Ode on Melancholy

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;
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 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 globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Imprison 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
Veiled 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.

Always a comfort, this one. One to turn to when, yes, the melancholy attacks. Like the previous Keats poem on the Hot-Doll Pages, I did this at school, and our class didn't quite get to where our teacher wanted us to go. Well, education doesn't end with schooling. Onwards!

The first stanza is laden with the words "no", "not" and "nor". NO we're NOT going to Lethe, for sleep is poisonous. The "anguish" is "wakeful" -- quick, alive. You should not look to "drown" it. Because as the second stanza says, Melancholy is sent down from heaven to nourish nature and our natures. "April shroud" pairs life and death together -- they are one. The "weeping cloud" "hides" the "green hill", it doesn't obliterate it. The two co-exist. Melancholy's treasures ("glut", "wealth", "rich") should be fed on. They are impermanent, and when they go we'll be able to savour greater treasures all the better.

The third stanza introduces us to a bunch of absolutes -- Beauty, Joy, Pleasure -- who die, leave or change. They are unreachable. We live in between them: transients floating from one to the other. Melancholy's shrine lurks in "the very temple of Delight". And those who are able to see it are privileged. We need to taste the sadness in Joy's might, for only then can we fully understand Joy. Again, our "palate" must be "fine", our tongues "strenuous". We should experience ALL emotions to the full, because that way lies true happiness.

There is something a little disconcerting about being hung up as one of Joy's "cloudy trophies". But the entire poem has gone on about how things shift ("cloudy"), and how you can't control them ("hung"). Joy's rewards are ambiguous. I don't think the message of the poem is overturned by this. There is a sense of permanence to being a trophy. Being prepared for change, you gain a kind of fixity. If you are a complete human being, Joy will favour you.

No comments:

Post a Comment