Ode on Melancholy

The central idea of the poem is that melancholy does not dwell in the sad and ugly things of life, not in death and the accompaniments of death, but in everything that is beautiful and joyful.

Word Meanings

Stanza 1

Melancholy – a deep feeling of sadness that lasts for a long time.

Line 1. Lethe – A river in the lower world, by drinking from which the spirits of the dead obtained forgetfulness.

Line 2. Wolf’s bane – The poisonous plant called aconite or monk’s hood. Bane = harm. The plant was anciently used as a bait for wolf traps.

Line 3. Twist – The action of turning or bending with your hand twisting is required for tearing up its root and for extracting its poisonous juice.

Line 4. Tightrooted – Rooted firmly in the ground.

Line 5. Pale – A person having face or skin that is almost white.

Line 6. Nightshade – Yields red bright berries which is the most dangerous of British poisonous plants.

Line 7. Ruby grape – The “ruby grape” refers to the vivid red berries of the woody nightshade.

Line 8. Proserpine – Ceres’ daughter Proserpina was carried off by Pluto, King of the World of the dead. Ceres, who was the goddess of the fruits of the earth, mourned for Proserpina so much that all the harvests were spoiled and Jupiter sent Mercury to fetch Proserpina back. But Proserpina had eaten part of a pomegranate among the shades. As a result, even Mercury could not wholly free her and she spends four months of every year in the nether world and the rest with her mother.

Line 9. Rosary – The string of beads by which Roman Catholics count their prayers.

Line 10. Yew berries – Yew tree is a small tree with dark green leaves and small red berries, associated with graveyards.

Line 11. Beetle – Beetle lives in walls and woodwork generally, and by drumming with its head produces a melancholy sound of rapid tapping, believed by many to be a presage of the death of some person in the house.

Line 12. Death-moth – The death’s head hawk-moth. As it flies it produces a low, melancholy sound.

Line 13. Psyche – Psyche typifies the soul of man. It is generally represented as having the wings of a butterfly.

Line 14. Owl – a bird of ill omen.

Line 15. Downy – covered in soft hair or feathers.

Line 16. Drowsily – In a tired or almost sleepy manner. The feeling caused by death or calamities is of deadening grief, not melancholy. Keats here probably means conscious enjoyment of sorrowful feeling which is associated with everything that is beautiful and joyful.

Line 17. Anguish – Severe pain, mental suffering or unhappiness.

Stanza 2

Line 18. Fit shall fall – the visitation of melancholy mood is sudden.

Line 19. a weeping cloud – pouring rain

Line 20. Foster – to encourage to develop.

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Line 21. The droop-headed flowers all – All those flowers which hang down their heads.

Line 22. April Shroud – a shroud of April rain The word ‘shroud’ which means cover, lends a touch of mystery and sadness.

Line 23. Glut – indulge to the full

Line 24. Morning rose – A rose that blooms in the morning. The morning rose in spring season after a shower looks beautiful but its beauty will fade away.

Line 25. Rainbow of the salt sand-wave – The colours of the rainbow sometimes produced by the play of sunlight on wet sand left by a retreating wave. The rainbow occasionally appears after a shower and its charming reflection will remain for a short while.

Line 26. Wealth – wealth or abundance of flowers

Line 27. Globed – globe-shaped

Line 28. Globed peonies – plants with large globular red or white flowers.

Line 29. Rich – precious, pleasant In Ode to a Nightingale Keats longs for death and says: “Now more than ever seems it rich to die. To cease upon the midnight with no pain” (55-56) This use of rich is characteristic of Keats.

Line 30. Rich anger – a fervent emotion or passion of anger Keats is no doubt thinking of Fanny Brawne, whom he seems to have regarded as an incarnation of his ideal of beauty.

Line 31. Emprison – imprison, to hold her soft hand so that she cannot escape.

Line 32. Rave – Under the influence of some intense passion.

Line 33. Peerless eyes – eyes better than all others. The eyes acquire a lustre under the influence of a strong feeling.

Stanza 3

Line 34. She – Melancholy is personified here

Line 35. Dwells – lives

Line 36. Beauty, Joy – are personified

Line 37. Bidding adieu – saying goodbye

Line 38. Aching – feeling a continuous dull pain.

Line 39. Aching pleasure nigh – Melancholy dwells close to pleasure whose intensity merges into pain. The heartaches when the pleasure is excessive. Satiety in pleasure causes a sad feeling. Pleasure thus turns almost to pain and a feeling of disillusionment.

Line 40. Nigh – nearly

Line 41. The bee – mouth sips – The bee is the emblem of the pleasure seeker. Man is compared to the bee which sucks honey with great avidity. So man also indulges in pleasure with zeal and gusto but the sweetness of joy turns to poison as soon as it is tasted.

Line 42. Temple of Delight – Delight is personified

Line 43. Veil’d Melancholy – The face of the goddess Melancholy is covered or hidden from dull, insensitive souls.

Line 44. Sovran – The older form of “sovereign”

Line 45. Sovran Shrine – The dominating shrine. Melancholy dominates delight. Her face is veiled and she reveals her face only to those who are capable of experiencing intense pleasure.

