#53 “Ode on Melancholy” (John Keats)

Beauty and danger again: or rather, beauty inextricable from the dangers of sorrow. That’s the main idea in the first ode by John Keats to appear on our Countdown: the “Ode on Melancholy”. The poem is easy to paraphrase: when you’re depressed, (probably the best approximation to the old word “melancholy”), it’s not a good idea to dwell on that depression. You should seek out the most beautiful things you can find. And not because they cheer you up, but because beauty and depression set each other off in a way that heightens the experience of both.

Well, that’s not a very sensible or wholesome idea, but this is poetry, not Dr. Phil. Keats’s speaker isn’t all about mental health. He’s about testing the boundaries of pleasure and pain, of experiencing the extremes where they meet.

And it isn’t simple physical pleasure and pain, which one could find coupled in overeating something delicious, running a marathon, or listening to really loud great music. The pleasure here is aesthetic (Beauty), and the pain is psychological (Melancholy). Things are both truly, absorbingly beautiful, and truly, crushingly, bad. The poem doesn’t have a “happy ending,” one might observe. The person who experiences the heights of both Melancholy and Joy shall “be among her [Melancholy’s] cloudy trophies hung.”

What makes this poem a great one? The lushness of the language, alternating between images of despair and images of utter loveliness. Keats died at the age of 25. He hadn’t seen much of life, and many of the things he refers to are not real (Lethe, Proserpine). He probably saw peonies, but I can’t imagine he did a lot of recreational wolfs’-bane, whatever that is. (Look it up!) But he was a true prodigy of the sounds of language, much as prodigies like Mozart and Mendelssohn were in the realm of musical sounds and rhythms.

And for much of his short life, he knew he was dying. Rather than cast this knowledge in the form of personal essays or diaries, he tried to write universal poems about the proximity of ecstasy to death. There are few more beautiful expressions of that proximity than “Ode on Melancholy.”

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5 responses to “#53 “Ode on Melancholy” (John Keats)

  1. I can understand the idea of looking to beauty when feeling sad and/or depressed. This poem is by far my favorite in the countdown. The language is so beautiful. It seems that the message is about acceptance of one’s fate. Instead of feeling “melancholy” over having such a short lifespan Keats looks to the beauty of the things around him. The speaker or Keats is very much like the morning rose or the rainbow. None of the things he encourages the reader to look at will last very long but while we are in their presence they are breathtaking. Each one a small miracle unto itself, nothing should be taken for granted because none of us are guaranteed a tomorrow. Even the healthiest among us could be struck down in an accident. The poem encourages me as a reader to be more like a rainbow or a flower. They are beautiful, inspiring, and they have very short life spans but they do not weep over their fate. They give hope and encouragement. This poem seems to be very depressing at first glance but I think it has a message hope. At the beginning Keats tells the melancholy person not to take roots, drugs or “poisonous wine” that sounds so much like people with depression today who are so quick to reach for prescription drugs to “fix” their condition. I’m not saying these drugs don’t work but I think they are a crutch and that people should take Keats advice.

  2. I have to agree with mramos9, this poem is probably my favorite in the countdown so far. And while it is painfully sexist, it is also very real. It gives the sense that melancholy is one of those things that isn’t always to be feared or avoided. There is something to be said for the person that can find the balance between melancholy and ecstasy. The most beautiful things are fleeting, and to truly enjoy them for what they are, you have to be willing to accept that they are only temporary. If you can “burst Joy’s grape”, you can truly enjoy it for what it is. The flowers die, the rainbows fade, and beautiful young women end up old and crusty. But if you can learn to appreciate them for the time they are there, and accept that their temporary nature is part of their beauty, then you can really get the most that they have to offer.

  3. I believe this poem is talking about beauty with in depression. Many people are depressed and look with themselves to find beauty out of what they are going through. I think it is saying through all of our trials and tribulations there is going to be a better tomorrow. I agree with the saying beauty is skin deep. We have to look into ourselves to find real beauty. It may take some longer than others but we will all find it. This poem puts me into a low melow mood. This poem is a sad poem but the poet uses great words like, burst and joy, to bring out happiness in the poem.

  4. John Keats like many others of his peers finds beauty in any situation. Not only can I identify with the fact that he finds joy and beauty in looking around, I also identify with the idea that if you are depressed looking for beauty is something that may help lift the depression. He speaks about not letting the mournful psyche take you over but instead to look beyond your own and into the world. Here you may see things you did not see before and the beauty of this may lift your spirits. When I get in what I like to call a “mood” I tend to go outside and garden or to use the time in my saltwater aquarium. There I find myself at wonder for the lovely things that grow and bloom. Looking towards the things in this world that are natural and beautiful can help to lighten any ones spirits. I believe that this is the purpose that Keats was trying to get across in this poem. I find that I am curious on how he came to the conclusion that he could bring himself from a sour mood with the beauty of things around him. I didn’t even realize that was what I was doing until I read this poem and sat down to think about my melancholy moods. There is beauty in language and this poem radiates it.

  5. I relly enjoyed learning about this poem. It seems to jump back and forth about beauty and depression. I had to read it a couple of times to fully understand what John Keats was trying to say. Everyone at some point in their life will go through some type of depression. The thing is, you can’t always stay depressed. Sooner or later, one should see all of the “beauty” in the world and know that there are better things out there. I agree with Amber about there being beauty in language. It’s just the way we choose to express the words.

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