By John Keats
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.
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.
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 shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
Keats’ “On Melancholy” is all about (you guessed it) melancholy. It begins by suggesting how people should cope with misery, listing the things that a person shouldn’t do, and then what they should do, instead. This is more than just a self-help poem, though; Keats goes on to consider the advantages of melancholy, encouraging his readers to make use of their sadness and turn it into inspiration for their writing. After all, as Keats suggests, misery is a part of being human and, without it, there can be no joy.
Metre & Structure
“On Melancholy” is written in a roughly iambic pentameter with a few deviances from the rhythm (particularly in the third stanza). What is perhaps more interesting, though, is the poem’s rhyme scheme: in the first two stanzas, it follows an ABABCDECDE pattern. This (along with the iambic pentameter) forms the rhythm of the Keatsian Ode. Yet this rhyme is broken in the final stanza of the poem, where it follows the pattern: ABABCDEDCE. This is only a small change, but it does demonstrate a disruption of this common form, suggesting that Keats’ poetry is perhaps altered by his own misery.
Line by Line
- “No, no,” – The ode begins in mid-conversation, sounding as though Keats is denying something that has already been said. This is because there was actually a stanza preceding this first one in earlier drafts of the ode. It took me a fair while to track down this missing stanza, but you can read more about it here. Regardless, its removal emphasises the passion in the poem; in a way, it is as though Keats is rejecting his own melancholy.
- “Lethe” – This is the first of many classical references in this ode. As we learn from his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, Keats was very passionate about classical mythology. This river is also known as ‘the river of forgetfulness’; a person was supposed to touch the water, and then forget all of their earthly troubles.
- “Tight-rooted” – It is interesting that the wolfsbane is described as “tight-rooted” and therefore difficult to remove from the ground, because Keats may be perhaps suggesting that melancholy is also difficult to remove.
- “Poisonous wine” – When the wolfsbane flower is used in small quantities, it acts as a painkiller, but when it is used in larger quantities, it becomes extremely poisonous. It is not clear which use of the flower Keats is talking about here, but considering his warning against going to Lethe, it is likely that he is also asking people not to suppress their pain through painkillers.
- “Kiss’d” / “Prosperine” – There is a certain amount of romantic/sexual imagery here, as Proserpine was the goddess of fertility. She was also kidnapped by Hades, the god of the underworld, and Greek mythology suggested that an arrangement was eventually settled between Hades and Demeter, Proserpine’s mother. Proserpine would spend half of each year in the underworld, and half of it with her mother. This reference presents ideas of death and sadness, but also new life, which links to the inspiration Keats believes can be had from being melancholy.
- “Nightshade” / “Yew-berries” – Nightshade is very similar to wolfsbane; in small doses, it is a painkiller, but it can also be lethal. The same can also be said about yew-berries; Keats is really emphasising the need to endure pain without trying to escape it, even if that escape is through death.
- “The beetle” / “The death-moth” – As with the link to Proserpine, these insects have multiple meanings. In one respect, it is interesting that Kears is using insects to make his point, as it reveals an appreciation for nature and all its (small) details. Both the beetle (think of the scarab-beetles used in Egyptian tombs) and the death-moth are associated with both death and new life (the beetle appeared to come from nothing as they hatch inside dunghills, whilst the both appears to die when it is a caterpillar, but then is born again).
- “Mournful Psyche” – Psyche is synonymous with ‘soul’, but this is also another classical reference. Psyche was a human who married the immortal Apollo under the condition that she never looked at him. Obviously, she did, and had to endure terrible trials for her crime. Eventually, however, Psyche is reunited with Apollo, emphasising ideas of resurrection and how happiness comes from grief.
- “The downy owl” – The owl is another symbol of death – one which Keats thinks we should not dwell on, just as we should not dwell on the beetle or death-moth.
- “For shade to shade” – Note the hushing sound here; this links to death and explores notions of misery (whilst repetition emphasises the double meanings running throughout this first stanza).
- “Drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” – Here, at last, is the reason why we should not be suppressing our sadness: because this would be to “drown” a part of the soul, and thus limit our humanity and imagination. Remember, the soul is a part of what makes us human and, according to Keats, so is our sadness.
- “From heaven” – Melancholy is presented as a gift “from heaven”; no wonder we shouldn’t suppress it if it’s a gift from God (even though Keats was an atheist…).
- “A weeping cloud” – This sounds more like Wordsworth than Keats! Why is the “cloud” “weeping”? It is because it sent down misery to the earth “from heaven”.
- “Fosters the droop-headed flowers” – Here Keats suggests that our sadness somehow affects nature and makes nature sad, too (it “fosters” the flowers that resemble melancholy) – because human beings are a part of nature?
- “Hides the green hill in an April shroud” – Whilst our sadness “fosters” the flowers associated with sadness, it “shroud[s]” the greenery that may have raised our spirits; in other words, when someone is depressed, they fail to notice the good things in life, seeing only the bad (and miserable).
- “Glut” – his is a harsh-sounding word, but it basically means ‘feed’. As both words are one syllable, it is worth asking why Keats opted to use “glut”. To me, it seems more negative: it is associated with gluttony and, as I already noted, sounds a little harsh. Perhaps Keats is suggesting that we should overfeed our sorrow in order to find it more inspiring (we should gorge on sadness while we can).
