keats bloom


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One of the central themes in W. J. Bate’s definitive John Keats is the “large,
often paralyzing embarrassment ... that the rich accumulation of past poetry,
as the eighteenth century had seen so realistically, can curse as well as bless.”
As Mr. Bate remarks, this embarrassment haunted Romantic and haunts
post-Romantic poetry, and was felt by Keats with a particular intensity.
Somewhere in the heart of each new poet there is hidden the dark wish that
the libraries be burned in some new Alexandrian conflagration, that the
imagination might be liberated from the greatness and oppressive power of
its own dead champions.
Something of this must be involved in the Romantics’ loving struggle
with their ghostly father, Milton. The role of wrestling Jacob is taken on by
Blake in his “brief epic” Milton, by Wordsworth in The Recluse fragment, and
in more concealed form by Shelley in Prometheus Unbound and Keats in the
first Hyperion. The strength of poetical life in Milton seems always to have
appalled as much as it delighted; in the fearful vigor of his unmatched
exuberance the English master of the sublime has threatened not only poets,
but the values once held to transcend poetry:
... the Argument
Held me a while misdoubting his Intent,

HAROLD BLOOM
Introduction
2 Harold Bloom
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song
(So Sampson grop’d the Temple’s Posts in spite)
The World O’erwhelming to revenge his sight.
The older Romantics at least thought that the struggle with Milton had
bestowed a blessing without a crippling; to the younger ones a consciousness
of gain and loss came together. Blake’s audacity gave him a Milton altogether
fitted to his great need, a visionary prototype who could be dramatized as
rising up, “unhappy tho’ in heav’n,” taking off the robe of the promise, and
ungirding himself from the oath of God, and then descending into Blake’s
world to save the later poet and every man “from his Chain of Jealousy.”
Wordsworth’s equal audacity allowed him, after praising Milton’s invocatory
power, to call on a greater Muse than Urania, to assist him in exploring
regions more awful than Milton ever visited. The prophetic Spirit called
down in The Recluse is itself a child of Milton’s Spirit that preferred, before
all temples, the upright and pure heart of the Protestant poet. But the child
is greater than the father, and inspires, in a fine Shakespearean reminiscence:
The human Soul of universal earth,
Dreaming on things to come.
Out of that capable dreaming came the poetic aspirations of Shelley
and of Keats, who inherited the embarrassment of Wordsworth’s greatness to
add to the burden of Milton’s. Yielding to few in my admiration for Shelley’s
blank verse in Prometheus, I am still made uneasy by Milton’s ghost hovering
in it. At times Shelley’s power of irony rescues him from Milton’s presence
by the argument’s dissonance with the steady Miltonic music of the lyrical
drama, but the ironies pass and the Miltonic sublime remains, testifying to
the unyielding strength of an order Shelley hoped to overturn. In the lyrics
of Prometheus Shelley is free, and they rather than the speeches foretold his
own poetic future, the sequence of The Witch of Atlas, Epipsychidion and
Adonais. Perhaps the turn to Dante, hinted in Epipsychidion and emergent in
The Triumph of Life, was in part caused by the necessity of finding a sublime
antithesis to Milton.
With Keats, we need not surmise. The poet himself claimed to have
abandoned the first Hyperion because it was too Miltonic, and his critics have
agreed in not wanting him to have made a poem “that might have been
written by John Milton, but one that was unmistakably by no other than John
Keats.” In the Great Odes and The Fall of Hyperion Keats was to write poems
unmistakably his own, as Endymion in another way had been his own.
Introduction 3
Individuality of style, and still more of conception, no critic would now deny
to the odes, Keats’s supreme poems, or to The Fall of Hyperion, which was his
testament, and is the work future poets may use as Tennyson, Arnold and
Yeats used the odes in the past.
That Keats, in his handful of great poems, surpassed the Miltonhaunted
poets of the second half of the eighteenth century is obvious to a
critical age like our own, which tends to prefer Keats, in those poems, to even
the best work of Blake, Wordsworth and Shelley, and indeed to most if not
all poetry in the language since the mid-seventeenth century. Perhaps the
basis for that preference can be explored afresh through a consideration of
precisely how Keats’s freedom of the negative weight of poetic tradition is
manifested in some of his central poems. Keats lost and gained, as each of the
major Romantics did, in the struggle with the greatness of Milton. Keats was
perhaps too generous and perceptive a critic, too wonderfully balanced a
humanist, not to have lost some values of a cultural legacy that both
stimulated and inhibited the nurture of fresh values.
Mr. Bate finely says, commenting on Keats’s dedication sonnet to
Leigh Hunt, that “when the imagination looks to any past, of course,
including one’s own individual past, it blends memories and images into a
denser, more massive unit than ever existed in actuality.” Keats’s
confrontation with this idealized past is most direct from the Ode to Psyche on,
as Mr. Bate emphasizes. Without repeating him on that ode, or what I myself
have written elsewhere, I want to examine it again in the specific context of
Keats’s fight against the too-satisfying enrichments with which tradition
threatens the poet who seeks his own self-recognition and expressive
fulfillment.
Most readers recalling the Ode to Psyche think of the last stanza, which
is the poem’s glory, and indeed its sole but sufficient claim to stand near the
poet’s four principal odes. The stanza expresses a wary confidence that the
true poet’s imagination cannot be impoverished. More wonderfully, the poet
ends the stanza by opening the hard-won consciousness of his own creative
powers to a visitation of love. The paradise within is barely formed, but the
poet does not hesitate to make it vulnerable, though he may be condemned
in consequence to the fate of the famished knight of his own faery ballad.
There is triumph in the closing tone of To Psyche, but a consciousness also I
think of the danger that is being courted. The poet has given Psyche the
enclosed bower nature no longer affords her, but he does not pause to be
content in that poet’s paradise. It is not Byzantium which Keats has built in
the heretofore untrodden regions of his mind but rather a realm that is
precisely not far above all breathing human passion. He has not assumed the
responsibility of an expanded consciousness for the rewards of self4
Harold Bloom
communing and solitary musing, in the manner of the poet-hero of Alastor,
and of Prince Athanase in his lonely tower. He seeks “love” rather than
“wisdom,” distrusting a reality that must be approached apart from men. And
he has written his poem, in however light a spirit, as an act of self-dedication
and of freedom from the wealth of the past. He will be Psyche’s priest and
rhapsode in the proud conviction that she has had no others before him, or
none at least so naked of external pieties.
The wealth of tradition is great not only in its fused massiveness, but
in its own subtleties of internalization. One does poor service by sandbagging
this profoundly moving poem, yet even the heroic innovators but tread the
shadowy ground their ancestors found before them. Wordsworth had stood
on that ground, as Keats well knew, and perhaps had chosen a different
opening from it, neither toward love nor toward wisdom, but toward a plain
recognition of natural reality and a more sublime recognition-by-starts of a
final reality that seemed to contain nature. Wordsworth never quite named
that finality as imagination, though Blake had done so and the young
Coleridge felt (and resisted) the demonic temptation to do so. Behind all
these were the fine collapses of the Age of Sensibility, the raptures of Jubilate
Agno and the Ode on the Poetical Character, and the more forced but highly
impressive tumults of The Bard and The Progress of Poesy. Farther back was the
ancestor of all such moments of poetic incarnation, the Milton of the great
invocations, whose spirit I think haunts the Ode to Psyche and the Ode to a
Nightingale, and does not vanish until The Fall of Hyperion and To Autumn.
Hazlitt, with his usual penetration, praises Milton for his power to
absorb vast poetic traditions with no embarrassment whatsoever: “In reading
his works, we feel ourselves under the influence of a mighty intellect, that the
nearer it approaches to others, becomes more distinct from them.” This
observation, which comes in a lecture Keats heard, is soon joined by the
excellent remark that “Milton’s learning has the effect of intuition.” The
same lecture, in its treatment of Shakespeare, influenced Keats’s conception
of the Poetical Character, as Mr. Bate notes. Whether Keats speculated sadly
on the inimitable power of Milton’s positive capability for converting the
splendor of the past into a private expressiveness we do not know. But the
literary archetype of Psyche’s rosy sanctuary is the poet’s paradise, strikingly
developed by Spenser and Drayton, and brought to a perfection by Milton.
I am not suggesting Milton as a “source” for Keats’s Ode to Psyche. Poets
influence poets in ways more profound than verbal echoings. The paradise of
poets is a recurrent element in English mythopoeic poetry, and it is perhaps
part of the critic’s burden never to allow himself to yield to embarrassment
when the riches of poetic tradition come crowding in upon him. Poets need
to be selective; critics need the humility of a bad conscience when they
Introduction 5
exclude any part of the poetic past from “tradition,” though humility is never
much in critical fashion. Rimbaud put these matters right in one outburst:
“On n’a jamais bien jugé le romantisme. Qui l’aurait jugé? Les Critiques!!”
Milton, “escap’t the Stygian pool,” hails the light he cannot see, and
reaffirms his ceaseless wanderings “where the Muses haunt / clear Spring, or
shady Grove,” and his nightly visits to “Sion and the flow’ry Brooks beneath.”
Like Keats’s nightingale, he “sings darkling,” but invokes a light that can
“shine inward, and the mind through all her powers / Irradiate.” The light
shone inward, the mind’s powers were triumphant, and all the sanctities of
heaven yielded to Milton’s vision. For the sanctuary of Milton’s psyche is his
vast heterocosm, the worlds he makes and ruins. His shrine is built, not to
the human soul in love, but to the human soul glorious in its solitude,
sufficient, with God’s aid, to seek and find its own salvation. If Keats had
closed the casement, and turned inward, seeking the principle that could
sustain his own soul in the darkness, perhaps he could have gone on with the
first Hyperion, and become a very different kind of poet. He would then have
courted the fate of Collins, and pursued the guiding steps of Milton only to
discover the quest was:
In vain—such bliss to one alone
Of all the sons of soul was known,
And Heav’n and Fancy, kindred pow’rs,
Have now o’erturned th’inspiring bow’rs,
Or curtain’d close such scene from ev’ry future view.
