Ode to Psyche: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Ode to Psyche 

The language of the poem captures the myth and magic of the ancient world, with references to zephyrs, Dryads and temples. 
Keats’ language also reflects the poem’s structure as it moves from one tableau to another. The tone changes from the warmth of physical love in stanza 1 to the more structured language of religious observance in the final stanza. There is a degree of repetition which is clearly intentional but a more clumsy device in Keats’ first ode than is seen in more mature odes.
The diction in the first stanza is soft and tender, with frequent sibilance (see bold) and gentle assonance (see underlining):
O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung 

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear:

Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see (5)

The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes?

I wander'd in a forest thoughtlessly,

And, on the sudden, fainting with surprise,

Saw two fair creatures, couched side by side

In deepest grass, beneath the whisp'ring roof (10)
Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran

A brooklet, scarce espied:     
It captures the gentle meandering of the speaker’s body and/or mind between the borders of reality and dream. 
Keats is carefully shaping the language and is working towards a powerful aural effect, but at this stage is also employing the kind of self-conscious poetic diction and attitude that the Romantic poets generally sought to avoid (for example, ‘soft-conched ear’, ‘fainting with surprise’, ‘tender eye-dawn of aurorean love’). 
Encountering the couple relaxed and (presumably) post-coitus, Keats conveys their leisure and lack of tension by the hyphenated ‘cool-rooted’, ‘calm-breathing’ and ‘soft-handed’. The sounds created are sensuous, with long, liquid vowels. The whole scene is delicately onomatopoeic: the leaves are ‘whispering’, the blossoms ‘trembled’. The soft breathing of the lovers is suggested by the ‘s’ sounds in words such as ‘hushed’, ‘silver’, ‘grass’, ‘arms’, ‘embraced’, ‘pinions’, ‘lips, and ‘Soft .. slumber’.
The words used to depict the second tableau (in the final stanza) indicate more mental energy than the impressionistic musings of Keats’ initial dream/vision. The sensuous woodland landscape gives way to cultivated surroundings fashioned by the ‘gardener Fancy’. The plosives of:
Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:     
speak of a more disciplined environment, also suggested by the word ‘Trellis’, although it is still softened by the repeated long vowel sounds of ‘murmur’, ‘far, far’, ‘steep by steep’, ‘wide quietness’. In this second tableau flowers do not grow wildly but are ‘bred’ and there is intentionality in the opening of the window and provision of a torch. 

Investigating language and tone of Ode to Psyche

  • Make a list of the negatives used to describe what Psyche has, historically, not been given. 
    • Then make a list of the positives which the speaker says he will provide. 
    • What is the effect of this contrast?
  • How does the tone move from the warm language of physical ease to the cooler language of religious formality?
  • What examples of rhetorical patterns can you find in the poem? 
    • What is their effect?
  • Pick out some of the poem’s sound effects and comment on their contribution to meaning?

Structure and versification in Ode to Psyche

Keats based his stanza design on the sonnet. Although there is more irregularity in the Ode to Psyche than in the later odes, Keats still uses the foundation of iambic pentameter. Stanza 3 is the most like a sonnet, having 14 lines (rhyming a b a b c d d c in the octave and e e f g f g in the sestet).
The four-line unit (quatrain) is an important part of the structure, the conclusion of each usually marking the end of one thought and the beginning of another. However, Keats’ experimentation with stanza form was about freedom rather than restriction. There is a mixture of predictability and the unexpected. The ode’s first stanza, for instance, begins with a regular, alternate rhyme-scheme which becomes more random, incorporating unrhymed lines in l.10 and l.14. This has the effect both of giving a sense of freshness and energy to the verse, as well as endowing each stanza with a sense of harmony, since the initial alternating rhyme-scheme is returned to at the end of the stanza.
The overt repetition of l. 28-35 in l. 44-49 is perhaps heavy-handed in a poem about the beauty of the soul, and the speaker’s desire to ‘make a moan’ does not harmonise with the fluid music associated with the classical lyre.
The poem’s structure is an important part of its meaning. There are two tableaux which operate as a framing device for the ode. In each, Keats recreates the forgotten Psyche.
In the first (‘Surely I dreamt today, or did I see / The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?’), Psyche is placed in the context of ancient mythology, a place which exists outside the poet’s imagination and which is accessible through dream or waking vision.
The second tableau occurs in the final stanza when the poet declares that he will serve as Psyche’s priest. The difference is that this time the context is not a wild classical landscape but rather ‘in some untrodden region’ of the poet’s mind.

Investigating structure and versification in Ode to Psyche

  • ‘The poem’s structure is an important part of its meaning.’ Explain this point in your own terms.
  • What is the effect of the poem’s mixture of predictability and surprising irregularity?
    • Do you see this as a mark of freshness and energy or of incoherence?
  • How does the poem’s framing device work?
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