Ode on Melancholy

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

Footnotes

  1. The poem’s final line suggests that those who can fully access both sorrow and joy will “be among her cloudy trophies hung.” The image of the “cloudy trophies” indicates fame and immortality, which are perhaps granted to those sensitive souls (such as Keats) attuned to the deep, bittersweet melancholy of the human condition.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. This is an elaborate but effective metaphor. The only people capable of experiencing melancholy are also those who “Can burst Joy’s grape,” the grape here serving as a reference to the revelrous joys of wine. More simply stated, those who feel joy most intensely also feel melancholy, for the two emotions are inseparable. As Keats’s fellow Romantic poet William Blake put it, “The deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.” This counterintuitive notion is the poem’s key theme.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Once again, we see the role melancholy plays in life’s joyful experiences. The image here balances poison with honey, that which the “bee-mouth sips.” This is a striking line in that it evokes one of the sweetest tastes in the world, as well as the sour taste of deadly poison. The key idea is that the moments of greatest delight contain in them the bittersweet knowledge of death.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. According to Keats, another condition of melancholy is an appreciation of mortality. Touching on the theme of [“Ode on a Grecian Urn”] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/ode-grecian-urn), the speaker laments the transient nature of beauty and joy. One of Keats’s central themes is that the sweetest things in life must be met with melancholy because they do not last. Keats finally makes his personification of melancholy explicit in the phrase “She dwells with Beauty.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Keats furthers the idea of melancholy as a gateway to appreciation. In the scene of a quarrel between lovers, Keats turns the mistress’s rage into “rich anger” and attends to “her soft hand.” The final line of the stanza finds beauty in the enraged mistress’s eyes. Keats creates emphasis by repeating the hard *e* sound in “feed deep, deep” and “peerless.” There is a clever pun in “peerless”: On one level, the word means “matchless,” without peer. On another, it means the mistress’s eyes cannot “peer,” or see, in the way her melancholic lover can. Her rage does not allow for the same appreciative vision.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. In the second stanza, the speaker begins to build a case for the uses of melancholy. As the speaker reveals, melancholy attunes us to the beauty of the world and provides poetic inspiration. This series of images, from the “morning rose” to the “salt sand-wave” and “peonies,” illustrates the inherent beauty of the natural world. These lines also show a poetic mind at work, for it is the poet who finds the “rainbow” in the salt sand-wave and sees the peonies as “globed.” Keats’s argument, then, is that melancholy serves as a gateway to the appreciation of beauty and to creative inspiration.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Keats describes the emotion of melancholy with a pre-modern account. In contemporary scientific literature, emotions such as melancholy or depression are viewed as interior states. The ancient Greeks externalized emotions, personifying them as deities who would affect humans with their different moods. While Keats does not refer to a specific Greek deity (Oizys is the Greek goddess of melancholy), he externalizes and personifies melancholy in a similar fashion.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Keats uses “shade” here in two different senses. The first “shade” refers to drug-induced oblivion. The second “shade” is the addressee, the melancholy person; “shade” in this usage means “ghost” or “soul.” Keats creates a subtle transition between the two lines in the “drowsily”/“drown” rhyme. The thesis of this couplet is that one should not “drown the wakeful anguish” because, as will become clear, melancholy is an important emotion.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In ancient Greek, “Psyche” refers to the human soul and has its origin in a verb meaning “to breath.” Psyche is also the name of the Greek goddess of the soul. In Greek myth, Psyche is married to Eros, the god of love, a tale Keats writes about in his “Ode to Psyche.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Keats alludes to the yew, a common European tree whose parts are toxic to humans. By referring to the rosary, a string of beads used in Catholic prayer, Keats expands the poem’s cultural scope beyond Greek mythology to include the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The speaker continues to request that the reader not turn to poison. Once again, Keats draws on a Greek reference, calling the poisonous nightshade flower the “ruby grape of Proserpine.” Proserpine is another name for Persephone, the Greek princess who winters with her husband, Hades, in the Underworld and who summers with her mother, Demeter, in the meadows and fields of the earth. The vibrant nightshade flower similarly represents the gateway between death and bounteous life.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Wolf’s-bane” is a colloquial name for the *Aconitum* genus of flowers, the majority of which are known for being incredibly poisonous. Like many of Keats’s references and images, Wolf’s-bane figures prominently in Greek myths: the witch Medea tried to poison Theseus with it, and the flower is said to have originated in the drooling mouth of Cerberus. The subtle allusion to Cerberus, the guard hound of the Underworld, is important. In the first stanza, the speaker urges melancholic souls not to drug themselves to death.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. The River Lethe is one of the four rivers of the Greek underworld. It is the river of oblivion, whose waters souls must drink so as to forget their past lives. Keats’s speaker warns the addressee not to escape melancholy through opiates and numbness.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. The poem begins with a barrage of negative, commanding words, preparing the reader for a lesson. As the speaker’s plea—a request to the sorrowful not to numb or kill themselves—becomes clear, the arresting tone of these initial words makes sense.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff