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:
These lines open the third and final stanza of “Ode on Melancholy” and seem to express the thematic node of the poem: melancholy arises because whatever is beautiful dies, because pleasure arcs from ache of anticipation to poison of fulfillment, and because joy departs as soon as it is realized. Keats’s odes have a peculiar grip on specialists and nonspecialists alike, and as one of the latter I was extremely grateful to Nancy Yousef (Rutgers) for inviting me to participate in a Romanticism Forum session on “Ode on Melancholy” at the 2022 MLA convention, along with two scholars steeped in a knowledge of the field and the poet, Jacques Khalip (Brown) and Mary Favret (Johns Hopkins).
The poem’s first stanza is cast as a plea not to commit suicide and the second as an instruction when melancholy strikes to intensify the sorrow by devotion to beauty. The final stanza combines elements of the first two but decisively celebrates the economy of pleasure and pain and their inseparability. Three stanzas, three angles on acute sadness. Don’t kill yourself. Give your sorrow its fill by staring at beautiful things. The more intense joy is, the sharper or deeper the melancholy. These condensed paraphrases of each stanza are defensible enough, but raise a question. While amplification is expected in the art of the novel, poetry thrives on the art of condensation, yet this poem’s language seems to decondense its core meanings in enumerations and equivalences (Wolf’s-bane, nightshade, yew-berries; beetle, death-moth, owl; rose, rainbow, peonies):
No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
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.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the drooped-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;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
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 sovran 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.
A handful of questions arise in reading, and keep arising in rereading, “Ode on Melancholy”:
First, how to sift the poem’s multiple figurative registers? Personification, myth, metaphor and simile, emblem, analogy, double-entendre, and allegory tumble through the thirty lines, mixing and mingling at the risk of cacophony.
Second: To whom are the imperatives of the first two stanzas addressed? I sense the mode of address less as advice given to the reader or some imagined interlocutor than as self-address. The figurative complexity of the self-address renders the imperatives neither immediate nor unmediated. Nor do they express the resolve to live on as unequivocally as, say, Hopkins’ “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee.” The exact force and purport of the imperatives is mediated, and attenuated, through the poem’s stylization, wit, and learnedness as well as its figurative mélange. The poem is not the expression of melancholy but an ode on melancholy.
Third question: Who is She at line 21?—“thy mistress” of the preceding lines or “Veil’d Melancholy” of the succeeding lines? or both? or the one representing the other? and if so, which is the one, which the other? in what sense of “representing”? Why indeed open the poem’s third and final stanza with a syntactico-semantic irregularity?—the very stanza that shifts from imperatives to…well, that is the fourth question: What kind of utterance is the final stanza? A fifth, and perhaps the horizon question for every interpretation is, What is the nature or essence of melancholy as determined by the poem. I put it this way to avoid the error of taking the keyword of a title—melancholy, indolence, fancy, psyche, etc.—as having a settled meaning that will illuminate the poem. Rather, it is the poem that must tell us the meaning of the title.
By the same token Keats’s biography certainly sheds light on why he would probe sorrow, grief, melancholy, even as it fails to explain the poetry. “Ode on Melancholy” was written some months after his brother Tom’s death, but in Keats’s first twenty-three years there were already far more deaths to mourn than the work of mourning could possibly have worked through: at 6 a baby brother, at 8 his father, at 9 the grandfather to whom his newly widowed and remarried mother abandoned him, at 14 his mother herself, at 19 the grandmother who raised him and his abandoned and orphaned siblings, and then at 23 his much-loved youngest brother, just 19, whom he nursed through his final agony. Soon Keats’s own already fragile health began to match Tom’s symptoms. At 24, his uncertain courtship of Fanny Brawne finally culminated in their betrothal, just as he was on the cusp of the physical deterioration that would precipitate his death at 25 in Italy.