Yeats, in the eloquent simplicities of Per Amica Silentia Lunae, saw
Keats as having “been born with that thirst for luxury common to many at
the outsetting of the Romantic Movement,” and thought therefore that the
poet of To Autumn “but gave us his dream of luxury.” Yeats’s poets were Blake
and Shelley; Keats and Wordsworth he refused to understand, for their way
was not his own. His art, from The Wanderings of Oisin through the Last Poems
and Plays, is founded on a rage against growing old, and a rejection of nature.
The poet, he thought, could find his art only by giving way to an anti-self,
which “comes but to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is
reality.” Yeats was repelled by Milton, and found no place for him in A Vision,
and certainly no poet cared so little as Milton to express himself through an
anti-self. In Blake’s strife of spectre and emanation, in Shelley’s sense of being
shadowed by the alastor while seeking the epipsyche, Yeats found precedent
for his own quest towards Unity of Being, the poet as daimonic man taking
his mask from. a phase opposite to that of his own will. Like Blake and
Shelley, Yeats sought certainty, but being of Shelley’s phase rather than
6 Harold Bloom
Blake’s, he did not find it. The way of Negative Capability, as an answer to
Milton, Yeats did not take into account; he did not conceive of a poet “certain
of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of
Imagination.” (There is, of course, no irritable reaching after mere fact and
reason in Yeats: he reached instead for everything the occult sub-imagination
had knocked together in place of fact and reason. But his motive was his
incapability “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” and the results are
more mixed than most recent criticism will admit.)
Keats followed Wordsworth by internalizing the quest toward finding
a world that answered the poet’s desires, and he hoped to follow Shakespeare
by making that world more than a sublime projection of his own ego.
Shakespeare’s greatness was not an embarrassment to Keats, but the hard
victories of poetry had to be won against the more menacing values of poetic
tradition. The advance beyond the Ode to Psyche was taken in the Ode to a
Nightingale, where the high world within the bird’s song is an expansion of
the rosy sanctuary of Psyche. In this world our sense of actuality is
heightened simultaneously with the widening of what Mr. Bate terms “the
realm of possibility.” The fear of losing actuality does not encourage the dull
soil of mundane experience to quarrel with the proud forests it has fed, the
nightingale’s high requiem. But to be the breathing garden in which Fancy
breeds his flowers is a delightful fate; to become a sod is to suffer what Belial
dreaded in that moving speech Milton himself and the late C. S. Lewis have
taught too many to despise.
Milton, invoking the light, made himself at one with the nightingale;
Keats is deliberate in knowing constantly his own separation from the bird.
What is fresh in this ode is not I think a sense of the poet’s dialogue with
himself; it is surprising how often the English lyric has provided such an
undersong, from Spenser’s Prothalamion to Wordsworth’s Resolution and
Independence. Keats wins freedom from tradition here by claiming so very
little for the imagination in its intoxicating but harsh encounter with the
reality of natural song. The poet does not accept what is as good, and he does
not exile desire for what is not. Yet, for him, what is possible replaces what is
not. There is no earthly paradise for poets, but there is a time of all-but-final
satisfaction, the fullness of lines 35 to 58 of this ode.
I do not think that there is, before Keats, so individual a setting-forth
of such a time, anywhere in poetic tradition since the Bible. The elevation of
Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey still trembles at the border of a theophany, and
so derives from a universe centered upon religious experience. The vatic gift
of Shelley’s self to the elements, from Alastor on, has its remote but genuine
ancestors in the sibylline frenzies of traditions as ancient as Orphism. Blake’s
moments of delight come as hard-won intervals of rest from an intellectual
Introduction 7
warfare that differs little if at all from the struggles towards a revelatory
awareness in Ezekiel or Isaiah, and there is no contentment in them. What
Keats so greatly gives to the Romantic tradition in the Nightingale ode is
what no poet before him had the capability of giving—the sense of the
human making choice of a human self, aware of its deathly nature, and yet
having the will to celebrate the imaginative richness of mortality. The Ode to
a Nightingale is the first poem to know and declare, wholeheartedly, that
death is the mother of beauty. The Ode to Psyche still glanced, with high good
humor, at the haunted rituals of the already-written poems of heaven; the
Ode to a Nightingale turns, almost casually, to the unwritten great poem of
earth. There is nothing casual about the poem’s tone, but there is a
wonderful lack of self-consciousness at the poem’s freedom from the past, in
the poem’s knowing that death, our death, is absolute and without memorial.
The same freedom from the massive beliefs and poetic stances of the
past is manifested in the Ode on a Grecian Urn, where the consolations of the
spirit are afforded merely by an artifice of eternity, and not by evidences of
an order of reality wholly other than our own. Part of this poem’s strength is
in the deliberate vulnerability of its speaker, who contemplates a world of
values he cannot appropriate for his own, although nothing in that world is
antithetical to his own nature as an aspiring poet. Mr. Bate states the poem’s
awareness of this vulnerability: “In attempting to approach the urn in its own
terms, the imagination has been led at the same time to separate itself—or
the situation of man generally—still further from the urn.” One is not certain
that the imagination is not also separating itself from the essential poverty of
man’s situation in the poem’s closing lines. Mr. Bate thinks we underestimate
Keats’s humor in the Great Odes, and he is probably right, but the humor
that apparently ends the Grecian Urn is a grim one. The truth of art may be
all of the truth our condition can apprehend, but it is not a saving truth. If
this is all we need to know, it may be that no knowledge can help us. Shelley
was very much a child of Miltonic tradition in affirming the moral
instrumentality of the imagination; Keats is grimly free of tradition in his
subtle implication of a truth that most of us learn. Poetry is not a means of
good; it is, as Wallace Stevens implied, like the honey of earth that comes and
goes at once, while we wait vainly for the honey of heaven.
Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley knew in their different ways that
human splendors had no sources but in the human imagination, but each of
these great innovators had a religious temperament, however heterodox, and
Keats had not. Keats had a clarity in his knowledge of the uniqueness and
finality of human life and death that caused him a particular anguish on his
own death-bed, but gave him, before that, the imagination’s gift of an
absolute originality. The power of Keats’s imagination could never be
8 Harold Bloom
identified by him with an apocalyptic energy that might hope to transform
nature. It is not that he lacked the confidence of Blake and of Shelley, or of
the momentary Wordsworth of The Recluse. He felt the imagination’s desire
for a revelation that would redeem the inadequacies of our condition, but he
felt also a humorous skepticism toward such desire. He would have read the
prose testament of Wallace Stevens, Two Or Three Ideas, with the wry
approval so splendid a lecture deserves. The gods are dispelled in mid-air,
and leave “no texts either of the soil or of the soul.” The poet does not cry
out for their return, since it remains his work to resolve life in his own terms,
for in the poet is “the increasingly human self.”
Part of Keats’s achievement is due then to his being perhaps the only
genuine forerunner of the representative post-Romantic sensibility. Another
part is centered in the Ode on Melancholy and The Fall of Hyperion, for in these
poems consciousness becomes its own purgatory, and the poet learns the cost
of living in an excitement of which he affirms “that it is the only state for the
best sort of Poetry—that is all I care for, all I live for.” From this declaration
it is a direct way to the generally misunderstood rigor of Pater, when he
insists that “a counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated,
dramatic life,” and asks: “How may we see in them all that is to be seen in
them by the finest senses?” Moneta, Keats’s veiled Melancholy, counted
those pulses, while the poet waited, rapt in an apprehension attainable only
by the finest senses, nearly betrayed by those senses to an even more
premature doom than his destined one. What links together The Fall of
Hyperion and its modern descendants like Stevens’s Notes toward a Supreme
Fiction is the movement of impressions set forth by Pater, when analysis of
the self yields to the poet’s recognition of how dangerously fine the sells
existence has become. “It is with this movement, with the passage and
dissolution of impressions, images, sensations, that analysis leaves off—that
continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of
ourselves.”
Though there is a proud laughter implicit in the Ode on Melancholy, the
poem courts tragedy, and again makes death the mother of beauty. Modern
criticism has confounded Pater with his weaker disciples, and has failed to
realize how truly Yeats and Stevens are in his tradition. The Ode on
Melancholy is ancestor to what is strongest in Pater, and to what came after in
his tradition of aesthetic humanism. Pater’s “Conclusion” to The Renaissance
lives in the world of the Ode on Melancholy:
Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy
and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity,
disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us.
Introduction 9
Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a
quickened, multiplied consciousness.
The wakeful anguish of the soul comes to the courter of grief in the
very shrine of pleasure, and the renovating powers of art yield the tragedy of
their might only to a strenuous and joyful seeker. Keats’s problem in The Fall
of Hyperion was to find again the confidence of Milton as to the oneness of
his self and them, but with nothing of the Miltonic conviction that God had
worked to fit that self and theme together. The shrines of pleasure and of
melancholy become one shrine in the second Hyperion, and in that ruin the
poet must meet the imaginative values of tradition without their attendant
credences, for Moneta guards the temple of all the dead faiths.
Moneta humanizes her sayings to our ears, but not until a poet’s
courteous dialectic has driven her to question her own categories for
mankind. When she softens, and parts the veils for Keats, she reveals his
freedom from the greatness of poetic tradition, for the vision granted has the
quality of a new universe, and a tragedy different in kind from the tragedy of
the past:
Then saw I a wan face,
Not pined by human sorrows, but bright-blanch’d
By an immortal sickness which kills not;
It works a constant change, which happy death
Can put no end to; deathwards progressing
To no death was that visage; it had pass’d
The lily and the snow; and beyond these
I must not think now, though I saw that face.
But for her eyes I should have fled away.
They held me back with a benignant light,
Soft mitigated by divinest lids
Half closed, and visionless entire they seem’d
Of all external things—
Frank Kermode finds this passage a prime instance of his “Romantic
Image,” and believes Moneta’s face to be “alive only in a chill and inhuman
way,” yet Keats is held back from such a judgment by the eyes of his Titaness,
for they give forth “a benignant light,” as close to the saving light Milton
invokes as Keats can ever get. Moneta has little to do with the Yeatsian
concept of the poetic vision, for she does not address herself to the alienation
of the poet. M. H. Abrams, criticizing Mr. Kermode, points to her emphasis
on the poet as humanist, made restless by the miseries of mankind. Shelley’s
10 Harold Bloom
Witch of Atlas, for all her playfulness, has more to do with Yeats’s
formulation of the coldness of the Muse.
