Ode to Sorrow: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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      Ode to Sorrow occurs in Book IV of Endymion. It is sung by an Indian maid who falls in love with Endymion. There is a bond of sympathy between the two. Even so, Endymion continues his quest of Cynthia, who for him is an embodiment of ideal love. Ultimately, Endymion realizes that the Indian maid is no other than Cynthia and that both human love and divine love are one and same.

      The poem may be divided into three parts. The first 36 lines are addressed by the lady to sorrow. She wants to know the reason why sorrow afflicts and harasses human beings. The second part (lines 37—127) consists of the wanderings of the Indian maid in search of pleasure in the company of Bacchus and his crew. This part contains beautiful images of revelry and merriment. The third part (lines 128—145) deals with the condition of the Indian maid. She realizes the ephemeral nature of physical joys and merrymaking (including dance, drink and sex) and comes to the conclusion that sorrow is the only constant companion and friend in life. Prof. A.R. Weeks comments on the three sections of the Ode thus: “In lines, 1—36, Sorrow is directly addressed. Why does he take from her votaries of health, bright eyes, the power of song, lightness of heart? In lines 37—127, the maiden describes her past life and adventures. Sitting alone under an Indian palm tree, she was roused from her sorrowful loneliness by the appearance of Bacchus and his crew of revelers, who called on her to follow. Joining their company, she passed through various lands, but at last grew weary of traveling and strayed away by herself into the woods where Endymion has found her. In the closing stanzas, she tells Endymion that she has given up her vain search for pleasure, and recognizes that for her, Sorrow is the only fit comrade.”


      In this song, Sorrow is personified. The Indian maid asks sorrow why he deprives young and healthy women of their red color and passes on their color to the roses. Similarly, she asks why sorrow snatches away luster from the eyes of people and passes it on to the glow-worms. Thirdly, she asks sorrow why he takes away the music from human hearts and gives it to the nightingales. Similarly, sorrow takes away the joy from lovers when they have done no wrong to anyone, not even done any injury to any flower.

Bacchus and his crew

      The maiden wants to part company with Sorrow but he does not leave her. She is miserable and finds relief in tears; “Brimming the water-lily cups with tears cold as my fears.” At this moment Bacchus the god of wine passes along with his followers—all drunk, and making merry with dance, music and gestures of love. Bacchus stood in his car, drinking heavily. So also his tutor and leader of Satyrs named Silenus rode on an ass, drinking and shouting merrily. Bacchus was followed by lovely maidens called Bacchants who had left their homes and joined him in search of pleasure, dance and drink. There were the Satyrs in this procession. Bacchus and his followers went from Europe in the eastern direction. They proceeded first to Egypt. His followers rode on tigers, leopards, zebras, horses, alligators, crocodiles, panthers, and lions and conquered one country after another. After Egypt, Abyssinia offered its allegiance. Bacchus also conquered Tartary and India. Even the greatest of the Hindu gods called Brahma was scared of him and submitted to his yoke. So great was the conquering power of wine that no king or god could offer him any resistance. Ultimately the Indian maid got fed up with the company of Bacchus and his followers and left him. She stayed into a forest all by herself

Sorrow as friend

      The Indian maid went in search of pleasure but found no satisfaction or peace in dance, drink or sex. She felt that she is not meant for pleasure. She finds sorrow as her companion. Sorrow is like a mother, brother and lover to her. She tells Endymion that she has given up her pursuit of pleasure because sorrow is her only fullest companion and comforter.


      This is one of the best Odes of Keats. It is original in form and technique. There is a great variety of stanzas and rhythm patterns. There are stanzas of different lengths, varying from six to sixteen lines. The flexibility of verse shows the great craftsmanship of Keats. Moreover, there is a grand blend of joy and sorrow romance and melancholy, mirth and intoxication.

      The central idea of the ode is also significant. Endymion hankers for spiritual love. But human love, through transient, is a step towards spiritual love. The love of the Indian maid for Endymion shows how this sensuous love can lead to ideal love. Secondly, sorrow & great helper and purifier. It chastens physical love with holy love or what we call the sublimation of sensuous love. Sorrow is a blessing in disguise because it chastens and purifies love. The conflict between physical love and ideal love is therefore resolved through sorrow. Of course, Keats docs not furnish details of this process.

      Another strong point of this Ode is the pathos of the story of the Indian maid. The pathos is evident in the opening and concluding lines:

“Thou art her mother,
And her brother,
Her playmate, and her wooer in the shade.”

      Moreover, the Ode is remarkable for its sensuousness. The description of Bacchus and his crew and the triumphant march through various countries is full of beautiful images. Satyrs ride on panthers, alligators, tigers and lions. Even god Brahma shakes in his shoes and offers his tributes to the all-conquering might of Bacchus

“Great Brahma from his mystic heaven groans,
And all his priesthood moans
Before Bacchus’ eye-wink turning pale.”

      It is said that Keats was much impressed by a painting of Beech us by Titian which he saw in the National Gallery and based his scene of Bacchus’s travels and conquests on that painting. Even so, there is a man of concrete detail and objectivity in the triumphant procession of Bacchus:

“Within his car, aloft, young Bacchus stood,
Trifling his ivy-dart in dancing mood,
With side-long laughing.”

      One cannot but be struck by Keats’s pictorial art and felicity of phrase. Sidney Colvin has aptly summed up the lyrical qualities of this ode in the following words:

      “Keats’s later and more famous lyrics, though they are free from the faults and immaturities which disfigure this, yet do not, to my mind at least, stow a command over such various sources of imaginative and musical effects, or touch so thrillingly so many chords of the spirit. A mood of tender irony and wistful pathos like that of the best Elizabethan love songs; a sense as keen as Heiness of the immemorial romance of India and the East; a power like that of Coleridge, and perhaps partly caught from him, of evoking the remotest weird and beautiful associations almost with a word; clear visions of Greek beauty and wild wood-notes of Celtic imagination; all these elements come here commingled; yet in a strain perfectly individual. Keats calls the piece a 'roundelay' - a form which it only so far resembles that its opening measures are repeated at the close. It begins with a tender invocation to Sorrow and then with a first change of movement conjures up the image of a deserted maidenhood beside Indian streams; till suddenly, with another change, comes the eruption of the Asian Bacchus on his march; next follows the detailed picture of the god and of his rout, suggested in part by the famous Titian at the National Gallery, and then arranged as it for music, the challenge of the maiden to the Maenads and Satyrs, and their choral answers; and finally, returning to the opening motive, the lyric ends as it began with an exquisite strain of lovelorn pathos.’’

      “The metrical harmonies of this ode are rich and varied, the central passage being especially fine.” The ode can hear compared with the outstanding Odes like Ode on a Grecian Urn or Ode to a Nightingale”

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