28th June 2017
Made up of three ten-line stanzas, Keats has praised the melancholy, and praised the beauty in it. He has also signified death being a merciless abstract noun, besides from being a concept that must die itself.
Before we go into in depth analysis, we will analyse the title and what significance this has. “Ode“, as we have discussed before, is a lyrical poem that focuses on one particular object or subject. The way that Keats is focusing “on” melancholy, rather than “to” it signifies that he is praising the idea of being melancholy. As we go through the poem, we will uncover different contextual factors that made Keats almost want to be melancholy.
The poem begins with the repetition of ‘[n]o, no,’, which almost feels like they should be exclamatory sentences because of the repetition itself, but the lack of exclamation suggests a melancholy atmosphere to Keats’ writing already, alongside the negative connotations of the word ‘no’. Keats imperatively says ‘go not to Lethe’ after ‘[n]o, no,’.
CONTEXTUAL LINK: ‘Lethe’ is a Greek spirit of forgiveness and oblivion, but still in Greek mythology, ‘Lethe’ is also a river in Hades that was said to cause forgetfulness, which bordered on another river, Styx, which was said to have the remains of the dead in it who would guide the path between life and the afterlife. As the Romantics had great influence from Greek mythology, Keats appears to have taken the idea of ‘Lethe’, but then demanded ‘not’ to go to ‘Lethe’. So, we could argue two ideas here: the first is that Keats did not want the recipient of his imperative to go to the spirit of ‘Lethe’ because perhaps the “something” that they had done was unforgivable. The second is that he did not want them to go to the river ‘Lethe’ because it would rob them of their memory, as well as take them near to the passage to your death. The second is probably more plausible because of the semantic field of death, and the general melancholy theme throughout, that Keats represents. However, the spirit of ‘Lethe’ could still be hovering in the atmosphere of the river.
Keats goes onto say that ‘neither twist / Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine:’ and this reinforces that he was speaking of the river, and not of the spirit, which generally has a more advisable message behind his imperative, rather than to spite someone.
CONTEXTUAL LINK: Keats published Ode on Melancholy in 1819, just two years before he died. Now, the ‘twist’ into ‘poisonous wine’ could be mimetic of Keats’ tuberculosis, which caused his death – the ‘twist’, being the journey, to the ‘poisonous wine’, being the death. Also, the ‘poisonous wine’ could be a metaphor for the river Lethe, as Keats may have felt himself going to the river, and then being entreated to the river Styx for his afterlife.
Keats then talks of ‘thy pale forehead’, and the attributive adjective ‘pale’ is an adjective commonly used when discussing illness and death. He then says, ‘thy pale forehead to be kissed’ as though he was already dead, as at someone’s funeral it may be customary to kiss the corpse’s ‘pale forehead’, so Keats may be saying that he already feels as though he is dead.
Keats continues to tell the reader not to do certain things, such as:
‘Make not your rosary of yew-berries, / Nor let the beetle, nor the death moth be / Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl’. (lines 5-7).
CONTEXTUAL LINK: The ‘rosary’ links to Catholicism, and the way that Catholics pray. The way that Keats has used this religious imagery contrasts to the revolt against religion that the Romantics took at the time (explained more further down) so the way that Keats is telling the reader to ‘make not’ their rosary of ‘yew-berries’ – which is a toxic and poisonous plant, which Keats is implying will amount to one’s death if consumed – because he does not want them to praise death. The zoomorphic imagery of the ‘beetle’, the ‘moth’ and the ‘downy owl’ are all quite melancholic creatures, especially with the connotations of ‘downy’. A ‘beetle’, having a black exterior, is externally a sad creature, and ‘moths’ are very fragile insects which links to the fragility of Melancholy, and subsequently that of Keats when on his deathbed.
