Ode on Melancholy


Melencholia I, Albrecht Dürer, 1514

 

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
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 globèd 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 25
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.

John Keats

 

Ode on Melancholy is one of five odes composed by John Keats in the spring of 1819, along with Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on Indolence, and Ode to Psyche. The narrative of the poem describes the poet’s perception of melancholy through a lyric discourse between the poet and the reader, along with the introduction to Ancient Grecian characters and ideals.

While studying at Enfield, Keats attempted to gain a knowledge of Grecian art from translations of Tooke’s Pantheon, Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary and Spence’s Polymetis. Although Keats attempted to learn Ancient Greek, the majority of his understanding of Grecian mythology came from the translations into English. Ode on Melancholy contains references to classical themes, characters, and places such as Psyche, Lethe, and Prosperine in its description of melancholy, as allusions to Grecian art and literature were common among the “five great odes”.

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