Portrait of John Keats, left. Right, Life Mask made by a friend.
In his “Ode to Indolence” Keats addresses his own state. Neither Love, Ambition, nor Poesy itself — its premise or its promise — rouses him any longer. He prefers his zoned out “waking dream” state — pulse weak but impervious to pain. Until inspiration rouses him again, he gratefully offers himself up to indolence.
The ode was written in late May or early June, 1819. Keats was 24, a brilliant failure. His father, a stablehand, was dead, as were his mother and grandparents. A miserly tea merchant was appointed reluctant guardian of the five Keats children until he too died. Keats’ beloved younger brother Tom, for whom he was responsible, died of tuberculosis at 19. When he wrote this poem, Keats himself was sick as a dog and dirt poor, with no hope left of fame and glory, and no will to do anything else. He doubled down on his misery and wrote anyway, aware that it would never bring neither penny nor praise.
His indolence was part malady and part resignation. He died a year and a half later.
John Keats remains the greatest lyric poet in English (only because Shakespeare was preeminently a dramatist). When engaged, he wrote 50 lines a day, intricately rhymed and metered. He didn’t squeeze it out. Miltonic lines of iambic pentameter spun out in intricate poetic forms. His work so teems with sonnets (Shakespearean and Petrarchan) one might conclude that the genes for his consciousness came in interlocking fourteen line chains. When he wasn’t scribbling he was spent and somnolent, the state he so eloquently describes in the ode, too disengaged to care any longer about love, ambition, or fame.
Then, ironically, next night, a nightingale singing in a tree outside rouses him. Poetry — perfection — streams out and another ode is written. He crashes from exhilaration to indolence, a state not conventionally blissful but sublimely disengaged.
The Ode to Indolence has conventionally been considered inferior to the either “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Ode to a Nightingale.” Both are hard acts to follow. They exist at a level of perfection at which “better” is a logical inconsistency (despite what the authors of the United States Constitution thought when they wrote of “a more perfect union”). Perfection means there can be nothing better.
Not perfect in that way, perhaps Ode to Indolence shouldn’t be. It’s luster is all its own. Whether there is a greater or lesser luster is nit-picky. If there is a first, it is primus inter pares — first among equals. Keats speaks with bitter irony in a language rich in classical allusions. His education was not encyclopedic, but it is accurate. He tells us he does not recognize the faces of the urn in his vision. This surprises him because he is steeped with “Phidian lore,” referring to Phidias, the preeminent sculptor of the Athenian Golden Age, a paragon of perfection. Keats had seen the Elgin marbles (friezes pilfered from the Parthenon) reassembled at the British Museum.
Here I must say that the Elgin marbles — stolen as they were and still at the British Museum — are staggering. They are absolutely lifelike and run in long stretches, temple friezes flowing like movies. Each individual figure, each scene, each sequence, tells a story in a completely naturalistic — if idealized — imagery, body after magnificent body in furious motion. The Greeks remain the undisputed paragons of naturalistic sculpture. The best of the Romans only copied them. As soon as the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, the church suppressed artistic naturalism in favor of hieratic Byzantine iconography, a style so nonhuman as to appear anti-human: rigid, hieratic, and highly symbolic. The Parthenon marbles aren’t symbolic. They show human and divine beings in action, living and dying doing heroic things. Their beauty is heart-stopping. One is awed the mere fact that their creators were only men, not gods. What those men (and they were men, most of them slaves) achieved transcended them.
That is what Keats saw. Not only the formal perfection, but the vitality, the rush and tumble of life itself, not the fray but the sublime, not a narrative of gods and goddesses at war but the real story of the human spirit rendering cold marble malleable and infusing it with unconquerable life of incomparable beauty, an image of the life force.
So John Keats, Phidian sophisticate, is stunned that at first that he does not recognize them. Then he does, in the break between the first two stanzas. The urn rotates three times. He knows them well. They are his nemeses. He doesn’t want to see them. He wants to be free of them. “Why did ye not melt,” he asks, “and leave my sense unhaunted quite of all but — nothingness?”
As the urn revolves before his eyes he calls them out: Love, Ambition, Poesy. When they suddenly disappear he’s momentarily rattled. ”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.” And as for Poesy, “she has not joy — at least for me.” He was happily day-dreaming until they came. He only wants his daydream back again. He banishes them “into the clouds, and never more return.” He sinks gratefully back into an indolence that sounds so gorgeous that you can’t blame him:
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…
It would be foolish not to stay. He tells Love, Ambition, and Poesy that he sheds no tears at their leaving.
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!