CONTEXTUAL LINK: The way that Keats uses second person narration contrasts with the Romantic ideals of “the self” and personal stories, and the way he says to not let the beetle or the moth be ‘your mournful Psyche’ implies that he is trying to disconnect himself with his own death. The way that one’s own ‘psyche’ would be ‘mournful’ of your own death, however, leads the reader to imagine that Keats was thinking of himself and mourning over the loss of himself, which takes him back to “the self”.
The following quotation suggests Keats’ journey into the Styx river and the loss of himself:
‘your sorrow’s mysteries; / For shade to shade will come too drowsily, / And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.’ (lines 8-10).
Still Keats is maintaining the second person narration in ‘your sorrow’s mysteries’. But, the descent into forgetfulness (the Lethe river) and subsequently into the passage to the afterlife is seen in the diacope ‘shade to shade’, because it shows the descent into ‘shade’: when a diacope has two words of negative connotations, it shows a descent, and when a diacope has two words of positive connotations – such as ‘better to better’ – it shows an ascent. Therefore, we can see Keats’ journey into death from ‘shade to shade’ – the Styx river has the ‘shade’ of dead people.
The phonological features that Keats has used of the repetition of the ‘drow’ sound in ‘drowsily’ and ‘drown’ mimics a whining sound, somewhat onomatopoeically, to represent the descent to death further. CONTEXTUAL LINK: The oxymoron of ‘wakeful anguish’ portrays the idea of the liminal, which Keats uses a lot in his poetry. The liminal is a state between consciousness and unconsciousness, and the ‘wakeful anguish’ represents being awake in a time of death.
This stanza begins with a pivotal disjunction ‘But’, as though Keats is going to completely contradict himself. He begins to talk of how
‘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;’ (lines 11-14).
The figurative language used here, such as the simile ‘like a weeping cloud’. This represents so poignantly what melancholy is like, but Keats does not seem all that sorrowful about melancholy ‘falling Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud’. Is this because it is falling from ‘heaven’?
CONTEXTUAL LINK: The tone changes dramatically on the fifth line of the stanza from going from ‘glut thy sorrow’ to ‘a morning rose’. The way that Keats has become, so dramatically, ‘sorrowful’ on a ‘morning rose’ shows that he is, perhaps, finding melancholy in nature, and this is when the Romantic ideal of Nature finds its cause. Being so close to nature is like a catharsis for Keats, as once he becomes close to nature, his language use is retuned and more positive:
‘Or on the rainbow of the salt-sand wave, / Or on the wealth of globèd peonies.’ (lines 16-17).
The ‘rainbow’ imagery implies that Keats is fantasising over the idea of nature, and the melancholy that accompanies it. The ‘wealth’ that ‘peonies’ brings again reinforces the way that nature makes Keats feel: happy. The repetition of the conjunction ‘or’, which is used on the following line as well:
‘Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,’ (line 18).
This conjunction may have been used in order to represent all of the things that makes Keats feel cathartic, and the oxymoron of ‘rich anger’ shows the idea that Keats is ‘rich’ in the melancholy that he feels, but he likes it. The ‘mistress’ is spoken of again in the following lines:
‘Emprison her soft hand, and let her race / And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.’ (lines 19-20).
The way that Keats has used the imperative of ’emprison her soft hand’ takes the authoritative figure of the ‘mistress’ and makes her less superior – does this have any reflection of women in the Romantic movement? But, due to what is reflected in stanza 3 (which will be found out further down) we can infer that the ‘mistress’ is foreshadowing the personification of ‘melancholy’ itself into be a ‘she’. Furthermore, the assonance used of the ‘ee’ sound in the latter line of the quotation above elongates the idea that the ‘mistress’ is going ‘deeper’ into inferiority so that Keats’ melancholy can replace the ‘mistress’.
The final stanza begins with a use of chiasmus:
‘She dwells with Beauty — Beauty that must die;’ (line 21).
