described by scholars as Keats’s ‘fertile year’ or ‘living year’. In the span of a few months, he wrote the five odes upon which his reputation is based. Ode to Psyche was the second ode, written after the Ode on Indolence. Most critics, however, dismiss Ode on Indolence as weaker and less successful than the five odes which followed. Ode to Psyche was first published in 1820.

The original version of this ode is found in the famous spring 1819 journal-letter from Keats to his brother George. Keats typically wrote a running commentary to George and his wife Georgiana in America, then loosely grouped the pages together as one long letter. The letter ends with this beautiful work, of which Keats wrote: ‘The following Poem – the last I have written is the first and the only one with which I have taken even moderate pains – I have for the most part dash’d of[f] my lines in a hurry – This I have done leisurely – I think it reads the more richly for it and will I hope encourage me to write other thing[s] in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit.’

In the Greek religion, psyche meant ‘the soul'; in their mythology, she was a beautiful princess of whom Aphrodite became jealous. The goddess sent her son Eros (Cupid) to Psyche, commanding him to make her fall in love with the ugliest person on earth. But Eros was not immune to the mortal’s great beauty. He fell in love instead and the two became lovers, though Eros forbid Psyche to ever look upon him. Being human, her curiosity eventually made her look and it took the intervention of Zeus for the lovers to find eternal happiness.

Keats had written about the lovers before in ‘I stood tip-toe upon a little hill’, but with more erotic language. Ode to Psyche was specifically inspired by the Roman author Lucius Apuleius’s 2d century work, The Golden Ass. Apuleius had referred to the Cupid and Psyche story as ‘the latest-born of the myths’ and so, in his letter to George and Georgiana, Keats wrote: ‘You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist who lived after their Agustan age, and consequently the Goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour – and perhaps never thought of in the old religion – I am more orthodox that [for than] to let a hethen Goddess be so neglected.’

In the ode, Keats vows to become the priest of Psyche and build a temple to her in his mind – ‘Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind’. The first two stanzas are generally dismissed as ‘filler’ by critics and biographers, but all agree that the final stanza is a triumph. There are two primary interpretations of this work. It can be linked to Keats’s famous ‘vale of soul-making’ discussion earlier in the letter to George and Georgiana (‘[T]his System of Soul-making – may have been the Parent of all the more palpable and personal Schemes of Redemption, among the Zoroastrians, the Christians and the Hindoos. For as one part of the human species must have their carved Jupiter, so another part must have…. their Christ their Oromanes and their Vishnu’ – and so, we might add, the poet (in this case, Keats) must have his Psyche. Its language can also be linked to Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne. He wrote of building an altar to her; he declared love to be his religion and Fanny ‘its only tenet'; etc Was Fanny the embodiment of Psyche?

An interesting note on the manuscript: This ode was originally begun as a sonnet, which explains its curious structure. (As his letter states, Keats had ‘dashed off’ several sonnets in the third week of April 1819, of which this was the last.) No alteration in the original manuscript occurs until the thirteenth and fourteenth lines. At that point, Keats seems to have decided to alter the structure of the work. Originally titled ‘To Psyche’, he added ‘Ode’ later; note the different and widely-spaced angle of writing in the cropped image above. The decision to change a perfectly acceptable sonnet to an ode is perhaps the real importance of this work. It marks the beginning of a sequence of even greater odes.

Keats was terminally ill as his final volume of poetry was prepared. As a result, his publishers made several alterations to ‘Ode to Psyche’ without his input. In particular, they were stymied by his use of the words ‘freckle-pink’ and ‘syrian’ in line fourteen. Keats had originally written ‘silver-white’ in the work, but changed it to ‘freckle-pink’ in the margin, and included the latter in the copy he made for George. The publishers retained ‘silver-white'; also, they could not define the obscure ‘syrian’ and so changed it to ‘Tyrian’, which was a traditional purple dye. They also altered the end of line ten, which Keats had ended ‘the whispering fan’. Taylor and Hessey changed it to ‘whisp’ring roof’, which completely ruined Keats’s rhyme scheme. These changes reflected the vicious criticism of Endymion, which had been attacked for a certain quaintness in creating and altering words as well as an exaggeratedly lush style. Understandably, they also looked askance at the beginning of the third stanza and changed Keats’s original ‘O Bloomiest!’ to ‘O brightest!’ – a tepid alteration but probably necessary.

The most notable alteration in Ode to Psyche was made by Keats himself. Note the change below. The final line originally read ‘To let warm Love glide in’. He altered it to ‘To let the warm Love in’, a simple but vital difference. Further discussion of this line can be found in the annotations below.

