Ode on Melancholy: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Introduction

      While composing the Ode on Melancholy, Keats was reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which impressed him greatly by its fantastic and forcible images. We find in Keats’s Odes some echoes of Miltonic invocation to Melancholy in II Penseroao but then, there is a great difference in scope and thought between the Ode on Melancholy and II Penseroso. Keats composed this Ode in 1819 along with the other odes. It was published in July 1820.

Summary

      Melancholy with Keats, is a rare emotion, delicate, refined and exalted. We cannot experience it by associating ourselves with bloom, sadness and death, but by coming contact with the beautiful and joyful things of the world and life.

      In the first stanza, Keats tells us what we should not do, if we want to have a taste of true melancholy. We should not deaden our soul with liberal doses of sadness. This will make us totally forgetful of the tender pain of melancholy. If we want to taste true melancholy, we should not extract for drinking the juice of the poisonous plant, aconite. We should not bind our pale forehead with the poisonous plant, night-shade. We should not make a rosary with the berries of the yew-tree and count our griefs and sorrow on it. In other words, we should not give our mind entirely to painful thoughts of death and sorrow. We should not allow the ominous insects, the death watch beetle and the death’s moth head to make us indulge in the thoughts of death and mourning. We should not allow the soft-feathered owl, the ominous bird of darkness and melancholy, to inspire our sorrows. We should not deepen our gloom by making a special mystery of it. In short, we should not allow our mind to become depressed by any object or thought, which is sad. We should not associate ourselves with any object of grief and gloom, with pain, death and deeper tragedies of life. If we do so, soul will be drowned in melancholy and we will not be able to experience its full force and vigor.

      In the second stanza, which is the weakest of the three the poet makes melancholy a very light sentiment, which should be nourished on beautiful objects. He begins the stanza by comparing a fit of melancholy to a rain charged cloud. He says that as shower of rain from the cloud refreshes our withering sentiments and emotions. The shower of rain only partially dims the beauty of the natural subjects So also, melancholy throws only a thin veil on our happy thoughts and does not darken them. According to the poet, we should have four things when we are in a fit of melancholy.

      Firstly, we should have the full relish of our sadness by dwelling upon the beauty of fresh morning rose. Secondly, we should enjoy the beauty of the rainbow colors which are sometimes produced by the falling of the sunlight on the damp sand of the seacoast. Thirdly, we should behold the beauty of the round-shaped flowers of red or white color of the peony plants. Fourthly, if we have a beloved and she becomes angry with us, we should feast our eyes on the bewitching beauty of her eyes.

      In the last stanza, Keats describes the character and nature of melancholy. He throws light on its psychological birth and its relationship with other emotions. The goddess of Melancholy and the goddess of Beauty dwell in the same temple. Beauty by its very nature is short-lived. It is this fact which gives birth to melancholy in a man’s mind He feels sad because he can enjoy beauty for a short time only. Thus Keats allies melancholy to beauty. Again, the goddess of Melancholy and the god of Joy are dwellers in the same temple. Joy is transitory. While a man is steeped in joy, he does not forget this fact. This makes him sad. Lastly, Melancholy dwells close to the god of Sensuous Pleasures, whose keenness merges into pain. Even when a pleasure-seeker is lasting the sweetness of physical delights, he does not forget that he will reach a stage when satiety and exhaustion, which are the natural effects of pleasures, will fall to his lot. This fills him with melancholy.

      In the end, the poet says, that Melancholy dwells with Delight in the same temple. Though apparently delight and melancholy are quiet. Deposit to each other, yet one who tastes delights, and tastes melancholy also. The former leads to the latter: Only that person who has tasted the sweetness of joy can appreciate the bitterness of melancholy. It is such a soul only which experiences the full force of the bitterness of melancholy.

Critical Analysis

Abrupt beginning of the ode

      The poem begins abruptly because Keats discarded the originally initial stanza (given below) which assembled images of horror, and which, therefore, seemed unsuitable to him:

Though you should build a dark of dead man’s bones
Stitch shroud together for a sail, with groans To fill it out, blood-stained and aghast,
To find Melancholy—whether she Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

      These lines have a quaint vigor of their own, but are altogether out of harmony with what follows.

Thought contents of the ode

      Regarding the thought contents of the Ode, two things are worth mentioning. In it, Keats has very artistically presented the subtle psychology of melancholy, plunging deep down into the secret recess of the origin of emotions. He associates it quite undauntedly and with deep poetic truth with what he himself feels and knows to be its co-relative, alternating emotion—the tender emotion of joy—joy in the perfection of beauty. “The perception of this Ode”, as Robert Bridges admires, “is profound and no doubt experiences.” Secondly, the poem clearly reveals, as also the magnificent Ode on a Grecian Urn that Keats’s love of beauty is not only purely sensuous, but also enriched and refined by imaginative and intellectual perception. It is chiefly this quality which forces Swinburne to call this Ode, more than all the others, “the subtlest in sweetness of thought and feeling.”

All pervading Nature of Melancholy

      In this Ode, Keats emphasizes the all-pervading nature of melancholy in human life. The basic thought of the Ode is that “true melancholy does not lie in sad and ugly things of life, but in joyous and beautiful objects of our earthly existence.” It is in vain, if we try to find true melancholy in dark and somber aspects of things because:

Shade to shade will come too drowsily
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

      Melancholy springs from the transience of beauty and joy, and exalted, which none can experience save him who has tasted delight:

...save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.”

Style

      The magnificence of imagery or verbal felicity is a very high order in the poem. Though the second stanza strikes a somewhat false not towards the end, yet it does not take away the grandeur of the poem. The perfection of workmanship for which the Odes of Keats stand clearly marked is in evidence here too, as in his other greater odes, To Autumn, To a Nightingale and On Grecian Urn.

      As an Ode to Psyche, this ode also reveals Keats’s fondness of using compound epithets e.g, 'tight rooted' and ‘droop-headed.’ In all, the ode indicates the magnificence of style, the embodiment of highly abstract ideas, in the sensuous garb of concrete imageries and personifications. It presents before us “an over-liberal succession of mythological figures used symbolically,” romantic conceptions neatly expressed in clear classical expressions and, above all, the “rare fitness of word to sense, the intimate union of verse and idea”

Critical Opinions

      Ellershaw. The poem shows that ‘‘the end of poetry for Keats was not the cult of beauty of an external sort cognizable by smell or touch or sight or hearing; his eyes are already set upon the beauty of sorrow and of joy; a beauty of the moral being and of the spirit.

      Robert Bridges. The perception in this ode is profound, and no doubt experienced. The paradox that melancholy is most deeply felt by the organization most capable of joy is clinched at the end by the observation of the reaction which satiety provokes in such temperaments, so that it is also in the moment of extremist joy that it suddenly facies.

      H.W. Garrod. This is the only old skepticism about the senses, finding for itself a new direction out of that luxury of sensation, which is his true effectiveness. Keats, must be for ever scheming himself into some unhappiness; now he runs from sense to thought from thought to metaphysical reflection; now from mere poetry to a poetry of social suffering and yet again here he is not happy till he can discover, in the joy of the senses themselves — without the need to go out-side them—not happiness, merely, but some destined and eternal anguish. If he cannot free from the pure enjoyment of the beautiful, he can yet perish in it.

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