Moneta is the Muse of mythopoeia, like Shelley’s Witch, but she
contains the poetic and religious past, as Shelley’s capricious Witch does not.
Taking her in a limited sense (since she incarnates so much more than this),
Moneta does represent the embarrassments of poetic tradition, a greatness it
is death to approach. Moneta’s perspective is close to that of the Rilkean
Angel, and for Keats to share that perspective he would have to cease to
depend on the visible. Moneta’s is a perfect consciousness; Keats is
committed still to the oxymoronic intensities of experience, and cannot
unperplex joy from pain. Moneta’s is a world beyond tragedy; Keats needs to
be a tragic poet. Rilke dedicated himself to the task of describing a world
regarded no longer from a human point of view, but as it is within the angel.
Moneta, like this angel, does not regard external things, and again like Rilke’s
angel she both comforts and terrifies. Keats, like Stevens, fears the angelic
imposition of any order upon reality, and hopes to discover a possible order
in the human and the natural, even if that order be only the cyclic rhythm of
tragedy. Stevens’s definitive discovery is in the final sections of Notes toward a
Supreme Fiction; Keats’s similar fulfillment is in his perfect poem, To Autumn.
The achievement of definitive vision in To Autumn is more remarkable
for the faint presence of the shadows of the poet’s hell that the poem tries to
exclude. Mr. Bate calls the Lines to Fanny (written, like To Autumn, in October
1819) “somewhat jumbled as well as tired and flat,” but its nightmare
projection of the imagination’s inferno has a singular intensity, and I think
considerable importance:
Where shall I learn to get my peace again?
To banish thoughts of that most hateful land,
Dungeoner of my friends, that wicked strand
Where they were wrecked and live a wrecked life;
That monstrous region, whose dull rivers pour,
Ever from their sordid urns unto the shore,
Unown’d of any weedy-haired gods;
Whose winds, all zephyrless, hold scourging rods,
Iced in the great lakes, to afflict mankind;
Whose rank-grown forests, frosted, black, and blind,
Would fright a Dryad; whose harsh herbag’d meads
Make lean and lank the starv’d ox while he feeds;
There flowers have no scent, birds no sweet song,
And great unerring Nature once seems wrong.
Introduction 11
This may have begun as a fanciful depiction of an unknown America,
where Keats’s brother and sister-in-law were suffering, yet it develops into a
vision akin to Blake’s of the world of experience, with its lakes of menace and
its forests of error. The moss-lain Dryads lulled to sleep in the forests of the
poet’s mind in his Ode to Psyche, can find no home in this natural world. This
is Keats’s version of the winter vision, the more powerful for being so
unexpected, and clearly a torment to its seer, who imputes error to Nature
even as he pays it his sincere and accustomed homage.
It is this waste land that the auroras of Keats’s To Autumn transform
into a landscape of perfection process. Does another lyric in the language
meditate more humanly “the full of fortune and the full of fate”? The
question is the attentive reader’s necessary and generous tribute; the critical
answer may be allowed to rest with Mr. Bate, who is moved to make the
finest of claims for the poem: “Here at last is something of a genuine
paradise.” The paradise of poets bequeathed to Keats by tradition is gone; a
tragic paradise of naturalistic completion and mortal acceptance has taken its
place.
There are other Romantic freedoms won from the embarrassments of
poetic tradition, usually through the creation of new myth, as in Blake and
Shelley, or in the thematic struggle not to create a myth, as in the earlier
work of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Keats found his dangerous freedom by
pursuing the naturalistic implications of the poet’s relation to his own poem,
and nothing is more refreshing in an art so haunted by aspirations to surpass
or negate nature. Shelley, still joined to Keats in the popular though not the
critical consciousness, remains the best poet to read in counterpoint to the
Great Odes and The Fall of Hyperion. There is no acceptance in Shelley, no
tolerance for the limits of reality, but only the outrageous desire never to
cease desiring, the unflagging intensity that goes on until it is stopped, and
never is stopped. Keats did what Milton might have done but was not
concerned to do; he perfected an image in which stasis and process are
reconciled, and made of autumn the most human of seasons in consequence.
Shelley’s ode to autumn is his paean to the West Wind, where a selfdestroying
swiftness is invoked for the sake of dissolving all stasis
permanently, and for hastening process past merely natural fulfillment into
apocalyptic renewal. Whether the great winter of the world can be relieved
by any ode Keats tended to doubt, and we are right to doubt with him, but
there is a hope wholly natural in us that no doubt dispels, and it is of this
hope that Shelley is the unique and indispensable poet.

13
The total shape of the Ode on Indolence is, as I have said, a dialectical one
of advance and refusal, advance and refusal, advance and refusal—the shape
of a stalemate. At the moment represented by the ode, both the reverie of
gestating vision and the regressive choice of preconscious insensibility are
being jealously protected from the claims of the heart, of fame, and even of
art itself. To think of constructing anything at all—a love affair, a place in the
world of ambition, a poem—threatens the slumbering embryonic self. Keats
finally remains obdurate, the dreamer of the dim dream, the viewer of the
faint vision. But the strain evident in the disparate and parallel languages of
Indolence, as well as in the inherent instability of the condition of spiritual
stalemate, predicts a tipping of the balance: as we know, it tips away from
immobility toward love and art.1
The odes that follow Indolence investigate creativity by taking up
various attitudes toward the senses, almost as though the odes were invented
as a series of controlled experiments in the suppression or permission of
sense-experience. Keats’s deliberate interest in sense-response has usually
been cited as proof of his love of luxury or his minute apprehension of
sensual fluctuation. It has not been generally realized that Keats’s search for
“intensity” led him as much to a deliberate limiting of sense-variety as to a
broadening of sensation, and led him as well to a search for an “intensity” of
HELEN VENDLER
Tuneless Numbers:
The Ode to Psyche
From The Odes of John Keats. © 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
14 Helen Vendler
intellect that would rival the intensity of sense. In fact, the intensity to be
found in the mind attracted Keats at least as much as, if not more than, the
apparently easier intensity of sense; and the lapse of intensity following
sexual climax seems to have been only an instance, for Keats, of a curious
failure intrinsic to physical sensation itself. He described this eventual ennui
of the senses at length in Fancy, contrasting it there with the associative
powers of mental Fancy, which is able to assemble hybrid seasons and hybrid
mistresses that combine all beauties and can never fade. Imaginative
intellectual ecstasy seemed to Keats, at this point (Fancy was composed a few
months before the odes), a more promising source of sustained intensity than
physical sensation, and the second of the odes, the Ode to Psyche, is in this
respect the most “puritanical” of the group in its intent (if not in its effect).
It aims, whatever its sensual metaphors (and these will demand their own
recognition later), at a complete, exclusive, and lasting annihilation of the
senses in favor of the brain. The locus of reality in the ode passes from the
world of myth to the world of mind, and the firm four-part structure
emphasizes the wish to reproduce earlier sensual and cultic reality in a later
interiorized form. The implicit boast of Psyche is that the “working brain”
can produce a flawless virtual object, indistinguishable from the “real” object
in the mythological or historical world. “O for a life of Thoughts,” says this
ode, “instead of Sensations!”
In Psyche Keats emerges from the chrysalis of indolence, permits his
soul to become a winged spirit, and takes the smallest possible step toward
the construction of a work of art. He concedes that he will shape his reverie
toward some end (that reverie which had remained floating and inchoate in
Indolence), but decides that it will prescind from the bodily senses, and will
remain an internal making, as in Fancy, contained entirely within his own
mind. The shape of the Ode to Psyche is, in its essence, the shape of that initial
constructive act, and so is a very simple one. It is a reduplication-shape; we
might compare it to the shape made by a Rorschach blot. Everything that
appears on the left must reappear, in mirror image, on the right; or, in terms
of the aesthetic of the ode, whatever has existed in “life” must be, and can be,
restored in art.
The notion of art which underlies Keats’s continual use of the trope of
reduplication in the ode is a strictly mimetic one. The internal world of the
artist’s brain can attain by the agency of Fancy—so the trope implies—a
point-for-point correspondence with the external worlds of history,
mythology, and the senses. The task of the poet is defined in excessively
simple terms: he is, in this instance, first to sketch the full presence of Psyche
and her cult as they existed in the pagan past—that is, to show the locus of
loss—and then to create by his art a new ritual and a new environment for
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 15
the restored divinity.2 Of course Psyche is incomplete without her other half,
the god Cupid. Dissatisfied with the thinness of his allegorical and
emblematic urn-figures in Indolence, and economically reducing his figures
from three to two, Keats writes a hymn to the goddess traditionally
representing the soul, but the soul under one aspect—the soul in love.3 Each
of the subsequent odes worships a single divinity; each, like Psyche, is female;
after Psyche, all are unpartnered.
In the view of the Ode to Psyche, a pursuit of the most minute
verisimilitude becomes the task of art, since divinity will not grace art with
her presence if she lacks an exact interior re-creation of her former sensual
and cultic world. In the fiction of this ode, art does not objectify the natural
world in an external medium such as music or sculpture or even language. In
the ode, Keats’s art is the insubstantial one of Fancy, the inner activity of the
working brain, not even, as yet, the art of poetry embodied in words. The art
in Psyche is the pre-art of purposeful, constructive, and scenic or architectural
imaginings, not the art of writing; and the entire locus of this art is a mental
domain, within the artist’s brain, where Fancy, engaging in a perpetual rivalry
with nature, remains forever in a competitive (but apparently victorious)
relation to an external world.
In brief, in the Ode to Psyche Keats defines art as the purposeful
imaginative and conceptualizing activity of the artist—entirely internal,
fertile, competitive with nature, and successful insofar as it mimics nature,
myth, and history with a painstaking spiritual verisimilitude. It is art without
artifact. The artist is both worshiper of a divinity and its possessor: the
possession is envisaged here in mental, if erotic, terms, terms of invitation
and entreaty rather than of domination or mastery.