Line 46. Save – except

Line 47. Strenuous tongue – a vigorous or strenuous pursuit of pleasure will lead to the realization of melancholy.

Line 48. Palate – The top part of the inside of the mouth palate fine is the soft part at the front or back of the palate.

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Line 49. Save him … palate fine – Only those who can appreciate the ecstasies of joy, can appreciate the finest shades of melancholy. The sense of taste and touch contributes to the perception of knowledge.

Line 50. The sadness of her might – the power of her sadness.

Line 51. Cloudy trophies – Sensitive souls of men are compared to clouds which are hung as trophies in the shrine of Melancholy. The clouds suggest the gloom and a feeling of dejection, melancholy.

Detailed Explanation and Summary of Ode on Melancholy

Ode on Melancholy is one of the most important odes of Keats. This is the last of the Odes in the 1820 volume. It reveals that melancholy and truest sadness dwell with beauty and joy, for the pain of suffering is less keen than the pain of knowing that beauty and joy will fade:

“She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching pleasure nigh, …..”

A note of solemnity, deepening now and then to poignant sadness and suffering can be heard through this ode as well as his other great odes.

Keats was reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy about this time when he composed Ode on Melancholy. He admired Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy for its fantastic and forcible images. Burton’s influence on Keat’s style and tone can be noticed in the following lines which were first written as the opening stanza:

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,

And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast

Stitch shrouds together for a sail, with groans

To fill it out, blood-stained and aghast;

Although your rudder be a dragon’s tail,

Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,

Your cordage large uprootings from the skull

Of bald Medusa, certes you would fall

To find the Melancholy – Whether she

Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull,

This stanza was omitted by Keats from the printed version this explains the seeming abruptness of the opening line:

“No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist…”

The main thought of the poem is that only those who are capable of experiencing the extremest joy will know what real melancholy is. The poet suggests that true melancholy does not lie in the sad and ugly things of life, not even in death and the accompaniments of death but in all things that are beautiful and joyful:

“Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine…”

Thus the profound perception of the poet is reflected in this central idea that the source of the deepest melancholy lies in Joy, Delight and in eternal Beauty.

That is why the poet suggests:

“No, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf’s –bane, tight rooted, for its poisonous wine…

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kissed

By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine …

These lines follow naturally from the omitted stanza.

Keats suggests in the opening lines that Melancholy is a delicate feeling and not deadening grief. Those who seek to find melancholy, should not look for her in the places which are commonly supposed to be her dwelling such as Lethe in the lower world, Wolf’s bane, ruby grape of Proserpine, the beetle, the death-moth, your mournful Psyche or the downy owl. The objects, places and creatures named in this stanza are associated with gloom and mourning. The sufferer from melancholy, “A partner is your Sorrow’s mysteries”, will be lulled into drowsiness to forget the pain and suffering of the soul.

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In the second stanza, the poet describes how the fit of melancholy will fall suddenly like a weeping cloud. He uses a simile to describe the pouring rain which will encourage the flowers in the mouth of April to grow. There will be an abundance of flowers with their heads hung down covering the green hill. The tender melancholic feeling lies deep in your heart when you look at April showers, the beauty of the morning rose and the “peerless eyes” of your beloved.

The concluding stanza strongly suggests that a deep feeling of sadness, the “sense of tears in mortal things” is always present in everything that is beautiful and joyful. Melancholy is personified, so are Joy, Pleasure and Delight. She lives close to the pleasure whose keenness merges into pain. A wealth of meaning is compressed in the graphic description of Melancholy as a veiled woman living in the very “temple of Delight”. The poet communicates with his characteristic magnificence of style and imagery that only those can appreciate the finest shades of melancholy who can equally appreciate the ecstasies of joy.

In Ode on Melancholy, each stanza consists of ten iambic pentameter lines, a quatrain of alternate rhymes and a sestet rhyming cde cde. It’s structure is most nearly regular.

1. Iambic: The iambic in which the unaccented syllable precedes the accented eg.


The night / is dark / and i / am far / from home.

2. Pentameter: line of verse with five metrical feet.

Assessment Questions

Q. What are the places which are commonly supposed to be melancholy’s dwelling?
Ans. The places which are commonly supposed to be melancholy’s dwelling are Lethe is in the lower world, Wolf’s-bane, ruby grape of Proserpine, rosary of yew-berries, the beetle, the death-moth mournful Psyche and the dawny owl.

Q. From where shall the melancholy fit fall and what shall it be like?
Ans. The melancholy fit shall fall from heaven and it will be like a weeping cloud.

Q. When melancholy fit falls, what does the poet ask you to do?
Ans. The poet suggests that when the melancholy fit falls suddenly from heaven, indulge your sorrow in April showers, a morning rose and the matchless eyes of your beloved.

Q. Where does Melancholy dwell?
Ans. She dwells with Beauty and Joy in the very temple of Delight.

Q. Who can see the veil’d face of Melancholy?
Ans. The veiled face of Melancholy can be seen only by those who can appreciate the finest shades of melancholy and can equally appreciate the ecstasies of joy.

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