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

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.

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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;”


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.

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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.

3. How did these figures appear before him?
Answer: These figures appeared before him dressed up in white robes and appeared to be carved on the sides of an urn.

4. Why did these appear figures strange to him?
Answer: The figures passed and repassed and twice they moved by him when the urn was shifted around but the poet did not recognize them that is why they appeared strange to him.

5. What is ‘Phidian lore?’ Why does the poet refer to it?
Answer: ‘Phidian lore’ is the sculptor’s art. Phidias was a famous Athenian sculptor of the fifth century B.C. Keats refers to it because the figures depicted on the urn are so various that even a skilled artist cannot recognize them at one sight.

6. How did the ‘Shadows’ come?

Answer: The shadows came disguised in a quiet mask.

7. What does the poet suspect about?

Answer: The poet suspects a silent secret plot and imagines that the shadowy figures had deliberately disguised themselves to join in a secret plot to disturb his vision and his mood of indolence.

8. Why was the drowsy hour ‘ripe’?
Answer: The drowsy hour was ripe because it was noon when one feels most drowsy in summer.

9. What is the physical state of the poet?
Answer: The poet is in a mood of indolence in summer, the sensibility of his eyes is deadened and his pulse is slow. The poet feels that there is no sting in pain and pleasure has no attraction for him.

10. What happened when the figures appeared a third time?

Answer: When the figures passed by him a third time, each of them turned their face to him for a moment, then they disappeared.

11. Why did the poet want to have wings?

Answer: The poet had recognized the three figures so he had a burning desire to have wings to pursue them.

12. Who were the three figures?

Answer: When the figures pass the third time, he recognizes them to be Love, Ambition, and Poesy.

13. Who was the first figure?
Answer: The name of the first figure is Love. She is described as a beautiful woman.

14. Who was the second figure and why was she was pale of cheek?
Answer: The second figure was Ambition. She was pale of cheek because to realize ambition one has to scorn delight and be perpetually vigilant. Continuous hard work and fatigued eyes are other attributes of Ambition which make her cheek look pale.

15. Why does the poet love poesy more?
Answer: The poet loves Poesy more because she is “maiden most unmeek”. Keats means that the creative poetic energy of a poet is irrepressible.

16. What does this line “the last … the more of blame” refer to?

Answer: In this line, there is an allusion to the bitter, unreasoned reviews of Keats’ Endymion which had appeared in Black Wood’s Magazine or The Quarterly.

17. From where does Ambition spring up?

Answer: Ambition springs up from a brief turmoil caused by the passions and desires of the heart to achieve something in life.

18. Why does the poet want to remain in the mood of indolence?
Answer: The poet wants to remain in the mood of indolence in drowsy summer because he wants to be free from the petty annoyances of life so that he does not even know how time passes.

19. Why does the poet want to bid farewell to the Shadows?
Answer: The poet wants to bid farewell to the shadows as he is still plunged in an indolent mood and wants that shadows should leave without pushing him to the activities of mundane life.

20. Explain ‘dieted with praise’.

Answer: This phrase suggests that the food offered is not natural. He does not want to be fed and baited by praise which is not sincere.

Meanings and Explanations

Stanza 1

1. morn – morning

2. bowed necks – their heads bent so that it is difficult to recognize them. Side-faced – their profile only could be seen.

3. Serene – calm and peaceful

4. Placid – calm, peaceful and undisturbed. robes graced – dressed in white garments.

5. Urn – tall vase, usually with a stem and base especially one used for holding the ashes of a cremated person.

6. to see – so that one may see

8. Shades – Shadowy figures

10. Phidian lore – Phidias was a famous Athenian sculptor of the fifth century B.C. ‘Phydian lore’ refers to “the sculptor’s art”. Keats means that the figures depicted on a marble urn are various, and even a skilled artist of Greek sculpture can not easily recognize them.

Stanza 2

11. Shadows – Shadowy figures Ye – You

12. muffled – disguised So hush a mask – so quiet a disguise

13. Was it … my’ idle days – The poet imagines that the Shadowy figures had intentionally disguised themselves so as to join in a secret plot to shatter the vision of the poet in his mood of indolence.

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15. Ripe… It was noon when one fed most drowsy in summer season.