In our MLA session, Mary Favret took up the challenge of understanding the meaning of melancholy through the poem’s figurative and acoustic patterns in order to shed light on psychoanalytic and other accounts of the melancholiac’s supposedly empty speaking—or others’ refusal to listen to it. The oral imagery keeps representing the mouth and eventually the tongue in all manner of acts—glut, kiss, sip, burst, taste—except speech. Melancholy is unheard, unlistened to, unheeded. To answer why Keats’s Melancholy “dwells in silence,” Favret turned to the one instance of human utterance referred to in the poem, the mistress’s raving:
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
The fact of the poem’s repetitions of “ee” in “feed deep, deep” and various rhymes with rave (“wave,” “save,” and, reversed, “Veil’d) suggest, Favret demonstrated, an acoustic linking of melancholy and rage. It is as though rage is itself, so to speak, Veil’d and lodged within unheard melancholy—which would reinforce identifying line 21’s She as at once the raving mistress and the third stanza’s (capital M) Melancholy, meshing unheard anger (“let her rave”) and silent melancholy. If on the other hand, or at the same time, the gendered drama of raving mistress and melancholic lover prevails, it is possible, quoting Favret, “that the woman’s anger enunciated as rave, even if unheard, remains an aural residue, like seeds that will have to be spit out”!
These alternatives—and there are no doubt more—arise, I think, because those three lines are unique in the complex figurative registers of the poem. They alone conjure up a realistic scene of human action and interaction, a drama between lovers plunked down amidst a cascade of fantasmal, metaphorical, and allegorical fragments. Critics tend to make the lines an anchor of critique. Helen Vendler sees predation in “feed deep, deep”: “In the predatory mode, one lets one’s mistress rave in anger; one neither listens to her words nor experiences one’s own wrath or shame at her anger—instead one feeds irrationally on her peerless eyes.” For her, Keats disapproves: “This deflection of emotion into visual relish is, in Keats’s eyes, a form of perversion,” and she reads the third stanza as the corrective. Anahid Nersessian, by contrast, takes Keats to task as rather more implicated in the scene than critical of it:
“Glut” is the key word here: it means choke on or swallow, and the vulgarity here is no accident. It’s arrived to call a halt to lyrical banalities and to introduce a more potent cliché: the singularly obnoxious, discouraging melancholy of heterosexual love.
Keats is not good at being macho, so he bootstraps his way there with help from steadier meter and more confident rhymes: “cloud” and “shroud” instead of “owl” and “soul.” Next to “glut” he sets the slightly archaic “mistress,” which anchors the boiler-plate pairing of exasperated woman—trembling with “some rich anger”—and doting yet dismissive man.
Nersessian sees an allusion to Paradise Lost and a replay of Eve yielding when Adam’s “gentle hand / Seized mine,” and her seeing “How beauty is excelled by manly grace / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.” The problem is, any number of scenarios can be projected into the three lines at the end of the second stanza. Was the mistress’s soft hand raised in a fist to strike her exasperating self-indulgent unemployed narcotics-addicted gloomy lover? Or perhaps he, unlike Keats, is among, as in Leonard Cohen’s “The Future,” “all the lousy little poets / Coming round / Tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson.” In other possible scenarios of rich anger and imprisoned hand, the manipulative depressive drives his lover to hysterical violence, or her demands drive the depressive lover to a histrionic indifference masochistically designed to adduce her punishing rage. Etc.
Is it Keats’s doing or ours that those few lines inspire endless scenarios of love, melancholy, rage, and histrionics spread across varied dramas of sexuality and gender? The advantage of Favret’s commentary lies in tying the words and sounds of the passage to other moments in the poem, yielding a dialectical entwining of melancholy and rage, of a man’s melancholy and a woman’s rage. In bringing the acoustic underpinnings to bear on the understanding of poem, she in turn is able to bring the interpreted poem to bear on our understanding of melancholy itself.
