Ode on Indolence

Since I’m too lazy this Sunday to do anything too strenuous, I thought instead I would post the poem that was read to us on Friday morning. Appropriately enough it’s the Ode on Indolence, written around 1819 by John Keats. The opening epigram is actually from the New Testament (Matthew 6: 28-29), which, in the King James version I have, reads

28. And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29. And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The poem isn’t just about being lazy, of course. It’s actually about the importance to the creative mind of having time for restful contemplation, i.e. just sitting and thinking about things. Call it meditation if you like. I’m sure that’s essential for artists and poets, but I also think we scientists need it too although finding time to think is increasingly difficult when you’re on a treadmill designed to mass produce “research outputs” for assessment by the factory bosses…

‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’
One morn before me were three figures seen,
     With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced ;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
     In placid sandals, and in white robes graced ;
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 ;
     And they were strange to me, as may betide
          With vases, to one deep in Phidian lore.
How is it, Shadows ! that I knew ye not ?
     How came ye muffled in so hush a mask ?
Was it a silent deep-disguised plot
     To steal away, and leave without a task
My idle days ? Ripe was the drowsy hour ;
     The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
          Benumb’d my eyes ; my pulse grew less and less ;
Pain had no sting, and pleasure’s wreath no flower :
     O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
          Unhaunted quite of all but—nothingness ?
A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
     Each one the face a moment whiles to me ;
Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d
     And ach’d for wings because I knew the three ;
The first was a fair Maid, and Love her name ;
     The second was Ambition, pale of cheek,
          And ever watchful with fatigued eye ;
The last, whom I love more, the more of blame
     Is heap’d upon her, maiden most unmeek,—
          I knew to be my demon Poesy.
They faded, and, forsooth ! I wanted wings :
     O folly ! What is love ! and where is it ?
And for that poor Ambition ! it springs
     From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit ;
For Poesy !—no,—she has not a joy,—
     At least for me,—so sweet as drowsy noons,
          And evenings steep’d in honied indolence ;
O, for an age so shelter’d from annoy,
     That I may never know how change the moons,
          Or hear the voice of busy common-sense !
And once more came they by ;— alas ! wherefore ?
     My sleep had been embroider’d with dim dreams ;
My soul had been a lawn besprinkled o’er
     With flowers, and stirring shades, and baffled beams :
The morn was clouded, but no shower fell,
     Tho’ in her lids hung the sweet tears of May ;
          The open casement press’d a new-leav’d vine ,
     Let in the budding warmth and throstle’s lay ;
O Shadows ! ’twas a time to bid farewell !
          Upon your skirts had fallen no tears of mine.
So, ye three Ghosts, adieu ! Ye cannot raise
     My head cool-bedded in the flowery grass ;
For I would not be dieted with praise,
     A pet-lamb in a sentimental farce !
Fade softly from my eyes, and be once more
     In masque-like figures on the dreamy urn ;
          Farewell ! I yet have visions for the night,
And for the day faint visions there is store ;
          Vanish, ye Phantoms ! from my idle spright,
     Into the clouds, and never more return !



2 Responses to “Ode on Indolence”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    That part of the Sermon on the Mount isn’t about being lazy either, but a word to the faithful not to worry needlessly about things. Good advice but not so easy to take.

    And yes, Einstein’s point that if you know what project you want to pursue then you need a job as a lighthouse-keeper, not in a university, has never been more true than today.

    “Neither do they spin” reminds me of Australia’s current crop of slow bowlers…

  2. telescoper Says:

    I remember the phrase “they toil not neither do they spin” from my school lessons in history. It was used by Joseph Chamberlain to describe the landowning classes whose power he felt was still overrepresented in Parliament after the Reform Act of 1867; he introduced further Franchise Bill in 1884 but, predictably, it was blocked by the House of Lords.

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