The shape of the poem pairs the opening tableau of the mythological
Cupid and Psyche embowered in the forest with the closing envisaged
tableau of the unpartnered Psyche awaiting Cupid in the bower of the artist’s
brain; and, in the center, it juxtaposes the absent historical cult of Psyche
with her imagined mental cult. I believe that the later odes demonstrate how
unsatisfactory, on further reflection, Keats found this reduplicative mirrorimage
conception of art—art as a wholly internalized, mimetic, imaginative
activity.
The ode declares, by its words and by its shape, that the creation of art
requires the complete replacement of all memory and sense-experience by an
entire duplication of the external world within the artist’s brain (a process we
have seen, in its undirected and simply pastoral sense, in Indolence, where the
soul, had itself become a lawn of flowers, complete with weather, light, and
shade). Psyche asserts that by the constructive activity of the mind we can
assert a victory, complete and permanent, over loss:4
16 Helen Vendler
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
The reparatory plot of the poem—the restoration of the proper cult and
bower of Psyche—necessitates its mirror-shape, in which the second
imaginative half of the poem reduplicates the first nostalgic portion, the
replication in diction being most exact at the center of the poem. Psyche,
because a late-born goddess, has, says Keats, no
virgin choir to make delicious moan
Upon the midnight hours;
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.
Keats will heal, one by one, with exact restitution, each of these lacks:
So let me be thy choir, and make a moan
Upon the midnight hours;
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.
Yes, I will be thy priest.
This nearly exact repetition (within a relatively short poem) of identical
words, the earlier ones describing precise lacks, the later precise reparations,
is adapted from Wordsworth’s reparatory technique of repetition in his Ode:
Intimations of Immortality.5 This strategy, unobtrusive in Wordsworth, is here
verbally insisted on by Keats, so that the curative and restorative intent of
this structure cannot be overlooked. At “So let me be thy choir,” the Ode to
Psyche folds over upon itself and by repetition of diction intends to heal its
wounds of loss.
What is the wound that is being healed? It is, in Keats’s view, a wound
to poetry itself, inflicted by Christianity. Because Christianity banished the
pagan divinities, good and bad alike, the body of poetry inherited from the
ancient world was, by Christian poets, mutilated. It was in Milton’s Nativity
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 17
Ode that Keats found the amplest description of the banishing of the pagan
gods, and he borrows his vocabulary for Psyche from Milton’s equivocal and
beautiful account of the effect of the nativity of Jesus on pagan religions. I
quote Milton’s ode, italicizing Keats’s borrowings for Psyche:
The oracles are dumb,
No voice or hideous hum
Runs thro’ the arched roof in words deceiving.
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
With hollow shriek the steep of Delphos leaving.
No nightly trance, or breathed spell
Inspires the pale-eyed priest from the prophetic cell.
The lonely mountains o’er
And the resounding shore;
A voice of weeping heard and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edg’d with poplar pale,
The parting genius is with sighing sent;
With flow’r-inwoven tresses torn
The Nymphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
In consecrated earth,
And on the holy hearth,
The Lars, and lemures moan with midnight plaint;
In urns, and altars round,
A drear and dying sound
Affrights the Flamens at their service quaint ...
Peor and Baälim
Forsake their temples dim; ...
And mooned Ashtaroth,
Heav’n’s queen and mother both,
Now sits not girt with tapers’ holy shine.
All of Keats’s Miltonic words in Psyche are drawn from Milton’s banishing of
the gentler and more civilized pagan divinities; none is drawn from Milton’s
subsequent stanzas on the defeat of the more “brutish” gods.6 It is not to
Keats’s purpose here to suggest the darker side of the pagan pantheon. For
18 Helen Vendler
him, the classical world (even in its latest manifestation, Psyche) represented
a repository of truth-giving mythology, and not, as it did for Milton, “error”
or “fable.” Therefore Keats’s description of Psyche echoes the superlatives of
Spenser’s Hymn to Heavenly Beauty:
These thus in faire each other farre excelling,
As to the Highest they approach more near,
Yet is that Highest farre beyond all telling,
Fairer than all the rest which there appear.
Psyche, says Keats (recalling as well Shakespeare’s glow-worm), is the
latest born and loveliest vision far
Of all Olympus’ faded hierarchy!
Fairer than Phoebe’s sapphire-region’d star,
Or Vesper, amorous glow-worm of the sky;
Fairer than these.
Keats’s ode, then, is a hymn to pagan heavenly beauty which, in despite of
Milton’s ritual banishing, he will restore to sovereignty and will duly
worship, thereby replenishing an impoverished poetic world where,
imagination lacks proper deities to worship.7 The goddess who has captured
his veneration is Psyche, the soul in love, and the problem the poet sets
himself is to find a spell powerful enough to conjure Psyche back into
existence.
In one sense, of course, Psyche exists eternally, forever entwined with
Cupid, in the realm of mythic forms.8 Keats must find a liturgical language
suitable for her eternal mythical being, and then a language seductive enough
to woo her into an allegorical being, within his mind. Everyone has noticed
the revelatory change in language which takes place in the poem: the first
two stanzas are written, as one critic put it, in “early Keats,” while the last
stanza exhibits in part the language of “late Keats.”9 In this ode, the early
language of erotic experience disputes the later language of aesthetic
experience, as Psyche is embowered first with her lover Cupid in the forest
of myth, but lastly with her poet-priest in his internalized shrine. Cupid and
Psyche, though drawn, as Keats said in his letter sending the poem to his
brother, from Apuleius, are described in terms Keats had gleaned from
Lemprière. Keats’s decision to take up this material at this time, material
which he had long known, is explained in part by his evolving notion of the
world as a vale of soul-making, unfolded in the same letter as the poem. But
Cupid and Psyche remind us too of Love and Poesy in the Ode on Indolence,
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 19
though they have exchanged sexes, with Love now a masculine Cupid, Poesy
a Muse called Psyche. Ambition (which vanishes entirely from the later odes)
is here still present in the vow, with something of a boast in it: “Yes, I will be
thy priest.” The motives of Love, Poesy, and Ambition are still intertwined,
but Keats has decided to modify allegory as, a way of exemplifying them, and
has turned to mythology instead—not entirely seriously, as he had in
Endymion, but in a more playful and self-conscious way: “I am more orthodox
than to let a hethen Goddess be so neglected” (Letters, II, 106).
Keats’s perplexity on the subject of mythology arose from his severe
notion of what it was to tell the truth. Though he had (as I stood tip-toe
reveals) adopted Wordsworth’s theory in The Excursion about the allegorical
source of mythology—that it originated from an attempt to adorn natural
sights with the charm of story (a narcissus drooping over a pool, the moon
alone in the sky)—Keats had expressed, as early as Sleep and Poetry, a
suspicion that the proper subject of poetry was not only “the realm ... / Of
Flora, and old Pan” (101–102; that is, the realm of allegorized natural beauty
like that of the narcissus or the moon), but also human life. In the realm of
Flora he could read allegorically “a lovely tale of human life” (110), but he
would have to bid those joys farewell, in leaving them for “a nobler life, /
Where I may find the agonies, the strife / Of human hearts” (123–125). It is
not clear to Keats whether he can write about those agonies in mythological
terms at all. One of his reproaches of the Augustan poets seems to be their
neglect of nature and mythology at once; and yet, when in Sleep and Poetry he
begins to enumerate his own possible subjects, he does not come to
mythology until he enters, in memory, the house of Leigh Hunt, and recalls
looking with him at a portfolio including a picture of Bacchus and Ariadne.
After that, there follows a confusion of subjects—nature, mythology, past
poets, ancient heroes, and modern revolutionaries, not excepting the
allegorical figure of “Sleep, quiet with his poppy coronet.” In turning in a
“modern” and “worldly” way to the tale of Cupid and Psyche, a topic already
the subject for sophisticated, even decadent, interpretation, both in literature
and in the fine arts, Keats hoped, we may surmise, to enjoy the benefits of
mythology without seeming to engage in a false archaism. His struggle with
mythological material was not, as we shall see in the subsequent odes, to be
so easily resolved, if only because he connected it so strongly with the
pictorial and sensuous representational arts, rather than with thought and
truth.
Keats’s first sophisticating of mythology is evident in his assumption
that it exists not so much in the pagan past as in an eternal region where, by
purifying himself of skeptical modernity of thought (the dull brain that
perplexes and retards), he may once again find himself. There is a formal
20 Helen Vendler
liturgical beginning to this ode (to which I shall return), but its beginning in
narrative time retells Keats’s penetration to that eternal region, as, by
wandering “thoughtlessly” in a pastoral realm, he comes as spectator upon
two winged creatures:
Their arms embraced, and their pinions too;
Their lips touch’d not, but had not bade adieu,
As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,
And ready still past kisses to outnumber
At tender eye-dawn of aurorean love.
We recognize this couple—this “happy, happy dove” and her “winged
boy”—as sentimental adumbrations of the youth and maiden on the Grecian
urn, warm in their “more happy love! more happy, happy love!” shaded by
their happy, happy boughs which cannot “ever bid the spring adieu.”
However, by the time Keats writes the Urn, though he is still using the Psyche
language of double happiness and no need to bid adieu, he has recognized
that the blissful stasis can only precede consummation, not, as in the more
innocent Psyche, outlast it. (By “recognize” of course, I mean, “realize in
language and structure”—there was no time in which Keats did not
recognize these plain truths in life.)
To present erotic desire unlessened by recent consummation, as Keats
does here in the figures of Cupid and Psyche, is to imagine an eroticism
without any share in the human cycle of desire and satiation. (Mythology
thus becomes here the world of heart’s desire, which puts into question its
capacity as a literary vehicle for the agonies of human hearts.) The symbolic
landscape in which Cupid and Psyche lie avoids the passionate and
unequilibrated; the flowers are hushed, their roots are cool, they are even
cool-colored: “blue, silver-white, and budded syrian” (corrected from the
blushing eroticism of “freckle-pink”)—though no one knows what Keats
intended “syrian” to convey. (His publishers changed it to “Tyrian.”) The
lovers themselves lie calm-breathing. In short, the divine couple are the pure
idealization of an eternal erotic desire for unsated and recurrent sexual
experience with the same partner.10 In this fantasy, love and beauty are
served, but truth of human experience is not.
