Beyond the Lines: Keats' "Ode on Indolence"
In the spring of 1819, John Keats experienced one of the greatest bursts of creativity in the history of art and science. When fully considered, the astounding poetic achievements of the spring of 1819 parallel Einstein’s celebrated “miracle year” of 1905. Just as Einstein revolutionized our very idea of the universe, overthrowing the linear conception of space and time, Keats opened new vast vistas into the domain of the creative imagination and its power to capture truth. 1819 might rightly be considered Keats’s “miracle year.”
To fully appreciate the nature of Keats’s creative breakthroughs, we should start by dispelling a popular belief that many academics insist on keeping alive: that Keats was a Romantic poet. Contrary to their interpretation, the nature of the "Great Odes" was anything but Romantic. Romanticism was characterized by a focus on titillating descriptions of an idealized nature and sensual world. While Keats did avail himself of lush and natural imagery similar to that used by the Romantics, the use oof such imagery represented a fundamentally different kind of universe in the hands of a poet like Keats.
William Wordsworth and the Romantic school in general usually contented themselves by simply entertaining the senses with pleasant imagery. For example, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the universally acknowledged manifesto of Romantic poetry, Wordsworth was explicit about his intention to keep readers in the company of “flesh and blood,” that is, to avoid higher forms of metaphorical ideas and paradoxes that challenged audiences to venture beyond their sensory experience of the world:
"The Reader will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes; and, I hope, are utterly rejected as an ordinary device to elevate the style, and raise it above prose. I have proposed to myself to imitate, and, as far as is possible, to adopt the very language of men . . . I have wished to keep my Reader in the company of flesh and blood, persuaded that by so doing I shall interest him."
However, Wordsworth himself recognized the limitations of such poetry:
"But, whatever portion of this faculty we may suppose even the greatest Poet to possess, there cannot be a doubt but that the language which it will suggest to him, must, in liveliness and truth, fall far short of that which is uttered by men in real life . . . However exalted a notion we would wish to cherish of the character of a Poet, it is obvious, that, while he describes and imitates passions, his situation is altogether slavish and mechanical, compared with the freedom and power of real and substantial action and suffering."
Had Keats simply been another poet of the Romantic school, he would have embraced Wordsworth’s view of poetry. Had this been the case, the Odes would have never been possible.
For Keats, poetry represented the creative agency by which he could transcend the very limits defined by the contemporary view of poetry and art, the limits of the senses, and a purely mortal sense of identity.
In this respect, “The Ode on Indolence” is a perfect entry point for exploring Keats’s celebrated miracle year because the subject of the ode is the process of creativity itself. Keats describes, or more precisely takes us through his own process of wrestling with creative inspiration and becoming the instrument of what he refers to as his “visions.” It flies directly in the face of the popular literary practices of aspiring writers today who often lack genuine inspiration or ideas to write about, those busying themselves with “writing prompts” and self-help styled articles that might sound something like, “Seven Steps to Having a Productive Writing Day” or “How to Find Inspiration When You Have None.” Rather than a manual or step-by-step guide to writing, Keats discovered an awakening of his creative powers by confronting one of the greatest paradoxes of the human condition: mortality.
Confronting one’s mortality is something which any truly creative person must do if they are to fully develop and sustain their gifts over a lifetime. Keats thus becomes one of our greatest allies in discovering and unfolding our own creative potential. He does this by taking the reader through his own creative process and getting him to relive the kinds of paradoxes Keats had to confront within himself in order to give birth to the ideas whose uttered expression came to be known as the Great Odes.
The “Ode on Indolence” begins with a visitation by three mysterious shadows which seem to have leapt off a Grecian Urn. Keats does not initially recognize the figures, though he highlights their familiar Greek attire, their “placid sandals” and “white robes.”
"One morn before me were three figures seen, With bowèd necks, and joinèd 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."
By the second stanza, the creative tension of the piece begins to unfold.
"How is it, Shadows! that I knew ye not? How came ye muffled in so hush a mask? Was it a silent deep-disguisèd 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?"
