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Numéro 1, février 1996

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005708ar

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Poetry as Enforcement: Conquering the Muse in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche'[*]

Kris Steyaert

University College London

He who deserves the higher reverence must himself convert the worshipper.

Richard Monckton Milnes, afterwards Lord Houghton, The Life and Letters of John Keats, 1848


Often dismissed as considerably inferior to the subsequent Spring odes of 1819 and 'To Autumn', Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' has not received as much critical attention as it deserves. Yet, in order to gain a fuller insight into the astonishing advancement of Keats's poetic powers at that stage of his writing career, one cannot afford to ignore this remarkably self-revealing composition. I believe that the 'Ode to Psyche' illustrates in a pertinent way how Keats recovered his self-confidence as a poet, literally found his Muse and, what is even more important, managed to secure her constant presence. This appropriation of the Muse, however, presupposes a virility in the poet which is traditionally not associated with Keats. Many critics indeed tend to ascribe an effeminacy of character to the 'latest born' of the Romantic poets, whilst his writings are repeatedly conceived of as abounding in a tasteless kind of affectation. The reference in the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1857 to his 'style of babyish effeminacy' characterised by a 'nauseous sweetness', still reverberates in a considerable number of modern literary studies. In this respect, Susan Wolfson has rightly pointed out that Keats's works are envisaged as a singularly gratifying study object by recent interpreters who treat the poet 'as an exception to, or anomaly within, a monolithically conceived "masculine" discourse'[1].


What many commentators fail to discern is the 'masculine' undercurrent in Keats's poems. By this I mean the tendencies stereotypically attributed to the male, as those inferred by Anne Mellor when she represents Keats 'in the traditionally feminine pose of passivity, indolence, waiting'[2]. Evidently, Mellor does not regard this quality as carrying any negative imputations. Yet, it seems to me that in her attempts to revalue an aspect of Keats, she adheres to an inadequate but still widely adopted premiss. A careful reading of Keats's oeuvre will reveal the presence of the often covert but nonetheless clearly recognisable urge, not for passivity, but for action and dominion instead, as well as a keen awareness of self-identity. The latter is again at odds with Mellor's conclusion that Keats's empathy, 'lack[ing] a strong sense of its own ego boundaries', can be defined as non-masculine[3]. Lest there should be a misunderstanding of my argument, I hereby emphasise that I do not wish to imply that Keats is a worse or better poet because he is not that effeminate after all. I only want to rectify the still popular misconception of Keats as a pusillanimous poet exemplifying an effeminacy of character.


In this article, I will concentrate on the 'Ode to Psyche' as an example of a poem indicative of Keats's often neglected or misinterpreted (male) gender politics. More particularly, it is my intention to demonstrate that if the persona of the poet in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' should, on the surface, appear to be rather effeminate and unmanly, this may only be a means, a very carefully constructed manoeuvre, to gain full possession of the goddess he desires. The poem shows how the poet, out of what has been called 'narcissistic similitude and involution'[4], comes to annihilate the distinction between himself and the desired object, that is to say Psyche. It is true that Keats attains such a unification with the goddess by feminising himself, but this empathic engagement will turn out to be no more than an intermediate stage in the process of subjecting the 'Bloomiest' (l. 36) of deities. I will argue that the poet only temporarily loses himself in another object so as to realise his masculine desire of self-possession and to reaffirm his identity. Indeed, the poet's fervent urge to possess Psyche also kindles his relentless and 'virile' endeavours to absorb her selfhood in a most radical manner. This entails a complete displacement of Cupid, Psyche's 'legitimate' lover, after which the poet's own cannibalistic desire will virtually obliterate the goddess's identity. In other words, the consummation of his love results in the merciless consumption of the beloved. Through this absorption, the by then self-sufficient poet will be enabled both to beget and to give birth to a numerous offspring, i.e. his future poetic compositions. In this respect, the 'Ode to Psyche' is 'a true ode insofar as it becomes a celebration; it celebrates the authority of the poet's own voice'[5]. This is in a nutshell, a crude paraphrase of the main argument I will try to elucidate in the next few pages. Keats, I repeat once more, was not an 'ideological transvestite' who 'positioned [himself] within the realm of the feminine gender'[6].


Having said this, it cannot be denied that from the onset of the ode, the poet's identity bears strong feminine connotations. The four opening lines seem to suggest that the poet has adopted the role of an ancient oracle, uttering prophesying 'numbers' (l. 1). The powerful and effective enjambment (wrung / By sweet enforcement), with its innuendo of physical rape, externalises the very process of divination and poetic frenzy. Prophesying is after all a considerably demanding task, leaving the oracle exhausted after each consultation. Of all oracles in Antiquity, undoubtedly the most illustrious one operated in Delphi, where the sanctuary was devoted to Apollo, the god who features so dominantly in Keats's poetry. It will be remembered, however, that in this holy place the intermediary role between the divine and the mortal realm was fulfilled by priestesses. Keats may well have read in his Lemprière dictionary that at Delphi, 'the oracles were generally given in verse' (cf. 'numbers') and 'always delivered by a priestess called Pythia '. In line 48, the poet blatantly utters his desire to be Psyche's shrine and oracle, and, by implication, appears to assume a feminine role. One may here perhaps call to mind B. R. Haydon's description of Keats as a poet with 'an eye that had an inward look, perfectly divine, like a Delphian priestess who saw visions'[7]. In his capacity of an obsequious soothsayer, then, the poet has been turned into a humanised version of the typically Romantic image of the aeolian harp, passively waiting for the wind to pluck its strings. But, as I will argue later on, this overtly submissive act might very well be interpreted as a highly ironic gesture.


