In the first stanza, Keats’s speaker describes a vision he had one morning of three strange figures wearing white robes and “placid sandals.” The figures passed by in profile, and the speaker describes their passing by comparing them to figures carved into the side of a marble urn, or vase. When the last figure passed by, the first figure reappeared, just as would happen if one turned a vase carved with figures before one’s eyes.
In the second stanza, the speaker addresses the figures directly, asking them how it was that he did not recognize them and how they managed to sneak up on him. He suspects them of trying to “steal away, and leave without a task” his “idle days,” and goes on to describe how he passed the morning before their arrival: by lazily enjoying the summer day in a sort of sublime numbness. He asks the figures why they did not disappear and leave him to this indolent nothingness.
In the third stanza, the figures pass by for a third time. The speaker feels a powerful urge to rise up and follow them, because he now recognizes them: the first is a “fair maid,” Love; the second is pale-cheeked Ambition; and the third, whom the speaker seems to love despite himself, is the unmeek maiden, the demon Poesy, or poetry. When the figures disappear in the fourth stanza, the speaker again aches to follow them, but he says that the urge is folly: Love is fleeting, Ambition is mortal, and Poesy has nothing to offer that compares with an indolent summer day untroubled by “busy common-sense.”
In the fifth stanza, the speaker laments again the figures’ third passing, describing his morning before their arrival, when his soul seemed a green lawn sprinkled with flowers, shadows, and sunbeams. There were clouds in the sky but no rain fell, and the open window let in the warmth of the day and the music of birdsong. The speaker tells the figures they were right to leave, for they had failed to rouse him. In the sixth stanza, he bids them adieu and asserts again that Love, Ambition, and Poesy are not enough to make him raise his head from its pillow in the grass. He bids them farewell and tells them he has an ample supply of visions; then he orders them to vanish and never return.
Like all the other odes but “To Autumn” and “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode on Indolence” is written in ten-line stanzas, in a relatively precise iambic pentameter. Like the others (again, with the exception of “Ode to Psyche”), its stanzas are composed of two parts: an opening four-line sequence of alternating rhymed lines (ABAB), and a six-line sequence with a variable rhyme scheme (in stanzas one through four, CDECDE; in stanza five, CDEDCE; in stanza six, CDECED).
Chronologically, the “Ode on Indolence” was probably the second ode. It was composed in the spring of 1819, after “Ode on Melancholy” and a few months before “To Autumn.” However, when the odes are grouped together as a sequence, “Indolence” is often placed first in the group—an arrangement that makes sense, considering that “Indolence” raises the glimmerings of themes explored more fully in the other five poems, and seems to portray the speaker’s first struggle with the problems and ideas of the other odes. The story of “Indolence” is extraordinarily simple—a young man spends a drowsy summer morning lazing about, until he is startled by a vision of Love, Ambition, and Poesy proceeding by him. He feels stirrings of desire to follow the figures, but decides in the end that the temptations of his indolent morning outweigh the temptations of love, ambition, and poetry.
So the principal theme of “Ode on Indolence” holds that the pleasant numbness of the speaker’s indolence is a preferable state to the more excitable states of love, ambition, and poetry. One of the great themes of Keats’s odes is that of the anguish of mortality—the pain and frustration caused by the changes and endings inevitable in human life, which are contrasted throughout the poems with the permanence of art. In this ode, the speaker’s indolence seems in many ways an attempt to blur forgetfully the lines of the world, so that the “short fever-fit” of life no longer seems so agonizing. The speaker rejects love and ambition simply because they require him to experience his own life too intensely and hold the inevitable promise of ending (of love, the speaker wonders what and where it is; of ambition, he notes the pale cheek and “fatigued eye,” and observes that it “springs” directly from human mortality). He longs never to know “how change the moons” and to be “sheltered from annoy.” This is why Poesy offers the most seductive, and also most hateful, challenge to indolence. Poetry is not mortal and changeable (Poesy, in fact, is a “demon”), but it is anathema to indolence and would require the speaker to feel his life too acutely—thus it has “not a joy” for him as sweet as the drowsy nothingness of indolence.
Though the poem ends on a note of rejection, the persistence of the figures and the speaker’s impassioned response to them indicate that he will eventually have to raise his head from the grass and confront Love, Ambition, and Poesy more directly—a confrontation embodied in the other five odes, where the speaker struggles with problems of creativity, mortality, imagination, and art. Many of the ideas and images in “Ode on Indolence” anticipate more developed ideas and images in the later odes. Each ode finds Keats confronting some sort of divine figure, usually a goddess; in “Indolence,” he confronts three. The lushly described summer landscape, with its “stirring shades / and baffled beams,” anticipates the imaginary landscape the speaker creates in “Ode to Psyche”; the experience of numbness anticipates the aesthetic numbness of “Ode to a Nightingale” and the anguished numbness of “Ode on Melancholy”; the birdsong of the “throstle’s lay” anticipates the nightingale and the swallows of “To Autumn.” The Grecian dress of the figures and their urn-like procession anticipate the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and also cast back to an earlier poem, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” in which the speaker’s confrontation with some ancient Greek sculptures makes him feel overwhelmed by his own mortality. (The “Phidian lore” the speaker refers to at the end of the first stanza is a direct reference to the earlier poem: Phidias was the sculptor who made the Elgin marbles.)
In this way, the “Ode on Indolence” makes a sort of preface to the other odes. It does not enter into a dramatic exploration of love, ambition, or art, but rather raises the possibility of such a confrontation in a way that casts light on the speaker’s behavior in the other odes. Its lush, sensuous language, and its speaker’s oscillation between temptation and rejection in the face of the figures’ persistent processional, indicate a fuller, deeper, and more acutely felt poetic exploration to come. But for now, the speaker is content to let the figures fade and to give himself wholly to the numb dreaminess of his indolence.