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.

Popular pages: Keats’s Odes