In some degree affinitive to the mental state described as 'remembrance dear' (l. 2), the dreamlike trance during which the priestess mumbles inarticulate sounds, is carried on into the fifth line. The scene of Psyche and Cupid lying in a passionate embrace is presented as a divine revelation to the poet-gazer: 'Surely I dreamt to day; or did I see, / The winged Psyche'? The verb 'see' I believe to be of the utmost importance here. It certainly reinforces the oracular quality of Keats's poeta vates which, in this case, is materialised in the figure of a Delphic Pythia . The poem continues with an immediate second reference to visual/visionary perception. When the poet sets eyes on the embracing couple, he faints with surprise, just like Psyche did when she discovered the true identity of her lover[8]. In his poetry, Keats is often preoccupied with swooning, fainting, indolence, sleep, all of which are traditionally considered as predominantly feminine 'activities'. Consequently, Keats's 'Ode to Psyche' seems, so far, to be a perfect example of the feminised poet revelling in 'leafy luxury' ('To Leigh Hunt, Esq.', l. 13), overflowing himself and melting into the Other. This impression is even enhanced by the following few lines in the poem.


After the poet's apparent feminisation in the opening lines of the ode, there now occurs a meaningful merger of the poet-gazer and the goddess he desires. From a grammatical point of view, the poet's identification with Psyche is so intense that it is virtually impossible to tell whose eyes are 'awaken'd' in line six. Is it the poet who is capable of viewing the locus amoenus , or is it Psyche who can now safely set eyes on Cupid after he first required complete darkness for their amorous encounters? I have already alluded to the fact that the emphasis on seeing and vision is striking throughout the ode. It is actually the intricate pattern of seeing and hiding which offers the reader a crucial clue of how to interpret the real nature of the poet's self. I grant that at this stage, the poem has far from disclosed the persona's 'virility' which I claimed to be present in its deeper semantic strata. However, from now onwards the ode contains a whole series of significant markers, related to the pattern I have just referred to, which will substantiate my claim. I believe that the complex interrelationship and calculated oscillation between seeing and hiding parallels both the poet's masculine drive to yield to his feelings of sexual lust, and his subsidiary feminine desires to see his beloved. The feminised part of his personality, which manifests itself in this 'unmanly' curiosity, can only be satisfied by a privileged vision of this beloved. Incidentally, this desire dovetails with the poet's masculine urge to exert total and unrestricted control over the goddess by hiding her away. It should be borne in mind that the possessive poet conceals Psyche from his male rival Cupid in a remote vale secluded by mountains where the stars have no name and are still unmapped. Yet at the same time, has the poet in the ode not once again feminised himself by adopting the role of Psyche who, too, was driven by a yearning to see her lover?


Apuleius's version of the myth, which, through Adlington's sixteenth-century translation, was Keats's primary source, strongly associates curiosity with feminine indulgence and feebleness of mind. In The Golden Ass , Apuleius relates how Psyche goes to the underworld as part of a series of superhuman tasks set by Venus. The latter had become increasingly jealous, both of Psyche's beauty and popularity, and now desires to see her rival destroyed once and for all. Her wrath reaches its climax when the girl contrives to transgress a sacred taboo by literally bringing to light the true identity of her mystery lover. This is none other than Venus's son, Cupid, who feels compelled to abandon Psyche, seemingly for good, after the fatal discovery. Willing to atone for her own uncurbed curiosity, the girl descends into Hades in quest of her lover and returns in the possession of 'a mysticall secret in a boxe'. The gods of the Underworld, taking pity on her, repeatedly warn the girl not to look at its contents. As foreseen by Venus, this prohibition nonetheless proves too demanding: Apuleius's flaccid Psyche soon forsakes control again and yields to her curiosity:

When Psyches [sic] was returned from hell, to the light of the world, shee was ravished with great desire [...]. And by and by shee opened the boxe where she could perceive no beauty nor any thing else, save onely an infernal and deadly sleepe, which immediately invaded all her members as soone as the boxe was uncovered, in such sort that shee fell downe upon the ground, and lay there as a sleeping corps. [9]

Just when she is about to expire from the consequences of her rash act, she is rescued from her deathlike swoon by a reproachful Cupid: 'O wretched Caitife, behold thou wert well-nigh perished againe, with the overmuch curiositie'[10]. But all is quickly forgiven: Psyche is bestowed with immortality and the lovers are reunited for good. It is only this very last part of the myth which is related in Keats's ode. By leaving out the adventurous and troublesome prologue, Keats strips Psyche of all individuality she could possibly possess. As a consequence, it is she, and not the poet, who is forced into female passivity. Her desperate but brave search for her beloved, as well as her perseverance, through which she gains her divine status, are completely ignored in the ode. In the long journal letter written to his brother George in America and containing the transcript of the 'Ode to Psyche', Keats emphatically points out that it is through hardship and misadventure that one's soul acquires its identity. He outlines this philosophy in the famous 'vale of Soul-making' passage:

There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. [...] Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!

Letters , II, p. 102

In Hyperion , Apollo likewise takes on his divine selfhood by painfully living through 'dire events', 'agonies' and 'destroyings' (Hyperion , III, ll. 114, 115, 116). The denial in Keats's poem of Psyche's catharsislike rites of passage as they occur in the original story necessarily withholds her every sense of personality. The deconstruction of her identity, marking the process of the poet's masculine domination, has now fully commenced.


The poet's possessiveness is further apparent by his act of isolating and hiding Psyche. Though Cupid and Psyche had chosen a secret bower, safely buried in the forest and 'scarce espied' (l. 12) for their rendez-vous , this will not suffice for the poet. Just as he stumbled accidentally on the scene, so may future potential rivals find out the sacred spot. The ultimate seclusion, therefore, must be realised through an act of internalisation. The poet will literally lock up Psyche in the 'delphic labyrinth' of his 'brain' ('On Receiving a Laurel Crown from Leigh Hunt', ll. 2-3) where she will be unreachable for others. He opts for a place, heretofore untrodden, and unknown, where his branched thoughts will weave an impenetrable prison. Even in his early youth, Keats interiorised his ideal women in the manner described above: 'When I was a Schoolboy I though[t] a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept' (Letters , I, p. 341). Keats's portrayal of a passive woman meekly waiting in some hidden recesses to satisfy the male's needs appears to be a favourite fantasy of his. It is a fantasy most cynically exploited in The Eve of St Agnes . With regard to the 'Ode to Psyche', a faint echo of this ideal is found in the parallel image of the 'active' zephyrs lulling to sleep the inert and 'passive' Dryads (ll. 56-57).