Gadamer identified the bringing-to-bear of a literary interpretation on our relation to reality as the final outcome of the hermeneutic process, the moment of appropriation or application. In fact, though, it is never really the final outcome in the sense of being postponed until interpretation reaches its fullest understanding of the text “in itself.” We are often keen for applicability from the first moment of reading. Indeed, a feature of literary criticism as a distinctive genre of thinking is that critics seek to understand questions in their world—psychological, moral, historical, political, or social—through the understanding of literature. The art of criticism lies in keeping, and deepening, the tension between the attentiveness to the “text in itself” and the motives and complexity of one’s probing of reality.
In Jacques Khalip’s presentation, the question of interpretive appropriation and application was postulated up front. He approached “Ode on Melancholy” within the frame of a meditation on scholarly specialization and the crisis of Romantic studies within the contemporary university. With intimations of extinction, he drew from his reading of the poem a structure or strategy of discourse that might address that crisis. The inner dynamic of the poem, the historical dynamic of Romantic poetry, the specialization called Romanticism, and the economic and ideological tendencies and countertendencies of higher education today were cast as a configuration of ultimately inseparable dynamics. He pointed up the trap that the study of Romanticism, and by extension literary studies in general, finds itself in in attempting to justify itself on the very terms by which institutional developments and imperatives increasingly denigrate it. That is, by its usefulness, a usefulness that it is to impart as a mode of advice to students seeking their place in the economic and social world.
“Ode on Melancholy” was brought to bear on this rich and difficult problematic. The poem’s rhetorical enactment of giving advice is exceeded, in Khalip’s argument, by the poetic excess, the “gorgeousness,” by which the advice is delivered. It is advice that cannot be followed. In proffering unusable advice, the poem enacts a “performative contradiction” which carries all the way into the merely apparent affirmation of taste (the strenuous tongue) in the third stanza. The transmission of taste and tradition was an eighteenth-century inheritance assigning literature the task of providing an education in taste, tradition, and beauty, that is, of giving advice. Jacques reads the final stanza (I’m quoting) “as a powerful indictment of Romantic taste, of inheritance and tradition…, of taste as a figure of transmission.” As performative contradiction and indictment, the ode affords the scholarly discipline of Romantic studies, Jacques suggested, a model of a possible countermovement to the trap of institutional self-justification.
Whereas Favret’s reading’s dialectically knots anger and melancholy together, Khalip’s reading has a dialectical turn of its own in seeing advice twist into a performative contradiction. I do not take this to mean that the poem falls into performative contradiction but rather that it, one might say, performs a performative contradiction in bringing out the fracture in the posture of advice. Each of their viewpoints suggests the question of specifying what kind of verbal gesture or discursive arc the poem enacts. What is the relation among the three stanzas in light of the shift from imperatives to allegory and of the fact that this ode on melancholy does not express a melancholic state-of-mind?
In Keats’s psychosomatic reality soma dominated psyche. Hence the poignancy of the letter in which he registered his thoughts on indolence, laziness, and languor that foreshadowed another ode. He says of an indolent day of daydreaming that it was “a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind” (March 19, 1819). He reports his reverie in the conceit of Poetry, Ambition, and Love sleepwalking before him “like three figures on a greek vase…whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement.” The least one ought to value in the somewhat maligned “Ode on Indolence” is that it figures, or refigures, sapped energies as a space that engenders pre-poetic imaginings, just as sleep and dream are for Keats at once the opposite and the wellspring of poetic creativity. The ode is on indolence but does express an indolent state-of-mind
Such transmutations constitute a work’s symbolic action, in Kenneth Burke’s sense of the term. The term is relevant, I think, to “Ode on Melancholy”’s last stanza, whose images and metaphors echo and transpose images and metaphors from the first two stanzas. Poisonous wine, Proserpine’s ruby grape, a kiss, glut, sorrow’s mysteries, April shroud, and weeping cloud reappear, transmuted in the iconography of the last stanza, into Joy’s grape, the bee-mouth’s sip and the strenuous tongue, the temple of Delight, Veil’d Melancholy’s sovran shrine, and cloudy trophies. Even as a three-stanza ode-structure mandates echoes and transposition in the final stanza, it does not tell us what the precise relation is in any given ode, that is, what form is achieved within that structure.
