Ode to Psyche Themes
by John Keats

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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One of the chief concerns of “Ode to Psyche” is the poet’s role in a modern society. Like the other major poets of the early part of the nineteenth century, Keats found himself in a world that was beginning to be denuded of myth and ritual, a world in which reason and progress had started to strip “the air, the water, and the fire” of their holiness. The Christian ceremonies and rituals did not seem to have the same power, according to Keats, that the ancient, classical rites of worship had. In “Ode to Psyche,” Keats attempts to reopen the door to mystery and holiness using the human imagination.

Keats’s cure for the problem, however, is extremely self-absorbed. It is as if the poet can have an effect only on the level of the individual. The poem does not offer a recipe for a great awakening among the people of England or the world; instead, the poem traces a single poet’s attempts to save a portion of the ancient mysteries for himself.

Apparently, this type of spiritual rebirth was not available to the “average” man or woman; Keats accentuates his special gift when he announces that “even in these days so far retir’d/ From happy pieties” of the past, he is able to see Psyche and sing about her “by [his] own eyes inspired.” The poet is in no way a lowly creature; he creates his own inspiration, and his mind serves as the sacred temple in which the goddess will find her “soft delight.” This ode has never been regarded by most readers as equal to “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “Ode to a Nightingale,” perhaps because of this poetic self-assuredness. Keats triumphs too easily in the poem; he rectifies the problem of a desacralized world by retreating into the mind of the poet alone.

The strengths of the poem, however, lie in the sheer power of Keats’s imagination, his attempt to conjoin Eros and Psyche, the body and the spirit, in one being. He wants his mind, his own imagination, to be the place where the lovemaking takes place. The priest has become a poet who encourages the dalliances between the sexes. Although the reader never actually sees Eros and Psyche enter the “untrodden regions” of Keats’s mind, the poem suggests that the union is possible. It ends with tremendous hopefulness, since it is in fact a hymn of praise not only to the goddess Psyche but also to the human soul and imagination, unaided by divine intervention.