As far as the complex pattern of vision and non-vision (or hiding) is concerned which I believe to hold the key to the poem's meaning, it is undeniably so that the poet's passionate feelings for Psyche are themselves aroused by viewing the embracing pair. The next step for the poet is to appropriate this privileged vision. Before the act of internalisation, however, the external, sensory part of reality needs must be imbued with a quality of the poet's own self. Thus it will become much easier to absorb reality within the mind itself and to capture it within the 'wide hollows of [the] brain' (Hyperion , III, l. 117). Rather than a complete self-dispersal in the physical world, the ode demonstrates how nature is seen as an extension of the poet's egocentric and tyrannical personality. In this respect, everything is looked upon as possessing the same innate quality of vision: the brooklet, at last, allows itself to be visually located (l. 12); the flowers are 'fragrant eyed' (l. 13); the morning is referred to as 'eye-dawn' (l. 20); Vesper is compared to a glow-worm (l. 27), thereby resembling an eye of heaven; Psyche is seen with 'awaken'd eyes' (l. 6) and she is the 'loveliest vision far / of all Olympus' faded Hierarchy' (ll. 24-25). Obviously, here has been a poet at work who is continually 'filling some other Body' (Letters , I, p. 387). Ironically enough, though, Keats used this phrase to define his much debated idea of the 'cameleon Poet'. But instead of an empathising poet, the ode shows how reality itself is adjusted in order to fit the poet's perception of the material world. In other words, the aeolian harp has turned into a tonometer to which everything else must become attuned. This may look like a rebuttal of the 'cameleon Poet' doctrine, but only because critics have overlooked similarly important statements by Keats with regard to his conception of the ideal poet[11]. Does Keats not explicitly state elsewhere that a proper identity is a prerequisite for creative activity? For instance, in his reply to Shelley's invitation to come to Italy, where the milder climate would be beneficial for his health, Keats writes that 'an artist' must 'have "self concentration"' (Letters , II, p. 322-3). His poetry also bears proof of a strong awareness of the relationship between personal independence and creativity. In Hyperion , Saturn, who is deprived of his previous glory and all power which made up his identity, is faced with the mortifying consequences of his loss of selfhood:

I am gone

Away from my own bosom: I have left

My strong identity, my real self,

Somewhere between the throne, and where I sit

Here on this spot of earth. [...]

Search, Thea, search! and tell me, if thou seest

A certain shape or shadow, making way

With wings or chariot fierce to repossess

A heaven he lost erewhile: [...]

But cannot I create?

Cannot I form? Cannot I fashion forth

Another world, another universe,

To overbear and crumble this to nought?

Hyperion , I, ll. 112-6, 121-4, 141-4

The reader cannot but answer negatively to Saturn's set of agonising questions. The deity may once have held the power to create harmony out of chaos, but these times are now gone with the annihilation of his former self. It may be meaningful that the 'Ode to Psyche' is the first poem written after the abandonment of Hyperion . Perhaps as a compensation for his own failure in generating a finished work, Keats needed to nerve himself for the exacting task of writing new poetry. In this respect, the Cupid-Psyche myth may have appealed to Keats because it occasioned a candid gesture of self-definition and a search for a well-developed identity. Keats must indeed have felt it necessary to prove his mettle and to reinstate himself as a serious, independent poet after the patronising reviews of the previous month[12]. Hence, in a suddenly regained state of inspiring reassurance, he composes a song for Psyche, his Muse, who will, as from now on, be perfectly obedient to him. The almost obsessive preoccupation with self and identity which resurfaces in the ode can thus be seen as an indispensable self-affirmation necessary for composing poetry.


If the poem emphasises the poet's independence, it is clear that in the 'Ode to Psyche' the woman/goddess is seen as a highly eroticised object which exists only by the grace of the poet's desire. Indeed, in her 'rosy sanctuary' (l. 59), reminiscent of Lamia's 'purple-lined palace of sweet sin' (Lamia , II, l. 31), Psyche will be pushed into the role of a deified temple-prostitute, common in Antiquity. For if Psyche allegorically stands for the poet's imagination, the poet will procreate new compositions through the consummation of his love for the goddess (cf. the 'pleasant pain' of line 52). The poet appears here in the guise of the love god Cupid who is described in Apuleius's tale as capable of inflicting similarly oxymoronic 'sweetwounds [by his] piercing darts, by the pleasant heate of his fire' (p. 100, italics mine). In return for the endurance of her imposed passivity, the poet, who is convinced of his own superior sexual prowess, will most generously gratify her with 'soft delight' (l. 64). After all, 'poetry', to quote Sandra M. Gilbert, is

the creative act, the act of life, the archetypal sexual act. Sexuality is poetry. The lady is [the poet's] creation, or Pygmalion's statue. The lady is the poem [.] [13]

Imprisoned in the manacles of the poet's fabrications, Psyche has become no more than a glorified reproductive organ, a divine womb delivering future compositions without respite. The 'wreath'd trellis of [his] working brain' (l. 60) [14] will prevent her from any possible escape and so will the barrier of 'dark-cluster'd trees' (l. 54). In addition, the closely knit pattern of alliterations, assonances and rhymes in the concluding stanza audibly tightens the net around the chased Psyche.