16. Blissful – joyful Blissful … summer indolence – the mood and state of indolence in summer is compared with a joyful cloud

17. Benumb’d – deadened the sensibility of eyes

18. Sting– unbearable pain Pain… Flower – There was no sharpness in pain and suffering no delight and attraction in the pursuit of pleasure.

19. melt – dissolve

20. my sense … nothingness – The poet feels that his mind is blank and it is not conscious of anything but its own vacuity. Unhaunted – not visited repeatedly

Stanza 3

22. A moment whiles – for the space of a moment.

24. ached for wings – The poet is filled with a keen desire to chase the three figures whom he recognizes. In a mood of dreamful indolence, the poet feels a strong desire to have wings so that he can fly and follow them.

25. fair maid – the epithet ‘fair’ which means beautiful is used to indicate the infinite charms of Love.

26. Ambition, pale of cheek – Ambition has pale cheeks because to realize ambition one has to give up delights and live laborious days, vigilance and hard work are the befitting attributes of Ambition. Note: A connection can be noted between these lines and the closing lines of Keats’ The Terror of Death: “never have relish in the faery power of unreflecting love …Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

27. fatigued – tiredness usu resulting from hard work.

28. the more of blame – A reference is to unreasoned, bitter reviews of Endymion which had appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine or The Quarterly Review.

29. most unmeek – The poets’ creative energy is irrepressible, that is why ‘unmeek’.

30. demon – the word is used in the Greek sense of familiar or guardian spirit. Whom I love more … Poesy – The poet loves Poesy more than Love and Ambition because Poesy fills him with demoniacal energy. He loves her hostile and unsympathetic critics.

Stanza 4

31. forsooth – an archaism (old-fashioned use) for indeed. I wanted wings – It refers to the poets momentary craving for pursuing them.

32. Where is it? – Compare with the following lines from Ode to a Nightingale: “Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.” (29-30)

34. Short fever-fit – Ambition springs from a strong desire to achieve something in life, from a brief turmoil caused by petty passions. Compare with Ode to a Nightingale:

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

36. drowsy noons – noon time which induces sheep.

38. Sheltered from annoy – free from the annoyances and worries of life.

39. how change the moons – how the seasonal changes take place and how the time passes.

40. busy common – sense – the wisdom of the world.

Stanza 5

42. Sleep… embroider’d with dim dreams – Sleep has been imagined as a dress and beautiful delicate embroidery is the dreams.

43. Soul … lawn besprinkled o’er with flowers – Soul has been compared with a lawn.

Flowers are scattered over it.

44. Stirring shades… beams – flickering of light and shade in a garden of flowers is baffling.

45. morn – morning

46. in her lids … tears of May – The poet depicts a lovely metaphorical painting of soft cloudy days of spring and early summer (May). The air smells of coming rain. The vernal shower has not yet burst forth from the clouds floating above. The sweet tears of May are the raindrops.

47. Casement – Window that opens on hinges like a door.

49. O Shadows … bid farewell! – It was a time when the ghostly figures of love, ambition, and poesy should leave him alone and say goodbye.

50. Upon your skirts… tears of mine – He wishes that these figures should leave him while he was still plunged in indolence without rousing him to activities of life which were sure to bring suffering and tears. He would have no regrets for their disappearance.


51. adieu – (archaic) goodbye

52. head cool-bedded – compare with Tennyson’s The Lotus Eaters; “Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel

53. dieted with praise – This expression suggests that the food offered is not natural. The poet refuses to be fed by praise which is either underserved or insincere.

54. A pet-lamb … farce! – Keats does not wish to be petted like a lamb (by the public) and fed with flattery. In summer 1819, he wrote to a friend; “I have been very idle lately, very averse to writing, both from the overpowering idea of dead poets and from abatement of my love of fame. I hope I am a little more of a philosopher and I was, consequently a little less of a versifying pet-lamb.’

54. Farce – funny play for the theatre based on unlikely situations and events.

56. masque – like figures – character is masque were often disguised, refers to the Elizabethan masques or pageants. dreamy urn – urn with shadowy figures sculptured on it.

58. faint visions – the visions that will come during day will come with lessened force than the vision of night.

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

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