In "Ode on Melancholy" Keats accepts
the truth he sees: joy and pain are inseparable and to experience
joy fully we must experience sadness or melancholy fully. This ode
expresses Keats's view
wholeheartedly; it differs significantly from "Ode to a Nightingale"
and "Ode on a Grecian Urn," in which the
poet-dreamer attempts to escape from reality into the ideal and
unchanging world of the nightingale and
the urn. Keats valued intensity of emotion, intensity of thought, and
intensity of experience; fulfillment comes
from living and thinking passionately. Keats does not shrink from the
implication that feeling
intensely means that grief or depression may well cause anguish and
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 it grows and
suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck.
(Keats, letter to his brother and sister,
Structure of "Ode on Melancholy"
This poem has a logical structure or
progression. Stanza I urges us not try to escape pain. Stanza II tells
us what to do instead--embrace the transient beauty and joy both of
nature and of human experience, which contain pain and death. Stanza
makes clear that in order to experience
joy we must experience the sorrow that beauty dies, joy evaporates.
Ours is a world of change,
of flux; the "pure wine / Of happiness" (Keats's phrase) does not
exist. Melancholy has her shrine in the temple of delight precisely
because melancholy and delight are
unseparable. The more intensely we feel happiness, the more subject we
are to melancholy. Unless we
immerse ourselves in process (which I have also called flux and
change), our sensitivity to life and our ability
to experience life fully will be deadened.
Much of the
effectiveness of this poem derives from the concrete imagery. Throughout the
poem, Keats yokes or joins elements
which are ordinarily regarded as incompatible or as opposites. How is
this technique appropriate for the
theme of this poem? How, in fact, does this technique illustrate that
The poet's passionate outcry not to
reject melancholy is presented negatively--"no," "not," "neither,"
"nor." Moreover, three of the first four words of the poem are
negative. The poet is using grammar to parallel his meaning and thereby
reinforce it. The first two words, "No, no," are both accented,
their forcefulness expresses convincingly the speaker's passionate
state. The degree of pain that melancholy
may cause is implied by the "remedies" or ways to avoid it, oblivion
and death (i.e., Lethe and poisons).
With the last two lines of
the stanza, Keats specifies the consequences of seeking escape from
deadening ("drowning") of the soul or consciousness. The anguish is
"wakeful," because the sufferer
still feels and so still has the capacity to experience joy, though
this fact will not become clear till later
in the poem.
The possible intensity,
unpredictability, and inescapableness of melancholy is suggested by
of your associations with this word.
Since he uses a rain image,
"heaven" as the source of
melancholy is natural, but doesn't heaven have other meanings or
associations? Could Keats be saying
something else about melancholy here? Is there an anticipation of
melancholy as a goddess in stanza III? Is there irony ?
Lines 1-4 describe the
physical circumstances literally and the emotional circumstances figuratively. The
clouds are "weeping," an appropriate action for melancholy. But is it
surprising, even startling perhaps,
to find that these weeping clouds (a negative image) "foster" (or
nurture) the flower? Doesn't the
reference to flowers call up positive images? However, the flowers
are"droop-headed," a phrase having
a double application. (1) On a literal level, the rain has caused them
to droop. (2) On a figurative level,
"droop-headed" connotes sadness, grief. The flowers are more
specifically described in lines 5 and 7. The rain temporarily hides the
view or hill (remember all these nature images are descriptions of
however the hill is green, connoting fertility, lushness, beauty,
aliveness, and it retains these qualities
whether we can see them at a particular moment or not. The rain which
cuts visibility is called a "shroud,"
an obvious death reference, but the month is April, a time when nature
renews itself, comes alive after
winter's barrenness and harshness. Is there a suggestion that
melancholy is or may be fruitful?
The rest of the stanza
advises what to do in these circumstances: enjoy as fully as possible
of this world and thereby welcome melancholy. To "glut" sorrow is to
gorge or to experience to the
fullest. The rose is beautiful, but as a "morning" rose it lasts a
short time, i.e., the experience is
transitory. Similarly the rainbow produced by the wave is beautiful and
shortlived (think about how long a wave
lasts) Is it relevant that waves keep coming? The beauty of the peonies
("globed" describes their round
shape) is "wealth"; is "wealth" a positive or a negative value here?
The last four lines turn
from nature to people. The imagery of wealth (her anger is "rich") and
intently ("feed deep") tie the natural and the human worlds and the two
divisions of the stanza together. The words "glut,"
"feed deep," and "Emprison" imply passionate involvement in experience;
also the eating imagery suggests that
melancholy is incorporated into, becomes part of and nourishes the
individual. The food imagery is
continued in stanza III. The lover, while the object of her angry
raving, also enjoys her beauty ("peerless
It is important to recognize that
"She" refers both to the beloved of stanza II and to melancholy. Lines
1-3 explain the basis for the advice of stanza II; beauty dies, joy is
brief (while we are experiencing joy, it is saying
goodbye to us), and pleasure is painful ("aching pleasure" is a
characteristic Keatsian oxymoron).
Line 4 offers a specific example of the
abstractions of lines 1-3; as the bee sips nectar (a pleasurable
activity), the nectar turns to poison. Having
shown the inextricably mixed nature of life, Keats moves on to talk
about melancholy explicitly.
Where can melancholy be
found? As has been implied, it is found in pleasure, in delight.
is "Veil'd" because it is hidden from us during pleasure, which is
generally what we are aware of and are
absorbed in. However there are those who see melancholy-in-delight.
They live intensely, vigorously;
the language reflects their exuberance and power, "strenuous" and
"burst." Their sensitivity to life is
of the highest quality, "palate fine."
In the end of this poem, we
see the reward of the "wakeful anguish of the soul" of stanza I. The
possessor of the wakeful soul shall
taste melancholy's sadness (note the synaesthesia
of tasting a
feeling). The change of tense, from present pleasure to future
melancholy, expresses their
relationship--one is part of and inevitably follows the other. Keats
concludes that the wakeful soul will be the "trophy"
or prize gained or won from melancholy. Trophy is described as
"cloudy," which has negative overtones.
Does this negative touch suggest any ambivalence on the poet's part? or
is it the an absolute statement of
the inextricably mixed nature of pleasure and melancholy?
Another way of asking this question: is Keats's affirming,
without any qualifications, doubt, or hesitation,
the inseparable nature of opposites in life?