Analysis of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ by John Keats

Ode on Melancholy

John Keats was one of the most famous English Romantic poets of all times. He succumbed to tuberculosis at the young age of 25. In this short span of life he made immense contribution to English literature. However he was not lucky to see his works becoming popular for when he was alive his poems were not given its due. The poetry of Keats is known for its sensual imagery especially in the odes. He stressed extreme emotion by highlighting natural imagery. Some of the most celebrated works of Keats are”Sleep and Poetry”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and the famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”.

‘Ode to Melancholy’ is about how to cope with sadness. The first stanza tells the reader what not to do when one is sad. The sufferer should not go to the ‘Lethe’ which is a river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. Then a list of poisonous plants, roots is given like wolfsbane, nightshade and ruby of prosperpine and the poet is asking the person addressed not to resort to commit suicide. Then there is a comparison with beetle, death moth, owl and Psyche, the woman who married Cupid in Greek mythology. With all these allusions the poet is trying to tell suicide is not a remedy for sorrow and that one can rise from it like the beetle death- moth and psyche.

In the second stanza he says that if a ‘melancholy fit’ should fall and shroud us then think of the rose, globed peonies and the rainbow. Its beauty is short-lived and is soon shrouded by its death. This is one way to get over the sorrow- thinking about the sorrow of others. Another way to overcome sorrow is to hold the cause of sorrow, ‘thy mistress’ and look deep into her eyes. If sorrow is considered as the mistress it could mean face the sorrow in its eye. Facing it is tough but is a better solution than running away from it. In the third stanza the short life of beauty is reiterated. Joy is waiting to bid adieu again a reference to the fleeting nature of happiness. Then with the imagery of temple the poet says in the temple of delight melancholy is the ‘sovran shrine’. Sovran is the short form of sovereign. Someone who is able to burst the ‘grapes of joy’ will see that melancholy and delight areinter-related and no, he is not a pessimist but one with a fine ‘palate’. Isn’t it true that one who has understood and accepted that life is a combination of joy and sorrow is a winner in life? These winners can hang their sorrows as trophies on the wall as they have been defeated with discrimination and acceptance.

The first version of ‘Ode to Melancholy’ had four stanzas and Keats scored out the first one where the hero is going in search of melancholy. The final poem has three stanzas with ten lines in each stanza. The first two stanzas follow the rhyme scheme ABABCDECDE. The third stanza has the rhyme scheme ABABCDEDCE. There are allusions to Greek mythology in speaking about sorrow. Sorrow is personified when he says ‘But when the melancholy fit shall fall’. Why did the poet use rose and rainbow to drive home the point that beauty is fleeting? Rose is universally accepted as a symbol of love and it is easy for the readers to associate with it. Rainbow, magnificent and something so huge and spread across the sky, also fades with time. So these two images help to nail the idea. The poem is an ode to melancholy yet it is a poem to win over melancholy and rise above it.

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