Do you have a favourite poet?
I sometimes wonder how we decide on ‘favourites’ when it comes to something as subjective as poetry. But nonetheless, this sort of glib question continues to get bandied about as pseudo-cultured icebreakers (which, on this occasion, I’m guilty as charged).
That said, there are certain poets I do love and enjoy. This has less to do with the confirmation bias of knowing that these are ‘great poets’ (in the canonical sense), and more so with the visceral affinity I feel every time I return to their works.
Among them is John Keats, whose poem ‘To Autumn’ I analyse in this post alongside Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’. I often wonder if genius isn’t a necessary corollary of strife and suffering – why else would so many literary, musical and artistic greats be people afflicted with physical or mental pain?
Stevenson struggled with chronic illness his whole life; Beethoven was pretty much deaf when he composed ‘Fur Elise’; and Van Gogh was a famous manic depressive.
It seems, then, that extreme pain is often the wellspring of true creativity. Keats, of course, was no stranger to suffering, having suffered from both tuberculosis (the “family disease” which took the life of his mother and brother, and eventually also his), and his unconsummated love for Fanny Brawne. But short-lived as Keats’ life was – he died at 25 – it was a life immortalised by incredible poetic genius.
Part of Keats’ genius is reflected in his mastery of the ode, for which he is perhaps most famous. The year 1819 – 3 years before his death – was especially prolific for the poet, during which he wrote all of his legendary odes, including ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode on Melancholy’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘To Autumn’ etc.
It is possible that this intense spurt of creative labour was a result of Keats’ proximity to Brawne, who moved into Wentworth Place in 1819 where Keats had been staying. His idolatrous love for Brawne proved suitable for the spirit of the ode, which is traditionally a poetic form used for the celebration and praise of a godlike or public figure.
In Keats’ eyes, his lover was no different from the Greek goddesses that so often feature in his poetry.
What is an ode?
While most contemporary readers are likely to associate the ode with the Romantic poets (Keats in particular, but Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley wrote odes as well), the odal form has its roots in classical poetry, first popularised by the Greek and Latin poets Pindar and Horace.
While Pindaric odes are traditionally intended for public, theatrical performance often accompanied by song and dance, Horatian odes are comparatively private and reflective in tone and mood.
In a Pindaric ode, there’s almost always apostrophes and allusions to mythical deities, underpinned by lots of rhetorical pomp and circumstance, but in Horatian odes the subject matter tends to be more centred on the individual’s thoughts and emotions.
By the time the ode fell into the hands of the Romantics, its nature became a hybrid of Pindaric exaltation and Horatian pensiveness. According to S. F. Fogle and P. H. Fry in The Princeton Encyclopedia Poetry and Poetics, “the romantic ode in English literature is a poem written on the occasion of a vocational or existential crisis in order to reassert the power and range of the poet’s voice”.
In other words, the ode – while previously a means to celebrate external figures – was in the Romantic period re-appropriated to elevate the poet himself, whether it be his vocation or his legacy.
Structure of the ode
In terms of structure, the ode bears some resemblance to the sonnet by following a narrative genealogy of ‘strophe-antistrophe-epode’. Here’s what these terms mean:
Strophe: “a group of verses that form a distinct unit within a poem. The term is sometimes used as a synonym for stanza, usually in reference to a Pindaric ode or to a poem that does not have a regular metre and rhyme pattern, such as free verse.”
Antistrophe: “the second part of a three-part odal structure, sometimes introduces a turn or antithesis in the narrative or idea posed in the strophe”
Epode: the final part of a three-part odal structure, which summarises and concludes the ode
You’d see, then, that it somewhat parallels the sonnet’s architecture, which follows an ‘octave-sestet-couplet’ framework, with the octave introducing the subject matter, then transitioning into an opposing perspective with the turn of the volta (lodged between the octave and sestet), then finally concluding with the rhyming couplet offering some form of resolution.
With Keats, the ode was both a site of escape for the self and an exploration of the self – but always refracted through the celebration of something, be it a goddess (‘Ode to Psyche’), a bird (‘Ode to a Nightingale’), an artefact (‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’) or an emotion (‘Ode on Melancholy’).
It is through the ode that Keats made his most ardent attempt at the preservation of unfiltered thoughts and sentiments, which, given the ode’s formal strictures, makes for an interesting tension between the consciousness of complying with tradition and the desire to leap beyond constraints.
Reading John Keats’ ‘Ode on Melancholy’: “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine”
For a poem centered on a negative emotion – melancholy, ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is surprisingly positive, if not stoic, in its outlook.
The central argument is that sadness, however intense, should drive one to pursue death, because the flip side to melancholy is beauty, and beauty is what makes life worth living. After all, at the end of another Ode – ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, there are those famous lines that read –
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Feeling sad makes happy moments all the happier, and reminds us by dint of contrast that for every melancholic moment we experience, there follows a spate of joy.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter if it’s sadness, joy or beauty that we experience, because they are all fleeting, so perhaps the best way to deal with our emotions is to recognise and accept their transience.
Is this ode a celebration of melancholy in the Pindaric tradition? It certainly doesn’t begin in celebratory tones, as the speaker beseeches his imaginary addressee not to commit suicide.
His appeal is mythical and allusive, but in his periphrastic enumeration of different approaches to dying (consume the poisonous wolfbane, eat the poisonous berries of the nightshade plant, suffer the sting of a beetle or death-moth etc.), it almost appears as if the speaker himself is entranced by the lyricism of a romanticised death.