The way that Keats has used this chiasmus to represent his perception of beauty in nature, and the way that the ‘mistress’ ‘dwells’ with beauty implies that she is trying to find an outlook into the natural world from the ‘deep, deep’. The way that Keats then demands that Beauty ‘must die’ shows Keats turning away from nature in his piteous dying time.
Keats creates, throughout the stanza, a semantic field of abstract nouns such as ‘Beauty’, ‘Joy’, ‘Pleasure’, ‘Delight’ and of course, ‘Melancholy’. Keats both praises these feelings, and condemns them. But, ironically, Keats does not worship ‘Beauty’, or ‘Pleasure’, despite their positive connotations. And ‘Joy’ and ‘Melancholy’ are both confused about whether Keats appreciates them or not, despite them being such adverse ideas. The only abstract noun that is seen to be definitively praised is ‘Delight’, as Keats says calls it the ‘very temple of Delight’.
However, ‘Delight’ is seen as the outcome of ‘Pleasure’ and the condemnation that comes from this:
‘aching Pleasure nigh, / Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: / Ay, in the very temple of Delight’ (lines 23-25).
The way that the oxymoron ‘aching Pleasure’ has been the provocation of ‘Delight’, via being turned to ‘poison’. This implies that ‘Delight’ is actually ‘poison’, seeing as the ‘poison’ is in the ‘temple of Delight’. The subsequent lines shows how melancholy is felt by Keats:
‘Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine, / Through seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;’ (lines 26-28).
The way that ‘melancholy’ is ‘veiled’ gives the reader the impression that Keats wants to hide his sadness because of a shame that he feels towards it. On the contrary, ‘veiled’ gives us the idea of a traditional Christian wedding ceremony, where the bride would wear a veil in order to eventually be revealed to her near-future husband.
CONTEXTUAL LINK: We could argue the first perception of ‘veiled’ under the Romantic ideals of religion and the revolt against rules. The Romantics decided, when they became an “empire”, that they would focus more on nature, and the beauty that is seen there, over religion, so the way that Keats has given ‘melancholy’ a ‘shrine’, rather than giving a God the ‘shrine’ implies that Keats has favoured nature and beauty over religion, conforming to the Romantic ideals. However, earlier in the poem with the contrasting image of the ‘rosary’ implies that Keats is stuck in the middle of religion and atheism, subsequently between Joy and Melancholy, and subsequently between life and death.
The way that Keats is personifying the abstract nouns – firstly by calling Melancholy ‘her’, and the consequential way of calling Joy ‘him’ gives the poem more of a structured narrative, as it is almost acting out a conflict between the two enemies ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Joy’ as though they are people. The way that Keats has used the noun ‘grape’ implies that ‘Joy’ is well-rounded and wholesome, whereas ‘Melancholy’ was simply ‘veiled’, which represents a transparency and frailty. However, Joy’s ‘grape’ is ‘burst’ which represents Melancholy’s triumph over Joy, and the way that Keats is, and has been throughout the poem, favouring ‘Melancholy’ portrays his frail state as he moves into the passage of death.
The final couplet reads:
‘His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.’ (lines 29-30).
The way that ‘his’, meaning ‘Joy’, will ‘taste the sadness’ of ‘Melancholy”s might implies that Keats is allowing his melancholy to dominate him. There is a strange battle of the genders represented in the final lines of the poem as though Keats has two fighting spirits in his conscience. The way that the female dominates the male right at the end of the poem indicates the growth of womanhood, and the sensory imagery of ‘taste’ implies that ‘Joy’ can physically feel the sadness, making ‘him’ even more sad. The way that ‘Melancholy’ has ‘cloudy trophies’ juxtaposes with the transparency and frailty of being ‘veiled’, and it is as though she has now become so much stronger now that ‘her’ superior has ‘tasted the sadness of her might’ and become inferior.
Melancholy, in this poem, is praised endlessly, despite the few times in the poem we think that Keats may think otherwise. But, as is predicted from the title of the poem, melancholy comes out on top with the idea of Joy resting on ‘her’ hallowed shoulders.
