University of Virginia Library

Search this document 


expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
The Text of Keats's "Ode on Indolence" by Jack Stillinger
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 
expand section 

expand section 

The Text of Keats's "Ode on Indolence"
Jack Stillinger

Students of Keats seem to have accepted without question the idea that R. M. Milnes rearranged the stanzas of the "Ode on Indolence" when he first published the poem in his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats (1848), and that H. W. Garrod restored (as he claimed) the "true order" in his most recent editions of Keats's Poetical Works (O.S.A. edn., 1956; revised O.E.T. edn., 1958). The matter deserves correction. The order indicated by Charles Brown, in the single authoritative source of the poem, was followed exactly by Milnes and was not disturbed until Professor Garrod took it upon himself to re-order the stanzas. The fact is that there are neither textual nor critical grounds for the current standard arrangement.

Charles Brown's transcript (Garrod's T 2), now at Harvard, is our only manuscript version of the poem deriving from a Keats holograph, since the other extant transcript, by Richard Woodhouse (W 2), is plainly a copy of Brown's, as Woodhouse indicated by writing "from C.B." at the end. Brown transcribed the stanzas in the following order (each first line here represents an entire stanza; arrow brackets < > indicate Brown's deletions of original stanza numbers):

1 One morn before me were three figures seen . . .
2 How is it, Shadows, that I knew ye not? . . .
<3> 4 They faded, and, forsooth! I wanted wings . . .
<4> 6 So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! Ye cannot raise . . .
<5> 3 A third time pass'd they by, and, passing, turn'd . . .
5 A third time came they by; — alas! wherefore? . . .
The uncorrected "5" at the head of this final stanza is important, for it can mean but one thing — that Brown discovered a mistake and corrected the numbering of the preceding three stanzas before he wrote out the last stanza. Apparently he was copying from several separate sheets in Keats's


Page 256
holograph. When he came upon a final stanza repeating "A third time" he must have realized that something was wrong with the order of stanzas as he had thus far transcribed them. At this point, presumably in consultation with Keats, he set them right by renumbering the last three stanzas he had copied, and then wrote out the remaining stanza, which he correctly headed "5."

Brown's corrected order is thus the following:

1 One morn before me . . .
2 How is it, Shadows . . .
3 A third time pass'd they by . . .
4 They faded, and, forsooth! . . .
5 A third time came they by . . .
6 So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! . . .
Woodhouse copied the stanzas in this order "from C.B.," and Milnes used Brown's transcript as printer's copy for his text in the Life of 1848. Milnes did, however, make an unauthorized substantive change. Puzzled by the repetition of "A third time" in Brown's stanzas 3 and 5, he altered the first line of the fifth stanza to read, "And once more came they by; — alas! wherefore?" Professor Garrod was of course aware of this change, and perhaps was unduly prejudiced against Milnes's text more generally because of it. Either forgetting or perhaps never really aware of the significance of the uncorrected "5" in Brown's transcript, he seems to have formed the idea that Milnes also was responsible for changing the order of the stanzas ("In T 2," he writes in his textual notes to the poem, "the numbering has been altered to that of 1848"; "The sense has been obscured by the placing of the stanzas in the wrong order"). Incorporating a much more drastic change than any that had occurred to Milnes, his Oxford editions give the stanzas thus, with Brown's fifth stanza moved up to follow stanza 2:
I One morn before me . . .
II How is it, Shadows . . .
III A third time came they by . . .
IV A third time pass'd they by . . .
V They faded, and, forsooth! . . .
VI So, ye three Ghosts, adieu! . . .

Since this "true order" that Professor Garrod settled on has no precedent in either of the transcripts or in Milnes's Life, it must have been arrived at by some process of critical reasoning. Let us briefly consider, therefore, the argument or "action" of the poem in each version. In Brown's corrected order it stands as follows. Stanza 1. The poet sees three strange figures, who pass before him and then come again. Stanza 2. He addresses them, demanding why they are disguised as they are and why they have come to disturb his pleasant summer-indolence. Stanza 3. The figures pass a third time, turn


Page 257
briefly to face the poet, and then fade; he desires to follow them, recognizing them as Love, Ambition, and Poesy. Stanza 4. The poet wants wings to pursue them, yet knows that his desire is foolish: love, ambition, even poesy have no joys for him; he calls for an age "shelter'd from annoy," that is, protected from just such worldly instrusions as the figures represent. Stanza 5. The figures return a third time, but to no avail; luxuriating in his mood, the poet will not be drawn out of it — "'twas a time [for the figures] to bid farewell!" Stanza 6. The poet bids the figures adieu. In brief, the poet sees three figures, Love, Ambition, and Poesy, who threaten his idleness; he is momentarily shaken and longs to follow them, but then recovers himself, refuses to surrender his mood, and tells the figures to go away. In Professor Garrod's arrangement, the general point is the same, but the progress is somewhat less readily graspable. With Brown's stanza 5 moved forward to come between stanzas 2 and 3, the original connection between the penultimate and final stanzas is broken ("'twas a time to bid farewell! . . . So, ye three Ghosts, adieu!"), and the poet's initial banishment of the figures is made to come before the account of his desire to pursue the figures and join them. Obviously the rearranged version at one time made good sense to Professor Garrod, and it may still strike some readers (perhaps merely because they are accustomed to it) as being as reasonable as Brown's. But it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered so superior as to warrant a change in the order of stanzas.

There are of course obscurities in the poem, but I think not more than two. The first occurs in lines 3-5 of the second stanza:

Was it a silent deep-disguised plot
To steal away, and leave without a task
My idle days?
Whether "steal away" is read as transitive "steal away [= rob me of] . . . My idle days") or intransitive (= "tiptoe away"), the phrase "leave without a task" makes no sense in its context. Everything else in the stanza questions the figures' interruption of the poet's indolence; but if they came in a "deep-disguised plot" to make his days taskless, they would of course be furthering rather than disrupting the idleness that the poet wishes to maintain. The other obscurity involves the repetition of "A third time." This seems unresolvable, whether in Brown's order or Garrod's, unless one distinguishes between passing and coming. In the first stanza Keats seems to make such a distinction as he describes the figures going and then returning:
They pass'd, like figures on a marble Urn,
When shifted round to see the other side;
They came again; as when the Urn once more
Is shifted round, the first seen Shades return. (T 2)


Page 258
It may be that "A third time pass'd they by" in Brown's third stanza represents a movement in one direction, and "A third time came they by" in Brown's fifth represents a counter-shift or return. My general point here, though, is that neither of these obscurities is in any way helped by Professor Garrod's or any other re-ordering of the stanzas.

The "Ode on Indolence" is not in the same class with the more famous odes to Psyche, to a Nightingale, on a Grecian Urn, on Melancholy, and to Autumn. It lacks the dramatic tension that characterizes the first four, and the sharpness of imagery of all five. The poet refuses to engage in any serious conflict with Love, Ambition, and Poesy, and the poem probably genuinely reflects the indolence that is its subject. The omission of the poem from the Lamia volume of 1820 suggests that Keats himself recognized its inferiority (his remark to Sarah Jeffrey, 9 June 1819, that "the thing I have most enjoyed this year has been writing an ode to Indolence," does not, even if intended seriously, mean that he considered the poem a success). But even a third- or fourth-rate poem, if printed at all, deserves to have its stanzas given in the correct order, and since the "Ode on Indolence" is sometimes discussed with the "great odes" and even occasionally still included among the "great odes" we at least ought to know what the poem was most probably intended to look like. For a proper text we must go back to Brown's transcript.