1819
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ode on Indolence.

Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats. [Richard Monkton Milnes, ed.]

John Keats


Six stanzas in an unusual stanza (ababcdecde), first published in Life, Letters and Literary Remains (1848). In the allegory sleepy Keats is haunted by the revolving presence of the figures of Love, Ambition, and Poesy. The poem may have been suggested by James Thomson's Castle of Indolence, though the gentle burlesque is less of Spenser than of more recent allegorical odes. The epigraph, "They toil not, neither do they reap" (Matthew 6), is taken from the Castle of Indolence.

Keats records the origin of the poem in a letter of March 1819: "This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless: I long after a stanza or two of Thompson's Castle of Indolence.... Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me: they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase — a Man and two women whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement" Letters, ed. Forman (1947) 315.

Edmund Gosse: "There is hardly any excellent feature in the poetry of Keats which is not superficially the feature of some well-recognised master of an age previous to his own. He boldly takes down, as from some wardrobe of beautiful and diverse raiment, the dress of Spenser, of Milton, of Homer, of Ariosto, of Fletcher, and wears each in turn, thrown over shoulders which completely change its whole appearance and proportion. But, if he makes use of modes which are already familiar to us, in their broad outlines, as the modes invented by earlier masters, it is mainly because his temperament was one which imperatively led him to select the best of all possible forms of expression. His excursions into other people's provinces were always undertaken with a view to the annexation of the richest and most fertile acres" "Keats in 1894" in Critical Kit-Kats (1896) 26.



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 mask?
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 ach'd 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!

And once more 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,
Tho' in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;
The open casement press'd a new-leav'd 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 dreamy 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!

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