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Ode on Melancholy
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition and Publication
Summary
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Poem Text and Notes
Theme
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work

......."Ode on Melancholy" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. In this famous ode, the speaker addresses the reader while developing his theme. The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the nineteenth century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on his subject. 
.......The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person. The odes of the Greek poet Pindar (circa 518-438 BC) frequently extolled athletes who participated in games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes. 
.......The Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth century, English romantic poets wrote odes that retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets, though, the authors of nineteenth-century romantic odes generally were more emotional in their writing. 

Composition and Publication Dates

.......John Keats completed "Ode on Melancholy" in May 1819. The London firm of Taylor and Hessey published the ode in 1820 as part of a collection entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems.

Summary of the Poem

.......In this poem, Keats tells the reader how to respond to melancholy—what we today call depression. 
.......First, he says, do not drink the waters of Lethe. In Greek mythology, Lethe was a river that passed through Hades (the Underworld). Swallowing its magical water induced forgetfulness. Thus, Keats is advising the reader not to take a drug that dulls the senses against melancholy. 
.......Second, do not take deadly poison (such as wolfsbane or nightshade) to end your tribulation.
.......Third, do not dwell on the beetle (an ancient Egyptian symbol of death) or the death moth (an insect bearing an image resembling that of a humanskull) as expressions of your soul, and do not allow the owl to become a partner to your gloom. Such measures will drown the anguish you feel.
.......Instead, when melancholy falls upon you “like a weeping cloud,” glut yourself on the beauty of a rose, of a seaside rainbow, or of a cluster of peonies. Or, if your beloved exhibits anger, hold her hand through it all and “feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes” (line 20). 
.......Following this advice will teach you that when you take pleasure in the beauty of nature or another human being you also experience melancholy., for beauty lives a short life. Flowers die within months of their birth, and the rainbow dissipates minutes after it forms. How can you not be , the peonies wither, and your beloved ages. “Ay, in the very temple of Delight / Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine. (lines 25-26). You cannot experience the beauty of life without also experiencing its melancholy. 

End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme of the first two stanzas follows this pattern: abab cde cde. The end rhyme of the third stanza changes to this pattern:  abab cde dce.

Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme. Here are examples.

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine (line 4)
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be (line 6)
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl  (line 7)
But when the melancholy fit shall fall (line 11)
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud (line 12)
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all (line 13)
And hides the green hill in an April shroud (line 14)
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose (line 15)
Meter

.......The meter of the poem consists mainly of iambic pentameter, as lines 9 and 10 of the first stanza demonstrate. 

.......1....................2.................3..................4...............5
For SHADE..|..to SHADE..|..will COME..|..too DROW..|..si LY

.........1......................2.............3..............4.................5
And DROWN,..|..the WAKE..|..ful AN..|..guish OF..|..the SOUL,

Text of the Poem
No, no! go not to Lethe,1 neither twist 
  Wolf's-bane,2 tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine; 
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist3
  By nightshade,4 ruby grape of Proserpine;5
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,6 
  Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be 
    Your mournful Psyche,7 nor the downy owl 
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
  For shade to shade will come8 too drowsily,
    And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul..........................10

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; 
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose, 
  Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave, 
    Or on the wealth of globèd peonies;9
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows, 
  Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave, 
    And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.......................20

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: 
Ay, in the very temple of Delight 
  Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran10 shrine, 
    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..............................30


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Notes
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1.....Lethe: In Greek mythology, the river of forgetfulness, which flows through Hades. Drinking its water results in loss of memory.
2.....Wolf's-bane: Wolfsbane, also called monkshood or aconite, a poisonous plant with purple, yellow, or blue flowers. 
3.....kist: Kissed.
4.....nightshade: Name of a family of plants, some of which are poisonous.
5.....Proserpine: Roman name of the Greek goddess Persephone, queen of the Underworld (Hades).
6.....yew-berries: Products of the yew tree. Yew berries contain poisonous seeds.
7.....Psyche: In Roman mythology, a beautiful princess loved by Cupid, the god of love.
8.....shade to shade will come: Melancholy will come to your darkened spirit
9.....peonies: Flowers with large red, pink, white, or yellow blossoms.
10...sovran: Sovereign.
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Theme

.......The theme is this: One cannot fully experience joy unless he or she has also experienced melancholy. For example, several dreary days—with rain and overcast skies—enhance the appeal of a sunny day when it finally arrives. The absence of a loved one for a prolonged period intensifies the joy of eventually reuniting with him or her. Melancholy whets the appetite for happiness and pleasure, just as cruelty whets the appetite for kindness and just as insomnia whets the appetite for sleep. 

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

Make not your rosary of yew-berries (line 5)
And hides the green hill in an April shroud (line 14)
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose (line 15)
salt sand-wave (line 16)
whose hand is ever at his lips (line 22)
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue (line 27)
Anaphora
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave, 
Or on the wealth of globèd peonies (lines 16-17)
Apostrophe
No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist 
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine (lines 1-2)
Assonance
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine (line 4)
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave (line 16)
And feed deep (line 20)
Metaphor
April shroud (line 14)
Comparison of the misty rain to a shroud
Personification
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran10 shrine (line 26)
Comparison of Melancholy to a person
Oxymoron/Paradox
aching Pleasure (line 23)
Simile
But when the melancholy fit shall fall 
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud (lines 11-12)
Comparison of the melancholy fit to a weeping cloud
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a ten-line poem that imitates the rhyme scheme of the first stanza of "Ode on Melancholy." The subject is open.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "Ode to a Nightingale," and a ballad?
  • Write an essay explaining how the events in Keats's life influenced his poetry.
  • Write an essay on what you did (are doing) to overcome a bout of sadness or clinical depression. 
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