|Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: ode
| The Composition of "Ode to Psyche"
The Myth of Psyche
In Greek myth, Psyche was a Keats described writing this ode in a letter to his brother and sister,
When Keats wrote this poem, he was thinking about the soul and theorized that the soul developed, became individualized, through suffering (letter, April 21, 1819). It is characteristic of Keats's thought that he saw the development of the soul (a positive experience) tied inextricably to suffering (a negative experience). The conflicted nature of life and the effort to unite opposites run through his poetry, as you have seen.The following poem, the last I have written, is the first and only one with which I have taken even moderate pains; I have, for the most part, dashed off my lines in a hurry. This one I have done leisurely; I think it reads the more richly for it, and it will, I hope, encourage me to write other things in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit. You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist, who lived after the Augustan Age, and consequently the goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour, and perhaps never thought of in the old religion. I am more orthodox than to let a heathen goddess be so neglected. (April 30, 1819).
In Greek myth, Psyche was a princess whom Cupid, the son of Venus, fell in love with. Fearing his mother's jealousy of her beauty, he visited her only at night, in total darkness. In one version of the myth she was overcome by curiosity and in another she was frightened by a rumor that her lover was a snake; in any event, to discover who and what he was, she looked at him one night after he had fallen asleep. When oil dripping from her lamp awoke him, he fled. Psyche searched for him, enduring much suffering. As a reward for her devotion and the hardships she had undergone, she was made immortal and reunited with Cupid. "The Ode to Psyche" is not universally admired, as are "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," and "To Autumn." It has been called "the least clearly organized of the odes" and the "least coherent and most uneven of the later poems." But even its detractors have admired Keats's skillful combining of nature and myth and his sensuous language, as in the description of Cupid and Psyche together.
Whichever of these readings you choose, the main movement and meaning of the poem remain essentially the same. The poet feels the loss of faith or source of inspiration. Though the gods have lost their power in modern society, the poet still desires transcendence, that is, to rise above the limits of everyday reality for a higher reality, one which engages the higher faculties like imagination and spirit.
The poet's worship of Psyche is solitary, for several possible reasons.
description of Cupid and
Psyche in stanza II and the poet's praise of her beauty in Stanza III
prepare for his conversion in stanza IV; they help to explain it. Keats
emphasizes the joyful state Psyche has achieved and her beauty, which
deserve to be
worshipped, though her age and the poet's age ignore her. The second
half of stanza III and lines
1-3 of stanza IV describe the failure of the ancients to worship
Psyche. And the poet lives in "days so far retired / From happy
pieties" (IV, 5-6).
Stanzas IV and V
Keats uses religious imagery to indicate how profoundly this experience has affected the poet-dreamer. In devoting himself to Psyche, he will become her "priest" (V, 1), priesthood traditionally being the holiest and highest calling in a community. He will form a congregation of worshippers (IV, 9-14). He will build a temple and a "rosy" sanctuary. Why "rosy"? What does "rosy" connote? Would the effect/meaning change if he used grey or black instead?
The poet-dreamer will also serve as the congregation in the religion he has created (IV, 9-14). He will perform the religious duties that earlier ages failed to (III, 7-12). The Temple and the flowers Psyche lacked (III, 5-6), the poet will provide in the last stanza with the "fane," the "sanctuary," the "wreath'd trellis," "buds," and "breeding flowers." He alone will replace the disbelief of a previous age and his own age.
He is and
will remain separate from and inaccessible to his own age and
contemporaries. His temple is in an "untrodden region"; "far, far" the
trees will ring the
mountains, which are "steep by steep"; he imagines a "wide"
silence. Do you find anywhere in this poem references that include or
might allow for the
inclusion of others?
Keats uses concrete nature images to describe mental processes. The temple to Psyche is to be built "In some untrodden region of my mind" (line 2). There "branched thoughts new grown with pleasant pain" murmur. The sanctuary will be decorated by his "working brain," with everything Fancy or imagination can invent. The delight Psyche will experience comes from his "shadowy thought." His nature imagery is so vivid that the reader can easily forget that it exists only in the poet's mind, as descriptions of his mental processes.
Keats's characterization of the poet's mental process needs to be examined closely. Does Keats's dreamer suggest, however tentatively or unconsciously, doubts about his inspiration or worship?
Why does the poet propose building a shrine in an "untrodden region of my mind" (line 3)? Is it because the age he lives in does not encourage the use of that area--or of imagination and other high faculties--or love? Is it necessary to hide his devotion to a higher reality? Is he expressing a covert desire, perhaps unconscious, to keep his experience private, for himself?
Stanza V is longer than the other four stanzas. Has Keats made a mistake, or is this a technique for giving importance to the content? Another change in this stanza is his projecting his commitment into the future with the future tense verbs "shall" and "will." Previously his verbs were either past tense or present tense.
In this poem, do we see
genesis or evolution of the poet? Is the poem itself a result of
Psyche's inspiration? Is the poem a tribute to
or an expression of his worship of Psyche? Or are some of my
suggestions getting a little too clever or ingenious?
Click here for vocabulary and allusions for stanza V.
|Keats, Online overview
Lyric Poems, pp. 1-34, 51, 52
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
"When I have fears that I may cease to be"
"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 34-45
"The Eve of St. Agnes"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 45-62
"Ode to a Nightingale"
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"La Belle Dame sans Merci"
"Ode on Melancholy"
Reading Lyric Poetry
The Lyric Stanza: A Convention
Lyric Epiphanies and Speakers
The Romantic Meditative Ode
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"Ode to Psyche"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
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