by John Keats
‘They toil not, neither do they spin.’
One morn before me were three figures seen,
     With bowèd necks, and joinèd 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-disguisèd 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 ached 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 fatiguéd 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 honey’d 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-leaved 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!



Ode on Indolence —Keats wrote this ode sometime between March and June of 1819.  In a letter to his brother George dated 19 March, he describes being in “a sort of temper indolent”; on 9 June, when in a letter to a Miss Jeffery, he writes, “the thing I have most enjoyed this year is writing an ode to Indolence.”

Indolence was generally considered a defect, even a sin. But in his letter to George, Keats writes, “In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown. . . .This is the only happiness, and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.”

The poem was not published until 1848, more than a quarter-century after Keats’s death.

“They toil not, neither do they spin” — Keats takes the epigraph for this ode from Matthew 6:28 in the New Testament (King James Version). The antecedent for they is “the lilies of the field,” which Jesus compares favorably to Solomon: “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The reference to weaving also could be a pun: the Latin word for weaving, textum, is the root of both textile and text.
Phidian — Keats forms this adjective from Phidias, the name of the Greek sculptor who supposedly sculpted, or at least supervised the sculpting of the friezes around the Parthenon that became known as the Elgin Marbles, which Keats had seen at the British Museum after they were installed there in 1816.
wreath — two possible allusions: 1) great poets in Greece and Rome could be honored with a laurel wreath (this is the source of the term poet laureate); 2) a wreath can be any arrangement of materials from plants, and one of the most common purposes of a wreath is to be placed on a grave.
demon — 1) in Greek mythology, a demon (or daimon, or daemon) is simply a nature spirit, unpredictable but not evil and sometimes even helpful; 2) in Christian legend, demons are terrifying evil spirits that torment the living; they are associated with pagan belief systems, which makes them different from devils, who are former angels who followed Lucifer and rebelled, and who belong to a strict hierarchy.
Poesy — poetry, but used primarily when referring to the whole process of creating verse, as opposed to just the final product
wanted — in the original meaning of lacked as well as desired
annoy — another case in which Keats blurs the distinctions between parts of speech, this time by using a verb as a noun.
throstle’s lay — the song of the thrush; however, once again Keats enjoys making a pun, as a throstle is also a word for the frame on which one weaves
skirts — the bottom of any hanging garment
masque — in the sense of masquerade, a party in which people’s identities are disguised by masks. Note the earlier reference to a “mask” in line 12.
spright — more commonly in modern English spelled sprite, the word is etymologically connected to spirit; however, it can also refer to a small supernatural creature, like a fairy.