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even unto thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:
‘Mid hush’d cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heap’d with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no globe, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyte,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir’d
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding glowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

Line Analysis

1. ‘tuneless numbers’ are verses; this is Keats’s self-deprecating reference to his own work.

2. A conch is a shell; in other words, Psyche’s ear resembles a shell.

3. Note the similarity between this line and the final line of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ – ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?’

4. The speaker is wandering ‘thoughtlessly’, or without a care in the world.

5. Read the introduction to the ode above; Keats had originally written ‘whispering fan’ but his publishers altered it to ‘whisp’ring roof’, which destroys Keats’s rhyme-scheme.

6. ‘scarce espied’ means difficult to see; the speaker glimpses, but can’t really make out, the brook ahead

7. Read the introduction to the ode above; Keats’s publishers inserted ‘Tyrian’ which means a purple or crimson dye because they could not define his original word ‘syrian’.

8. ‘pinions’ is Keats’s term for angel wings

9. ‘aurorean’ is another term for roseate

10. the ‘winged boy’ is Cupid

11. Psyche was not traditionally portrayed as a dove. However, Keats had read and admired Mary Tighe’s 1805 work Psyche, which described the goddess as a ‘spotless dove’.

12. ‘sapphire-region’d star’ is the moon, of which Artemis / Phoebe was the goddess

13. ‘Vesper’ is Hesperus, the evening star

13a. ‘though temple thou hast none': remember Keats’s letter to his brother about this ode, quoted above – ‘You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist who lived after their Agustan age, and consequently the Goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour – and perhaps never thought of in the old religion – I am more orthodox that [for than] to let a hethen Goddess be so neglected.’

14. ‘chain-swung censer’ is a vessel in which incense is burnt at temples

15. This beautiful phrase – ‘pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming’ – recurs in the last line of the following stanza as well. Consider the juxtaposition – a prophet is typically passionate and righteous, seeking to sway others to his beliefs. But this prophet is ‘pale-mouth’d’ and ‘dreaming’ – he is in a trance.

16. ‘fond’ is merely another word for devoted

17. ‘lucent fans’ means shining wings; Psyche was sometimes portrayed with butterfly wings

18. ‘fane’ means temple; the speaker will be a priest to Psyche and build a temple to her in his mind

19. The speaker’s thoughts branch out like the limbs of a tree.

20. ‘zephyrs’ are light breezes

21. ‘dryads’ are wood-nymphs

22. ‘Fancy e’er could feign’ means ‘Fancy could ever invent’

23. What are these shadowy thoughts? Perhaps thoughts which emerge unexpectedly or thoughts which cannot be fully understood or explained.

24. a ‘casement’ is a window

25. As explained in the introduction above, this final line was altered by Keats from ‘To let warm Love glide in’ to ‘To let the warm Love in’. Biographers / critics believe the last two lines directly reference Keats’s physical proximity to Fanny Brawne. She lived next door to the poet and their respective windows quite literally opened up to one another; they shared a common garden. (This interpretation was also discussed above: Ode to Psyche’s language can be linked to Keats’s love letters to Fanny Brawne. He wrote of building an altar to her; he declared love to be his religion and Fanny ‘its only tenet'; etc Was Fanny the embodiment of Psyche?)

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung
By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,
And pardon that thy secrets should be sung
Even unto thine own soft-conched ear:
Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see
The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?
I wander’d in a forest thoughtlessly,
And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,
Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side
In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran
A brooklet, scarce espied:
‘Mid hush’d cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,
Blue, silver-white, and budded Tyrian,
They lay calm-breathing on the bedded grass;
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love:
The winged boy I knew;
But who wast thou, O happy, happy dove?
His Psyche true!

O latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these, though temple thou hast none,
Nor altar heap’d with flowers;
Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet
From chain-swung censer teeming;
No shrine, no globe, no oracle, no heat
Of pale-mouthed prophet dreaming.

O brightest! though too late for antique vows,
Too, too late for the fond believing lyte,
When holy were the haunted forest boughs,
Holy the air, the water, and the fire;
Yet even in these days so far retir’d
From happy pieties, thy lucent fans,
Fluttering among the faint Olympians,
I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet
From swinged censer teeming;
Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat
Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
And there by zephyrs, streams, and birds, and bees,
The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull’d to sleep;
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,
With all the gardener Fancy e’er could feign,
Who breeding glowers, will never breed the same:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!

 

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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Ode to Psyche by John Keats; An introduction, annotations & summary" http://englishhistory.net/keats/poetry/ode-to-psyche/, February 22, 2015