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.”