‘Ode on indolence’ is the praise of indolence/sluggishness; it makes the claim of the attractions of lethargy being more alluring than the attractions of the more active emotions of love, ambition and poetry. It is the admiration of the state of non-doing and non-feeling. The ode is a simple, straight forward story of a man who spends a lazy summer day in a state of numbness and does not want his visions of love, ambition and poesy to disrupt his indolence.
These three figures are strikingly contrasted to the condition of indolence. The poetic persona could be Keats himself.
The ode begins with the poetic persona seeing ‘three figures’ one summer morning passing him by in a dream/vision, as if on a ‘marble urn’ they returned with each turn of the vase. Their description resembles that of pilgrims with ‘bowed necks, and joined hands’ wearing ‘placid sandals’ and ‘white robes’, they were seen in profile. The figures are called ‘shades’ and ‘strange’, the narrator is confused and cannot identify them.
The narrator’s confusion is shown in the next stanza with the repetition of the questions regarding the identity and the nature of the figures.
The word ‘ripe’ is used to describe his time of idleness; this has positive innuendo and gives the impression of richness. The figures were robbing him of his ‘summer-indolence’, they are described as constructing a ‘deep-disguised plot’ and are said to ‘steal’. These terms are negative and show these figures to be menacing or malevolent at least to a slight degree.
In contrast indolence is compared to a ‘blissful cloud’ that favourably makes pain numb and takes its ‘sting’ away [metaphor], however it also takes the joy away from pleasure or ‘pleasure’s wreath no flower’ [metaphor].
The narrator begs the ‘shadows’ to leave him to his much longed-for ‘nothingness’. The term used- ‘shadows’ insinuates the visions are dark and ominous. The third verse is commenced with yet another question addressing the reason for the figures appearance. His confusion is echoed in the word ‘baffled’. His soul is compared to a beautiful ‘lawn’ strewn with ‘flowers’, ‘stirring shades’ and ‘baffled beams’; the sky was ‘clouded’ but there was no rain, only dew drops called the ‘sweet tears of May’.
This pristine image of the narrator’s soul is brought on by the state of inactivity, thus we are made to believe that this state of being is desirable or covetable. He wants to ‘bid farewell’ to the three shadows. The fourth verse shows the third turn of the urn and brings forth the realisation of the there figures- the ‘fair maid’ ‘love’, ‘ambition’ ‘pale of cheek’ with ‘fatigued eye’ and the ‘maiden most unmeek’ ‘poesy’. Their description has negative connotations; only love is shown in a slightly positive light.
In this verse the narrator feels intense urge to follow the three and longed for ‘wings’ to fly in pursuit of them. Poesy is said to be the most appealing of the three and is called a ‘demon’; this could be justified by saying that it is because the narrator finds poesy most difficult to resist and it holds an almost enchantment like hold on him. Keats has expressed his wish to fly on the ‘wings of poesy’ before in another poem. In the fifth stanza a question is posed to love to establish its elusive nature.
Love is also criticised as being fleeting and short-lived and not to mention ‘folly’. Ambition on the other hand is condemned as being a mortal emotion that ‘springs’ from the human heart. From other poems- ‘ode to a nightingale’ or ‘ode on a Grecian urn’- we know that Keats has trouble with mortality and impermanence. And as for poesy, ‘it has not a joy’ compared to ‘honied indolence’- the narrator would rather be devoid of ‘common-sense’ and spend his ‘drowsy noons’ numb and listless completely ignorant to the world around him [‘I may never know how change the moons’].
The concluding stanza says ‘adieu’ to the three and marks their defeat in rousing the narrator from his laziness. He commands the ‘phantoms’ to ‘vanish’ and ‘never more return’. He banishes them back to the ‘dreamy urn’ and reduces them to ‘faint visions’. But taking into account that the state of indolence as compared to the three visions is hardly mentioned, it is not very convincing that the poetic persona prefers indolence over his other temptations [especially after reading some of his other poems]. It does however come across that he is trying to deny his passions even to himself.