Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets
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Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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;
So when melancholy overtakes you, here's what you should do: Go outside. Look at a rainbow. Look at a rose. The beauty of the natural world, with its awe-inspiring stuff, is going to bring you joy (but don't eat the poisonous plants; he warned you about that earlier). The idea of nature as a source of joy and a source of melancholy is really in line with the Romantics. This idea that you should celebrate nature and really look at it as a way both to relieve your pain and as a metaphor for your pain, all wrapped up into one. (I've just got a dreary parking lot outside, so this will not work for me.) He elaborates on nature being a source of the melancholy as well in these next two lines. He says, 'The clouds weep and make the flowers droop. But they also make the hill green and give the flowers life.' There's that contrast. The stanza concludes:
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
This is a weird section of the poem because he's turned from nature to love. He's saying that if your girlfriend is mad at you and she's yelling at you, you should just hold her hand, let her rave and stare deeply into her eyes. Which I think would be a sign that you have a dysfunctional relationship, but Keats seems to think that you're going to further experience your emotions by doing this. His word choice - 'rich anger,' 'emprison,' 'rave,' 'feed deep' - emphasizes that you should experience the highs and the lows. Throw away your Lithium and your other mood-stabilizing drugs (please don't do that)!
In the third stanza, we're told that joy and melancholy are inextricably linked. He brings this home in this stanza. He says:
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:
The 'she' he's talking about could be the woman from the stanza before. It's also definitely melancholy. He's personifying the emotion; we've got two themes in one here, which is a good sign that we're reaching the end of the poem (yay, we're almost done!). In this stanza, he's bringing everything together: Beauty (with a capital 'B') is awesome, but it dies. And Joy is also awesome, but it's fleeting. And Pleasure can swiftly turn to poison. Then he goes further:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
This is an elaborate way of saying that you can't have joy without melancholy; you can't have melancholy without joy (again, the Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk kind of together). They're not two separate people. They're the same person. One is always part of the other. But not everybody sees this, as we learn in the poem's concluding lines:
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.
He wanted you to experience sadness in the first stanza, and now he's circling back to this idea. He's saying that only those who are intensely and keenly in touch with their emotions can see how joy and melancholy are present, always at the same time. If you do this, you're going to 'taste the sadness,' which isn't necessarily a bad thing because it represents heightened emotional awareness. It's the pinnacle of feeling. It's like the dude who looks into the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones. Right before your face melts, you see and understand everything. It's this revolutionary thing in your head.
So we're going to review 'Ode on Melancholy,' one of Keats' Great Odes. It begins with a list of what not to do, which is essentially don't run toward death when you're overcome with sadness. Don't kill yourself; live! Then he instructs you to seek out joy in nature while experiencing intense emotion on both sides: the melancholy side and the joy side. He concludes by saying that melancholy is always present in joy, and joy is always present in melancholy, but you have to be really aware of your emotions to get this. All the way, he uses Greek mythology and nature to convey his message. And that's the 'Ode on Melancholy'.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to understand the meaning and themes of Keats' 'Ode on Melancholy,' and explain how nature and Greek mythology are used in the poem.
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets