“Ode to Psyche,” made up of sixty-seven lines, is divided into four stanzas of varying lengths. Although iambic pentameter is the dominant meter of the poem, John Keats often includes lines of iambic trimeter as well. The rhyme scheme is generally in a quatrain form of abab, but rhyming couplets are also employed. This technical complexity is typical of the ode form.
The poem begins with a direct address to the goddess Psyche, the personification of the human soul, and this one-sided conversation continues thoughout the poem. Keats himself is the first-person speaker, and “thou” is always the silent Psyche.
The first stanza, the longest in the poem, describes a vision or a dream Keats has of Psyche and her lover Eros lying “In deepest grass, beneath the whisp’ring roof/ Of leaves and trembled blossoms,” beside a brook and “cool-rooted flowers”: The soul—Psyche—and the body—Eros—lie together in the heart of nature. Keats imagines them not in a passionate embrace, but in a static, restful pose, as if he has come upon them after their lovemaking has ended. In another poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” he witnesses an eternal moment before any physical activity takes place between lovers and examines the difficulty in this position: Although “the maiden” will always remain beautiful and the man’s love will last forever, the couple, frozen in the marble of the urn, will never share a kiss. “Ode to Psyche,” in its peaceful description of Eros and Psyche, offers no such disquieting picture of love or art.
In the second stanza, the shortest in the poem, Keats disturbs the idyllic setting. He once again begins with an address to Psyche, describing her as the “loveliest vision far” of all Olympus’s goddesses, more beautiful than Phoebe or Vesper, the moon or the evening star. The difficulty enters the poem, however, in Keats’s description of the Greek gods as “Olympus’ faded hierarchy!” He acknowledges their displacement in the West by Christianity and mourns it. Psyche, the “latest born” of all the Greek gods, was not embodied as a goddess until the second century c.e., so she was never properly worshiped, in Keats’s mind. Although she is “fairer than” all the other goddesses, she has no temple in her honor, “nor altar heap’d with flowers;/ Nor virgin-choir to make delicious moan.” In his poem, Keats attempts to remedy Psyche’s abandonment. She may have “no shrine, no grove, no oracle” or prophet associated with her, but the poet, through the power of the human imagination, offers her recompense.
Keats admits in the third stanza that Psyche was born “too late for antique vows,” and he realizes that the blessed time has passed when “the haunted forest boughs” were holy, when “the air, the water, and fire” were holy; reason and science have displaced the power of myth. The poem, however, does not give in to despair. The poet, once again addressing Psyche directly, asks permission to serve her: Let me be “Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipeThy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle.”
Stanza 4 resolves the problem wonderfully. Keats will build a fane, or temple, “in some untrodden region of [his] mind.” The poet will become the soul’s priest, using his “working brain” to create a world filled with “soft delight” for the goddess. The mind of the poet will re-create the scene pictured in the first stanza; after the goddess is pleasantly seated in his brain, Keats will leave a “casement ope at night,/ To let the warm Love in!” Eros and Psyche will be reunited.
Forms and Devices
Part of Keats’s reputation as a great poet derives from the appeal of his sensual, opulent phrasing. In “Ode to Psyche,” however, the lush language is perhaps over-shadowed by an atypical technique: Keats risks a monotonous sound in the poem by repeating certain key words. In order to make a point about the mind’s ability to compensate for loss, Keats first describes what has been lost and then, by...
(The entire section is 1,133 words.)