Classification of Poem

Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: ode

Contents of Page

The Composition of "Ode to Psyche"
The Myth of Psyche
General Comments
      Stanzas I-III
      Stanzas IV-V
      Stanza V
Keats Syllabus

         In Greek myth, Psyche was a Keats described writing this ode in a letter to his brother and sister,
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).
          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.

          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.

          Psyche is clearly a symbol:

          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.

          The poet-dreamer in this poem ends with a strong affirmative; he vows to keep a window open "To let the warm Love in." But is his affirmation wholehearted, or is it undercut by a hint of doubt or negativity? Has the mind (or the imagination or the power of love--depending on how you interpret Psyche) successfully created the glory, beauty, and love that have been lost in the disbelief of Keats's age? or has the poet found only a partial solution? And how much has the dreamer changed because of his experience?           The poem moves from the poet-dreamer coming upon Psyche and Cupid in an intense moment between kisses, through his description of two ages of disbelief-- Psyche's and his own--to end with his dedicating himself to Psyche and what she symbolizes.

Stanzas I-III

          At the beginning of this ode, the poet wonders whether he really saw Psyche or whether he dreamed the encounter (I, 5-6). Does the answer to that question affect the validity of his experience? If the encounter was a vision or waking dream, would the experience be negated? Think about how vividly he describes Cupid and Psyche; are they real for us as we read of them, regardless of their actual existence?

          The 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

          The poet, out of his personal experience, becomes her worshipper, i.e., is inspired to write poetry: "I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspir'd" (IV, 8). He insists upon the personal, and by implication private, nature of his inspiration.

          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?

Stanza V

          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?

  • The phrase "Branched thoughts" (line 3) describes the way we think, with thoughts going off in every direction. That they are grown with "pleasant pain" is a characteristic Keatsian oxymoron.
  • His "working brain" (line 11) has been stimulated to activity. This mental activity contrasts with his wandering "thoughtlessly" before encountering Psyche (I, 7) at the begining of his poem, when he lacked inspiration or a faith which draws forth the higher facilities.
  • One of the things Fancy devises is "stars without a name" (line 12). Is Keats suggesting that the stars are insubstantial, that is, that they don't exist? Or does the mind or the imagination reveal the unknown to us?
  • Does "feign" (line 13) also carry its more common meaning of pretend or dissemble, with its suggestion of falseness?
  • His thought is "shadowy" (line 13). Does "shadowy" have positive, negative, or neutral connotations?
Do you find a trace of disillusionment in any of these phrases?

          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 the 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?

Keats Syllabus

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"
"To Autumn"
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"
**Supplemental Reading**
      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)
Paper 1 due
**Supplemental Reading**
      Topics for Paper
      Introduction to Writing Your Paper
      Critical Essays, written by students
      Personal Response Essays,
            written by students
      Essays of Society or General Analysis,
            written by students
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