The poet-spectator, having had a vision of the eternal Psyche, decides,
against Milton’s proscription of pagan gods, to restore her cult, and to that
end addresses her liturgically with the words which formally open the ode.
He hails her in terms deliberately borrowed from Lycidas (as indeed the
flower-catalogue of Psyche’s forest bower is also partially so borrowed): just
as “bitter constraint, and sad occasion dear” compel the uncouth swain, so
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 21
Keats’s “tuneless numbers” are wrung by “sweet enforcement and
remembrance dear,” in piety and pity for the banished goddess. Keats’s
numbers must be “tuneless” (that is, silent, offering no audible tones)
because the audible lyre of the ancients has fallen into disuse, but also
because his own song will be only a silent inward one, an unheard melody.
Keats’s only audience, in the internal theater of his working brain, is Psyche
herself, the soul, bereft of all other devotees. Keats’s pious memory of her
existence, and his sense of obligation in re-creating, however late, her cult,
explain his “remembrance dear” and “sweet enforcement” to this piety. Yet
the echo of Lycidas also tells us that this poem is, like its Miltonic predecessor,
an elegy for a vanished presence.
The restoration of the forgotten Psyche is the real subject of the poet’s
endeavor, and two forms of re-creation are attempted in the ode. In the first,
which opens the ode, the beloved divinity is represented as existing eternally
in a world accessible by dream or vision when the conscious mind is
suppressed, a world exterior to the poetic self. Had she been only within, the
poet’s vision of her could with propriety only be called a dream; but if she
were without, he could genuinely affirm that he had seen her with awakened
eyes. (Once again, I interrupt to say that I do not mean that Keats, in life, is
uncertain whether or not he had had a dream or seen a vision. The diction
of dream and waking is for Keats a way of making truth-claims; when he
wishes to insist that poetry has something to offer us which is more than
fanciful entertainment, he turns, as in his description of Adam’s dream, to the
metaphor of awakening and finding it truth.) The early rhetorical question
in this ode—“Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see / The winged Psyche with
awakened eyes?”—is clearly, as I will conclude later, meant to be answered,
“With awakened eyes.” This, then, is the first restoration, a pastoral,
“thoughtless” waking vision; the second is the restoration by consciously
inward architectural reduplication, where Psyche will lie not in the forest
grass but in the shrine of the working brain. The first restoration requires of
the poet a mythological doubling of the self as a visible Cupid; in the second,
the poet in his own person becomes the allegorical Love. In the drama of
these parallel experiments—the poet in the first so passive, a thoughtless,
wandering spectator, in the other so active, a creator with a working brain—
lies the interest of the ode, and the proof of its evolution out of Indolence. The
meaning of divinity changes in the two restorations: in the first, divinity is
conceived of as an idealized presence revealed in a past vision; in the second,
divinity is conceived of as a presence which the poet must actively invoke,
and create a repository for; and the intent of the poem in its latter part is
consequently couched in the future tense of hope and will. The earlier part
sees revelation as casual and easy:
22 Helen Vendler
So did he feel, who pull’d the boughs aside,
That we might look into a forest wide,
To catch a glimpse of Fauns and Dryades.
That had been Keats’s earlier description, in I stood tip-toe (151–153), of the
poet’s activity, in his writing motivated by “the fair paradise of Nature’s light”
(126). Such a poet, Keats continues, would have been the one who wrote the
tale of Cupid and Psyche, writing of them as if they were fauns and dryads,
inhabitants of an unallegorized natural paradise, their tale one of charming
adventure, happily ended (147–150):
The silver lamp,—the ravishment,—the wonder—
The darkness,—loneliness,—the fearful thunder;
Their woes gone by, and both to heaven upflown,
To bow for gratitude before Jove’s throne.
But this facile parting of forest boughs to show us a tale of love lost and won
is no longer Keats’s idea of art, nor of the use to which it can put mythology.
Poetry is no longer entertaining tale-telling, or even seeing; it is active doing,
the poet’s human work, here seen, however, as a private task rather than as a
service to society.
The Ode to Psyche intends a wresting away of Psyche from the past, and
a seduction of her into the present. Though Keats’s first tones to the goddess
are those of elegiac religious observance (“O Goddess! hear these tuneless
numbers”), he ends with wooing:
And there shall be for thee all soft delight
That shadowy thought can win,
A bright torch, and a casement ope at night,
To let the warm Love in!
Though Psyche is originally said to lack a cult and prayers, what she is
offered in the last stanza is a landscape and a chamber for love, all in the
theater of the mind (which will become eventually Moneta’s hollow skull).
The elements of erotic bower and sacred temple, which will fatefully
lose their unison in The Fall of Hyperion, are still peacefully conjoined in the
Ode to Psyche. The poet promises a “rosy sanctuary” (an erotic version of the
Urn’s “green altar”), dressed “with the wreathed trellis of a working brain, /
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name,” in a landscape where “the
moss-lain Dryads” sleep: there Psyche will find a fane that will be a bower
for her and Cupid. These materials—wreath, trellis, bells, and moss in an
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 23
architectural setting—are also found (as Bloom early noted, in The Visionary
Company, p. 394) in the beautiful “arbour” with its roof and doorway, placed
near the opening of The Fall of Hyperion (25–29)
I saw an arbour with a drooping roof
Of trellis vines, and bells, and larger blooms
Like floral-censers swinging light in air;
Before its wreathed doorway, on a mound
Of moss, was spread a feast of summer fruits.
But on closer view the feast is seen to be over, and the arbor is littered with
empty shells and half-bare grape stalks. When the poet consumes some of
the remaining feast and drinks a draught of “transparent juice, / Sipp’d by the
wander’d bee” (the nectar, we may suppose, of the gods), he sinks into a
swoon, mastered by “the domineering potion.” When he awakes, he finds the
landscape changed (60–62):
The mossy mound and arbour were no more;
I look’d around upon the carved sides
Of an old sanctuary with roof august.
In this fairy-tale substitution, the “drooping roof” of the trellised arbor has
become the “roof august” of a sanctuary no longer rosy, like that of Psyche,
but carved, as the later Keats fully accepts the separation of nature and art.
Keats’s symbols in the epic imply his grand theme: that while the first,
youthful, perception of the world is erotic, the second, adult, one is
sacrificial. As he wrote to Reynolds after completing, so far as we can judge,
all the odes but Autumn, “I have of late been moulting: not for fresh feathers
& wings: they are gone, and in their stead I hope to have a pair of patient
sublunary legs” (Letters, II, 128). In Indolence, Keats had ached, within his
chrysalis, for wings; in Psyche, both Cupid and Psyche are winged creatures
though not yet shown in flight; in Nightingale, Keats at last wills to fly, if not
on actual wings, then on the viewless wings of Poesy. The erotic dream died
only with difficulty; in Psyche Keats is still in the realm of wings and arbors,
not steps and sanctuaries.
But though in Psyche bower and sanctuary are still one, a strain is
evident in the fabric of writing. The ode attains its greatest writing not in its
description of the rosy sanctuary-bower at the close, but in the slightly
earlier description of the landscape surrounding that fane, the landscape of
the as yet untrodden region of the mind that lies beyond the Chamber of
Maiden Thought. Keats had been in what he called “the infant or
24 Helen Vendler
thoughtless Chamber” when the ode began, as he wandered in the forest
“thoughtlessly.” When the working brain enters, he is no longer thoughtless:
we are, he says, “at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the
thinking principle—within us” into the second Chamber, that of Maiden
Thought, and it is there that the working brain operates, as it does through
most of Psyche, “intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere, seeing
nothing but pleasant wonders.” That realm is still pastoral, but beyond it lie
the “precipices” which show “untrodden green,” as Keats had said in his
sonnet to Homer (Bate mentions the analogy in John Keats, p. 493): those
steeps and cliffs are not barren, but green with a new, if more alpine, verdure.
As one breathes in the atmosphere of the Chamber of Maiden Thought,
Keats adds, in the famous letter I have been quoting (Letters, I, 280–281), that
“among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of
sharpening one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man—of convincing
ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness
and oppression—whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes
gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set
open—but all dark—all leading to dark passages.” Keats had written this
passage a year before writing the Ode to Psyche, and we sense a positive effort,
at the close of the ode, to stave off the encroaching dark passages:
Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.
So the passage begins, opening into untrodden heights, and acceding to both
the pain and the pleasure of thought as work which Indolence, refusing pain’s
sting and pleasure’s wreath alike, had forbidden. But, as we recall, the rosy
sanctuary finally seems to lie within a cultivated garden, “with buds, and
bells, and stars without a name, / With all the gardener Fancy e’er could
feign.” It is not, however, the “gardener” Fancy who created the wild-ridged
mountains and the dark-clustered trees: they are the creations rather of
unconfined imagination, and they represent the sublime, as the garden
represents the beautiful. Many parallels in sublimity have been cited for these
lines, parallels from Milton and Shakespeare especially, but their effect in the
poem—given their Miltonic origins in the setting of Paradise (Paradise Lost,
IV) and in the mountains and steep of the Nativity Ode—resembles the effect
in Wordsworth’s Immortality Ode of corresponding lines:
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 25
The cataracts blow their trumpets from the steep;
I hear the echoes from the mountains throng;
The winds come to me from the fields of sleep.
The winds, the mountains, and the steep form a characteristic
Wordsworthian configuration of the sublime. The new dark-clustered
thoughts this region will require will, Keats knows, give him pain, even
though a pain which, because it calls up new creations, is compounded with
pleasure. The new domain seems limitless: “Far, far around shall those darkclustered
trees / Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep.” The farreaching
and arduous sublimity of soul here envisaged is not maintained; the
poem returns to the delicate, the beautiful, and the sensuous. It is hardly
accidental that Keats should appropriate to himself, in a poem about two
winged creatures, new pinions of his own by using the word “fledge” of his
mountain-thoughts;11 but the pinions, and the hope of steeps and
mountains, show that Keats’s notion of the pursuit of sublimity here flies on
eagle wings. The patient sublunary legs are still to come.