A prevalent view of the form of “Ode on Melancholy” derives from commentaries by two of Keats’s best scholarly critics, Jack Stillinger and Helen Vendler. Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats organizes close readings of all the odes on the “conjecture” that if their order of composition is properly postulated they represent a progress in the poet’s style and his maturation. The structure of “Ode on Melancholy” itself maps a psycho-spiritual progression: “a poem has its own drama; and an evolution from two sorts of error to an equilibrium of truth is the drama in this case.” She casts the poem’s speaker as a “hero” on a quest for the goddess Melancholy. This idea comes from an opening stanza that Keats drafted and discarded in which the protagonist (“Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bone…”) “would fail / To find the Melancholy, whether she / Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.” The actual poem’s opening—“No, no! go not to Lethe”—is read as though this “hero” has realized the “goddess” is not in the underworld. This overliteralizes the classical allusion to the river Lethe, which serves to metaphorically name the erasure of memory by which suicide would “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.” The rejected stanza’s overblown, macabre conceit, diction, and imagery do not fit, and are plainly unfit for, “Ode on Melancholy.” Critics should have the good sense that Keats had and discard the stanza. Distorting the whole poem by applying the quest for a goddess to the actual ode, Vendler in effect creates a narrative of her own in which the questing hero is tempted to “replace” his “natural mistress” with Proserpine (suicide) or mournful Psyche (“an internalized death-wish”) until the goddesses, and the mistress herself, are transcended: “The search for the goddess-partner, or death-mistress, is resolved in two ways at the end of the poem, after the speaker has resisted the temptation to commit suicide. In the closing stanza we are first given a flurry of allegorical figures with whom the earthly mistress is said to dwell—mortal Beauty, fleeting Joy, and aching Pleasure—all immortal figures with whom the poet may dwell while remaining with his earthly mistress. But in the second, subsequent resolution of the poem, the focus changes from the company surrounding the mistress to the company surrounding the hero, who bursts Joy’s grape and can therefore enter, in the temple of Delight, the penetralia, or inmost shrine, that of the goddess Melancholy, where his soul will become one of the goddess’s eternally suspended trophies, in the company of other phantom-souls so distinguished.” This commentary leaves me feeling like the earnest high school student on hearing the teacher explicate a poem’s “deep meaning”: I don’t see any of that. There is no quest without the discarded stanza. Initiation into “sorrow’s mysteries,” now refigured as the melancholy veiled within delight, says nothing of any eternity or some vague afterlife beyond earthly love, and “his soul” of the third stanza is a soul like the “mournful Psyche” and “the soul” of “wakeful anguish” in the first stanza, not some sort of phantom, be it a Homeric shade or a Platonic contemplator of Ideas. Vendler imbues the poem with a narrative dimension and a questing hero that it does not have, and to achieve this she must replace the heterogeneity of figurative registers with a unified allegory.
Stillinger proposes a cleaner though not dissimilar account of the poem’s inner progression through its three stanzas in the notes to his edition of the Complete Poems: “Melancholy is the most logically constructed of the major odes: the first stanza tells what not to do ‘when the melancholy fit shall fall,’ the second stanza advises what to do instead, and the third presents a rationale for these injunctions (and the clearest statement in all Keats’s poetry concerning the interconnectedness of pleasure and pain in human life).” I have no quarrel with the parenthetical comment, but it is again worth questioning the understanding of the sequence. In this case, it is presupposed that the three stanzas address the same or equivalent instances of melancholy. But is the second stanza’s “melancholy fit,” which falls “Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,” truly equivalent, as Stillinger assumes, to the suicidal impulse threatening to “drown the wakeful anguish of the soul” in the first stanza? And if the strength to experience the intensest joy brings about the deepest melancholy, doesn’t the third stanza illuminate the suicidal impulse and the debilitating fit themselves as much as, or more than, the injunctions’ saving or ameliorating power?
