Summary of ode on Indolence

Ode on Indolence is one of the important odes of John Keats. This ode is the depiction of a transient mood and maybe the description of a half-wakeful vision.

In the first stanza, the speaker explains a dream he had one morning. Three figures wearing white robes and sandals passed by him– looking like figures depicted on the surface of a marble urn. As the last figure passed by, the initial figures disappeared, just as if a vase was turned round.

In the second stanza, the speaker addresses the figures and asks how he didn’t recognize them and for what good reason they managed to appear so discreetly thus unnoticed. He says that he associates them with a plot to steal away his ‘idle days’. He proceeds by describing how he spent the morning before they arrived – by sleepily enjoying a summer’s day, numb to the more agonizing aspects of life. In the last two lines, he asks the figures for why they have not disappeared to leave him to his condition of ‘nothingness’.

The third stanza sees the figures passing through for the third time and the speaker feels an urge to stand up and follow them as he now knows who they are: love, ambition, and poetry.

In the fourth stanza, the figures vanish and once again the speaker yearns to follow them. In any case, he also realizes that to do as such would be ‘folly’ since none of the figures offers a perpetual answer to life’s difficulties. Love does not last; Ambition’s existence is considerably briefer and Poesy can’t compete with the delights of languid days untroubled by ‘occupied common sense’.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker is upset that the figures have returned and describes again how he had gone through the morning before they arrived. At that moment his spirit appeared as though a green garden made delightful with blooms, shadows, and sunbeams. There was no shower and bird song flooded in through an open window. He tells the figures that they were all in all correct to leave him as they had failed to rouse his passions.

In the last stanza, the speaker says goodbye to them and once again proclaims that neither Love nor Ambition nor Posey is sufficient to make him raise his slothful head had bedded with the ‘flowery grass’. He discloses to them that he as of now has a lot of dreams. His separating shot is to direct them to disappear and stay away forever.

Detailed explanation of Ode on Indolence

The Theme

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The theme of the poem is that in this transient mood of indolence the poet imagines himself lying on a lawn. Three figures appear before his eyes which pass and repass and it seems as if they are carved on the sides of an urn which is slowly moving. Twice they move by him but he is sunk in a quiet indolent mood and fails to recognize them. The third time when they appear, he recognizes them to be Love, Ambition, and Poesy. Their sight wakes him up from a dreamy state and he wants to pursue them but checks himself. When they return the fourth time, he bids them farewell because in this mood of lethargy he loves indolence better than Love, Ambition, and Poesy. The poet is reluctant to face the hard labour and strife to which they call him.

In the summer of 1819 Keats wrote to his friend:

“You will judge of my 1819 temper when I tell you that the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an Ode on Indolence.” In the same letter he says:

“I have been very idle lately, very averse to writing; both from the overpowering idea of our dead poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am a little more of a philosopher than I was, consequently a little less of a versifying pet-lamb”.

In the same year Keats wrote in another letter to a friend about his temper and his indolent careless mood:

“This morning I am in a sort of temper, indolent and supremely careless… in this state of effeminacy, the fibers of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable power. Neither poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love has any alertness of countenance as they pass by me; they seem rather like figures on a Greek vase – a man and two women whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of the advantage of the body overpowering the mind.”

These passages are very significant in explaining the mood of the poet and the ode. In the opening lines, the poet imagines himself lying on a lawn half asleep. Three figures appear before his dreamy eyes, they pass and repass like figures on an urn which is slowly turned around. The figures depicted on vases move by him twice with their heads bent making it difficult for him to recognize them. Even a skilled artist of Greek sculpture cannot recognize them at one sight.

In the next stanza, the poet is sunk deep in a mood of quiet indolence and the figures appear to be ‘Shadows’ who come quietly disguised in a mask. They poet suspects that the shadowy figures had deliberately disguised themselves so as to join in a secret plot to shatter the visions so dear to him in his mood of indolence. It is noon, the poet feels drowsy in summer, the sensibility of his eyes is deadened, the pulse rate is slow and he is in a state when he feels no sharpness in suffering and no real delight in the pursuit of pleasure. His mind is blank and he is conscious of nothing but its own vacuity and asks the figures:

“O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense

Unhaunted quite of all but – nothingness?” (19-20)

When the figures pass the third time he knows them to be Love, Ambition, and Poesy. Since he recognizes them, he is filled with a burning desire to have wings and to chase them.