TASKFOR STUDENTS / and people who Enjoy Literature (if you are so brave):
Pick a theme and contextual factor and write a paragraph about Ode on Melancholy.
If you do this, I am happy to take a look at any responses that you would like!
Keats, J. (2007). Selected Poems. London: Penguin Classics.
Published by yourenglishliterature
English Literature Student; obsessed with books. I love analysis, and annotating books, plays, poetry. I love writing prose fiction and poetry. View all posts by yourenglishliterature
John Keats, Poetry
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Recordings of Songs and Poems by Keats and Shelley by Eton College Music Schools.
Readings by Scott Brooksbank and Nick Afka
Baritone Ed Jones
Piano Gwylin Evans
Producer Nick Goetzee
Director Angus Graham-Campbell
Click to listen or download and save
Shelley To Jane
Shelley Indian Serenade
Keats Ode to Melancholy
Keats Ode to a Grecian Urn
Shelley The Mask of Anarchy
Shelley A Widow Bird Sat Mourning
Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Shelley Ode to the West Wind
Keats To Autumn
Keats Bright Star
Keats Bright Star Song
Text of poems
Poems by Previous Winners of the Keats- Shelley Prize
Click on the poem titles to read. The essays are published in past editions of the Keats-Shelley Review. Selected back copies of the Review are available through: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/yksr20/current
Rukmini Maria Kallimachi The Anatomy of Wild Flowers
Sarah Wotton, essay Keats in Early Pre-Raphaelite Art Review No.12
Kate Parrish Ode to Someone in the Pool
James Burton, essay Keats and Coldness Review No. 13
Antony Nichols Graveyard Shift
Helena Nelson, essay Wherefore all the Wormy Circumstance Review No. 14
Robert Saxton The Nightingale Broadcasts
Tony Venables, essay The Lost Traveller Review No. 15
Jane Draycott The Night Tree
Joe Francis, essay Doubting the Mountain: an Approach to Mont Blanc Review No.16
Stephen Burley, essay Shelley, the United Irishman and the Illuminati Review No. 17
Isabel Lusted Soul with White Wings
Porscha Fermanis, essay Stadial Theory, Robertson’s History of America, and Hyperion Review No. 18
Edmund Cusick Speaking in Tongues
David Taylor, essay Prometheus Unbound Review No. 19
Martin Mc Ritchie The Experiment
Alison Pearce, essay Magnificent Mutilations Review No. 20
Richard Marggraf Turley Elisions
Adam Gyngell, essay Ye Elemental Genii Review No. 21
John Gohorry Lost
Susan Miller, essay Hellenic and Scientific Influences in P.B. Shelley’s Medusa Review No. 22
D.H. Maitreyabandhu The Small Boy and the Mouse
Jillian Hess, essay This Living Hand: Commonplacing Keats Review No. 23
Simon Armitage The Present
Andrew Lacey, essay Wings of Poesy: Keats’s Birds Review No. 24
Pat Borthwick Lord Leighton Brings Arabia to Holland Park
Priyanka Soni, essay Natura Naturata: Shelley’s Philosophy of the Mind in Creation Review No. 25
Nick MacKinnon, Terrier in Rape
Ruth Scobie, essay Mary Shelley's Monstrous Explorers:James Cook, James King and a Sledge in Kamchatka Review No. 26
Patrick Cotter, Madra
Eleanor Fitzsimons,essay The Shelleys in Ireland: passion masquerading as insight?
Paul McMahon, Tom's Pouch of Cure Stones
Daniella Cugini, Presence
Harry Cochrane, essay The Romantic Dante
Stephen Horvath, essay How did Revolutions in Politics Affect the Poetic Revolution in 'Lyrical Ballads?’
Will Kemp, ‘ Driving to Work at 5am listening to Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’
Riona Millar, ' Sonnet after Frankenstein’