- “Morning rose” / “Rainbow” / “Globed peonies” – These beautiful things are what Keats thinks we should be focussing on (not on death omens), yet these things aren’t entirely positive. None of them will last for very long: flowers wilt and die and the “rainbow” is only visible when the spray from the waves is in front of the sun. Keats thus draws attention to the impermanence of beauty, which actually relates more to melancholy than it does to anything happy.
- “Thy mistress” – Keats makes two assumptions here: firstly, he assumes that his readers are male, and secondly, he assumes they have a wife or lover. This lover is the man’s “mistress”, though, providing an interesting comment on gender.
- “Emprison” – Although the man’s lover is his “mistress”, he is able to “emprison” her, indicating a gender and power reversal.
- “Let her rave, / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” – Keats suggests that when a man’s lover is angry, he should let her “rave” and he should “feed” upon her anguish. The repetition of the word “deep” makes this seem a little sinister, almost as though he is taking the misery from his lover, as though sadness is a limited resource that passes from person to person.
- “She swells with Beauty – Beauty that must die” – Keats is still talking about the impermanence of beauty now, but it is interesting that he chooses to personify “Beauty”. Instead of simply saying “thy mistress” is beautiful, Keats uses the word “dwells” to make her beauty seem even more fleeting.
- “Joy” / “Pleasure” – Keats also personifies “Joy” and “Pleasure”. These personification allegories were a traditional way of describing abstract concepts, and Keats appears to be drawing on this tradition in this ode.
- “Hand is ever at his lips / Bidding adieu” – Keats is basically saying that Joy is blowing kisses and saying goodbye (joy leaves as sadness takes precedence), but this isn’t necessarily presented as a negative. Joy leaves on a high, leaving behind him room for sorrow to be better appreciated?
- “Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips” – “Pleasure” turns “to poison”, this juxtaposition of happiness and sadness emphasising how both experiences are a part of being human. The “bee” again reveals how Keats pays attention to nature’s details and also indicates that once “Pleasure” has become “poison”, it cannot return to a point of “Pleasure”. This reflects how, once a bee stings, it must die, and demonstrates the power of Melancholy over Pleasure.
- “Temple of Delight” – Keats suggests that “Delight” is a thing to be worshipped. He may be indicating that happiness is given an unfair amount of attention compared to misery thinking that Melancholy should be glorified.
- “Veil’d” – This “veil’d” reflects the “shroud” in the second stanza, but whilst the veil is associated with marriage and new beginnings, the shroud is associated with death. This emphasises the binary between happiness and misery.
- “Melancholy has her sovran shrine” – Firstly, “sovran” is an abbreviation of ‘sovereign’ that was used commonly in the seventeenth century. It turns out that “Melancholy” exists within the “temple of Delight”, emphasising this binary.
- “Seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape“ – The only ones able to see the “Melancholy” within “Delight” are those who actively search for it with “strenuous tongue[s]”. It is important to note that this reference to the “grape” reflects the references to wine in the ode’s first stanza, as alcohol may be being presented as another way of suppressing pain/misery.
- “His palate fine” – Keats is still talking about those capable of seeing sadness within “Delight” and by suggesting that they have a “palate fine”, he is essentially glorifying them, implying that they have good taste for appreciating sadness.
- “Soul” – Ideas regarding the soul link to the concept of dualism (this is the theory that suggests the soul can exist outside of the body). The soul is “hung” as one of Melancholy’s “trophies” even after the body has died.
- “Taste the sadness” – Much of this stanza considers the mouth and taste, suggesting that, in a way, we consume feelings such as joy and melancholy.
- “Her cloudy trophies hung” – This is a very ominous end to the poem, but it does help to demonstrate the power of Melancholy. The souls or “trophies” of Melancholy have accepted sadness and thus been conquered (which is here presented as a positive thing – Keats wants us to succumb to our sadness).
“Ode on Melancholy” is a complicated poem, but it’s much easier if you break it down into its separate stanzas. The first stanza is advising against becoming trapped in misery and associating yourself with death omens. At the same time, though, there is a constant theme of new life and regeneration running through this stanza.
The second stanza begins to describe the actual qualities of melancholy and suggests that we should focus on the impermanence of beauty and, if a lover becomes angry, we should not try to calm her; rather, we should take her hand and appreciate her anger.
The final stanza is a little more complicated as it personifies Beauty, Pleasure and Melancholy. It is basically demonstrating the importance of melancholy, as it exists within delight and is something to be admired, rather than rejected.
It’s an interesting poem and tends to make misery seem a little better. Perhaps this would be a good one to read when you’re feeling down? The double meanings in the first stanza are particularly inspiring, whilst there are some fascinating comments on gender; why is that melancholy is a “she” and delight is a “he”?
Thank you so much for reading this post! If you’re interested in looking at more of Keats’ poems, I have also written analyses for “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer“, “Bright Star” and “On Fame“. Thank you again; if you have any thoughts or questions, there is a comments section at the bottom of this page. I’d love to hear from you!