The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“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.

(This entire section contains 601 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 using the same wording, replaces it completely. For example, in stanza 2, Keats despairs because Psyche never had a “virgin-choir to make delicious moan/ Upon the midnight hours.” In stanza 3, he offers himself to Psyche, saying “let me be thy choir, and make a moan/ Upon the midnight hours.” In stanza 2, he mourns because Psyche, in the classical world, had

No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet   From chain-swung censer teeming;No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat   Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.

In stanza 3, he once again speaks to Psyche, saying, let me be

Thy voice, thy lute, thy pipe, thy incense sweet   From swinged censer teeming;Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat   Of pale-mouth’d prophet dreaming.

In the same way that the abundance of stanza 3 contradicts the emptiness of stanza 2, the fourth stanza contradicts the first. Keats concludes the poem by returning to the opening site, that forest in which he came upon the two lovers. Stanza 4 re-creates that pristine scene, but the new location is changed into a “fane,” or temple, inside the poet’s mind. Whereas the first stanza talks about a natural scene with fragrant flowers in blossom and the wind in the trees, the fourth stanza has a gardener named Fancy, or imagination, “breeding flowers” that are never the same and the “branched thoughts” of the poet’s mind, “instead of pines,” murmuring “in the wind.” The original forest and its wildness are transmuted by Keats into a “rosy sanctuary” dressed “With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain.” This extended metaphor, or conceit, of the final stanza concludes by joining the two lovers, or at least allowing Eros an entranceway into the sacred fane: “a casement ope at night” is an odd and metaphorical window in the brain through which Eros can pass to be with his love.

This dialogue between the stanzas, in which the first is joined with the last and the second with the third, is balanced by another device: The poem moves forward powerfully from start to finish simply because it is driven by the initial phrases of each stanza. The first three stanzas all begin with a similar technique. The goddess is invoked or praised in an exclamatory phrase that begins with an interjection: “O Goddess!” “O latest born and loveliest vision far/ Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!” “O brightest!” The reader must wait until the final stanza to find an alteration of the form; after the first three stanzas address the goddess, the fourth stanza records the poet’s resolve: “Yes, I will be thy priest!” Keats creates tension in the poem by combining these two techniques, which forces the reader to look at the relationships between stanzas in two different ways.