Ode on Melancholy by John Keats

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.

Summary

Keats suggests in the opening lines that Melancholy is a delicate feeling and not deadening grief. Those who seek to find melancholy, should not look for her in the places which are commonly supposed to be her dwelling such as Lethe in the lower world, Wolf’s-bane, ruby grape of Proserpine, the beetle, the death-moth, your mournful Psyche or the downy owl. The objects, places and creatures named in this stanza are associated with gloom and mourning. The sufferer from melancholy, “A partner is your Sorrow’s mysteries”, will be lulled into drowsiness to forget the pain and suffering of the soul.

In the second stanza the poet describes how the fit of melancholy will fall suddenly like a weeping cloud. He uses a simile to describe the pouring rain which will encourage the flowers in the mouth of April to grow. There will be an abundance of flowers with their heads hung down covering the green hill. The tender melancholic feeling lies deep in your heart when you look at April showers, the beauty of the morning rose and the “peerless eyes” of your beloved.

The concluding stanza strongly suggests that a deep feeling of sadness, the “sense of tears in mortal things” is always presently in everything that is beautiful and joyful. Melancholy is personified, so are Joy, Pleasure and Delight. She lives close to the pleasure whose keenness merges into pain. A wealth of meaning is compressed in the graphic description of Melancholy as a veiled woman living in the very “temple of Delight”. The poet communicates with his characteristic magnificence of style and imagery that only those can appreciate the finest shades of melancholy who can equally appreciate the ecstasies of joy.

Analysis

Ode on Melancholy is one of the most important odes of Keats. This is the last of the Odes in the 1820 volume. It reveals that melancholy and truest sadness dwell with beauty and joy, for the pain of suffering is less keen than the pain of knowing that beauty and joy will fade.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching pleasure nigh, …..”

A note of solemnity, deepening now and then to poignant sadness and suffering can be heard through this ode as well as his other great odes.

Keats was reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy about this time when he composed Ode on Melancholy. He admired Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy for its fantastic and forcible images. Burton’s influence on Keat’s style and tone can be noticed in the following lines which were first written as the opening stanza:

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast
Stitch shrouds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, blood-stained 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 fall
To find the Melancholy – Whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull,

This stanza was omitted by Keats from the printed version this explains the seeming abruptness of the opening line:

“No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist…”

The main thought of the poem is that only those who are capable of experiencing the extremest joy will know what real melancholy is. The poet suggests that true melancholy does not lie in the sad and ugly things of life, not even in death and the accompaniments of death but in all things that are beautiful and joyful:

“Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Thus the profound perception of the poet is reflected in this central idea that the source of the deepest melancholy lies in Joy, Delight and in eternal Beauty. That is why the poet suggests:

No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s –bane, tight rooted, for its poisonous wine…
or suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed
By night shade, ruby grape of Proserpine …

These lines follow naturally from the omitted stanza.

In Ode on Melancholy each stanza consists of ten iambic pentameter lines, a quatrain of alternate rhymes and a sestet rhyming cde cde. It’s structure is most nearly regular.

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