The earthly paradise described in the last stanza of the ode is entirely
nonseasonal, nonagricultural, and nonbucolic (there are no crops, no flocks);
it is a paradise within the working brain. Keats uses the paradisal index—the
“there” or là-bas or dahin of that “other country”—but he has abandoned the
dream of a passively received revelatory vision with which he began. The
chance sight of Cupid and Psyche is not one simply recoverable by a glimpse
through forest boughs. Yet his new, allegorical, later paradise reduplicates the
earlier, mythological one. There are, in the interior world, sleeping Dryads
lain on moss, just as the sleeping Cupid and Psyche had been couched in
grass; there are dark-clustered trees where there had been a forest; there is a
murmur of pines where there had been a whispering roof of leaves, streams
where there had been a brooklet, stars to replace Phoebe’s sapphire-regioned
star, mental flowers where there had been mythological ones, soft delight
where there had been soft-handed slumber, wide quietness where there had
been calm breathing, a bright torch to substitute for the aurorean light, and
a “warm Love” in place of the winged boy. In all of these ways, the
internalized closing scene of the poem is a copy, in its imagery, of the
opening forest scene, just as the second of the two central Miltonic stanzas
of the ode is a copy, in its catalogue of reparation, of the first, with its
catalogue of loss. The imperative of reduplication is as clear in the matching
of bowers as in the matching of cultic pieties. However, what is missing in
the tableau of the last stanza is of course crucial: we miss the figural center
of the opening tableau, the “two fair creatures” embracing. “Let me prepare
toward thee,” Keats might be saying at the end of the poem, as he lavishes all
26 Helen Vendler
his profusion of imagery on the prospective interior world to be inhabited by
Psyche. But she is not yet visible there, nor is Cupid: the close of the poem
is an entreaty and a promise, as Keats writes the archetypal poem of an absent
center.
If the Ode to Psyche were simply a restitution of what Milton’s Nativity
Ode had extirpated from English poetry, it would end with its restitutive
fourth stanza of restored cultic practice. Milton’s ode is far grander, in poetic
success, than Keats’s; but even in this novice effort Keats sees that what is life
to Milton is death to him. It is not enough to restore Psyche’s cult with a twin
stanza written in Milton’s religious vocabulary; Keats must reinvent Psyche’s
cult in his own language, the vocabulary of the luxuriant eroticism of his
initial vision.12 Milton’s pagan deities, as they are seen in the Nativity Ode,
are in no way erotic: even those who might have been are not so presented—
Ashtaroth sits alone as heaven’s queen and mother, and Thammuz is dead.
Psyche’s restoration, for Keats, must be not only the restoration of her cultvoice,
lute, pipe, incense, shrine, grove, oracle, and prophet—but also the
restoration of her atmosphere and presence. Milton’s austere language
permits itself nostalgia but no more; Keats, as Psyche’s worshiper, requires
the radiance of present conjuration. The radiant eroticizing of the interior
landscape of the mind, as it is decked and adorned and decorated, is Keats’s
chief intent, as he makes himself a mind seductive to Psyche. When Psyche
will have been won, and Love will have entered, the initial tableau will have
been reproduced entire—but this last tableau will be a wholly mental one, in
which the mind has been furnished by Fancy for the amorous soul, and Love
is a welcome guest. Keats’s characteristic erotic adjectives—soft, bright,
warm, rosy—together with the activity of Fancy, his presiding genius loci,
engaged in perpetual breeding of flowers, transform the mind from a place
conventionally reserved for philosophical thought to a place where all
possible thoughts and fancies (conceived after the manner of the poem Fancy)
are eroticized by the goddess’s imagined arrival. Worship, work, and embrace
will be one in the mind-garden, in which the more literal Miltonic cult of
swinging censers and moaning choir gives way to a new cult of tuneless
numbers, in which Psyche’s priest becomes himself her lyricist, her bower,
and her Cupid.
Nonetheless, in spite of this amorous and sensual redefinition of
religion and of the functions of the creative mind, the deepest energies of the
Ode to Psyche lie in two nonamorous places—in the sublime, uncultivated
periphery, lying outside the bower, of new-grown thoughts, and in the bold
claim not for amorousness but for independent divining power, outstripping
the soft dimness of dreaming: “I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired.”13
These high and solitary sublimities—almost sequestered in this poem of
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 27
amorous contact and decorative luxuriance—predict the more solitary Keats
of Urn, Autumn, and The Fall of Hyperion. And it must be remembered that
the cost of the bower in Psyche is the total yielding up of the temporally
bound senses for a wholly spiritual world, the consequent singing of numbers
that must be tuneless (since they are embodied in no outward melody), and
the absence of all audience for this song, except one’s own soul. These
sacrifices of sense for mind, of melody for tunelessness, and of audience for
a putative, though scarcely realized, solipsism, coexist uneasily with Keats’s
sensually opulent style in the ode, a nonascetic style developed for the
happier embraces, both spiritual and physical, of Endymion. The tension
between the amorous mythological style and the desolate sacrificial
implications of Psyche will not be solved conceptually until Keats writes the
Ode on Melancholy, and not solved stylistically until he writes the ode To
Autumn. But in the internalizing of divinity, Keats has already advanced,
conceptually, beyond Endymion’s awkward doubling of the Indian Maid and
Cynthia and beyond Indolence’s three self-projections. The wholly
internalized Psyche—one’s own soul as interior paramour, as Stevens would
call it—is one solution (but by no means a finally satisfactory one for Keats)
to the question of the proper representation of divinity in art; and the
internalized atemporal and nonagricultural bower is a solution (but again, for
Keats, not an eventually satisfying one) to the problem of the modern
representation of the locus amoenus, or beautiful place.
Keats wished (as he says in his famous journal-letter immediately
contemporary with the odes) to sketch this world as a “vale of Soul-making,”
“a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity”:
It is pretty generally suspected that the christian scheme has been
copied from the ancient Persian and greek Philosophers. Why
may they not have made this simple thing even more simple for
common apprehension by introducing Mediators and Personages
in the same manner as in the hethen mythology abstractions are
personified— (Letters, II, 103)
Abstractions, Mediators, and Personages are the means of making moral
truths “simple for common apprehension.” Keats’s own mythological and
allegorical personages, whether Psyche or Moneta or Autumn, represent his
groping after a method he thought common to all “systems of salvation,” and
therefore true in a way beyond fancifulness. If Psyche, a “happy, happy
dove,” seems to us understandably insufficient as a personage aiding in
salvation, she is nonetheless proof of the immense if circumscribed faith
Keats placed, at this time, in the active soul emerged from its chrysalis, in the
28 Helen Vendler
strength of love in the soul, and in the imaginative force of the mind in
finding constructive forms.
The Ode to Psyche was of course inspired at least in part by the presence
of Fanny Brawne next door in Wentworth Place, and Keats may not at first
have been aware, as his ode took on its final dimensions, of the social, moral,
and aesthetic restrictiveness of its wholly internalized, timeless, and tuneless
cult. Psyche, his only audience for his tuneless numbers, both is and is not a
mythological being, both is and is not an allegorical form. The ode does not
solve the equivocal nature of her being, just as it does not solve the relation
between beautiful Fancy and truthful Thought—the one concentrated in a
small garden-fane full of happy spontaneity of erotic invention, the other
mysteriously far-ranging, sublime, and connected with pain as with eagleaspiration.
Cupid and Psyche together make up the actual joint divinity of
the poem, and they stand for a unity of being through spiritualized eroticism,
for flesh and soul in one couple—at the beginning not quite fused but not
quite separate, at the end both invisible in darkness. It is a divinity Keats will
forsake: all his subsequent divinities in the odes, as I have said, are
unpartnered females—the light-winged Dryad-nightingale, the unravished
bride-Urn, veiled Melancholy, and the goddess Autumn.14 Psyche’s exact
reduplicative pairing of the outside world (whether of myth or of cult) with
the inside world (of mind or Fancy) enacts the erotic pairing of the sensual
Cupid with the spiritual Psyche celebrated in the matter of the ode. This is
Keats’s most hopeful ode, and yet his narrowest one. The willed pairing of
flesh and soul in a perpetual and immortal embrace, the studied equivalence
of the flowery bower of Nature and the architectural bower of Fancy, the
total reconstitution of past religion in the present—the perfect “fit” of these
competing realities is the dream embodied in the reduplicative shape of the
Ode to Psyche. In the collapse of Keats’s hopes for a spiritual art exactly
mimetic of the sensual vision there collapsed as well the erotic joint divinity,
the happy coexistence of Fancy with Thought, the notion of art as idyllic
verisimilitude, the concept of aesthetic activity as a purely interior working,
the valuing of decorative, atemporal Beauty over austere, evolving Truth, and
the pure idealization of the immortal soul rescued, by the agency of the poet,
from the attrition of time.
Psyche originally thought to find its distinctive language in the realm of
religion mediated through Milton—as though the clear religion of heaven,
as Keats wished to announce it, could borrow its diction from the religions
of the past, Christian and pagan alike. Keats’s wish, expressed in the letter I
have quoted, to find something to substitute for Christianity explains his first
notion of a deity’s appropriate “numbers” as vows, voiced in piety, and
culminating in a sanctuary. He will not cease to struggle for a religious
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 29
diction appropriate to his purposes, as The Fall of Hyperion testifies. But in
mute confrontation with the religious language in Psyche there stand two
other languages—that of pastoral eroticism and that of pastoral allegory, the
first in the opening description of the forest bower, the second in the closing
description of the cerebral fane. Each of these is contaminated, so to speak,
by traces of the diction of religion; the diction of religion is contaminated, in
its turn, by traces of them. The latter case is more quickly made: Psyche is a
vision, as a devotee might say, of a religious goddess, but she is addressed in
the diction of physical love. She is the “loveliest” of visions, “fairer,” in this
lover’s comparison, than Venus or Vesper, that “amorous glow-worm of the
sky”; her choir is a virgin one making delicious moan (a detail not borrowed
from Milton, but inserted by Keats), and her pale-mouthed prophet dreams
in a fever of heat. She is brightest or bloomiest, and possessed of “lucent”
fans (the adjective later repossessed for Fanny Brawne’s “warm, white, lucent,
million-pleasured breast”). The religious, Miltonic edge is softened,
warmed, coaxed into pastoral bloom. But that very bloom and heat is itself
chilled or chastened by the religious use to which it is to be assimilated, into
the formality of “O Goddess” and the austerity of “tuneless numbers.” With
the introduction of Psyche’s “soft-conched ear” the earliest lines begin their
modulation into sensuality, and yet a restraint put on sexual warmth causes
the introduction into the forest embrace of the clear note of the brooklet, the
cool note of the roots, and the denial of rosiness to the flowers. The
suspension of the lovers’ lips checks the double embrace of arms and pinions
(the latter the warmest, and most boyish, imagining in the poem—“Their
arms embraced, and their pinions too,” a dream of an embrace doubled beyond
merely human powers). The “trembled blossoms” and “tender eye-dawn”
bear out the fragile and near virginal nature of this aurorean love; Keats is
uneasy, given his purportedly religious aims, about the extent of the erotic
that he can allow into his devotions.
