Keats’s Odes

by: John Keats

Ode to Psyche

It is very important to note that the large number of irregularities and long algebraic rhyme schemes in this ode should not be taken as signs of great formal complexity. “Ode to Psyche” is much more freely and loosely written than any of Keats’s other odes, and the fact that it is difficult to schematize testifies to this spontaneity and freedom rather than to an elaborate preconceived formal scheme. The other odes, though their stanzas and rhyme schemes are easier to describe in terms of form, are much more strictly ordered and make much deeper use of strict form than does the “Ode to Psyche.” In fact, there is little to gain from long formal analysis of the Psyche ode; its form is better understood in the loose and general terms in which it seems to have been planned.

Themes

With its loose, rhapsodic formal structure and its extremely lush sensual imagery, the “Ode to Psyche” finds the speaker turning from the delights of numbness (in “Ode on Indolence”) to the delights of the creative imagination—even if that imagination is not yet projected outward into art.

The basis for the story of “Ode to Psyche” is a famous myth. Psyche was the youngest and most beautiful daughter of a king. She was so beautiful that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was jealous of her; she dispatched her son, Eros, the god of love (the Cupid of Roman mythology and the “winged boy” of Keats’s poem) to punish Psyche for being so beautiful. But Eros was so startled by Psyche’s beauty that he pricked himself with his own arrow and fell in love with her. Eros summoned Psyche to his palace, but he remained invisible to her, coming to her only and night and ordering her never to try to see his face. One night, Psyche lit a lamp in order to catch a glimpse of her lover; but Eros was so angry with her for breaking his trust that he left her. Psyche was forced to perform a number of difficult tasks to placate Venus and win back Eros as her husband. The word “psyche” is Greek for “soul,” and it is not difficult to imagine why Keats would have found the story attractive—the story of the woman so beautiful that Love fell in love with her.

Additionally, as Keats observed, the myth of Psyche was first recorded by Apuleius in the second century A.D., and is thus much more recent than most myths (this is why Keats refers to Psyche as the “latest born” of “Olympus’s faded hierarchy”). It is so recent, in fact, that Psyche was never worshipped as a real goddess. That slight is what compels Keats’s speaker to dedicate himself to becoming her temple, her priest, and her prophet, all in one. So he has found a way to move beyond the numbness of indolence and has discovered a goddess to worship. To worship Psyche, Keats summons all the resources of his imagination. He will give to Psyche a region of his mind, where his thoughts will transform into the sumptuous natural beauties Keats imagines will attract Psyche to her bower in his mind. Taken by itself, “Ode to Psyche” is simply a song to love and the creative imagination; in the full context of the odes, it represents a crucial step between “Ode on Indolence” and “Ode to a Nightingale”: the speaker has become preoccupied with creativity, but his imagination is still directed toward wholly internal ends. He wants to partake of divine permanence by taking his goddess into himself; he has not yet become interested in the outward imaginative expression of art.