The Romantic Cure to Creative Neurosis: Analysing John Keats’ Ode to Psyche
Ode to Psyche (1819) presents the identity of the poet-speaker as formulated through an ongoing discourse between the natural world and the poet’s mental landscape. By appealing to the antiquity of ‘pagan worship’, John Keats points to the relatively ‘modern’ propensity to confuse the genius for the scribe which inadvertently proves to be the root of creative neurosis. Whereas the ending of the ode points to a cure to this mental affliction which has come to be regarded as part and parcel of great artistry.
By calling into question, right at the start, the reliability of the persona’s immediate senses — ‘Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see / The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?’ — Keats blurs the parameters of reality and situates the poem at the intersection of the inner and the outer worlds. The inability to distinguish between dream and reality, not unlike that seen in Ode to a Nightingale, points to the Romantic preoccupation with excessive internalising of the external world that eventually leads to alienation (Ahern, 2005, p.70). However, where Nightingale ends on the note of uncertainty, Keats begins Ode to Psyche by relishing in that uncertainty which uses the internal world as a means for discourse between different aspects of the poet’s lyric-self — his sensibility and his reason, his heart and his mind — from which the identity of the lyric-self matures as a manifestation of textuality (Brewster, 2009, p.74). Ode to Psyche then is not a negotiation between the external and the internal landscapes but one between sensibility and reason (Dixon, 2012, p.340), both of which exist within the internal realm.
This is further concretised by the lines, ‘I will be thy priest, and build a fane / In some untrodden region of my mind’. Even though the first two stanzas contextualises the natural setting on uncertain foundation, the rest of the ode seems to suggest that it does not matter whether the persona has seen Psyche outside or inside his head because to him the experience is as real and as vivid as it would be if it were to happen in any physical space. Keats concretises the dream-setting by comparing his ‘working brain’ to the forest ‘[w]here branched thoughts, new-grown with pleasant pain’ is cultivated by his worship of Psyche as a goddess, as a tutelary spirit, as his muse. In this sense, Ode to Psyche outlines a reality in which the natural world matters only insofar as the effect it has on the poet-speaker’s inner world. With this, Keats calls to attention the shift in attitude towards the concept of the ‘genius’ which inadvertently gives rise to the ‘modern’ tendency to convolute the creative power with the creator’s own innate ability (McMahon, 2013).
The endoxa, the common view, of the ancient Greeks sees the ‘genius’ as a tutelary spirit which blesses its worshippers with bouts of creative genius (Eysenck, 1995). In the Romantic period, however, the concept of the ‘genius’ has moved out of the external realm of pagan piety and into the inner realm of the lone suffering artist. In ‘these days so far retir’d / From happy pieties’, as Keats puts it, the artist is no longer seen as being in possession of the creative power posited onto him or her by a personal daemon, the ancient Greek conception of the ‘genius’. The common view of the modern age opines that the artist is the ‘genius’ (ibid.). When the endoxa of the term has evolved in such a way, starting from the Renaissance and all the way to now (ibid.), it is not difficult to understand the relationship between creativity and suffering and how the creative power has come to be viewed as both ‘a gift and an affliction’ (Ahern, 2005, p.71). That existential pain, or what Keats calls ‘pleasant pain’, is seen as part and parcel of great artistry is the notion we have come to accept collectively, even though — according to Eysenck (1995), McMahon (2013) and Gilbert (2009) — this has not always been the case.
By calling the apostrophe ‘these tuneless numbers’ in the very first line, Ode to Psyche falls into the Romantic propensity for critical self-examination, the self-deprecating egocentric trait of the artist who convolutes the ‘genius’ with his innate ability. However, unlike other Romantic works, the persona does not demonise the nature of the creative process when the work falls short of the great idealised art envisioned by the poet. Instead, Ode to Psyche appeals to sensibility and the possibility of the artist’s mind to flourish with healthy creativity, ‘breeding flowers’ and other beautiful things when the creative soul opens up to let ‘the warm Love in’. Love, in Ode to Psyche, helps creativity to grow, for Eros is not merely a mythological figure ‘who can be seen by means of Psyche’s torch’ (Bunn, 1970, p.588); the ability to embrace the creative soul, as opposed to demonising it or viewing it as a source of all artistic plights, is the cure to the artist’s mental affliction.
Eros and Psyche, love and the soul, go hand in hand, and it is this combination that stirs ideas to life: ‘branched thoughts … shall murmur in the wind’. In this vein, Ode to Psyche becomes also an ode to possibility insofar as the persona views Psyche as the creative genius, as his tutelary spirit, who resides in his ‘working brain’ but whose identity is distinct from his lyric-self. When the poet understands that he is not his work, and that creative inspiration exists outside of himself, artistry is less likely to lead to anguish (Gilbert, 2009). However, that the poet-speaker looks to build a shrine in his mind — and that a ‘rosy sanctuary will [he] dress / [w]ith the wreath’d trellis of a working brain’ — showcases the ‘genius’ in the process of being consumed by the new understanding of the term wherein ‘happy pieties’ (Keats, 1819) has given way to ‘melancholy visionar[ies]’ (Ahern, 2005, p.71). Ode to Psyche then straddles the line between two worldviews — one of antiquity which looks outward for inspiration and that of the more modern view which confuses the genius for the scribe.
In conclusion, the inner world of the poet-speaker cannot be understood in isolation as it is constantly developed through an ongoing discourse between different aspects of the self and with the external world. The natural world is experienced through the immediate senses and is processed in retrospect — its representation in literature is ever-evolving just like the modes and forms through which tales are told and retold, adapted and readapted. Ode to Psyche suggests that the experience of the outside world is felt by the mind and the body as ‘casement’ to the soul — the creative self must be cultivated with love for it to grow, not to be regarded as the central source of artistic anguish.
Ahern, S., 2005. Diagnosing Romanticism. English Studies in Canada, 31(2–3), pp.69–76.
Brewster, S., 2009. Lyric. London: Routledge.
Bunn, J. H., 1970. Keats’s Ode to Psyche and the Transformation of Mental Landscape. ELH, 37(4), pp.581–594.
Dixon, T., 2012. “Emotion”: The History of a Keyword in Crisis. Emotion Review, 4(4), pp.338–344.
Eysenck, H., 1995. Genius: The Natural History of Creativity.
Gilbert, E., 2009. Your Elusive Creative Genius. [Online] TED Talk. <URL: https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius/> [Last Accessed: 17 Feb 2019].
Keats, J., 1819. Ode to Psyche. [Online] Poetry Foundation. <URL: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44480/ode-to-psyche> [Last Accessed: 18 Feb 2019].
McMahon, D. M., 2013. Divine Fury: A History of Genius. New York: Basic Books.
Originally written in Feb 2019 for ‘Romanticisms’