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Ode on Melancholy by Keats

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  • 0:05 The Great Odes
  • 1:11 Major Themes
  • 2:42 First Stanza
  • 6:10 Second Stanza
  • 8:35 Third Stanza
  • 10:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

If there was a commercial for sadness, what would it look like? How could you encourage people to want misery? If you're Romantic poet John Keats, you write a poem: 'Ode on Melancholy.' Find out how he celebrates sadness in this lesson.

The Great Odes

Sometimes you might have kind of an off day. You might feel sad. You might feel melancholic. I don't know; maybe that's just me. If you were feeling that way - maybe you've been studying awhile or watching a ton of videos and you just can't take yourself away from the computer - Keats has got a poem to help you out, to understand your melancholy and your suffering and make it okay. It's one of John Keats' six Great Odes of 1819 (that's the title of the group of them), and it's called the 'Ode on Melancholy,' which makes sense because that's what it's about. And this ode isn't really like the other five in a lot of ways. If the Great Odes were like the Avengers, 'Ode on Melancholy' would be the Incredible Hulk. They're all emotionally tormented superheroes, just like Keats' odes are all emotional tortured, but this one is even more emotional on a whole different level. It's full of sharp contrasts that are forever linked to one another, just like Bruce Banner and the Hulk.

Romantic poet John Keats
Ode on Melancholy

Major Themes

The narrator of this poem isn't like the narrators of the other odes. Those ones address things like an urn and a nightingale. In 'Ode on Melancholy,' the narrator is talking directly to the reader. Keats is breaking the 'fourth wall,' 'talking through the TV,' kind of like Ferris Bueller. This has the effect of heightening the emotional intensity in the poem. As you might expect from the title and from my forlorn intro, it really grapples with the depths of melancholy and what to do about melancholy. Keats was in his early 20s when he wrote the poem, but his life had been full of dark moments: depression, debt, the deaths of tons of family members. He was sick. He only lived to be 25, so he was at the end of his life already. But he'd also known a lot of joy, and he was interested in where melancholy and joy collide with each other.

When he wrote 'Ode on Melancholy,' he was in love with a woman named Fanny Brawne. She'd recently moved into a section of Wentworth Place, which was the house where Keats was living. So, he could see her every day, which in the days before Skype and e-mail and all that stuff was a huge deal.

A few more structural features of the poem - we're going to look at personification, which is when you give human characteristics to something that's not human. We're also going to see some images from Greek mythology, which was a fascinating thing for Keats; he loved it. And it wouldn't be a Romantic poem if we didn't hear about nature, so we're going to hear about that too. So, let's begin.

First Stanza

This poem is divided into three really distinct stanzas. (It actually was originally four but he chopped off the first one in editing, so that's kind of a fun fact.) It begins:

No, no! go not to Lethe

You might be saying, 'I wasn't going to go to Lethe. I don't even know what that is.' Well, okay. It's a complex way to start a poem because it's not until you read more that you actually know what it's talking about. But we're going to unpack this opening line. Lethe is a river, and if you're there, you are dead. In Greek mythology, dead souls go to Hades (that's the underworld), and they go to Lethe to drink water that will make them forget their lives. Keats does not want you to be dead, and he doesn't want you to forget your melancholy. Those are two distinct ideas. He could've just said 'don't go to Hades' if he meant 'don't be dead.' But since he mentions Lethe, it really means he doesn't want you to try to forget how you're feeling. Emotion - I told you that would be important. Even if that emotion is melancholy, he wants you to feel it. He doesn't want you to shove it away. And it's really dramatic. He could have just said 'Don't go to Lethe,' but he says 'No! No!' and it creates this sense that you're coming in, in the middle of something (which actually, you are, because there used to be a first stanza even before this, and now there isn't). He goes on:

…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,

Wolfsbane, nightshade, yew berries; these are all fatally poisonous plants that he mentions. You might be thinking, 'I was just a little sad. I wasn't looking for a botany lesson from Dr. Kevorkian.' But that's what you got. What we also have is the nature theme in full force. He's basically saying, 'Did you know there were so many plants with awesome-sounding names that could kill you? Now you do, but you should stay away from them.' And Proserpine is the queen of the underworld, so she's associated with all of these things.

This series of emotive pleas isn't over yet; he's not done. He's just changing from plants to animals:

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.

Romantic poet John Keats was in love with Fanny Brawne when he wrote Ode on Melancholy.
Fanny Brawne

It's so intense. Those three animals - beetle, death moth and owl - are all associated with death. If you ever saw or read The Silence of the Lambs, you might remember the death moth's head is on the poster on Jodie Foster's lips. It's called the 'death's head moth' because it has a skull on it. (I actually watched that movie for the first time when I was in Disneyland on TV. It was a total shift from the Magic Kingdom.) He makes the connection between the moth and Psyche. Psyche is the Greek goddess of the soul - wings of a butterfly is how she's personified - so the moth and Psyche are similar in that sense. And he's saying 'Don't run from melancholy toward death. You should experience the emotion.' He does this in the first stanza by telling you what not to do. In the second stanza, he's going to tell you what you should do.

Second Stanza

The second stanza begins:

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;

I'm going to pause mid-thought here. All he's saying is 'When you feel sad,' but he goes on and on and on because he's describing it with nature imagery. He's also personifying nature: the 'weeping cloud,' the 'droop-headed flowers.' Alright, back to the poem:

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

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