Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
"Ode on Melancholy" by John Keats
"Ode On Melancholy" is the shortest of the five famous odes John Keats wrote in the spring and summer of 1819. It focuses on melancholy, that peculiar human mood so often associated with depression, sadness and dark morbidity.
More specifically Keats, the romantic poet, outlines a way to fulfil sensual desire and fully get to grips with his relationship blues. Be aware of mortality, but don't drown in it, rather look to nature and beauty as these can fulfil the soul's longing.
He provides poetic remedies to help alleviate potentially painful, dark emotions and turn them into joy, pleasure and sensuality, but not without cost.
This ode was likely inspired by a book written in 1621 by Robert Burton called The Anatomy Of Melancholy. We know that Keats was impressed with this hefty tome because his annotated copy of the book still exists. He underlined the lines that interested him in a section titled Cure of Love-Melancholy.
The young poet was also in love, with one Fanny Brawne, but his precarious financial situation and inner instability meant that he would never fully commit himself to marriage and children. Plus, he knew he was likely to succumb to tuberculosis, which claimed his younger brother Tom's life.
Today it's possible to see this poem as a form of therapy, Keats working his way through mythology, experience and allegory to reach a destination and consequently, a 'cure'.
The ode's three stanzas reflect a process of acceptance of the dark mood, of working with melancholy creatively, and not being defeated by it.
The three stanzas in summary:
1. Refuse death, do not contemplate taking your own life, don't poison yourself or succumb to drugs because these will make you forget, which means that you'll be giving in to these dark moods. Lethe is the river that flows in Hades, the underworld, from the ancient Greek myths. Its water makes the dead forget.
2. Instead of going under, grasp the nettle and use the pain as inspiration - look into nature and those you love. Melancholy can be a positive thing because it shows you have a sensitive soul.
3. Melancholy and Beauty are one, along with joy, pleasure and delight, which can evoke religious feelings. This is the way to deal with melancholy - work with it and reap the rewards.
- The speaker is saying in effect: don't go there (to Lethe, to death) because, trust me, I know how to work with melancholy for the good of your soul.
With vivid imagery, metaphor and personification this ode is a powerful message of personal experience presented as an allegory, addressing the reader, taking them into nature, into the temple of Delight.
There's no doubt Keats himself battled against melancholy and anguish. For him, life was a series of serious challenges. Check out this extract from a letter he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law on March 19th, 1819:
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'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 i[t] 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.'
"Ode On Melancholy" was included in the book Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems which came out in 1820.
Sensitive to criticism (his first two books were ridiculed by some) this last book proved more popular and established Keats as a new voice in the poetry world, one to be watched.
Keats was moving in the right circles creatively, he got to know Shelley and other leading literary figures of the day, but all the time creeping up on him was the dark spectre of tuberculosis, a common disease of that time.
His brother Tom had died of the same disease in 1818, nursed by John, and when the poet himself began to show symptoms he was advised to seek a warmer climate by doctors.
In September 1820 Keats travelled to the Italian capital Rome, arriving in November with a friend, artist Joseph Severn, lodging at the now famous house on the Spanish Steps.
By February the poet was in dire health and in great pain, both physical and emotional, eventually passing away on the 23rd with his friend close by. He was buried in Rome, his nameless gravestone bearing the words he wanted as an epitaph:
Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water
"Ode on Melancholy"
Analysis of "Ode On Melancholy" Stanza-By-Stanza
That unusual first line is a demand, an exhortation, for someone not to go to Lethe, the river of the underworld Hades, as told in the ancient Greek myths. Its waters could make the recently dead forget their pasts, so deadening even their memories.
It's a dramatic introduction for the reader who is then taken via enjambment (when a line runs on into the next) to Wolf's-bane, a toxic plant said to be used by the ancient Greeks for euthanasia purposes.
This is some opening - the third line is sensual and brings another poisonous plant to the table, nightshade, or Belladonna, associated here with the Roman goddess Proserpine (the Greek Persephone), queen of Hades.
These first four lines, a quatrain, are presented in such a manner as to disturb and inform the reader and dissuade the addressee...go not...neither twist...nor suffer...which suggests that the addressee should avoid oblivion, and death.
The next quatrain reinforces the deathly atmosphere pertaining to this route. It is not to be taken. It is potentially fatal.
A rosary, beads on a string, is used by Catholics to count their prayers, but in the ode it is to be made of yew-berries, a red toxic berry from the yew tree, often found in shadowy graveyards.
