AD's English Literature : Critical Analysis of John Keats' "Ode on Melancholy" :Serene Acceptance of the Whole of Life, its Pathos and its Piety

Friday, August 3, 2012

Critical Analysis of John Keats' "Ode on Melancholy" :Serene Acceptance of the Whole of Life, its Pathos and its Piety

Among all the diverse odes of John Keats, the Ode on Melancholy is the only one which approximates in thought and style to the maturity of his final poem the Fall of Hyperion. Unlike Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn this Ode does not merely explore ways of escape from the painful realities of life. It is one poem which does not shun reality but rather exhorts man to experience and even relish reality both its joys and its sorrows. A short poem of only there stanzas it rivals Ode to Autumn in its vivid power of expression the sublime truth that ' truth is beauty’. Instead of flying from life into the elusive world of the natural nightingale or the delusive world of the artful Urn in Ode on Melancholy seizes on life itself.

The first stanza is a powerful declamation against the human tendency to fly into death or into an obliteration of consciousness. But this poem gives the lie to the statement that ' more than ever seems it rich to die [Ode to a Nightingale]:
                                    No, no, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
                                    Wolf's bane . . . . .

Keats enjoys the reader not to partake of those poisonous substances which lead to the end of consciousness ' Lethe ' is the river of oblivion in hell. ‘Wolf’s bane ' is a kind of poison which can kill a wolf immediately, and ' nightshade ' is another deadly poison which reduces men to shadows or ghostly beings. The ' ruby grape of Proserpine ' in spite of its all alluring crimson colour, is related to the queen of the underworld suggesting its fatal quality. There are yet other symbols of death such as the beetle, the death moth and the dowry owl. But the poet warns that these will only make a person drowsy, and that ' the wakeful ' stale is much better than such oblivion.
The second stanza begins with ' but ', suggestive that one must turn away from ' the desire of oblivion '. He begins by treating melancholy as a disease as a ' fit '. Yet, even though it is a ' weeping cloud’ and even though it covers up the entire landscape with a ' shroud ' implying death, Keats also suggests the power of melancholy to regenerate man. He does this by suggesting the natural analogy of a cloud which in spite of its dark and foreboding clouds soaks the thirsty earth with revitalizing rain. The black clouds can thus generate greenery by producing the plants and flowers with nutrition. The poet suggests that man should avail of the opportunity provided by melancholy to desist from action and indulge in intense perception. It is in a melancholy mood that one should perceive the beauty of the rose, of the globed peonies or even of the angry mistress. In normal or casual circumstances, he right has passed them by without paying any serious attention. But the melancholy state ensures a fuller experience.

The third and final stanza deals with the Shakespearean realization that joy and woe are woven fine. He does this by not only pointing out that all beauty must end in death, but also that the personified joy is always  ' bidding adieu '. Pleasure is invariably ' aching ', suggesting that like in Shelley’s Skylark, 'our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught '. Just as the more of the flower may be turned to honey by the bee, it is also turned into poison for stinging. What Keats suggests is that the two are correlated, that one implies the other:
                             Ay in the very temple of delight
                            ' vacl 'd Melancholy has her Sovran shrine .
Melancholy is a deity, though she is seen and experienced by only those who as have a more refined and sensitive nature, those who are veritable poets. Sadness has its own might, though this can be experienced only by the connoisseur. The final phrase, ‘cloudy trophies hung ‘suggests the inextricable union of joy and sorrow Pleasure and melancholy. 'Trophy' suggests triumph, but ' Cloudy ' suggests and partake of both without reaching out for any of them exclusively. Thus Ode on Melancholy is a serene acceptance of the whole of life, its pathos and its piety. 
Ardhendu De                    

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