Unperturbed by his own possessive ploys, the poet now proclaims himself Psyche's assiduous priest, safeguarding the object of his private and idiosyncratic religion in a secret 'temple of Delight' ('Ode on Melancholy', l. 25). One may be reminded here of De Quincey's famous statement in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater , published two years after the completion of Keats's ode. This time it was no 'hethen [sic] Goddess' (Letters , II, p. 106) but ruby-red laudanum which was the highly individualised idol of worship: 'This is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member the alpha and the omega'[15]. Like the religious fanatic described in the opening of The Fall of Hyperion , the poet in the 'Ode to Psyche' is to weave himself a private paradise, a pleasure garden or hortus conclusus in which he will be the omnipotent gardener.


In order to gain an even better insight into the poet's unabating attempts to dominate Psyche, it may be worth while at this stage to examine the origin of the word 'temple'. The etymology of temple reads: 'A consecrated place, sanctuary, prob. rel. to Gr. temenos reserved or sacred enclosure ' [italics mine][16]. Thus, apart from a place of worship, a temple can be regarded as a gilded prisonhouse where mankind tries to keep the godhead under strict human control. It has, for instance, been pointed out by anthropologists that 'the Persians despised [Grecian] temples, considering it wrong', in Cicero's later words, 'to keep shut up within walls the gods whose dwelling place was the whole world'[17]. When Apuleius's Psyche has spent her bridal night in Cupid's 'princely Edifice' and 'place of pleasures', and wakes up the following morning to find herself abandoned, she believes 'that now shee was past all hopes of comfort, in that shee was closed within the walls of a prison deprived of humane conversation' (p. 104). The real nature of the temple-like building appears to have dawned upon her in all its menacing terror. Likewise, the term sanctuary, a word as post-Augustan as Psyche herself, occurs in classical Latin only in the sense of 'the private cabinet of a prince' (OED ). It is no surprise, then, that the poet in Keats's ode firmly pronounces his intention to build 'a Fane' (l. 50) as to keep his beloved well under his authority. C. G. Jung has also pointed out that 'the round and square enclosures' constituting 'the precincts of a temple or any isolated place' have 'the purpose of protective walls or of a vas hermeticum , to prevent an outburst or a disintegration'[18]. It is only in this protective environment that germination can take place. In Keats's temenos , therefore, the process of the persona's inner growth, strongly dependent on Psyche's presence, or rather, incarceration, is secured against uncontrollable seepage. The prison walls of Psyche's temple are permeable in one direction only: they allow the poet to take in as much of the outer world without having to fear any loss of his own self-consciousness and identity from within:

The mandala denotes and assists exclusive concentration on the centre, the self. [...] It is a much needed self-control for the purpose of avoiding inflation and dissociation. [...] [The temple] protects and isolates an inner content or process that should not get mixed up with things outside[19].

This process, needless to say, is the poet's self-realisation at the expense of Psyche's individuality.


The gender shift from the oracular priestess to the male priest is the dramatic outcome of the persona's never-waning struggle to dominate and possess Psyche[20]. On the one hand, by assuming the feminine role of a Pythia , the poet has become the mouthpiece of a literally dumb and acquiescent goddess, thereby capable of gross manipulation. Clad with the doctrinal authority of a high priest, on the other hand, the poet succeeds in giving vent to his masculine despotism. Taken together, both are very effective stratagems to sway the object of his lust, as I will now try to demonstrate.


Psyche's subordinate role now comes even more to the fore in the ten-line catalogue of emphatically highlighted negatives referring to the youngest of goddesses (ll. 28-37). With what seems to border on malicious delight, Keats uses almost an entire stanza to inform his audience that Psyche has no temple, altar, or virgin-choir; no lute or incense sweet and was born too late to be venerated in song along with the other Olympian deities. In sum, she is denied all the common paraphernalia of worship. But most important of all, she has no voice and, as a consequence, no power[21]. She can utter neither any protests nor can she even comply with the poet's desire. She is rudely silenced, incapacitated and thus deprived of all autonomy. All the poet does to enliven 'Olympus' faded hierarchy' (l. 25) is

to assert his own visionary and vocal authority. [...] The poet claims to be Psyche's champion, yet his benevolence is that of the despot. Psyche remains silently subservient, while the poet usurps the privilege of discourse[.] [22]

Parenthetically, Psyche's dumbness may be read as accentuating her status as a captive, for Freud has argued that dumbness and concealment can be equated[23]. The contrast between the dumbness and the bold assertive claim in line 43 displays again the superiority and dominion of the poet and Psyche's submissive position in the power relationship[24]. This line has a pivotal role in the ode: it contains a most crucial reference to a visual/visionary experience, and it explicates the poet's superiority over the object of his concupiscence. Inspired by his tyrannical love, the poet sees and sings , thereby creating not only his but also Psyche's identity. Indeed, I have already suggested above that Psyche's existence depends exclusively on the persona's act of worship and invocation. Though referring to the unfinished 'Ode to Maia', the following comment by Martin Aske is very well applicable to Psyche's position: she is 'an object of desire who needs to be coaxed into presence through the poet's own voice'[25]. This dependence on the poet's invocation bereaves the goddess of any free volition. Just like Adam who acquired supremacy over all living creatures by giving them a name (Genesis 2: 19), so the poet gains full possession of the goddess by ejaculating hers. Is it not very appropriate that all tension of the first stanza is released in the final, almost aggressively short line 'His Psyche true!' (l. 23)? One may even tentatively suggest that the "naming of [Psyche as] muse is a deliberate act of aesthetic self-definition"[26].