Keats was in a dream-like state, and failed to recognize those familiar figures—figures which he accuses of leaving “without a task my idle days.”
Keats tells us how “The blissful cloud of summer indolence benumbed my eyes,” and a result his “pulse grew less and less; Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower.” He is essentially describing a state in which the senses have been numbed to the point of being effectively dead.
But is this a literal death?
Take the famous passage by Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo dialogue:
"And now I will make answer to you, O my judges, and show that he who has lived as a true philosopher has reason to be of good cheer when he is about to die, and that after death he may hope to receive the greatest good in the other world. . . . For I deem that the true disciple of philosophy is likely to be misunderstood by other men; they do not perceive that he is ever pursuing death and dying."
Is the philosopher described by Plato one who longs for a literal death? Were this the case, then such a philosopher might simply look for the closest bridge and jump off. The truth is that Plato was a poet, and as a poet, he takes the idea of death as it is generally known and elevates it to the level of a poetic metaphor. It compels us to conceive of what is left once all the senses or sense-perceptions have fled. For one whose identity is generally anchored in sense perceptual things, his possessions, his environment, et cetera, the metaphor of death is very threatening. But is this not what opens the door to a proper investigation of things beyond any direct sense perception, such as the human mind, creativity, that which persists beyond our mortal selves, in which we may yet participate?
Is the “nothingness” to which Keats refers, then, truly nothing in the sense of emptiness devoid of all experience, or is it that all the typical obstacles that assail us in our mortal condition have all vanished? What happens when all the typical things that we have become accustomed to being assailed with on a daily basis suddenly disappear?
Rather than dwell on those questions, let us attempt to understand Keats’s meaning by seeing what happens on the other side of this “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 fatiguèd 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."
The figures in question, whose identities had remained unknown at the end of the second stanza are now revealed. They are the figures Keats had become so acquainted with in his quest for earlier poetic success, figures which he writes about in his sonnets on fame and his famous “When I Have Fears”:
"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 honey’d 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!"
The great irony lies in the fact that these passing shadows—Love, Ambition, and Poetry—are presented as impediments to the kind of experience he hopes to have.
In his desired state of “nothingness,” Keats experiences what he calls “visions,” things unimpeded by the intervening sense-impressions of the world, such as “the sound of busy common sense” and “how change the moons.”
He is no longer concerned with the pursuit of achievement, poetic fame, or success, or even with the desire for being loved. Rather than chase after poetry, he is ready to let poetry find him.
Keats has abandoned all earthly desire, both noble and superficial. As a result, all earthly desires and concerns have abandoned him. He describes this state as a kind of “blissful indolence.”
In his “blissful indolence,” Keats is unfazed by the hopes, fears, desires, or concerns of daily life:
"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-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."
Suddenly, Keats describes the kinds of rich experiences that find him: his sleep is “embroider’d with dim dreams”; his soul is a “lawn besprinkled o’er with flowers, and stirring shades and baffled beams.” Suddenly the music, the “throstle’s lay” finds him, and poetry becomes as natural as leaves on a tree. Keats is completely indifferent to the intruding figures that had caused him so much consternation in the past.
"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!"
As the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his "A Defence of Poetry," even the greatest poet cannot simply sit down and compose as if by some regimented habit. The poet will never find poetry, poetry must find him. But in what state will poetry find him? When does poetry visit the poet? Is it in times of great ambition and egotistical hopes of fame and praise and glory?
The most profound creativity emerges from an intense and impassioned feeling which longs to communicate something that lies beyond what we can simply touch, taste, hear, see, and smell; it is located deep within the soul, beyond the grasp of the senses. The process of digging deep into one’s soul, and struggling to bring such passions into the real world, to “name” them, is arguably one of the most difficult challenges any mortal faces. It also parallels the process of discovery any great scientist must go through in order to develop a hypothesis, which the universe will favorably respond to.
The “Ode on Indolence” is a timeless account of the emotional process the poet or artist must experience in order to become capable of receiving what Keats calls “visions.” But what to him were visions, the world over now knows as the Great Odes.
David Gosselin is a writer, researcher, and translator based in Montreal, Canada. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.