The poet imagines that he has either seen or dreamed that he has seen the winged goddess Psyche while he was wandering in a forest. She lay in the grass in a grotto made of leaves and flowers in the embrace of Adonis.
He addresses her as the "latest born and loveliest vision far / Of all Olympus' faded hierarchy!" Although she is fairer than all other goddesses, there is no temple to her with an altar and a choir of virgins to sing hymns to her. No one plays a musical instrument in her honor nor offers incense to her. No shrine or grove is sacred to her. No oracle or priest serves her. Keats therefore will be her choir, her lute, her incense, her shrine, her grove, her oracle, and her prophet. He will be her priest and build a temple in his mind to her. Thoughts will serve for pine trees and among them will be her sanctuary which his imagination will decorate with flowers of every variety. In her sanctuary there will be a "bright torch" and a window open at night through which her lover, Cupid, may enter.
"Ode to Psyche" is the first of a group of odes which Keats composed in April and May 1819. It is one of Keats' best and most significant poems, but it has not gained the interest of readers in the way that his famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale" have. It does not measure up to them in power of language, beauty of form, or interest of theme.
The goddess Psyche does not belong in the pantheon of classical mythology. She is the creation of Apuleius, the second century A.D. Latin author of The Golden Ass. In this novel, he tells the story of Cupid and Psyche. Psyche was a merchant's daughter whose beauty aroused the jealousy of Venus; Venus ordered her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a vile, deformed creature. But Cupid fell in love with her himself and every night would come to her. Eventually, however, Jupiter secured immortality for Psyche and so Cupid was united with her forever.
Keats had read the story in Apuleius and probably had seen reproductions of paintings of Cupid in the bedroom of Psyche. The subject was a very popular one with Renaissance and later artists. Keats' artist friends would have been familiar with it and might have drawn Keats' attention to reproductions.
What interested Keats particularly in the myth was the fact that Psyche, a mortal, achieved immortality through love. In Endymion, Keats has his hero achieve immortality through love; in The Eve of St. Agnes, Porphyro achieves a kind of immortality through love. Keats' ideal of perfect love was romantic love perpetuated. Psyche had achieved an immortality of erotic love. She had realized Keats' youthful dream of love. It was inevitable that he should have written his "Ode to Psyche."
Classical antiquity had not worshiped Psyche because it had no knowledge of her before Apuleius invented her. But in a poem, Keats could do on a small scale what classical antiquity had not done. He could build her a shrine in his imagination and, in it, he would leave one window open for Love to enter in just as Cupid, the god of Love in the story told by Apuleius, had entered Psyche's room every night and enjoyed the sweets of love with her.
The "Ode to Psyche" is an important poem among Keats' works because it embodies Keats' ideal of love, an ideal unattainable in this world but possibly attainable hereafter and certainly attainable in the imagination, which can build a shrine to Psyche with a window through which Keats may enter and enjoy a perfect union with the perfect woman. In the story of Psyche, Keats found an ideal vehicle for the expression of one of his profoundest yearnings. The "Ode to Psyche" is a poem about young, warm Keatsian love, much like that in The Eve of St. Agnes.
In addition to what the "Ode to Psyche" reveals to the reader about Keats, the poem contains an abundance of imagery felicitously phrased. Flowers are "cool-rooted." "Olympus' faded hierarchy" states succinctly the fate that has overtaken the religion of the Greeks and Romans. "Haunted forest boughs" expresses eloquently the classical practice of peopling nature with hosts of such lesser divinities as nymphs. Pines "murmur" in the wind. Fancy is a botanist-gardener who "breeding flowers, will never breed the same."
Psyche's wings in the ode ("thy lucent fans") are accounted for by the fact that, in Greek, psyche is the word for soul, and the soul was often represented as having the wings of a butterfly. Cupid also traditionally had wings.