In response to the concatenation of negatives of non-being, the poet asserts himself Psyche's grove and shrine, which, in practice, make up the sarcophagus (literally 'flesh-eating' coffin) of her individuality. The poet indeed is about to absorb her identity completely. D. L. Hoeveler has astutely observed that the Romantic poets were very keen on 'creat[ing] female characters with whom their male heroes (often slightly veiled versions of themselves) could merge in a sort of apocalyptic union'. Put in an even more straightforward way, Hoeveler stresses how 'The Romantics cannibalistically consumed these female characters, shaped them into their ideal alter egos, and most of the time destroyed them by the conclusion of the poem'[27]. In the ode, the poet's ploys of conjuring Psyche into being through ritualistic invocation, only to deconstruct her afterwards, fits this scheme very well. The poet came to the sacred, 'scarce espied' bower, saw the goddess, recognised her and thus acquired absolute ascendancy. 'I see and sing' and, one may complete, conquered; or Vene vidi vici .


The 'Ode to Psyche' is by no means the only instance in Keats's work which contains such an all-devouring propensity in the persona. The following excerpt, taken from a sonnet addressed to Keats's beloved, Fanny Brawne, is particularly revealing:

O, let me have thee whole, all, all be mine!

That shape, that fairness, that sweet minor zest

Of love, your kiss, those hands, those eyes divine,

That warm, white, lucent, million-pleasured breast,

Yourself your soul in pity give me all,

Withhold no atom's atom or I die.

'I cry your mercy', ll. 5-10

A comparable example can be found in a letter which Keats wrote during his walking tour in Scotland to his then recently married brother George:

Notwithstand[ing] your Happiness and your recommendation I hope I shall never marry. The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness an amiable wife and sweet Children I contemplate as part of that Beauty. [B]ut I must have a thousand beautiful particles to fill up my heart.

Letters , I, p. 403

Here the poet appears as an insatiable Bluebeard, devouring the objects (note how Keats writes about 'particles', not 'human beings') arousing his passion in order to shape and extend his own sense of individuality. Just like Coleridge's secondary imagination, Keats's mind 'dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create'[28]. A similar oppressive attitude can be read in the concluding torch-and-casement image of the ode.


Psyche (the word means both 'soul' and 'butterfly' or 'moth' in Greek) will be attracted by the light of the burning torch, an image of phallic reassurance for the poet. But her 'lucent fans' (l. 41) will be scorched by it so that escape will become entirely impossible. This is by no means a far-fetched assumption. Like many others, Keats possessed a small collection of Tassie gems which were inexpensive miniature reproductions of classical artefacts and sculptures, very fashionable at this time and used as seals[29]. Among these baubles are some of particular interest for my argument. On the Tassie gems dealing with the Cupid-Psyche myth, 'Psyche is invariably designated with the wings of a butterfly, and sometimes a Cupid is represented as burning her wings (those on which she should mount to heaven) with his flaming torch'[30]. Lempriere's classical dictionary too mentions this particular attribute and its usage under the 'Cupido' entry: 'On gems, and all other pieces of antiquity, [Cupido] is represented as [...] playing with a nymph, catching a butterfly, or trying to burn [its wings] with a torch'. In Polymetis , another important source of classical myth for Keats, Joseph Spence reproduces several ancient Cupid-Psyche gems with the following explanatory comment:

Here are two of them [i.e. Cupids] very seriously employed about the catching of a butterfly; and there another, as intent to burn one with the torch he holds in his hands. Tho' this indeed might be brought as an instance of their power, as well of their idle tricks: for the butterfly is generally used by the Greek artists as an emblem for the human soul; and a Cupid fondling or burning a butterfly, is just the same with them as a Cupid caressing or tormenting the Goddess Psyche[31].

The image of the torch, of course, is widespread in ancient mythology, and Keats seems to have drawn on several interdependent meanings of the symbol. The Pantheon , which Keats knew through Andrew's Tooke translation of 1713, interestingly pairs Hymeneus, the god presiding over marriage, with Cupid, both of whom are carrying a torch[32]. This concurrence justifies the reading of the poet's 'Fane' for Psyche as literally a 'marriage chamber', or a thalamos as the ante-chamber to a Greek temple was called[33]. It is there that the poet and his divine, silenced 'bride of quietness' will be linked in sacred wedlock. Evidently, Cupid will be irreverently displaced in the process. My intention in the next paragraphs is to evince that Psyche's marriage in Keats's poem will actually lead to her own destruction insofar as it is the epitome of the poet's conquest. This corresponds, the reader will recall, to the final, 'cannibalistic' phase in Hoeveler's scheme of the Romanticists' gender politics.


Though the final stanza is the part most heavily discussed by commentators of the 'Ode to Psyche', strangely enough, no one seems to have detected the link between the burning torch with the 'casement ope at night' (l. 66) and the Hero and Leander myth as recorded by Musaeus. Hero, locked up in a tower (not unlike Psyche in her sanctuary) lights a torch every night as a beacon to guide her lover Leander who has to cross the Hellespont by swimming. One tempestuous night, Hero falls asleep whilst waiting and the torch is extinguished by the wind. Consequently, Leander perishes in the seething water. Keats was undoubtedly familiar with the myth as shown by his sonnet 'On a [Tassie gem portraying] Leander Which Miss Reynolds, My Kind Friend, Gave Me'[34]. When, in Keats's ode, Love is identified with Cupid, it seems as if the poet is longing for Cupid-Leander's imminent death. After Cupid's displacement, the poet, who has substituted himself for the rival love god, will now rekindle the torch and use it as an instrument to abject the impotent goddess. I believe it to be highly revealing that in Apuleius's tale, the people light 'blacke torches' (p. 101) in preparation for Psyche's marriage to a yet unknown but allegedly monstrous husband whom the oracle of Apollo had described as a 'Serpent dire and fierce as might be thought' (p. 101). After the torches are lit, the family and people of the city 'went to bring this sorrowfull spowse, not to her marriage, but to her finall end and buriall' (p. 101). Thus, Cupid's blazing flare merges with the downward pointing torch of Thanatos, the god of Death and annihilation. Keats seems to have picked up the idea that Psyche's marriage will effect her imminent death. It is after all a 'rash and bold lampe', revealing her husband's true nature, which marks the start in the original tale of a whole series of calamities. In an almost perversively triumphant mood, the poet literally cries out his delight at the prospect of his pending victory.