For while the repetition of “no”, “not” and “nor” convey a vehement resistance against the temptation of dying, the intermingling echoes of internal and end rhyme throughout the first stanza (or the strophe) betray a hint of attachment between the speaker and that which he ostensibly rejects. He may say ‘no’, but the impression we get is a faint ‘maybe’ –
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.
The neat ABAB alternate rhyme of “twist/kiss’d”, “wine/Proserpine” breaks off at the point where internal rhymes seep in, as in “nightshade/grape”, “rosary/yew-berries”, “beetle/be/Psyche” etc.
As the speaker cautions against falling under the influence of intoxicating substances, his own grasp on sobriety seems to wobble, concluded by the triple echo of “downy/drowsily/drown” – an indication of the state that he’s likely to be in at this moment.
But his message remains staunch: don’t give in to the allure of death, because it is but a momentary “shade”, and such “shade to shade”, as they flit from one mood to another, always smother and “drown” our “wakeful anguish”, which is always temporary.
Like the variegated rhyme in this strophe, human emotions are also ever-changing. Nothing stays for the long term, and so nothing is worth ending one’s life for. Life ends soon enough anyway (in the grand scheme of time, that is.)
But it’s not just stoic avoidance that the speaker advocates; to counter melancholy we must strive to see the silver lining in our bouts of sadness.
In a simile-cum-personification, Keats refers to “the melancholy fit as “fall[ing]/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud”. While melancholy may weigh on “the droop-headed flowers all,/And hide the green hill in an April shroud”, its departure brings about new cause for joy, as the speaker counsels –
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed 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.
There’s a poignant simplicity in the objects that offer relief. And yet, “a morning rose”, “the rainbow of the salt sand-wave” and “the wealth of globed peonies” don’t come about without the preceding showers of melancholy.
Flowers don’t blossom without rain, and rainbows only appear after rainfalls. Juxtaposed against the mythical allusions in the first stanza to River Lethe (from which souls drink and forget everything about their past life), Proserpine the goddess of wine, and Psyche the goddess of the soul, the second stanza’s natural imagery of these earthly signs of life appear much more worthy of celebration as wholesome companions to mankind.
The reference to “thy mistress” is also telling as a counterpoint to Proserpine and Psyche: despite her propensity to “rich anger”, she is at least real, material – indeed, human, with a “soft hand” to hold and “peerless eyes” to “feed deep, deep upon”. The goddesses, on the other hand, seductive as they are, only push the self towards darkness, not light.
So the antistrophe in this ode hinges upon this chasm between the forces of myth and reality, as well as the realm we choose to root our consciousness in.
Whereas the imaginary world of myth constantly entices, it requires that one give up completely the discernible beauty of life, which for some – the speaker included – is not a worthy sacrifice.
Finally, the epode spells out the inextricable link between Melancholy (here in the third stanza capitalised for the first time) and Beauty – the point being that we can’t have one and not the other, too –
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,
Why does Keats personify “Beauty”, “Joy”, “Pleasure”, “Delight” and “Melancholy” in the last stanza?
Recall the central premise posed in the strophe: we can’t ever control when sadness strikes, but we can control our perspective on how sadness affects us. Emotions, like humans, take on a ‘life’ of their own, and with their whimsical agency they alone decide when to come and go.
What is certain, however, is that all mortal things pass, and so “Beauty… must die” just as “Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips” must always be “Bidding adieu” to us. The apex of happiness is the beginning of sadness, which is why in “the very temple of Delight” houses “veil’d Melancholy” with “her sovran shrine”.
Delight and Melancholy are but two sides of the same coin, and their endless fusion is what creates beauty in life.
The last four lines crystallise the main appeal of the ode in a string of tortuous, but clarifying, hyperbatons –
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
What does this mean? Melancholy, despite being ‘hidden’ behind Delight, exerts her power and presence through one’s experience of Joy. Where one “burst[s] Joy’s grape against his palate fine” – a Dionysian reference to euphoria, he will also immediately feel a tremendous sense of sadness, because with the bursting of Joy’s grape what follows is the detumescence of emotional highs.
Ultimately, we are in the eternal grasp of Melancholy – one “among her [many] cloudy trophies hung”.
The word “hung”, which rhymes with “none” and “tongue”, also leaves us hanging in a deju vu-esque suspension, as its triple sonic echo transports us back to the “downy/drowsily/drown” triplet in the first stanza.
The cyclicality of our journey through this ode, then, also contributes to our interpretation: sadness, beauty, and joy are but different manifestations of the same impulse, recycled from the singular desire to register our existence by feeling and experiencing something intense in the world.
And it is this desire that the Keatsian ode celebrates; for ‘Ode on Melancholy’ is neither wholly public nor private, addressed to an external “you” but delivered in a meditative mode; it is neither exalted nor depressed, but calibrated to a tone which fuses Boethian consolation, Stoic acceptance and Romantic lyricism.
To read my analysis of other poems, check out my posts below:
- Guilt in poetry: Reading Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and William Wordsworth’s ‘Extract from The Prelude’
- Freedom in poetry: Reading Sylvia Plath’s ‘Pheasant’ and Ted Hughes’ ‘Hawk Roosting’
- Comparing love poetry (II): Reading Philip Larkin’s ‘Wild Oats’ and Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Valentine’
- Comparing love poetry (I): Reading Thomas Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’ and Maura Dooley’s ‘Letters from Yorkshire’