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.