The governing question of the opening of the ode—“Who wast thou,
O happy, happy dove?”—is, strictly speaking, epistemological rather than
devotional, and springs, I think, from the opening of Indolence (already
conceived even if not yet written down): “How is it, shadows, that I knew ye
not?” Keats had asked that question in self-reproach, and then had
exclaimed, in self-release, after seeing the three figures full-face, “I knew the
three.” To know them is also, as Keats admits in wishing to banish them, to
know “how change the moons.” In Psyche, “the winged boy I knew,” says
Keats, but Psyche is at first strange, as the urn-figures in Indolence had been;
she, like them, is eventually recognized.15 Keats here raises the question of
what he knows when he knows these personages, and though he briefly
considers that his glimpse might have been a dream, he decides, as I have
30 Helen Vendler
said, that he saw them with awakened eyes: I “saw” two fair creatures, he
announces, and later adds, “I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired”; Psyche
is the loveliest seen thing, the loveliest “vision.” There is no further mention
of dreaming, after Keats’s first wondering question; everything else in the
text supports those “awakened eyes” in their seeing. Seeing, and knowing
who it is that one sees, and seeing truly, not in dream, is the first condition
of Keats’s clear religion, the opened eyes precluding any surrender to the
drowsiness Keats strove to maintain in Indolence. For all the resemblance
between Indolence and Psyche in what we might call their use of the diction of
bedded grass, it is, we must recall, Keats who drowses, in Indolence, amid
stirring shades and baffled beams, his head cool-bedded in the flowery grass;
but in Psyche it is the sleeping lovers who lie calm-breathing on the bedded
grass, and Keats has become the clear-sighted observer with awakened eyes.
Therefore, “not seeled, but with open eyes” (Herbert), Keats sees his own
former bower; like Ribh at the tomb of Baile and Aillinn, he has eyes by
“solitary prayer / Made aquiline,” which see what they could not have seen
when he drowsed in indolence. Keats as yet scarcely realizes whither his
newly aquiline gaze will lead. Eventually, as we know, it will disclose to him,
behind a parted veil, Moneta’s face. But for the moment Keats yearningly
believes that he can, while lifting his own head from the grass, maintain a
heavenly couple there in his place. The diction appropriate to their eroticism
grows the chaster for his separated gaze, but it preserves enough warmth for
knowledge and passion alike to be entertained in the hospitality of the poem.
The curb Keats has put on erotic fever in this passage is clear when we
glance back to the passage on Cupid and Psyche in I stood tip-toe (143–46):
What Psyche felt, and Love, when their full lips
First touch’d; what amorous, and fondling nips
They gave each other’s cheeks; with all their sighs,
And how they kist each other’s tremulous eyes.
The balance of warm and cool is, in the ode, delicately kept in all the
“stationing” of the first long stanza—the couple, though side by side, are
nonetheless calm; embraced, they are disjoined; not bidding adieu, they are
nevertheless not touching; they lie ready for a dawn that has not yet broken.
The imagery of erotic pastoral is cooled not only by Keats’s detached seeing
and knowing but also by his deliberately “tuneless” singing.
Keats’s diction for the embracing couple here is far more secure than
his diction with respect to himself. Though he begins in high seriousness, the
Byronic irony fitfully evident in Indolence has its say here too, though
shrunken to the brief double condescending to the “fond believing lyre” and
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 31
to “these days so far retir’d / From happy pieties.” This tone, never a
successful one in Keats, marks an instability in his enterprise, and a doubt of
the very possibility of ode-writing. How believing is his own lyre in this
hymn; how remote can he be, in truth, from his own skeptical epoch? The
irony in his joking tone about the neglected goddess in the letter to George
does not survive very well its translation into verse. And of all the language
in the poem, the language of religious cult, borrowed from Milton, is most
derivative, and least Keatsian.
The last diction invented in the poem is the diction for Psyche’s fane.
It is at once the best and the feeblest in the poem, showing, as I have said
earlier, the strain under which Keats is working. The feebleness is seen in
two places: in the random enumerative arabesque of “zephyrs, streams, and
birds, and bees, / ... buds, and bells, and stars without a name,”16 and in the
unselective amassing of Keatsian erotic words—rosy, soft, delight, bright,
warm. But the diction of Psyche’s fane also possesses a strength; the fane is
Keats’s first portrait of himself as artificer, as he becomes for the first time
not the youth in love, the ambitious man, or even the votary of the demon
Poesy (as he was in Indolence) but a maker of an object, here the goddess’s
sanctuary. Emerged from his embryonic indolence, Keats is born into work;
but his indecision about a proper diction for creativity disturbs him here.
The diction of “the gardener Fancy” is still the diction of pastoral eroticism,
that of “breeding”; and it issues (as in Fancy) in buds and flowerlike “stars”
and “bells.” These Spenserian breedings take place in the realm of the
Dryads, amid moss and streams and birds and bees, where lulling sleep is (as
it was in Indolence) the governing mode of being. In conflict with this soft,
mythic pastoral is the Shakespearean and Miltonic strenuousness of the fane’s
mountain landscape; and yet the sublime landscape is itself vegetative,
“grown” from that pain and pleasure which, though two separate things
when refused in Indolence, grow to one paradoxical single thing, “pleasant
pain,” when admitted to the precincts of mind. The phrase is of course a
blemish on the poem; but like so many of Keats’s blemishes it stands for an
intellectual insight for which he has not yet found the proper style in poetic
language. Keats, at this moment, can only note, baldly, that pleasure and pain
have some intimate connection; the answerable style for painful pleasure and
pleasant pain is yet to be found.
The diction of the fane is, as I have said, allegorical, as the original
diction of Psyche’s bower is not (being mythological, and narrative). Keats
had thought of following the line “Who breeding flowers, will never breed
the same” with the line “So bower’d Goddess will I worship thee,” but he
deleted it, realizing that his goddess was no longer in a bower but in a fane,
that bower language is not fane language, that nature is not architectural
32 Helen Vendler
artifact. Catching himself up short, he put in the open casement, that
casement which in Indolence had so meltingly brought the man-made and the
natural into conjunction, as “the open casement press’d a new-leaved vine.”
Here, the open casement will serve, so the poem hopes, to admit warm Love,
the human form divine, instead of the natural bloom. But the landscape has
perceptibly, in the thought-burdened allegorical moment, darkened from the
erotic one presented mythologically; the new forest region, unlike the
original one, is unknown, as yet untrodden; there are branches rather than
buds or blossoms; they cluster darkly; mountains loom, wild-ridged; instead
of feathery pinions there is a sterner fledge of trees; zephyrs are replaced by
wind. The darkness persists into the indeterminacy of “shadowy thought” at
the end, as Keats undertakes at one and the same time the burden of
allegorical writing and the architectural objectification of self in artifact, an
artifact which remains as yet internalized in thought, but which has been
effectively freed of its creator and endowed with architectural presence and
topographical depth.
The Ode to a Nightingale, which we next approach, marks a fresh
approach to all the questions raised by the odes preceding it. In it Keats takes
a step beyond the creative reverie of Indolence, beyond even the first creative
interior constructions of mental Fancy in Psyche, and envisages the artist’s
necessary embrace of a medium—in this case music, the art of Apollo. He
thus takes up, in choosing music, the idea of an art which of its nature
precludes mimesis and verisimilitude, an abstract art appealing only to the
sensation of the ear, an art devoted, perforce, to a beauty to which truth is
irrelevant. He will, pursuing his symbol of the artist as musician, adopt a
more ironic view of aesthetic experience, one in which a remote composersinger,
indifferent to and unconscious of any audience, pours forth a song to
a listener who is physically so passive, being pure ear, as almost to approach
the condition of insentience. In Nightingale the immortal world of art, far
from being an exact reduplication of the world of life, as in Psyche, is in fact
in all ways its opposite. In Psyche, the embracing sculptural frieze-figures are
no longer allegories of the poet’s desire for ambition, love, and poesy, but
rather have taken on a separate, objectified existence of their own. This
existence lapses somewhat at the end, where the poet seems to prepare to
become Cupid, but Psyche retains her independence. As a pagan goddess,
she preexisted her poet, and does not depend on him for her essence, as the
Love, Ambition, and Poesy of Indolence do. Keats’s attraction toward a
presence less contingent than his own selfhood dictates several of his other
objects of worship—a bird, an urn, a season. In the later odes, after Psyche, he
goes beyond an interest only in the psychology of inner reparatory creation
into an interest in artifact, medium, audience, and the intrinsic will-toTuneless
Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 33
annihilation in art itself. But in one aspect, Nightingale represents a
regression from Psyche. Though the composer-singer-bird is not “indolent,”
neither does she have a “working” brain; her art is one of happy spontaneity,
coming as naturally as leaves to a tree. Keats still hopes that art need not be
“work” intellectually planned. But the working brain will not be absent
forever; art as work reappears with the Urn.