Indeed, the first three stanzas of the ode all begin with the exclamative 'O', like the repetitive and hypnotising euoi in the Bacchic hymns sung at sacred orgies. The allegedly explicit sexual nature of the heathen festivities during which a particular godhead was venerated in song (wdh in Greek, hence the word 'ode') is notorious. Therefore, it is particularly significant that the poet in the ode refers to Psyche's 'secrets' (l. 3) for this may be interpreted as an echo of such an ancient Mystery celebration. The overall erotic and sensuous nature of the ode is obvious enough[35]. Apart from Keats's favourite topos of the bower of love, the rich and lush scenery seems to celebrate the sensuousness of the couched lovers. It may be a fortuitous coincidence, but the compound 'soft-conched' (l. 4) can be interpreted as a sophisticated pun when the meaning of 'vulva' (concha) is read into it. As a trained medical student, Keats is likely to have been familiar with the term. In analogy with the Annunciation in Christianity, then, the poet sings the secret words into Psyche's ear, thus fathering the very ode itself. I refer here, of course, to the early Scholastics who suggested that the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus at the word of the archangel Gabriel. This belief was founded on the authoritative phrase 'And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us' in John 1:14a. A thirteenth-century English dancing song phrases it as follows:

Glad us maiden, mother mild

Through thine ear thou wert with child

Gabriel he said it thee[36].

The 'casement ope at night' may, in turn, refer to the fenestra ovalis and fenestrarotundum which are parts of the ear leading into the inner region of the head behind the ossa temporum or temple (possibly another anatomical pun in Keats's ode)[37].


By the act of 'mak[ing] melodious moan' (l. 30) and by uttering the logos spermatikos[38], the poet will engender the subservient receptacle of his passion with future compositions, yet 'never breed[ing] the same' (l. 63). Such a tremendous output is guaranteed by the extraordinary intensity and fullness of his vision. The experience of complete sexual gratification resulting in the cannibalistic death of Psyche, will always remain a 'remembrance dear' (l. 2) for the poet. As the case may be, this recollection will turn out to be the germ of all potential 'numbers' he is still to sing; it is the major catalyst of the essentially sexualised act of writing. Keats himself established the connexion between recollection on the one hand and writing on the other in one of his letters: 'Poetry should [...] appear almost as a Remembrance' (Letters , I, p. 238). Yet, do these 'tuneless numbers' sound not somehow remarkably familiar? 'This do in remembrance of me', Jesus told his disciples whilst breaking the bread and pouring the wine (Luke 22: 19b). Analogously, each new poem will perpetuate the original mystery in which the poet partook. Hence, like the convoluted shape of Psyche's auricle, the poet is about the fold back upon himself and his earlier experiences in what has now basically become, after the mental absorption of the goddess's identity, an act of shameless auto-eroticism. Could Byron possibly have realised how close he was to the truth when he declared that Keats was 'always fr—g—g his Imagination '? [39]


Now it only remains for the poet to penetrate his own orgiastic 'O's', which, in a most graphic manner, constitute a series of 'casements ope at night' (l. 66), in order to engender his poetical offspring. Ergo, invocation becomes impregnation. The firm and climactic 'Yes' at the beginning of the concluding stanza proves that the persona will be thoroughly successful in his creative desires. Truly, this was not a meaningless or overconfident exclamation on Keats's part. Though the 'Ode to Psyche', in itself, would have been enough of a corroboration, the unique sequence of his subsequent odes endorses beyond any doubt how Keats had managed to appropriate fully an inspiring, and above all, personal, Muse.



The following is a (simplified) transcript of the manuscript version of the 'Ode to Psyche' which I used throughout my article. The source text and facsimile can be found in: Robert Gittings, ed., The Odes of Keats and their Earliest Known Manuscripts (London: Heinemann, 1970) pp. 50-55.


Ode to Psyche

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 fan [10]

Of leaves and trembled blossoms, where there ran

A Brooklet scarce espied.

Mid hush'd, cool-rooted flowers, fragrant-eyed,

Blue, freckle pink, and budded syrian,

They lay, calm-breathing, on the bedded grass, [15]

Their arms embraced and their pinions too;

Their lips touch'd not, but had not bid adieu

As if disjoined by soft-handed slumber,

And ready still past kisses to out number

At tender eye-dawn of aurorean Love. [20]

The winged Boy I knew:

But who wast thou O happy, happy dove?

His Psyche true!

O latest born, and loveliest vision far

Of all Olympus' faded Hierarchy! [25]

Fairer than Phoebe's sapphire-region'd, star

Or Vesper amorous glow-worm of the sky;

Fairer than these though Temple thou hast none,

Nor Altar heap'd with flowers;

Nor Virgin Choir to make delicious moan [30]

Upon the midnight hours;

No voice, no lute, no pipe, no incense sweet

From chain-swung Censer teeming;

No shrine, no grove, no Oracle, no heat

Of pale-mouth'd Prophet dreaming. [35]

O Bloomiest! though too late for antique vows

Too, too late for the fond believing Lyre,

When holy were the haunted forest-boughs,

Holy the Air, the Water, and the Fire:

Yet even in these days so far retir'd [40]

From happy Pieties, thy lucent fans,

Fluttering among the faint Olympians,

I see, and sing by my own eyes inspired;

O let me be thy Choir and make moan

Upon the midnight hours; [45]

Thy voice, thy lute, thy Pipe, thy incense sweet

From swinged Censer teeming;

Thy Shrine, thy Grove, thy oracle, thy heat

Of pale mouth'd Prophet dreaming!

Yes, I will be thy Priest and build a Fane [50]

In some untrodden Region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain

Instead of Pines shall murmur in the wind.

