Behind the Lines: Ode on Melancholy
An ode on melancholy might conjure the worst stereotypes of poetry: restless youth agonizing over imagined existential crises – a nineteenth-century version of Goth poetry, perhaps. But Keats was no Goth or existentialist, and we should hardly be so foolish as to dismiss his ode as a mere spewing forth of youthful angst or Romantic longing. Indeed, the “Ode on Melancholy” is not even strictly about melancholy at all. It is a reflection on truth and its relationship to the human soul. Melancholy serves as the indispensable catalyst that engenders Keats’s reflection.
At a mere three ten-line stanzas, the “Ode” stands as one of the lesser among Keats’s Great Odes. But its intimacy and poignancy render it among the most powerful among them. The poem begins almost frantically with an exclamation:
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.
Uniquely among the Great Odes, the poetic voice addresses the reader directly, rather than an object (as the Grecian urn or nightingale) or a personified abstraction (as indolence or Psyche). This creates an intimacy absent from the other odes. The reader, rather than serving as an audience for the poetic voice’s ruminations on the object, receives its address. He is not a bystander, but is directly engaged with the poetic voice, and “inside” the poem.
Most noticeable in the first stanza is the dour imagery evoked, all deadly plants and animals associated with death. It overpowers with an atmosphere of gloom. Yet Keats contrasts those images with what the poetic voice is actually saying. It urges the reader not to consume the lethal wolf’s bane, nightshade, and yew berries that would “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” Waking anguish, then, is preferable to the sleep of death – or by extension the stupor of intoxication.
But what is the “wakeful anguish of the soul?” It is a haunting term, made no less haunting by the accompanying descriptions of waking life – “mysteries” of “sorrow” and a “shade” that seeks the similar shade of death. Keats’s “anguish” is really twofold. First, it is the more direct anguish of the melancholic mood, the low point of the fluctuating emotions, whatever its immediate cause, if it even has one.
But on a deeper level, the “anguish” is no less than existence itself. It is the will to exist that constitutes life – a blind, irrational, insatiable inner force that stirs the being towards self-perpetuation It seeks and is never satisfied. It acquires and desires what is next within its reach. And it ends only in death. The “wakeful anguish” is coextensive with life itself. But that leaves the reader in an unhappy quandary: either he must endure the anguish of life or embrace death and nothingness.
Keats does not leave the reader in the lurch. He clearly – indeed, vehemently – urges the reader directly towards the first choice. His exhortation rings through in the negations of the poem’s very first words. And Keats continues:
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.
Here Keats lightens the mood. The images here are noticeably less morbid, evoking not death, but a soft sadness – a raincloud, drooping flowers, a mist-swathed hill. The “melancholy fit” – the “anguish of the soul” Keats prefers to death “falls” like the raincloud, rendering the otherwise green hills and blooming flowers gray, wet, and gloomy.
Not even halfway through, the images become positively joyful – a rose, the seashore, peonies. In these the poetic voice urges the reader to seek joy until it draws the reader to the pinnacle of its joyous objects: the hand and eyes of a lover, lovely even as she is angry. Almost forgotten is the deathly evocations of the first stanza, and even the gloomy drizzle only a few lines before.
But Keats is not yet finished:
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 shall taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Like a thunderclap Keats drops the reader back into gloom. No sooner does the poetic voice urge the reader to clasp and behold his lover to dispel Melancholy than it reminds him that that lover will die – and not only that she will die, that joy vanishes and pleasure turns to pain. Even in the very “temple of Delight,” Keats reminds the reader, is melancholy not only present, but enthroned as goddess.
There is an intimacy in the poetic voice’s relationship with his personified Melancholy. Even in her own shrine, Melancholy is invisible to all but the one who “can burst Joy’s grape against his palate.” This is the sensitive soul, the poet. Only he is able to sense Melancholy in the midst of joy and pleasure because he, who grasps the ideal and the eternal, can sense the transience of all sensory experience, particularly those that bring pleasure. An expanded awareness of existence brings sorrow because the immediately apprehensible world seems insignificant by comparison.
Some critics have sexualized the image of “burst Joy’s grape” and even the “globed peonies” appearing in the second stanza, but such readings can only arise from prurient urges, from minds looking for references that are plainly absent. The sensory analogy is to gustation, not copulation. “Joy’s grape” is “burst” against the palate – indeed, the “fine” palate, attuned to good taste. The poetic soul tastes sadness in joy, which necessarily obliterates the joy – “bursts” its “grape.” And grapes, of course, make wine (and stronger spirits) that intoxicate just like joy.
The last line is almost disturbing. The poet, having “burst Joy’s grape” and tasted sorrow is “hung,” a “trophy” of Melancholy – just like the carcass of a wild beast brought down in the hunt. Melancholy has vanquished the poet. She has triumphed in his perceiving sorrow in life’s joys. In this way she truly is the goddess Keats personifies her as being. If grasping the eternal kills joy, the perception of truth brings sadness. Melancholy is the child of truth, and in that sense she hangs up all true poets as her “cloudy” (that is, sad), trophies.
Where does that conclusion leave the reader? Keats has not changed his position from his initial “no” – life is always preferable to death. But life itself is not happiness. On its most animalistic, subconscious level, life is anguish, the instinctive struggle to survive. And at the opposite end, things are no better. Even knowledge of transcendent truth contains the knowledge that all pleasure is transient and will be lost. And yet pleasure lies in “bursting Joy’s grape” and tasting Melancholy in its juices. Truth, ultimately, is its own reward, the only good in itself, and hence the only source of true pleasure.
The entire poem has an almost musical structure – a joyous middle framed by a gloomy beginning and ending, yet with the ideas developing continuously throughout. It resembles something akin to ternary form, or a three-movement sonata, with a middle section or movement contrasting with the two framing it. The ideas similarly arc: first, Keats exposes gloom as something to avoid, then contrasts it with the objects of delight that should distract from the gloom, only to conclude that the gloom lies even in pleasure, as all those who know the truth will inevitably feel.
The ideas in the poem also progress: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The gloom in the first stanza is juxtaposed against the joys of the second, and the two are united to form a new idea in the third. Three stanzas fit this flow and development of ideas perfectly. Had Keats made the poem longer, he would have diminished its power.
The overall impression left at this conclusion is bittersweet. Melancholy triumphs. But Melancholy is born of truth, and the poet, alone among men, embraces Melancholy because he knows truth. And in knowing truth, he possesses the only joy that is not transient.
Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Northwest Indiana, with his wife, Ivana, and their children, and practices law as a civil and appellate litigator. In addition to the Society’s publications, his poems and prose works have appeared in The Chained Muse Review, Indiana Voice Journal, and other literary journals. He is also a composer, and his musical works may be heard on his YouTube channel.