NOTES
1. [Stillinger’s notes.] Text (including heading) from 1820. Variants and other
readings from Keats’s draft (D), his letter to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 February–3
May 1819 (L), and transcripts by Brown (CB) and Woodhouse (W2). Heading Ode to] Ode
To (Ode added afterward) D 4 into] <to> into L 5 dreamt] dreamt altered to dream’d W2
6 awaken’d] awaked L 9 couched] <cl> couched L 10 roof] fan D, L, W2, and originally
CB; fan altered to roof by Keats in CB 13 ‘Mid] interlined above <In> D; Near W2 14 silverwhite]
freckle pink in the margin (but silver-white undeleted in the text) in D; freckle-pink L;
freckled, pink W2 14 Tyrian] syrian D, L, CB, W2 15 calm] soft CB 17 bade] bid D, L,
W2 20 eye] <dawning> eye D 22 O happy] O <p> happy L 23 true!] ~ ? L 24 latest]
lastest L 26 Phoebe’s] successively (a) Night’s <wide> full, (b) Night’s orb’d (c) Phoebe’s D
28 hast] hadst L 30 delicious] melodious D, CB, W2 32–34 No and no] No <r> and no
<r> in all eight places in D 36 brightest] Bloomiest D, L, CB, W2 42 among] interlined
above <above> D 43 by my] by (corrected by Keats to by my) CB 43 own] interlined above
<clear> D 44 So] O D, L, CB, W2 45/46 <Thy Altar heap’d with flowers,> (written
vertically in the margin with a mark for insertion after 45, the line and the mark then deleted) D
47 From] interlined above <Thy> D 57 lull’d] interlined above <charmd> L 57 to sleep]
asleep altered to to sleep CB 62 feign] interlined above <frame> L 63 breeding ... breed]
successively (a) plucks a thousand flower and never plucks (b) plucking flowers will never
pluck (c) breeding flowers will <never> breed pluck (never deleted by mistake instead of pluck
in the third version) D 63/64 < So bower’d Goddess will I worship thee> D 67 the ... Love]
warm Love glide altered to the warm Love D; Love W2.
2. Psyche is “restored,” not “resurrected”: she was forgotten, not dead; The opening
tableau shows she is ever immortal. She is not a “dying immortal” or “immortal but also
fading,” as Leon Waldoff would have it (“The Theme of Mutability in the ‘Ode to
Psyche,’” PMLA [1977], 412). Psyche is, as Keats said, “neglected.” On the other hand,
Waldoff ’s psychoanalytic reading of the ode as a “rescue fantasy” (p. 410), a “defense
against irrevocable loss” (p. 415), and, finally, an “adaptation” (p. 417) are intelligent
insights into the ode as a psychological document. His concluding emphasis on will and
resolution is far truer to the poem than readings which emphasize only irony or an empty
center. The long and sometimes fanciful discussion of the ode by Homer Brown (Diacritics
6 [1976], 49–56) considers, following Harold Bloom in the Map of Misreading (p. 153), that
“Milton’s Satan as the artist of deceit at Eve’s ear becomes the ‘gardener Fancy’ and the
speaker of Keats’s Ode” (p. 54). Brown urges too strongly that “the mortality of all the
gods, including art, including the Psyche of this Ode, the mortality of all cultures” is
Keats’s concern (p. 56). But the poem is a restoration poem (however qualified). It is a
poem about substitution, as Brown says, but not about endless substitution around and over
a Derridean absence: such is not its tone. Leslie Brisman argues (“Keats, Milton, and What
One May ‘Very Naturally Suppose’”) that Keats is engaging in the creation of a
34 Helen Vendler
“countermyth” against the decay of nature, a countermyth asserting that “inspiration [is]
renewed as faithfully as are plants and seasons” (p. 4). (See Milton and the Romantics 6
[1975], 4–7.)
3. I am not unaware by how much the poem falls short of its claim of restitution, nor
of the ironies (discussed most recently by Sperry and Fry) that it encounters on its way to
the final fane. But these difficulties in the path—culminating in the vacancy of the final
tableau—do not defeat the passionate tone of the poem. Bloom, not insensitive to the
ironies, yet speaks of the poem’s “rhapsodical climax,” and sees the open casement
emphasizing “the openness of the imagination toward the heart’s affections” (Visionary
Company, pp. 395, 397). It should not be forgotten that for Keats, especially in his
moments of prizing verisimilitude, it was important to speak the truth about his life; one
of the truths behind the Ode to Psyche was that he was not yet embowered with Fanny
Brawne. That he still hoped and longed for her is evident from the final entreaty, and it
goes counter to the current of the poem to prize its uncertainties over its hopes, still ardent
and as yet undefeated.
4. Commentators have expended a good deal of effort on making an allegorical
identification of Psyche. She is “the soul of human love” (G. Wilson Knight, The Starlit
Dome, p. 302); the mind rescued by Love (Bate, John Keats, p. 490); the visionary
imagination (Perkins, The Quest for Permanence, p. 222 ff.); the human-soul-in-love
(Bloom, The Visionary Company, p. 390); “the simple consciousness of Being” (Fry, The
Poet’s Calling in the English Ode, p. 226); “the goddess of the poetic soul, the Muse” (Sperry,
Keats the Poet, p. 254); the “moth-goddess, who symbolized melancholic love” (Garrod, Keats,
pp. 98–99); “the intelligent ‘Spark’ struggling to become a soul ... a love-goddess with an
understanding of troubled human experience ... a personification of human nature
subjected to an inevitable and cruel process of growing up and growing old” (Allott, “The
‘Ode to Psyche,’” in Muir, John Keats, pp. 84, 86); “Love itself, the poetic-butterfly-moth
idea” (Jones, John Keats’s Dream of Truth, p. 206); and so on. Probably some such
identification is necessary if one is to write about the poem at all; but surely the point to
be made is that Keats is engaged in one of his recurrent recoils against emblematic
allegory; such recoils always took him in the direction of mythology. Mythology was
suggestive, emblematic allegory bald. Mythology, capable of motion, hovered; emblematic
allegory was frozen in a single gesture. Mythology derived from narrative and came
bearing, even if lightly, the aura of its narrative around it; allegory, originating in
conceptualization, had no richness of story about it. The fluidity of concept associated
here with Psyche comes precisely from her mythological origins; the ode marks Keats’s
resistance to the “fair Maid, and Love her name” sort of writing, to which he had resorted
in Indolence.
5. I discuss this art of wounds and cures at length in “Lionel Trilling and the
Immortality Ode,” Salmagundi 41 (1978), 66–86.
6. Though critics mention the derivation of this passage from Milton, they have
failed to see that Keats draws only on the passage about the more acceptable pagan gods,
and they have not seen Keats’s anti-Miltonic aim—to put the gods back into English
poetry, when Milton had banished them as unfit and false subjects for the Christian poet.
7. Allott (p. 87) and Sperry after her (p. 254) mention that Keats recalls the banning
of pagan gods in Milton, but they do not see that Keats saw the ban as a loss to poetry, or
that he is defying Miltonic truth-categories. Douglas Bush’s assumption that Keats
adopted echoes from Milton “simply because they fitted his idea of providing [Psyche]
with proper rites” seems to take too lightly Keats’s indignation that anyone should think it
Tuneless Numbers: The Ode to Pysche 35
possible to do without “the beautiful mythology of Greece.” See “The Milton of Keats and
Arnold,” Milton Studies 11 (1978), 103.
8. She in fact is the only one of the “faded Olympians” not to have declined; she is
still properly addressed as “brightest.” It therefore seems no part of Keats’s intent to show
her as careworn and acquainted with grief, as Allott would have it (Muir, pp. 84, 86).
9. I owe this formulation to Professor Patrick Keane of Le Moyne College.
10. I cannot therefore share Fry’s conviction that the couple represent “the bisexual
and at least partly daylit scene of creation that chaster poets, notably Collins, had tried to
represent euphemistically” (The Poet’s Calling, p. 223). Nothing is being “created” by
Cupid and Psyche, whether in the myth or in Keats’s poem; they are figures for sexuality,
but not for procreation. (Keats’s departure from Comus, where Milton envisages twins born
from the union of Cupid and Psyche, is explicit.) Nor can the forest scene be legitimately
called a “primal scene” (Fry, p. 225) if those words are to carry the shock and dismay which
Freud predicated in the mind of the child witnessing such a scene. Keats does not stand to
his scene as a child witnessing a parental act; the scene is a projection of his own desire,
and he cannot therefore be said to be, as Fry says he is, following Bloom, “the poet as
voyeur” (p. 225). If Fry means that Cupid and Psyche are to be taken as figures drawn from
Adam and Eve, then there is no reason to call the scene “bisexual,” at least not in the usual
sense of that word.
11. He speaks of his “half-fledged brain” in a letter of July 1819 (Letters, II, 130).
12. The chiastic structural pattern of bower-cult-cult-bower (what I have called the
mirror-image shape of the ode) seems to me clear enough to bring into question Fry’s
notion that the shape of the ode is one of “rondure”—“The whole poem is the shrine,
couched and soft-couched. It is a shell, rounded as the mind” (The Poet’s Calling, p. 227).
13. Homer Brown notes the defiance of Milton (“blind and blindly superstitious”) in
these lines. But he thinks of Psyche as too exclusively one with Keats, contrasting Keats’s
ode to the traditional ode “of worship to an otherness.” Keats is not writing a hymn to
himself; Psyche is, not least, Fanny Brawne. See Brown, “Creations and Destroyings:
Keats’s Protestant Hymn, The ‘Ode to Psyche,’” Diacritics 6 (1976), 49–56.
14. Leon Waldoff, also making the point that Keats’s divinities are female (in a paper
delivered at the MLA, 1980, and entitled “Processes of Imagination and Growth in Keats’s
Odes”), argues psychoanalytically that all are attempts at the (impossible) restoring of a
maternal image.
15. Lawrence Kramer in “The Return of the Gods: Keats to Rilke,” Studies in
Romanticism 17 (Fall 1978), 483–500, places the ode into a tradition of the theophanic
poem, “the genre in which the return of the gods takes place” (p. 484), and writes very
interestingly on “the riddle ritual” (p. 494) of the naming of Psyche, and the subsequent
withholding of her name.
16. Sperry voices the same criticism (p. 259); but he is wrong in saying (p. 257) that
the “buds ... burst into thought ‘with pleasant pain.’” They do not—only thoughts, in the
form of trees on the steep, do. Fancy is not painful; thought is. Keats allows in his earthly
paradise in this poem only flowers, not fruits, thus restricting his gardener to the single
season of spring.
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