In order to fully analyse Ode on Melancholy, one must first understand that melancholy was viewed, for the longest time, as an illness. It was an imbalance in the body’s humours, specifically an over-abundance of black bile, that led to ill temperament, mood swings, anger, and a brooding disposition, which, for the discerning reader, might have very well been the categorization of the entire Romantic period. John Keats, as a junior doctor, would have almost certainly come into the definition and the treatment of melancholy during his training, which is why this particular poem, Ode on Melancholy, is so interesting in its writing.
Written in the spring of 1819 as part of the famous great odes, Ode on Melancholy differs slightly from the others in the fact that it addresses the reader, rather than an object or an emotion. It is also the shortest of the odes, with only three stanzas of ten lines each, a total of around 200 words, and packed with Greek mythology and imagery that Keats no doubt gleaned from his studies at Ennfield, and from his interest in the classics.
Ode on Melancholy Summary
Ode on Melancholy, while not amongst the most lauded of the Odes, is perhaps the most uplifting and hopeful of all of Keat’s Odes. Whereas the others dwell on the injustice and the misery of life, in Ode on Melancholy, Keats addresses the Reader, a sufferer of Melancholy, and tells him not to worry – that beauty and pain are intertwined in the world, and that both offer a fuller view of life when occurring in tandem. Melancholy, a notoriously unbeautiful subject, is turned beautiful by Keats’ flowing words and his fond address.
It is worth pointing out that Keats originally had this written as a four-stanza poem; the first stanza was removed just before it was published in 1820. The missing stanza was as follows:
Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.
Harold Bloom stated that, should the first stanza have been published, it would have upset the delicate balance of Ode on Melancholy, which is, at its heart, an acceptance of the state of melancholy, an embrace of misery that resonates with the reader in its simplicity.
Ode on Melancholy Breakdown Analysis
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.
Lethe – the Greek goddess of the underworld river of oblivion – also features in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
In the first stanza, Keats lists what not to do when beset by melancholy; this is also, perhaps, why the earlier first stanza was rejected. By using a heavy amount of negative words – no, nor, not – Keats actually manages to drive his message in further, considering that he is speaking about the idea of melancholy and bad temperament. The negative grammar helps to reinforce the idea that Melancholy is a part of life – that one cannot escape it by praying for oblivion, or drinking wolf’s bane.
Also not the intertwining of death within the phrase; it was well-known for Melancholy to cause a brooding temperament, and a wish for death, but Keats’ masterful imagery and his dreamy invocations bring to the forefront the infamous dreamworld that is glimpsed throughout all his work. In Keats’ world, in Keatsian poems, the world is made up of myth and legend; this is also the case in Melancholy, whose imagery is made up solely of almost-religious motifs and Greek myth, and the splash of colour – ‘ruby grape’ – which helps to, ironically, bring Ode on Melancholy to life.
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.
In the second stanza, Keats moves on from what not to do when beset by Melancholy, to what to do. He notes the idea of melancholy suddenly appearing – a detail which he mentioned in a letter to his sister and brother – as being debilitating, almost changing the world. Reading it with a modern perspective, one can clearly draw allusions to depression – the way that Keats describes the sudden fall of melancholy, the way that the imagery suffers for it, turns ‘droop-headed flowers’ and ‘hides the green hill in an April shroud’ — however, what becomes evident to the reader is the beauty of this imagery.
It is not only the beauty of Keatsian poetry, of John Keats putting pen to paper and delivering a journey of half-myth, half-pleasure. It is the beauty inherent in melancholy, a sort of preciousness that Keats attributed to sadness as helping him to appreciate life further. Although it has its pains, says Keats, it helps one understand the scale and scope of happiness in life. What is life without a measure of sadness, so that one can accurately see how happy one is?
Thus, Keats’ suggestion is to enjoy the bursts of melancholy that come across the reader:
‘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 they 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.
In the final stanza, Keats shows the importance of Melancholy, shows that Melancholy is entwined with so much of the higher and most beautiful forms of life: with Beauty, ‘Beauty that must die’, and Joy, ‘whose hand is ever at his lips / bidding adieu’. Thus, it is impossible to have a complete life without Melancholy. It is impossible to live with only half the emotions, and this sense of contradiction helps to strengthen the ideas that Keats wishes to express to his readers, and he does this through contradicting, but effective, imagery – such as the example of April. April is a sad and rainy month, but it is beautiful in its own way, and leads to the blooming of those ‘droop-headed flowers’. A morning rose, although fleetingly alive, has a beauty that brightens.
This is the world-thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure-Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting-While we are laughing the seed Of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events-while we are laughing it sprouts is [for it] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck-Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words. Very few men have ever arrived at a complete disinterestedness of Mind: very few have been influenced by a pure desire of the benefit of others-in the greater part of the Benefactors to Humanity some meretricious motive has sullied their greatness -some melodramatic scenery has fa[s]cinated them-From the manner in which I feel Haslam’s misfortune I perceive how far I am from any humble standard of disinterestedness-Yet this feeling ought to be carried to its highest pitch as there is no fear of its ever injuring Society-which it would do I fear pushed to in extremity-For in wild nature the Hawk would loose his Breakfast of Robins and the Robin his of Worms-the Lion must starve well as the swallow. The greater part of Men make their way th the same instinctiveness, the same unwandering eye from their purposes, the same animal eagerness as the Hawk. The Hawk wants a Mate, so does the man-look at them both they set about it and procure on[e] in the same manner. They want both a nest and they both set about one in the same manner-they get food in the same manner-The noble animal Man for his amusement smokes his pipe-the Hawk balances about the Clouds- that is the only difference of their leisures. This it is that makes – the the Amusement of Life-to a speculative Mind. I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a Stoat or a fieldmouse peeping out of the withered grass-the creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it. I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along-to what? the Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. But then, as Wordsworth says, “we have all one human heart”-there is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify-so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it: as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish.
— excerpt from a letter to George and Georgiana Keats, Sunday February 14th.