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 Theme 9. Melancholy (i) >

< John Keats >

Ode on Melancholy 
poem, commentary, analysis, exegesis


Biblis painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau

Lamia, Isabella etc (1820, 25)
composed May - June 1819 (24)

No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist 
Wolf's bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine; 
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed 
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 River of Oblivion, one of the rivers of the lower regions, whose water had the power to make those who drank it forget their previous existence.   Wolf’s bane and nightshade : poisonous plants from which opiates and sedatives were extracted.    Proserpine (Persephone) : goddess of the underworld.    Death-moth : according to some accounts, the spirit left the body out of the mouth in the form of a moth.  Psyche : the story of Psyche was not a myth, but rather an antique fairy tale told by Apuleius. She was imprisoned in a tower by Cupid (desire), a state of affairs which is thought to represent the situation of the human soul in the body.


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 globèd 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 lives in 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 
Veiled 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 shall taste the anguish of her might, 

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Beauty: She lives in Beauty : the first published version has 'She dwells with Beauty', though this appears to be a 'correction' suggested by the publisher, possibly to avoid similarity with Byron's 'She walks in beauty'.  Soul : His soul shall taste the anguish of her might : one further alteration apparently suggested by his publisher to 'His soul shall taste the sadness of her might', which is what appeared at publication.

The following stanza, which comprised the original first verse, was removed prior to publication:

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, bloodstainèd 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; certès you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
 Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

In the first stanza, Keats gives us the benefit of some of the knowledge he has acquired in his studies as an apprentice to an apothecary (wolf's bane, nightshade, yew berries), to which he adds some of his reading in mythology (Lethe, Proserpine, Psyche) and in the meaning of symbols (downy owl, beetle, death's moth). The difficult line nine only makes sense if we take 'shade' to be used with two different meanings, the first to indicate darkness, shadow, and the second to indicate dead person or ghost. The meaning then becomes: when death (shade) comes to the human soul (shade) in the form of sleep induced by pharmacological means, it comes too 'drowsily'. Presumably we must feel the 'wakeful anguish' to get the best out of our melancholy, or to die properly.

The second stanza is full of the most sumptuous imagery, suggesting very helpfully that when feeling depressed we should 'glut' our 'sorrow on a morning rose', and other marvellous natural phenomena, even so far as feeding off the anger of the object of our affection through her 'peerless eyes'. Yes, even the anger of the loved one can be used to cheer us up!

The third stanza introduces something new: the character who can 'burst Joy's grape against his palate fine': the poet himself. But in doing so, he reveals the reality behind the experience of delight, where Melancholy lurks.

The omitted verse delights more openly in macabre and shocking imagery. Particularly striking is the idea of using a Dragon's tail for a rudder, 'long severed but still hard with agony'. Another image of frustrated desire.

The structure of the poems is complex and the form well crafted. There are ten lines per stanza of ten syllables per line. The rhyme scheme is complex but satisfying. The rhymes are well made. Particularly noticeable is the rhyme 'agony' with 'whether she'. The rhyming of 'owl' with 'soul' produces a pretty dissonance, like flats and sharps introduced in the key of C. The repetitions 'no! no!' and 'deep, deep' produce interesting punctuation, particularly the former, which occurs at the very begining of the poem, hopefully grabbing your attention to listen to what follows. The line 'Make not your rosary of yew-berries' is a little difficult, but it actually makes the mouth do something like what it would do on trying to eat yew berries. A sort of tactile onomatopoiea. I do not know what a 'rainbow of the salt sand-wave' is, unless it be a rainbow produced by the sun shining on the sea near a beach. If it is, one has to observe that it's a funny way to say it.

Returning briefly to the final stanza, it is apparent that the poet's reward for being capable of 'bursting Joy's grape' is to experience the 'anguish of her (Melancholy's) might'. This reprises the use of 'anguish' in the first stanza, which is rather mysteriously put forward as the reason why we should not curtail or de-intensify our painful experience by using drugs. There are two other things asserted here. The first is that it is only a man who can 'burst Joy's grape' with his 'strenuous tongue' who will encounter the Melancholy that lies behind Delight, ie only the poet who, with his special qualifications and through considerable effort, can arrive at this place of significant anxiety. The second is that, in doing so, he becomes one of Melancholy's 'cloudy trophies', 'cloudy' presumably for being scarcely recognisable, like a fly entombed in spider's silk. But there is no indication that the poet seeks to avoid this fate. It is, perhaps, inevitable according to Keats' logic.

This idea of the source, or perhaps, in this case, the consequences of poetic inspiration is similar to modern notions of the closeness between inspiration and insanity, or to the manic depressive personality, and even to the ancient idea that the inspiration of poets is a sort of madness sent by the gods, but is a long way from eighteenth century ideas about order and balance. Here we are surfeited with imbalance and extravagance, and it is not unpleasant. Neither have the flowers produced faded with time. They have rather gained in strength throughout the nineteenth century, and the idea of the poet as tortured genius, dying alone and in poverty, have become the epitome of the poet, though poets in general have had some difficulty in following the act provided by Keats. Perhaps they lacked a Fanny Brawn to egg them on.


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