Then a beetle, a death-moth, a downy owl—all linked to the death ritual symbolically—are put forward as things not to become involved with. Psyche is an ancient Greek female figure representing the soul, and in mythology is portrayed as someone who has to seek her real love.
The last two lines sum up the consequences of such actions—the soul will be drowned, and there will be no relief or positive ending.
So we have here someone who isn't happy, who is questing after love (Keats himself) and is being told not to go certain places or do certain things. They have a pale forehead, they're sad because of an elusive love, they're sorrowful, they suffer anguish.
If the first stanza warns of suicidal thoughts and death as a result of love frustration, represented mythologically, definitely not recommended, then the second tells of what to do when a melancholy fit suddenly hits.
The first quatrain sets the scene, powerful images of nature and heavy language (fit/fall/weeping/droop-headed/shroud) give no doubt as to the severity of the effects.
But there is no shy backing away from them. On the contrary, the advice is to glut thy sorrow . . . that is, gain as much as you can, fill yourself up emotionally from the simple pleasure a rose might give.
Or what about a rainbow emanating from waves on the shoreline? Or the rich textures of a peony flower? These subtle forms in nature can help with melancholy. They're to be embraced because they are beautiful and evoke positive emotions.
The last three lines of the stanza emphasise the sensual desire and love that can arise from intimate passion. Out of melancholy comes a unique opportunity to experience soul, in a lover's eyes, the window of the soul.
"Ode On Melancholy" Third Stanza
The third stanza uses an allegorical approach, Beauty, Joy and Pleasure being personified as the speaker tells of melancholy dwelling with these three, all existentially suspect.
Beauty must die, Joy say goodbye, whilst Pleasure turns toxic. So here is the speaker reaching a peculiar climax, sensual and tragic, beautiful but demanding sacrifice.
Reaching the temple of Delight where Melancholy carries out her rituals but which is attainable only by those gifted with sensitivity enough to burst Joy's grape and experience her powerful love, a soul-love.
This has to be a sacrifice. Melancholy wins...but what a journey the soul might take in order to be fulfilled.
Keats in real-life struggled to find fulfilment in his romantic liaisons. He must have wanted desperately to commit to Fanny Brawne but circumstances were against him. Only through his imagination and his art could he reach a sublime consummation.
Literary/Poetic Devices in "Ode On Melancholy"
When two or more words beginning with the same consonant are close together in a line:
fit shall fall...hides the green hill....salt sand-wave....has her sovran....seen of none save him whose strenuous....
When two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:
No, no, go....downy owl....when the melancholy...hill in an April....thy sorrow on....if thy mistress some rich....feed deep, deep upon her peerless....is ever at his lips....grape against....shalt taste the sadness....
When a line is paused by punctuation midway, for example:
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
When a line continues and runs on into the next, keeping the sense, building momentum, for example:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
When an object or thing is given human attributes, for example:
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu;
When two things are compared, for example:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud
"Ode On Melancholy" Meaning of Words
In Greek mythology, the river that runs through Hades, the underworld. The water could make the dead forget.
Aconitum lycoctonum, a flowering plant known for its toxicity, the alkaloids causing death through heart failure.
Atropa belladonna, a poisonous plant with shiny dark berries.
Ancient Roman goddess of the underworld (the Greek Persephone).
Toxic red berry of the yew tree, Taxus baccata.
Death's-head hawkmoth? traditionally a symbol of the soul as it escapes out of the mouth of the deceased.
In ancient Greek mythology she represents the soul. She also is married to Eros but had to undergo a series of challenges put before her by Aphrodite, including a visit to the underworld and a worldwide quest for love, before finally marrying.
Short, archaic word for sovereign.
What Is the Theme of "Ode On Melancholy"?
"Ode On Melancholy" has a main theme of celebrating the soul life. This entails letting go of morbid, selfish thoughts of death, one's own mortality, and instead looking to the essences within life - in nature, in love, in personal exploration.
Awareness of beauty, joy and pleasure, ephemeral though they be, mutually inclusive, can bring fulfilment despite the sadness and sorrows of the world.
What Is The Metre (Meter in American English) of "Ode On Melancholy"?
"Ode On Melancholy" has mostly pentameter lines, that is, each has five feet, and whilst the iambic foot (daDUM) is dominant quite a few lines go against this plodding regular beat.
This produces variety and interest for the reader and makes for a fascinating journey through syntax, instead of a boring daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM beatbox experience.