Far, far around shall those dark-cluster'd trees

Fledge the wild ridged mountains steep by steep; [55]

And there by Zephyrs, streams and birds and Bees

The moss-lain Dryads shall be lull'd to sleep.

And in the midst of this wide Quietness

A rosy sanctuary will I dress

With the wreath'd trellis if a working brain, [60]

With buds and bells and stars without a name,

With all the gardener-Fancy e'er could feign,

Who breeding flowers will never breed the same

And there shall be for thee all soft delight

That shadowy thought can win [65]

A bright torch, and a casement ope at night

To let the warm Love in.




References to Keats's poetry are to the edition by Jack Stillinger: The Poems of John Keats (London: Heinemann, 1978). For the text of the 'Ode to Psyche', however, I have used the Manuscript Version [See Appendix] reproduced in Robert Gittings, ed., The Odes of John Keats and their Earliest Known Manuscripts (London: Heinemann, 1970) 50-55. Extracts from the letters are taken from Hyder Edward Rollins, ed., The Letters of John Keats: 1814-1821, 2 vols (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Unversity Press, 1958), abbreviated as Letters in the text and followed by the appropriate volume and page numbers.


Susan J. Wolfson, "Feminizing Keats," in Critical Essays on John Keats , ed. Hermione De Almeida (Boston, Massachusetts: G. K. Hall & Co., 1990) p. 348.


Anne K. Mellor, Romanticism and Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 1993) p. 182.


Mellor, Romanticism and Gender , 174.


Jean H. Hagstrum, Eros and Vision: The Restoration to Romanticism (Evaston: Northwestern University Press, 1989) p. 78.


Martin Aske, Keats and Hellenism: An Essay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) p. 105.


Mellor, Romanticism and Gender , 171, 174.


Quoted from Maneck H. Daruwala, "Keats & The Ode to Psyche ," Victorians Institute Journal 19 (1991) : 159.


Critics have not failed to call attention to a certain voyeurism in Keats's poetry [...]. A noteworthy feature of [Keats's erotic] scenes, as of all erotic fantasies, is that the one who has the fantasy in this instance, the poet identifies with one of the envisioned partners.

Leon Waldoff, "The Theme of Mutability in the Ode to Psyche ," PMLA 92 (1977) : 414


Charles Whibley, ed., The Golden Ass of Apuleius Translated out of Latin by William Adlington Anno 1566 , The Tudor Translations, IV (London: David Nutt, 1893) p. 127.


Mary Tighe, in her Spenserian tale Psyche , describes how the eponymous heroine "sinks [down] in deadly swoon opprest" when she sees Cupid fleeing the bridal bed on the ill-fated night. In this analogous situation, Psyche's curiosity, transgressing a taboo, once again brings her into great peril. Mary Tighe, Psyche, With Other Poems 1811 , intro. by Jonathan Wordsworth, Revolution and Romanticism 1789-1834 (Oxford and New York: Woodstock Books, 1992) p. 59.


For a thorough discussion of the various problems arising from a 'cameleon Poet' view of the world, see: Charles J. Rzepka, The Self as Mind: Vision and Identity in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1986) pp. 165-242. Margaret Homans briefly charts the evolution of Keats's conception of identity in "Keats Reading Women, Women Reading Keats," Studies in Romanticism 29 (1990) : 352-3, passim.


Harold E. Briggs is convinced that the reviews distressed the poet considerably: "Keats's Conscious and Unconscious Reactions to Criticism of Endymion ," PMLA 60 (1945): 1106-29.


Sandra M. Gilbert, "Literary Paternity," in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Modernism Through Poststructuralism , ed. Robert Con Davis (New York and London: Longman, 1986) p. 194.


Compare to the startingly physical phrase in Adlington's translation of Apuleius's The Golden Ass : "Then they opened the gates of their subtill mindes" (111-2).


Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings , ed. Grevel Lindop (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 42. De Quincey was yet another critic who condemned the "very midsummer madness of affectation, of false vapoury sentiment, and of fantastic effeminacy" which he saw "combined [especially] in Keats's Endymion ". Tait's Edinburgh Magazine 33 (April 1846) : 249, repr. in G. M. Matthews, ed., Keats: The Critical Heritage . The Critical Heritage Series (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) p. 309.


C. T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966) p. 908.


Quoted from Maneck H. Daruwala, "Keats & The Ode to Psyche ", 171.


Carl Gustav Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung , eds. H. Read et al. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), vol. 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East , par. 156, 95.


Jung, Collected Works , vol. 11, par. 157, 95.


A. Hamilton Thompson feminises the prophet by assuming that "pale-mouthed" refers to the Pythoness at Delphi whose prophetic ecstasy "was accompanied by foaming at the mouth"; Selections from the Poems of John Keats , English Romantic Poets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1915) p. 151.


William C. Stephenson has shrewdly observed the "conspicuous absence of verbs (save one minor 'hast')" in this particular stanza. "The Performing Narrator in Keats's Poetry," Keats-Shelley Journal 26 (1977) : 64. Undeniably, the real actens /agent throughout the ode is the poet. Even the embrace is described as a passive moment (the verb phrases 'couched', 'lay', 'disjoined' and 'touched not' all convey a sense of passivity, a frozen moment of perpetual stillness).


Aske, Keats and Hellenism , 107.


Sigmund Freud, "The Theme of the Three Caskets," in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud , ed. and transl. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1958), vol. XII, 294. The reference was first made by Lloyd N. Jeffrey in his disappointingly superficial article "A Freudian Reading of Keats's Ode to Psyche ," Psychoanalytic Review 55 (Summer 1968) : 289-306.


The presence of 'I' is already implied in the repeated assonances of [...] 'lyre', 'fire', retir'd', before finally coming to the surface here: 'I see, and sing, by my own eyes inspired' (43). The extraordinary internal repetition of 'I' in this line serves to establish the poet's authority once and for all.

