Ode to Psyche
Notes on Ode to Psyche by John Keats
The first written of Keats' 'spring odes' of April to May 1819.
They were written in the order: Psyche, Nightingale, Grecian Urn, Melancholy, Indolence
1. What is an Ode? An ode is the most exalted and perhaps most intense form of lyric poetry. Lyric poetry is poetry which concerns itself with the expression of individual feelings. This makes it the archetypal form of poetry for Keats as he was concerned with the intensity of emotions, the importance of feelings and the importance of the individual's experience. Rather than being linked by narrative development the ode is connected by patterns of imagery and close development of thought and feeling. The word 'ode' is derived from an ancient Greek word meaning to 'sing' or 'chant'. As well as the passionate development of an important theme, the ode is also characterised by diverse and quite complex stanza forms. Whenever, Keats referred to a poem as an ode it was a clear signal that he felt passionate reverence for the subject.
2. The Spring Odes
They emerge as a series of reflections and mediations on concerns at the heart of Keats's work:
the nature of beauty;
the beauty of nature and the importance of growth;
the beauty and permanence of Art;
the transience of life and joy;
the relationship between pain and joy.
the complex relationship between dream and reality;
the responsibilities of the artist;
the power of the imagination.
3. The form of 'Psyche'. It comprises four verse paragraphs of different lengths, respectively of 23, 12, 14 and 18 lines. In each stanza the structure reflects Keats's manipulation of excitement and climax and Keats' fastidiousness about rhyme, for, uniquely in the Spring Odes, four lines in the poem 10,15,44 and 45 are left unrhymed presumably because any rhyme words which suggested themselves would have harmed the sense. Keats did not repeat this irregular form in the next three odes.
4. Who was Psyche? A representation of the soul in Greek Mythology and sometimes represented asa butterfly. She was a nymph who attracted the love of Cupid but who left her, angry at her disobedience. She desperately sought her lover all over the earth and had to carry out superhuman tasks. Eventually Jupiter, at Cupid's entreaty, consented to their marriage and Psyche was brought to heaven. The tale has often been seen as an allegory of the soul's journey through life and its final union with the divine after suffering and death.
5. Why did this myth attract Keats?
All classical allusions enabled Keats to universalise his poetry, connected the poet's concerns with images and stories which had gathered in meaning over the centuries; classical tales represented their own kind of permanence; they were widely understood and seen to be symbolic by Keats's readers.
The classical age was also seen as a time of simplicity where feeling and thought, spirituality and sensuality were united.
This tale clearly relates to key Keatsian concerns:
- the importance of love, idealised as an expression of emotional desire and sexual sensation and, unlike in 'Lamia', unambiguously fulfilling, and immortalised in the temple of the poet's imagination, ''To let the warm love in'.
- the relationship between love and transience, and then a reunion after death
- the concept of the 'vale of soul-making'. This concept first appears in a letter of May 1819 in which Keats wrote of his rejection of the Christian idea that the earth is a 'vale of tears' to see it as a 'vale of soul-making'. That is that the soul grew and matured through love and suffering ( this explanation of the value of suffering is called a theodicy) to a greater understanding of the balance of good and evil, the essential link in human experience between joy and pain. Psyche's story and experiences with Cupid are a mythical expression of this. - the opportunity to celebrate these ideas through evocation of sensation.
6. How has the poem been read?
It has been seen as an extended metaphor about poetry. The poet constructs a perfect setting for Psyche to enjoy her divine immortality. The poem is like a temple for the worship of Psyche but also for the poet to deify and immortalise her, and therefore the power of Art itself.
It begins with the concept of a dream where the poet voyeuristically beholds the two 'fair creatures'. The second stanza evokes the sensuous delight of the bower and of the lovers, almost in suspension between two acts of love-making: 'And ready still past kisses to outnumber At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love' (love at the dawn). In other words the dream creates an image of desire in which the poet can behold and sensuously evoke through language the experiences of natural and sensual sensation.
Stanza three uses the rhetorical device of anaphora (beginning phrases with a repeated word) to catalogue the absences in Psyche's history. Stanza four celebrates the holiness, spirituality and sensuality of the 'faint Olympians' and personalises his task by asserting that he, the poet, will affirm all of that which she has been denied: voice, lute, choir etc. In other words the absence of stanza 3 are affirmed to be in Keats's power to bestow.
The final stanza is wonderful. Suddenly the external vision of the first two stanzas is internalised as the poem becomes a celebration of the poetic imagination to create the temple, 'with the wreathed trellis of working brain'; note how Keats uses elaborate imagery and language of both pain ('new grown with pleasant pain') and quietness ('wide quietness' and 'soft delight'. The rich creativity of the imagination is celebrated. 'With all the gardener Fancy e'er could feign, Who breeding flowers, will never breed the same.'
The final lines of the poem not only recall the myth of Psyche meeting Cupid in the dark but evoke the immediacy of a warm evening awaiting the entry of one's 'warm love', not in secrecy but in open embrace. Keats is using sensual imagery to celebrate the creative power of the poetic imagination to immortalise a goddess who represented not just love but the way that love and the soul grows through desire, loss, suffering and reunion. The poem can therefore be used to discuss Keats';
i) use of classical mythology and the lyrical intensity of the ode form.
ii) treatment of love: erotic and spiritual; it is a more positive vision than in 'Lamia' where love (and the imagination) is seen as both a revelation and a delusion, fulfilling and destructive
iii) his sensuous evocation of love, nature and a transcendent beauty; the beauty of Psyche through keats' imagination an transcend time and survive pain to achieve more complex beauty.
iv) the power of the poetic imagination to enrich, celebrate, create and perhaps immortalise experience.
v) the importance of the maturing of the soul through experience. Compared to the other Odes this is perhaps the most happy and most unambiguously positive. The 'Nightingale' and 'The Urn' are much more concerned with the contradictory and ambiguous relationship between art and life, permanence and transience, dream and reality, 'Melancholy' is a more explicit recognition of the sterility of escape and the acceptance of the inevitable union between contradictory experiences; 'Autumn' is the most complete acceptance of the conflicts and contradictions in human experience reconciled and held together in nature and in the poetic imagination's ability to recreate experience in all its contradictions and celebrate the principles of growth and maturity.