Let's take a closer look at each and every line:
No, no, / go not / to Leth / e, nei / ther twist
Wolfs-bane, / tight-root / ed, for / its poi / sonous wine;
Nor suf / fer thy / pale fore / head to / be kiss'd *
By night / shade, ru / by grape / of Pros / erpine;
Make not / your ros / ary / of yew- / berries,
Nor let / the bee / tle, nor / the death / -moth be *
Your mourn / ful Psy / che, nor / the dow / ny owl *
A part / ner in / your sor / row's mys / teries;
For shade / to shade / will come / too drow / sily,
And drown / the wake / ful ang / uish of / the soul. *
But when / the mel / anch / oly fit / shall fall
Sudden / from heav / en like / a weep / ing cloud,
That fost / ers the / droop-head / ed flow / ers all,
And hides / the green / hill in / an A / pril shroud;
Then glut / thy sor / row on / a morn / ing rose, *
Or on / the rain / bow of / the salt / sand-wave,
Or on / the wealth / of globe / d pe / onies;
Or if / thy mis / tress some / rich ang / er shows, *
Empri / son her / soft hand, / and let / her rave,
And feed / deep, deep / upon / her peer / less eyes.
She dwells / with Beau / ty - Beau / ty that / must die; *
And Joy, / whose hand / is ev / er at / his lips *
Bidding / adieu; / and ach / ing Pleas / ure nigh,
Turning / to poi / son while / the bee-/ mouth sips:
Ay, in / the ve / ry tem / ple of / Delight
Veil'd Mel / anch / oly has / her sov / ran shrine,
Though seen / of none / save him / whose stren / uous tongue
Can burst / Joy's grape / against / his pal / ate fine; *
His soul / shall taste / the sad / ness of / her might, *
And be / among / her clou / dy tro / phies hung. *
There is a total of 11 full iambic pentameter lines (*) the three most prominent being the final three, lines 28-30.
In the first stanza Keats uses the pyrrhic foot to quieten things down in certain lines (the pyrrhic being a no stress foot, daDUM, relatively speaking) - with 3 syllable words ending a line this gives what was known as a feminine ending (no stress) but is seen nowadays as a falling away, noticeable when read aloud.
Wolfs-bane, / tight-root / ed, for / its poi / sonous wine;
The first foot is a trochee, emphasis on the first syllable, and note the pyrrhic in the third foot, (some might stress the second syllable and read an iamb, but I prefer the first scan) and then the anapaest (dadaDUM) finishes the line. That word poi/so/nous is usually a 3 syllable word but here could be shortened to two: pois/nus, the former yielding eleven syllables in the line, the latter the familiar ten.
A real mix of feet in this stanza, with trochee, pyrrhic and spondee in particular to the fore. In theory the fewer pure iambic pentameter lines there are, the more varied a read should result, and this is true.
Empri / son her / soft hand, / and let / her rave,
The pyrrhic of the second foot softens things up in readiness for the harder spondee (DADUM) before the iambs take over and restore the normal beat. So soft hand becomes the emphasis midway, ironically.
There are five iambic pentameter lines in this last stanza, at the start and the finish, bringing a familiar rhythmic ending. But there are variations, especially in line 27 - Though seen of none.....- which has eleven syllables.
Veil'd Mel / anch / oly has / her sov / ran shrine,
Having a four-syllable word in a line often produces something special metrically speaking. Here we have an opening spondee, both syllables stressed and strong, a following pyrrhic, relatively quiet, and an anapaest midway to produce a rising of the voice.
"Ode On Melancholy"—The Cancelled First Stanza
The original version of this ode had four stanzas but the first was cancelled by Keats prior to publication. We know this fact because two handwritten copies were made by his friends, Richard Woodhouse and Charles Brown. Richard Woodhouse's version is kept by the British Library and can be viewed online.
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.
Here the reader can clearly discover that the theme of the ode is one of a journey to find Melancholy, the female mythological deity. The imagery is vivid and dark—the bark (boat) for example being made of bones—as the journey begins.
Note that the speaker is addressing someone, you, which could be the reader, or the poet himself.
Now we know why the actual published first stanza begins with the sudden No, no, go not to Lethe . . . this being the retort, the reply, the exhortation demanded by the cancelled stanza's final lines.
The Poetry Handbook, OUP, John Lennard 2005
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2020 Andrew Spacey
Raymond Philippe from The Netherlands on March 07, 2020:
Thanks for this analysis of John Keats’s ode to melancholy. This and the video you added brought it to life for me.