“Ode on Melancholy” by John Keats

Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” presents ways to cope with sadness. After my initial reading of the text, I felt that this poem read as an advisory text on how to be sad. I mainly equate this idea to the way the poem is organized; the first stanza presents suffering, the second shows joy, and the third brings the two together to show the way joy and sorrow are related. The poem distinguishes between the right and wrong way to experience sadness. The first stanza points out the wrong approach to sadness:

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolfsbane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

You mournful Psyche, nor the drowny owl

A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

In this stanza, Keats lists numerous objects that have poisonous, deadly effects: “Wolfsbane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine.” He also points out how the sufferer should not worship images of death: “Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be/ You mournful Psyche…” He reveals that death should not be used as a way to cope with sadness. By choosing death as a form of relief the sufferer does not acknowledge the sadness and ends up drowning in it: “For shade to shade will come too drowsily,/ And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” The second stanza discusses a different approach to overcome sadness:

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,

Imprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

Instead of using death to combat sadness, overwhelm sadness and sorrow by engaging the world’s natural beauties; like the “morning rose” or the “peerless eyes” of a loved one. Keats ends “Ode on Melancholy” by linking the sorrow of the first stanza and the joy of second stanza to reveal the idea that the two work in relation to one another.

She dwells with Beauty­, Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turing to poison while the bee-mouth sips.

Aye, in the very temple of Delight

Veiled 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.

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