The first figure is that of a beautiful lady called Love, the second is Ambition with pale cheeks because, in order to realize ambition, one has to scorn delights and work hard. The poet says that the third figure, “ whom I love more” is poesy. The creative energy of poesy is irrepressible that is why she is “maiden most unmeek.” In this stanza, a reference is also made to bitter reviews of Keats’ Endymion in these lines;

“The last, whom I love more, the more of blame

Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek, -”

(II. 28-29)

He loves Poesy all the more for the unreasoned attacks as he writes in one of his letters:

“Praise or blame has but a momentary effect on the man whose love of beauty in the abstract makes him a serve critic of his own works … and also when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary repercussion and ratification of what is fine.” The poet is a drowsy watcher and the sight of these figures wake him up. Soon they fade and he is filled with a momentary desire to pursue them:

“They faded, and forsooth! I wanted wings:

O folly! What is love? and where is it?” (31-32)

In a moment he realizes the foolishness and the futility of it all. The poet is haunted by such questions as: “What is love?” “Where is it?” He knows it well that ambition which springs from the desires of the heart can be fulfilled by “short fever-fit.” In Ode to a Nightingale, it is described as:

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret” (I. 23)

These questions make him restless momentarily. He realizes that neither Poesy nor Ambition nor Love seems to bring him any joy because his mind and body are under the influence of indolence. He is no more willing to face the labor and strife to which these figures call him. He wants to sink deep into an indolent mood and forget how time passes.

In the fifth stanza, the figures appear again for the fourth time but he loves indolence better and is not moved by them. He imagines his sleep as a dress which is embroidered by soft beautiful dreams and his soul as a lawn over which sweet-scented flowers are scattered. “Stirring Shades” of light and shade add to the sensuous dreamy atmosphere of the garden. A lovely metaphorical painting of soft cloudy days of spring and early summer is drawn in these lines:

“The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,

Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May;”

(45-46)

The poet wishes that the shadowy figures of Love, Ambition, and Poesy should leave him while he was still indulged in dreamy indolence. It is time to say goodbye to them without any feeling of regret.

In the concluding stanza, he bids them farewell and relapses into dreams as he has ample store of them. He asks these “masque – like” figures to vanish into the clouds and never return again. He knows very well that he does not wish to be petted by the public praise and fed with flattery:

“For I would not be dieted with praise,

A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce!” (53-54)

An important aspect of Keats’ genius his sensuous, dreamy, pleasure element is reflected in this ode especially in the description of spring and early summer. The metaphorical description of the morning with clouds hanging on her lids and the air smelling of the approaching vernal shower which has not yet burst forth from the clouds as “Tears of May” – stands out as a painting.

The poem has some forceful images and felicitous phrases such as “ye muffled in hush a mask”, “the blissful cloud of summer indolence,” “drowsy noons”, sleep “embroider’d with dim dreams”, soul imagined as a lawn “be sprinkled over with flowers” and “the sweet tears of May” hanging in the lids of the morn.

Love, Ambition, and Poesy are personified and human characteristics are attributed to them.

This ode is composed of six stanzas of ten lines each. The iambic pentameter lines are divisible into a quatrain of alternate rhymes and a sestet introducing two more rhymes.

Iambic: The iambic (from Iambus) in which the unaccented syllable precedes the accented

Quatrain: poem or verse of a poem consisting of four lines.

Sestet: Six line stanza esp. the last 6 lines of an Italian Sonnet.

Assessment Questions

1. In what mood did the poet write this poem?
Answer: The poem was written in a pleasant mood of dreamful indolence.

2. Whom did he see one morning?

Answer: One morning he saw three figures with bent heads, joined hands and side faced, one following the other calmly.

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59. Vanish – disappear completely phantom – ghostly figures Spright – Spenserian spelling for spirit.

Ode on Indolence | Summary, Explanation, Analysis, Theme, Questions and Answers

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