Ode on Melancholy

 Overview

Keats explores the idea of melancholy and bids the reader not to turn to poison to end our heartache, but instead to rejoice that this kind of suffering is only possible as a reflection of the beauty or pleasure we have been able to see or achieve in the world.

He presents the extremes of emotions as being intrinsically linked and thus as something we should celebrate and strive for. Think of this poem as a convoluted way of saying that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.

Mini-Glossary
Lethe –
the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion and one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld;
wolf’s-bane – 
a poisonous plant;
Proserpine – the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture (usually further associated with the cycle of life and death and fertility), who also reigns as the Queen of the Underworld;
rosary – a chain used in Roman Catholic worship;
Psyche
– a beautiful princess from Greek mythology who loses her love, Cupid, and endures punishments and trials from the jealous goddess of Love and Beauty, Venus;
glut – an excessive amount of something;
peonies – a pretty pink flower;
sovran – an Italian version of sovereign that is also used in English.

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
        Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
        By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
                Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
        Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
                Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
        For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
                And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
        Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
        And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
                 Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
        Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
                 Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
       Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
                And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
       And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
       Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
                Ay, in the very temple of Delight
       Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
                Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
       His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

John Keats (1795-1821)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

John Keats is another poet often considered a contender for the title of greatest of all time and this poem is a powerful weapon for anyone who wished to argue so.

Although born to a relatively comfortable existence, Keats lost his father at the age of 8 and his mother six years later and for the rest of his childhood lived with his grandmother and three younger siblings. His adult life should have been relatively comfortable as he’d been left a fair bit of cash by his grandfather and mother, but the family lawyer conveniently neglected to tell him and money was always a bit of an issue in his brief adult life.

Initially he trained as a doctor and it wasn’t until 1816 that he had any literary work published. However, his work wasn’t well received in his lifetime. Only after his death did appreciation grow and he is particularly revered now for his series of 5 odes (including ours) that were all composed in the same year.

It was written in 1819 when 24, only two years before his premature death after suffering from tuberculosis. This wasn’t a fantastic time for Keats as he was dealing with the recent loss of a brother and was frustrated in his affections for Fanny Brawne as his poor financial situation meant that he wasn’t much of a marriage prospect. However, the message of our poem seems to suggest that he was intent on seeing a silver lining to his struggles.

 Themes

This poem is in a section entitled ‘Birds, Beast and Weather’. He reflects on how nature’s beauty can act as a cure for all of life’s woes. By extension he is exploring an idea similar to Yin and Yang or the rough with the smooth as a feature of human emotion and experience.

He shows how misery and depression are not a cause for grief and ending it all, but as almighty lows that find a reflection in some almighty highs that life is capable of supplying.

Content

I am going to rattle through this relatively quickly and will expand upon ideas in the following section.

In the opening stanza, Keats begins by trying to convince us not to address our melancholy or misery by trying to block it from our minds or else ending our lives. He references the river of oblivion and forgetfulness, poison the underworld and various other symbols of death all as things we should avoid. He ends the stanza by explaining that death is too immediate and we should embrace our suffering.

He hasn’t really justified this as yet and in the second stanza merely expands upon what he would rather we do when melancholy. He suggests that we combat this by immersing ourselves in everything that makes the world beautiful.

In the third stanza he presents an idea that melancholy only exists as an extension of beauty and all the good things in the world. We can only feel so miserable because of our appreciation of how fantastic and beautiful the world can be. Beauty and sorrow are inextricably linked and each works to enhance the other: the transience and certain death or decay of beauty enhances our appreciation of it; while our misery is made all the more acute because it is an expression of our feeling of lost beauty.

Language and techniques

I wholeheartedly recommend you read through both the SparkNotes and Shmoop pages about this poem as they are much more thorough and methodical than I am and helped me a great deal when writing this post.

The poem is written as an imperative as Keats direct us to not shy away from experiencing melancholy or depression. This forceful stance, enhanced by the immediate repetition of ‘No, no’ that opens the stanza, presumably comes from lessons that Keats feels he has learnt through his own experience and he is trying to guide us to appreciate the full range of human experience.

