What is melancholy? Stephen Hebron examines changing ideas about the emotion, considering Keats’s suggestion that we embrace melancholy as inextricable from pleasure.
‘Ode on Melancholy’ is one of the five great odes Keats
composed in the summer and autumn of 1819. It was first published in 1820 in Keats’s third and final publication, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems
. In other odes he addressed a nightingale, a Grecian urn, autumn and the goddess Psyche. Here, he considers a universal human mood.
The cultural history of melancholy
Melancholy had a long cultural history. In medieval medicine it was considered a pathological condition caused by an excess of black bile, one of the human body’s four cardinal humours, or fluids. Symptoms included bad temper, motiveless anger, a dark, brooding disposition and unsociability. In the Renaissance, however, it became a fashionable, carefully cultivated sadness, akin to pensiveness and sensitivity, that was linked to creativity. Such a melancholy pervades work such as the Elizabethan composer John Dowland’s Lachrimae. ‘But hail thou Goddes, sage and holy, / Hail divinest Melancholy’, wrote John Milton in ‘Il Penseroso’, and in Comus: ‘I … began / Wrapt in a pleasing fit of melancholy / To meditate my rural minstrelsie.’ Among Keats’s favourite reading in 1819 was Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. First published in 1621, this was an encyclopaedic investigation of the causes and symptoms of – and cures for – melancholy.
Manuscript of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ by John Keats
A copy of John Keats's 'Ode on Melancholy' (1819), probably in his brother George's handwriting.
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‘Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting’
Burton treated melancholy as something to be avoided, and in his ode Keats considers various remedies for it; but he also argues that it is inseparable from pleasure, as human life is essentially changeable and all things are transient. As he earlier expressed it in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law on 19 March 1819, using imagery that would later appear in the ode:
This is the world – thus we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure – Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting – While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events – while we are laughing it sprouts i[t] grows and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck – Even so we have leisure to reason on the misfortunes of our friends; our own touch us too nearly for words.
Following the last observation in this passage, Keats composed ‘Ode on Melancholy’ as if he were addressing and advising a friend, not by detailing his own misfortunes.
'Ode on Melancholy’ had a first stanza which Keats later cancelled, perhaps because he thought it superfluous. The consequent abruptness of the new opening effectively conveys the suddenness with which melancholy can strike. With due urgency, the poet urges the reader to avoid inappropriate solutions to sorrow: the waters of the river Lethe, bringing forgetfulness; poisonous wolf’s-bane; and deadly nightshade, or belladonna, which was associated with the Greek goddess of the underworld. These deadening, even suicidal remedies remove us from our true, properly active emotional state, or what Keats calls ‘the wakeful anguish of the soul’.
‘Glut thy sorrow’
In the second stanza Keats recommends, instead, that the reader embrace melancholy, and ‘glut thy sorrow’ by contemplating things of beauty: a morning rose, a cluster of peonies, the play of sunlight on the seashore, or the abundant passion of a lover:
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
In the final stanza melancholy is joined by personifications of those human emotions with which melancholy is inextricably linked: Beauty, that inevitably will fade and die; Joy, forever saying goodbye; Pleasure, turning to poison just as it is being enjoyed; and Delight, where ‘Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine’. They all dwell together as an inseparable and essential group, creating the ‘wakeful anguish’ of the first stanza. Indeed, Melancholy’s shrine is only known by those who can experience the fullness, and simultaneous loss of joy:
… 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.
Use of imagery
At just three stanzas ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is the shortest of the odes, but it is beautifully concise. Keats deftly weaves together a series of vivid images, whether from nature (clouds, rainbows, flowers) or the classical world (temples, shrines, mythical figures). The poet’s line of thought flows effortlessly through these images, giving it a swift confidence; and echoes in the poem implicitly convey the argument that melancholy and joy are inseparable. The ‘weeping cloud’ of the second stanza, for example, becomes the ‘cloudy trophies’ of the final line, and the poisonous ‘ruby grape’ of Proserpine becomes ‘Joy’s grape’. The river, cloud, rain and morning dew give the ‘Ode on Melancholy’ a delightfully watery feel, and its evocations of touch, taste and smell have a tactile immediacy.
In this, and his other odes, Keats mused on the difficulties and pleasures of life, but, still in his early 20s, he did not think of himself as a philosopher. The greatness of the poetry comes not so much from the thought, as from the bright energy and virtuosity with which it is expressed, from the pleasure which the poet seems to take in his skill. As he told his brother and sister-in-law:
I am however young writing at random – straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness – without knowing the bearing of any one assertion of any one opinion. Yet may I not in this be free from sin? May there not be superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude my mind m[a]y fall into, as I am entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer?’ (19 March, 1819)