A summary of a classic Keats poem
Being depressed from time to time is a fact of life. But should we deal with feeling down, a case of the blues, or – as John Keats calls it – ‘melancholy’? In his ‘Ode on Melancholy’ (written in 1819), the poet offers some advice on how to deal with a dose of the doldrums. In this post, we’re going to offer an analysis of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ and the language Keats uses in this poem.
Ode on Melancholy
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.
In summary, we might paraphrase Keats’s argument in ‘Ode on Melancholy’ as follows. When you feel a fit of the blues coming over you, don’t turn to drugs: these will help you to forget (hence the reference to ‘Lethe’ in the first stanza – the Ancient Greek river associated with forgetfulness), but you shouldn’t seek to ‘drown’ your senses in drugs. Nor should you seek to escape melancholy by committing suicide (‘nightshade’ suggests deadly nightshade; ‘Proserpine’ summons the underworld). Instead, when a fit of melancholy descends, drown out the melancholy with beautiful things. Go out and observe something beautiful: flowers, rainbows, your beloved. Why? Because beauty and delight are closely connected with melancholy. (Keats deftly suggests this with the ambiguous ‘She’ that heads this final stanza: it refers to both Melancholy, which is personified as female, and to the ‘mistress’ mentioned in the previous stanza.) ‘Melancholy’ (the Ancient Greek personification of the emotion) has her ‘sovran shrine’ in ‘the temple of Delight’. Pleasure and pain are both intricately and intimately related. Even while the bee is sipping at the nectar of a fresh flower, that pleasant nectar is turning to poison. Given that joy is so short-lived, it makes it all the more delicious – like squeezing a grape or sloe between your tongue and your palate until it bursts, releasing the bitter fluid within, you need to work at it in order to ‘taste’ the true nature of melancholy, namely that sadness which lurks at the heart of delight.
In other words, what Keats is saying in the final stanza of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is that looking upon pleasurable things and reflecting that they will soon die will, surprisingly, cheer us up: it is like an injunction to ‘live each day as if it were your last’, and stop moping about (though admittedly Keats’s way of putting it is considerably more poetical). We cease to appreciate joy when we’re happy, because we take it for granted, much as we take our health for granted – until we fall ill, that is. Then health seems like a precious thing to us – and is even more precious when we reflect that we will not be in good health for long. Indeed, our lives are but a blink of an eye: ‘life is but a day’, as Keats puts it in another poem, ‘Sleep and Poetry’.
Look at the way Keats opens the poem: ‘No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist …’ Eight words, half of which are negatives. Immediately, we are being entreated to do something (or rather not to do something), but more than this, Keats is assuming that the natural impulse when melancholy grips us is to seek to eradicate it. This is what makes his poem a fine example of what has been called Keats’s Stoicism: rather than seeking to lament the onset of this depressing emotion, Keats encourages us to ride it out, and to turn it to our advantage by acknowledging that, whilst we cannot change it (it’s natural to feel down sometimes, and impossible to avoid altogether), we should seek to change our attitude towards it.
But what is less well-known is that the poem originally had an additional stanza, and that this little-known extra stanza opened the poem. If Keats hadn’t removed it, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ would have opened like this:
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.
The opening of the following stanza – ‘No, no, go not to Lethe…’ – then makes more sense, given that it followed the above words. The final version of ‘Ode on Melancholy’, with that initial opening stanza removed, plunges us straight into Keats’s instructions for how to deal with melancholy.
A few words of analysis regarding Keats’s word choices: ‘peonies’ are flowers, so ‘globed peonies’ suggests their rounded appearance. Why ‘cloudy trophies’ in the final line? It looks back to the first stanza, and Keats’s reference to the melancholy fit falling ‘Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud’, and is almost an example of an oxymoron: trophies we tend to think of as shining and bright. But that’s precisely the point: this ‘trophy’ is about melancholy, about dark clouds and sad contemplations rather than bright suns and happiness. But having attained the trophy, we will be able to face sadness full-on next time: like all the joys in the world, like our deepest and brightest delights, this too shall pass.
Continue to explore Keats’s poetry with this wonderful short verse-fragment, our analysis of his sonnet about reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and our analysis of one of his finest sonnets.