Ode On Melancholy

The ‘Ode on Melancholy’ was written in 1819 and first published a year later. Interestingly, there was once an additional stanza at the beginning, which read as follows:

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

The above stanza was removed prior to publication. I often wonder why; it fits the natural progression of the ode. And without it, the beginning of the published version seems rather abrupt. (Note: The first draft of the ode is lost and the above stanza is not included in the surviving drafts. Charles Brown and Richard Woodhouse are the source for the cancelled stanza.)

‘Ode on Melancholy’ is one of the least-discussed of the odes, though I find it lyrical and affecting; the imagery is startling and vivid. Consider ‘Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d / By nightshade’ or the closing lines – ‘His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, / And be among her cloudy trophies hung.’

It is also psychologically interesting for it clearly shows how Keats’s equated pain with pleasure (alternatively, sorrow with happiness or desire with fear.) One cannot exist without the other. Keats writes: ‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight, / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. In this ode, beauty must die; joy bids adieu; pleasure turns to poison. Keats connects each positive feeling with its melancholy end. Why? Strongly influenced by Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, Keats wished his reader to accept melancholy as a desirable experience. It should not be avoided; rather, it should be endured and its sufferer emerge with renewed strength and understanding. (Burton’s work also features the most extravagant wordplay I’ve ever read. Keats loved it – and indulged in it himself, particularly in the cancelled stanza of this ode.)

The earliest surviving manuscript of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is one of Keats’s fair copies, of the sort he typically sent to his publisher. The lines are regularly spaced and indented, etc However, it’s clear that Keats wasn’t happy with the work. Atypically for him, he revised the fair copy. Among the alterations was the substitution of ‘drowsily’ in the first stanza, after trying both ‘heavily’ and ‘sleepily’. In the second stanza, he replaced ‘Then feed thy sorrow on a morning rose / Or on the rainbow of the dashing waves’ with ‘Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’. His publishers altered ‘She lives in Beauty’ to ‘She dwells with Beauty’, perhaps to avoid similarities to Byron’s famous lyric poem ‘She Walks in Beauty’. It is doubtful Keats deliberately echoed Byron. They also persuaded him to change the second to last line from ‘His soul shall taste the anguish of her might’ to ‘His soul shall taste the sadness of her might’ because Keats was unconsciously echoing himself and the last line of the first stanza.

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 shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "Ode On Melancholy" http://englishhistory.net/keats/poetry/ode-melancholy/, February 8, 2015