I’ll venture a hypothesis counter to Stillinger and Vendler regarding the poem’s form—hypothesis here simply meaning what I’ve managed to make of the poem in this round of reading and rereading. My hypothesis is that there is no progression in the stanzas; rather, they constitute a triad of experiential possibilities, distinct facets constituting (small m) melancholy. While the third stanza’s symbolic action transmutes the first stanza’s suicidal imagery and the second’s picture of sorrow’s intensifying and exhausting itself through fixation on beauty, it does not transcend them. There is no reason, moreover, to affirm that Keats (or the lover or the speaker, however you happen to designate the poetic voice here) necessarily counts himself among those of strenuous tongue trophied by Melancholy in the temple of Delight. The triad of possibilities are coequal. Transmutation not transcendence.
I tested my hypothesis by reading the poem several times with the stanzas reversed. “Ode on Melancholy” then begins “She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die” and ends with “the wakeful anguish of the soul.” This experiment in reading does scarce violence to the poem but does block the logico-narrativizing readings. When the third stanza becomes the first, it disperses its images to the other stanzas instead of gathering images from them; relatedness takes precedence over sequencing. The ambiguity of the referent of She does get lost (unfortunately perhaps); Beauty, Joy, and Pleasure are but aspects of Delight. Nevertheless, the interpretive possibilities of relating “thy mistress” to the various mythical and allegorical female figures, Proserpine, Psyche, and Veil’d Melancholy, remain open and rich. The force of self-address in the other stanzas becomes even clearer, and the sense of the stanzas as facets not progression sharpens. Try it. It’s just an experiment.
It is understandable that Keats’s critics are tempted to project and impose progress toward solutions to the existential trials and poetic tasks he faced. Reading into the poems an adventure in self-realization betrays a kind of empathetic-anxious response to the doom that awaited his genius, fragility, and youth and cut short his work and his life. There is a parental air to the criticism that sets the orphan-poet on the path to full-blown selfhood. Keats himself of course drew on Spenserian and other quest narratives in many poems and at times fits Harold Bloom’s definition of Romanticism as “the internalization of quest romance,” but Vendler’s quest-narrativization of the odes as a group and of “Ode on Melancholy” in its inner form seems to me to run counter to an essential aspect of the Keatsian experience of creativity. Along with the luminous passages on negative capability and on soul-making, the following assertion on poetic subjectivity and selfhood, on “the camelion Poet” who “has no self,” flashes forth in a letter to Richard Woodhouse (October 27, 1818): “The Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no identity—he is continually in for [informing]—and filling some other Body—The Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse and have about them an unchangeable attribute—the poet has none; no identity—he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s Creatures.” To honor that aspect of Keats’s understanding of poetry and the poetic vocation, it is necessary to resist the wish to see him complete. Neither the poems nor his short life can really gratify that wish. His life ended before he could achieve vocation, livelihood, and marriage as he aspired to. Keats, like Lautréamont and Rimbaud, is a poet whose work surpasses the poetic achievements of his time even as he himself barely reaches the edge of adulthood. These poets effected startlingly new perspectives straddling adolescent and adult experience. Unlike Lautréamont and Rimbaud, Keats neither rejected his aspirations nor abandoned poetry.
The voice of “Ode on Melancholy” does not speak from within a melancholic state-of-mind, nor does it enjoy some transcendent posture beyond suicidal impulses and melancholy fits. The mood conveyed by the voice of the poem is the desire to survive. It speaks, knowingly and clearly, from the desire not to succumb. ∞
NOTE: On a few other occasions, major Romantic poems have provoked my thinking about social, psychological, and aesthetic questions. Blake’s “London” and “A Poison Tree” as well as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are the focus of “The Concrete Utopia of Poetry” in Culture and Domination. I contributed an item on Keats’s “To Autumn” to a study guide for a Great Works course. And discussions of Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc” play pivotal roles in Mood and Trope.