Ode on Indolence

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!

to Keats: Poetry
to Keats: main page