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John Keats's Ode on Indolence is one of fives odes composed in the Spring of 1819. An analysis follows:

"My genial spirits fail; and what can these avail to lift the smothering weight from off my breast?" When "viper thoughts coil" around Coleridge's mind, the poet ultimately uses dejection as creative fuel; he turns feeling (even negative feeling) into the basis for a poem. So too does Keats use a negative feeling (deep idleness, in which "pain had no sting, and pleasure's wreath no flower") as poetic inspiration. Ode on Indolence is an exploration not only of the contrast between torpor ("indolence") and feeling ("pain" and "pleasure"), but also of time-related themes: does a promise of eternity exclude the possibility of change? Can we truly separate the mystery of our dreams from the confusion of reality? How can we live with the knowledge that, despite our effort, certain opposites must remain irreconcilable?

Ode on Indolence is Ode on a Grecian Urn raised to a higher plane; it is the what-if poem, the exploration of what happens when, in a blurry non-state between dreams and reality, the figures on the urn leap out and present themselves for consideration. In any case, we may not interpret Keats's repeated use of the same symbol (the urn) as an indication of indolence. Rather, the "marble urn" in Indolence establishes a unity or consistency across four pages of The Norton Anthology. And given this repetition of symbols, we expect to find a unity of themes. On the surface, Keats is troubled by how easy it is to consider Ambition "fatigued," and "pale of cheek"; that is, he marvels at how his subconscious is able to interpret even concrete symbols in foreign and unnatural ways. Sinking deep into a mindless "nothingness," Keats becomes paranoid even of his former passions, cursing at the sight of "my demon Poesy." Indolence, then, represents both complacency and an absence of passion. We can achieve either neutrality (but never any range of emotion) or the ups and downs that often cause us to yearn for stability. This paradox is analogous to that in Ode on a Grecian Urn: In Indolence, we learn of a tradeoff between passion and stability; in Urn, the exchange is between mutability (the ability to "shed Your leaves") and immortality (the "marble" quality of that which "shalt remain"). The pursuit of stability (either emotional or temporal) precludes the retention of freedom (an ability to experience passion, or an ability to change). If we change too quickly, we lose sight of life's pleasures. Conversely, if we stay in the same place too long, we begin to stagnate. We cannot, of course, settle for either extreme. Neither can we give way to the temptation to declare the effort to stay afloat useless. We must accept that all Beauty is "Beauty that must die" (Ode On Melancholy). Life's excitement is to be found in the possibility (and even in the certainty) of change.

And when life's struggles become too hard to bear, we need not give in to indolence. Rather, we may instead accept the temporary respite of sleep (and the altered dream world that accompanies sleep). Indeed, Keats's language and imagery (as in Ode to a Nightingale) suggests the hazy view of a dreamer. We are told explicitly "My sleep has been embroider'd with dim dreams". In addition, scenes change haphazardly, and weird jumps characterize events related in the style of a vague remembrance: "A third time they passed by," and then, "They faded." As scenes jump, so does the author's mood: at times, Keats succumbs fully to the temptations of being "idle" ; he gives up his passion for creation (poetry, or "Poesy") as his "pulse [grows] less and less." Still, in stanza five he describes a newfound inspiration, a "budding warmth" perceived through the "open casement" of a clear mind. Alternate flashes of clearness and fog give the stanzas in Indolence an "embroider'd" appearance; in the midst of this "clouded" scene, we must continually refer to Keats's own question, "Do I wake or sleep?" (Ode to Nightingale).

But if dreams are restful, then they also inspire: just as Keats is inspired by a vision of Psyche in Ode to Psyche, he is inspired by visions (albeit somewhat warped) of Love, Ambition, and Poetry in Indolence. Despite the poem's title, Indolence is anything but the result of Keats's torpor. The laziness once felt has been transformed; it now manifests itself as creative inspiration. With an almost verbatim repetition of Psyche's conclusion ("a casement ope" vs. "the open casement"; "let warm Love in" vs. "let in the budding warmth"), Keats again declares his passion for poetry and his dedication to creation as he suggests an end to deep-rooted feelings of indolence.

But in a world where no lines are clear and opposites loom, Keats does not simply end on this blissful note. Rather, he turns back to the "phantoms" that had haunted his indolent dreams. He banishes them, for a time ("Vanish.. from my idle spright"), proclaiming that he is once again inspired ("I yet have visions"). He has shifted, then, from a state of utter torpor to a momentous realization of hope. As Keats did, we too are doomed to bounce between opposites, never satisfied and always searching for more. Sometimes dejected, sometimes inspired, we must live with the knowledge that we can't stretch our arms enough to reach one pole without releasing the other. Instead, we must simply let go, trusting fate as we slide into the gray area where life plays out.

Ode on Indolence



"They toil not, neither do they spin."

I.

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.

II.

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?

III.

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.

IV.

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!

V.

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.

VI.

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!

(text of poem copied from http://www.john-keats.com)