Aske, Keats and Hellenism , 107


Aske, Keats and Hellenism , 104.


Maneck H. Daruwala, "Keats & The Ode to Psyche ," 178. As the author justly observes, "Naming the Muse is a poet's definition of the creative self" (146).


D. L. Hoeveler, Romantic Androgyny: The Women Within (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990) pp. 6, 9. An analogous remark is made by Daniel Watkins in his essay "Historical Amnesia and Patriarchal Morality": "The feminine, in being conquered, is not only silenced but also transformed, denied all human complexity and made into the passive repository of masculine desire. The purity and morality that come to be associated with this silenced femininity derive from the masculine ability to use the feminine just as it uses the world to its own ends. In effect, the feminine is cherished because its subordination serves the masculine ego's carefully constructed sense of itself." Quoted from G. A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, eds., Spirits of Fire: English Romantic Writers and Contemporary Historical Methods (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1990), 247.


S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions , ed. George Watson, Everyman's Library (London and Vermont: J. M. Dent, 1993) p. 167. Also, "A self that continually overflows itself, that melts into the Other, that becomes the Other, is conventionally associated with the female, and especially with the pregnant woman who experiences herself and child as one." Mellor, Romanticism and Gender , 175. However, I believe that in the ode, Keats does not so much melt into the Other, as consume it. The mental process of reserving a sacred spot for Psyche within the human brain can be considered as a 'masculine' activity. The absorption of Psyche's identity, implying a dissolution of her selfhood by an apparently mentally stronger poet, likewise is the result of a 'virile' cannibalistic process.


Many of the [...] gems must have appealed deeply to Keats, and some of them may have left their traces in his poetry. No fewer than twenty-two Nos. 7177-98 portray Cupid and Psyche embracing.

Ian Jack, Keats and the Mirror of Art (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1967) p. 104


Anonymous, The Graces: A Classical Allegory, Interspersed with Poetry, and Illustrated by Explanatory Notes: Together with a Poetical Fragment Entitled Psyche Among the Graces. Translated from the Original German of Christopher Martin Wieland (London: 1823), 136. Incidentally, the Victorians saw Keats as the delicately feminine and fragile butterfly, cruelly destroyed by some v(ir)ile critiques: "What shall we say of the malicious, the utterly brutal criticism, the hand of the cloddish boy tearing the myriad-hued fragile butterfly to fragments!" Quoted from Hermione De Almeida, Critical Essays on John Keats , 324.


Joseph Spence, Polymetis: Or, An Enquiry Concerning the Agreement Between the Works of the Roman Poets, And the Remains of the Antient Artists. Being an Attempt to Illustrate them Mutually from One Another. In Ten Books , Garland Publishing Series (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1976, facsimile reprod. of the London 1747 ed.) p. 71. The gems are reproduced as plate VI between pp. 82-83.


Andrew Tooke, The Pantheon, Representing the Fabulous Stories of the Heathen Gods and Most Illustrious Heroes in a S[h]ort, Plain and Familiar Method, by Way of Dialogues: Illustrated and Adorned with Elegant Copper Cutts [sic] of the Several Deities: Written by Fra. Pomey, of the Society of Jesus, Author of the French and Latin Dictionary; for the Use of the Dauphin. The Sixth Edition: In which the Whole Translation is Revised, and much Amended, a New Set of Cuts Added, with a Copious Index: Whereby it is now Made More than Fit than Any of the Former Impressions for the Use of Schools , Garland Publishing Series (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1976) pp. 141-2.


Asia Shepsut, Journey of the Priestess: The Priestess Traditions of the Ancient World; A Journey of Spiritual Awakening and Empowerment (London and San Francisco: The Aquarian Press, 1993) p. 218.


For another reference to the myth, see: Endymion , III, l 97. In his article, Rodney S. Edgecombe suggests that Keats may have read Musaeus in translation during his stay with Bailey in Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1817, rather than in 1816 when Keats set eyes on the Homer epics translated by Chapman who also happened to have rendered Musaeus's tale into English. See: "On First Looking Into Chapman's Musaeus: A Note on a Possible Influence," Keats-Shelley Journal 43 (1994) : 27-34. However, Keats alludes to the Hero and Leander myth in Endymion , II, l. 31; in 'Woman! when I behold thee flippant', l 13 and in the sonnet mentioned above, all of which were completed before he visited Oxford. Keats may well have read Musaeus for the first time in 1817, but he was already familiar with the myth from a much earlier date.


Actually, the plural word mysteria (musthria ) was used interchangeably with orgia (orgia ) by the ancient Greek authors. See: Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1958) p. 13.


Quoted from Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Picador, 1990) p. 37. The following is another example taken from the same book:

Mirentur ergo saecula [The centuries marvel therefore]

quod angelus fert semina [that the angel bore the seed]

quod aure virgo concepit [the virgin conceived through her ear]

et corde credens parturit [believing in her heart, became fruitful]

For the occurrence of the same conceptio per aurem motif in The Eve of St Agnes , see: Gail McMurray Gibbon, "Ave Madeline: Ironic Annunciation in Keats's The Eve of St. Agnes ," Keats-Shelley Journal 26 (1977) : 39-50.


Donald C. Goellnicht, "In Some Untrodden Region of My Mind : Double Discourse in Keats's Ode to Psyche ," Mosaic 21 (1988) : 97.


I borrow the term from Christine Battersby's book, Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics (London: The Women's Press, 1989).


Lord Byron, Selected Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand (London: John Murray, 1982 and Pimlico, 1993) p. 346. It is this self-conscious, autotelic reflexiveness of Keats's art which is the subject of Marjorie Levinson's Keats's Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (Oxford and Cambridge, Massachusetts: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

Auteur : Kris Steyaert
Titre : Poetry as Enforcement: Conquering the Muse in Keats's 'Ode to Psyche'
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 1, février 1996
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005708ar
DOI : 10.7202/005708ar

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