Ode on Indolence: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone of Ode on Indolence


The tone develops through the poem from the coldness of the urn and its depiction of the three figures (‘placid sandals’, ‘white robes’, ‘figures on a marble urn’) to the warmth of the indolent world which the speaker proclaims is preferable to the attractive but transitory and ultimately ‘phantom’ world represented by the figures of Love, Ambition and Poetry.  There is also a certain irony in the tone.  This is a poem in which the speaker is well aware that he is refusing to answer the call of the ‘demon Poesy’ who is trying to rouse him from his lazy morning to write verses.


In stanza 2 the speaker describes his existence prior to the figures’ appearance.  Here the language is warmly sensuous, characterised by long vowel sounds and soft consonants, as in:

                   Ripe was the drowsy hour;
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumbed my eyes;

Keats’ initial response is characterised by vigour, with strong verbs and adjectives such as: ‘burn’d’, ‘ached for wings’, whilst the punctuation expresses energetic thought: ‘O folly! What is Love! And where is it?’, ‘For Poesy! – no,’

The image of the speaker’s soul as a lawn sprinkled with flowers in stanza 5 is realised by the ambiguity of the adjectives used.  ‘Stirring’ shadows suggests movement, awakening, the arousing of emotions etc. Similarly the beams are described as ‘baffled’ in the dual senses of ‘bewildered or perplexed’ and ‘restrained’ (from shining through).

There is much musical language in the ode, as suggested by the frequent alliteration and assonance.  Examples include: ‘One morn before me’, ‘stepp’d serene’, ‘as when the urn once more’, ‘deep-disguised plot’, ‘They faded, and, forsooth, I wanted wings’, ‘maiden most unmeek’, ‘My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams’.

Investigating language and tone of Ode on Indolence...

  • The tone of the language shifts from ‘cold’ to ‘warm’.  Find examples of both and analyse their effects.
  • Find some examples of how Keats varies the energy and pace for the ode and comment on how he achieves this
  • What musical effects can you find in the poem?
    • Look particularly at the alliteration.  Why does Keats employ this device so often?
  • Find examples of ambiguous language and explore the range of meanings they generate.

Structure and versification of Ode on Indolence

In common with the odes To a Grecian Urn and To a Nightingale, the Ode to Indolence is written in ten-line stanzas in iambic pentameter. The structure of the ode follows the appearance of the figures:

  • The first stanza describes a vision the speaker has one morning of three strange figures
  • In the second, the speaker addresses the figures
  • In the third, he recognises them as Love, Ambition and Poesy
  • In the fourth, he says he wants to follow them but to do so would be folly
  • In the fifth, he describes how peaceful was his lazy day before they arrived
  • In the last stanza he bids them farewell and orders them never to return.

Each stanza consists of two parts: an opening group of four lines rhyming a b a b followed by a six-line sequence with a more variable rhyme scheme.  In stanzas 1-4 the pattern is c d e c d e.  Keats alters this in stanza 5, with c d e d c e, and, to more jarring effect, to c d e c e d in the final stanza, appropriate for his command to disrupt the apparitions’ effect on his thoughts.

Investigating structure and versification of Ode on Indolence...

  • What effect is created by Keats choosing to structure his ode according to the appearance of the figures on the urn?
  • How does Keats vary the rhythm of the ode
    • To what effect?
  • What is the effect of enjambement?  For instance, in stanza 1 between lines 7 - 8, and in stanza 4 between lines 3 - 4.
  • Comment on the effect of the opening two lines of the ode – and the final two lines.
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