The opening stanza is rich with various symbols relating to death: ‘Lethe’ is a river from the underworld in Greek mythology and therefore associated with death as well as forgetfulness; ‘Wolf’s-bane’ sap and ‘nightshade’ can be used to relieve pain or in larger doses as a deadly poison; ‘the beetle… the death-moth… [and] the downy-owl’ are all animals associated with death or funeral rituals. Keats bids us not to try to escape our suffering with the finality of death, however, he also wants us to embrace our pain in full.

The river and the plants also have connotations of pain relief or forgetting our troubles and Keats clearly means for us to avoid this approach to misery. He further bids us not seek solace in our ‘rosary’, which are a symbol of Catholic faith and prayer. These are all approaches that could help people handle or ‘drown’ their grief, but Keats instead wants us to experience the ‘wakeful anguish of the soul’.

This idea seems counter intuitive, with the association between melancholy and ‘anguish’ really demonstrating that misery is an intense pain to endure. This is further enhanced with natural imagery when melancholy is termed a ‘weeping cloud’ as if it hangs upon us and is inescapable. Keats uses pathetic fallacy to compare our feelings with a rainy day as not only are we consumed by the cloud, but the ‘droop-headed flowers’ (hanging with the heavy rain drops rather than looking up into the Sun) reflect a similar posture we assume when miserable as if we want to hide our heads from the world.

However, we are instructed to embrace it ‘when the melancholy fit shall fall’. This line suggests that these feelings are inevitable and it is a case of when and not if. Instead of fleeing or forgetting our misery, we are told to ‘glut [our] sorrow on a morning rose’; ‘the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’; or ‘globed peonies’. These natural images reflect elements of the natural world most commonly associated with beauty. The sweet scent of the rose, the glory of a rainbow and the pretty simplistic of a peony are presented as cures to the melancholic as they allow renewed appreciation of all that is beautiful with the world. Notice too that the natural imagery used before to reflect the human state of misery is also simply beauty concealed with the fresh April spring’s ‘green hill’ and ‘droop-headed flowers’ that will look up again once the Sun is out.

In addition, when the melancholy stems from relationship woes we are told to focus on the ‘soft hand’ and ‘deep, deep upon [our lover’s] peerless eyes’ to remind ourselves that however low we are feelings, we must remember the beauty of the world.

The ‘She’ of the final stanza is a reference to the personification of Melancholy from the title of the poem. ‘She dwells with Beauty’ thus confirms that pain only exists as a reflection of pleasure and vice-versus. The very fact that a flower, rainbow or life is temporary makes us appreciate its beauty all the more. All these things ‘must die’, but this makes us appreciate and enjoy them all the more – rainbows wouldn’t be special or comment worthy if they were always clogging up the sky would they.

Keats makes point repeatedly by personifying Joy as ‘ever… Bidding adieu’ (thus saying goodbye) and Pleasure as ‘turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips’ suggests that with time our enjoyment of things turns sour and thus pleasure fades. If he wasn’t clear enough he presents Delight and Melancholy as sharing a temple as we cannot experience true delight without knowing misery and melancholy is a reflection of lost delight.

After reading the third stanza, if we return to the imagery and symbolism of the first we will see that Keats is really being rather clever. Those associations with death can also be linked with a concept of rebirth that reflect the cyclical nature of life and human experience, between pleasure and pain; delight and melancholy. The beetle is associated with Egyptian tombs and their belief in rebirth and an after life; rosaries and the Catholic faith have a strong association with rebirth and resurrection; and Prosperine, although condemned to the underworld initially, eventually spends 6 months there and 6 months in the world and is associated with the change between summer and winter. Thus even here Keats was trying to suggest the temporary nature of melancholia and wanting us to embrace it as a path to rebirth and renewed realisation of what is beautiful in the world.

Structure

This poem is written in a regular structure with three ten-line stanzas each using fairly consistent iambic pentameter. This reflects the surety of Keats tone as he presents this advice based on his experience.

You may notice that the rhyme scheme shifts ever so slightly in the final stanza. This change relates to the shift from advice to explanation.

Tone

To me, this poem is read with an intense passion and certainty in the beauty of existence. Melancholy is never condemned or criticised, but instead is revered as a crucial and necessary element that allows us to appreciate the beauty or brilliance of our human experience and existence.

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