Ode to Psyche: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of Ode to Psyche

Cupid and Psyche by Benjamin WestThe poem opens with the speaker addressing the goddess Psyche, entreating her to forgive him for singing her own secrets to her and urging her to hear his words. He relates how, while wandering through the forest that day, he came upon ‘two fair creatures’ asleep in an embrace, whom he recognised: a winged boy (later revealed to be Eros - god of Love) and winged Psyche.
In stanza 2 the speaker describes Psyche as the youngest and most beautiful of all the gods and goddesses living on Mount Olympus. However, unlike the rest, Psyche has none of the usual attributes of the gods: no temple, no altar, no choir to sing her praises and so on. 
Keats explains in stanza 3 that this is because Psyche is still young, and thus missed the bygone era of ‘antique vows’ and the ‘fond believing lyre’. Instead the poem’s speaker will supply the lack himself, especially as the age in which he lives (‘so far retir’d from happy pieties’) needs her more than ever. 
In stanza 4 the speaker says that he will become Psyche’s priest and build her a temple (‘fane’) of the mind and imagination, with a garden sanctuary cultivated by ‘Fancy (i.e. imagination)’. He promises Psyche that when she is established in her new home (the poet’s mind), the window will be left open so that her winged boy (i.e. Eros/Love) will be able to have free access to her.

Commentary on Ode to Psyche


In one of his letters to his brother George in May 1819, Keats wrote:
The following poem – the last I have written – is the first and the only one with which I have taken even moderate pains. I have for the most part dashed off my lines in a hurry. This I have done leisurely – I think it reads the more richly for it, and will I hope encourage me to write other things in even a more peaceable and healthy spirit. You must recollect that Psyche was not embodied as a goddess before the time of Apuleius the Platonist, who lived after the Augustan age and consequently the goddess was never worshipped or sacrificed to with any of the ancient fervour, and perhaps never thought of in the old religion – I am more orthodox than to let a heathen goddess be so neglected.     

The myth of Psyche

Psyche represents the human soul made immortal through love. In art she is frequently depicted as having the wings of a butterfly, to suggest the lightness of the soul, of which the butterfly is a symbol. In the ancient world, when a man had just died, his body was often portrayed as having a butterfly fluttering above it, as if emerging from his mouth. In Greek the word ‘psyche’ means both soul and butterfly. Keats translates the idea of winged lightness into a dove in his ode.
The myth of Psyche presents her as a mortal king’s daughter of such beauty that she caused people to forget Venus, the goddess of love. This caused Venus to want to destroy her. Although Psyche becomes the bride of Venus’s son Eros, she loses him and then wanders through the world, being attacked by Venus, for whom she must accomplish fearful tasks. 
However, Psyche was helped by the gods and by nature until such time as she was reunited with Eros and forgiven by Venus, then eventually made immortal by Zeus.


numbers: verses
soft-conched: metaphor of ear as a sea-shell, creating an effect of colour and delicate form
Psyche: Psyche represents the human soul
Tyrian: purple, from a dye made at Tyre
surprise: The poem’s speaker would have expected Psyche to be alone and suffering, as usually depicted.
pinions: wings
eye-dawn of aurorean love: Aurora was the ancient Greek goddess of the dawn, so the words mean: ‘as their eyes open, their love is revitalised just as the sun rises at dawn’.
winged boy: Eros (Roman: Cupid) the god of love
Olympus’ faded hierarchy: At the time when Psyche was added to the ranks of Greek gods who lived on Mount Olympus, they were no longer worshipped as devoutly as in the past.
Phoebe: goddess of the moon
Vesper: the evening star, i.e. the planet Venus (‘amorous’ because Venus was the Roman goddess of love)
make delicious moan: sing sensuously beautiful songs
censer: A container in which incense is burnt during a religious ceremony.
teeming: pouring, flowing
oracle: A sacred place where the god was supposed to answer questions of the greatest importance posed by his worshippers.
heat /Of pale-mouthed prophet: ‘heat’ refers to the intensity of religious inspiration. The prophet, however, is in a trance so he appears ‘pale-mouthed’ as he utters his prophecy.
antique vows: prayers offered up in ancient times
fond believing lyre: hymns sung to harp accompaniment by devout worshippers
so far retir’d / From happy pieties: so far distanced from the rituals of joyful worship
lucent fans: luminous wings
faint Olympians: The gods of Mount Olympus are no longer worshipped and are therefore fading from consciousness.
fane: temple, shrine
branched thoughts: This image conjures up the shape of trees as well as an anatomical image of the human brain, metaphorically conveying the intricate workings of the human imagination
Fledge: cover (literally with feathers)
zephyrs: gentle west winds
Dryads: tree nymphs
feign: invent
casement: archaic term for a window. In the Greek myth, Cupid flew in through Psyche’s window at night.

Investigating commentary on Ode to Psyche

  • How are the two deities represented in the opening of the poem?
  • Can you see any connections between them and the lovers pictured on the later Ode on a Grecian Urn?
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