Keats Odes Essays About Life

The poet in an askance note begins to question what they are and what their reality is. The poet continues to ask –

What men gods are these? What maidens loth? What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

On the basis of these questions, the poet begins to explain the significance of those things engraved on the urn and gives a sharp contrast between these things and the reality of life.

Once again, in the short span of our life, we have sorrows and leaden-eyed despair. Here men sit and hear each other groan. In the dreary intercourse if daily life man gets nothing but the weariness, the fever and fret. This fever of this world hangs upon the beating of man’s heart.

But the world of art is above this fever and fret of this world. Here beauty is permanence and she always keeps her luster. Everything is fair in the world of art. The fact behind this is that art absorbs Time as if art grows with the time: -

“Thou foster-child of silence and slow-time”.

The bold lover would always remain young and the lady-love would ever be charming and fair. Because they have not consumpted love. The fulfillment of love is sign of decay. So, the poet says:-

“She can not fade, though than thou hast not thy bliss

For ever wilt thou love, she be fair. ”

Again, the fever of the world has no hand to touch the artistic beauty of the urn. The world of art is far above “all breathing human passion” and there is no “burning fore head” and “parching tongue” in the world of art.: -

“All breathing human passion far above,

That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloyed.

A burning fore head and a parching tongue”

Hence, everything in the world of art is ever new, ever warm. There is no change in the world of art.

The poet while explaining the function of art and its relation to life, introduces the supreme function of art, - its power of evoking imagination. To an artist, a work of art evokes – imagination, and it haunts him with an unquenchable thirst to give birth a fragment of immense idea ,of what, human brain can conceive into reality.

“Heard melodies are sweet but those unheard

Are sweeter.”

The music of the piper engraved on the urn, widens the scope of our imagination. In fact, it throws us into an incessant channel of creativity. Thus, when imagination

cast on an art , finds a concrete shape, the beauty gets translated into reality .And such reality derived from art is eternal source of affection. The Urn herself unlocks this mystery to the poet ,-the artist : “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty”

The worth of art to an artist is that, art evokes imagination. And imagination transcends the artist to the world of beauty. And again when the artist becomes one with beauty, he realizes what truth is:

“As imagination seizes, beauty must be truth.”

Therefore we may conclude that art is an exhibition of idea through an image which evokes imagination and it rests on the concept of eternity. It remains unaffected by the claws of Time, where life is affected and gets deprecated. Thus, Keats very impeccably shows the mortality of life and the immortality of art in his Ode

On a Grecian Urn.

Subrata Ray .Uluberia .Mousumipara .West Bengal .India .


1. Introduction

2. Imagery in “Ode on Melancholy”
2.1. A warning as a starting point
2.2. The “true” antithesis
2.3. All- embracing in the third stanza

3. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Melancholy is a topic which obsesses people and especially literature for centuries. It is widely and contradictorily discussed by all sorts of poets differing in each period. The contradiction reaches till today. The stereotype is deeply rooted in our minds when we address someone who seems to be sadly absorbed in thoughts scornfully as “melancholic” or “melodramatic”. In our present culture it is mostly important to be joyful, funny and smiling all the time. Melancholy is consequently declared as something negative linked with sadness, misery and even death-wish. Moreover, it is connected with depression which equals it as a disease. This misunderstanding happened throughout centuries and is presented in literature as true and false melancholy. The false melancholy corresponds with the negative picture of it and is linked with the gloomy graveyard-poetry. Keats in contrast to that is a representative of the true melancholy. Thus he dedicated one of his famous “odes” explicitly to melancholy. “Keats’ concept of melancholy [...]focuses on the intense experience of life’s beauty” (Farrel 1989: 76)The picture he evokes is that of true, experienced melancholy. In the following I would like to show how Keats creates his definition of true melancholy through the images he uses in “Ode on Melancholy”.

2. Imagery in “Ode on Melancholy”

2.1. A warning as a starting point

The first stanza gives an introduction to the theme ‘melancholy’, starting with stereotypical elements. In regard to the whole poem it therefore is the thesis to begin with.

John Keats lists symbols of the classical mythology associated with the stereotype melancholy. All of them are dark and deathly which creates a gloomy atmosphere. Moreover, they belong to the graveyard-poetry, signifying false melancholy in terms of Keats. Therefore, the stanza shows a clear negation of all of the death symbols.

The ten lines of the stanza can be rhythmically divided into two parts. The first four lines are alternating, whereas the last six form two terzets. Keats uses a very classical rhyme scheme in contrast to his varying metre. Thus emphasizes his urgency of negation and on the other hand the rhyme scheme connects the lines closer even if they differ in symbolisation and content.

To convey the rejection of melancholy centred around death the author uses a lot of metaphors representing demise and decay. Many of them are so deeply linked with a certain opinion of melancholy in our culture it is hard to identify them as symbols or metaphors.

Although the first stanza functions as the introductory thesis it is interesting to see that is denied just from the beginning, as the very first line starts with a triple negation (“ No, no, go not...” ). This repetition of denial continues till line nine. In the first line it expresses the importance and urgency of the following, it is almost a warning which is underlined by the unusual sentence structure “go not” instead of a correct “don’t go”. After these triple negation follows where actually shall not be gone: “Lethe” is mentioned, a poisonous river in the underworld of the Greek mythology. “[It] is associated both with forgetfulness and death [...]” (Farrell 1989: 77) a motif which is repeated in different metaphors throughout the whole stanza.

The second image starts again with a denial and uses an enjambment to connect the lines and speed on the reading. It transforms linguistically the “twist” which also contrasts the “tight-rooted” in the second line semantically. “Wolfsbane” in the beginning of that line is yet another symbol for death, intensified by the “poisonous wine” (line 2). This metaphor can be seen as symbol of the whole stanza, it illustrates perfectly death, forgetfulness and apathetic senses. Normally, wine is cheering but it also brings forgetting which is in a form death. Moreover, it distracts your senses. So, wine can be poisonous in itself. Nevertheless, it is clearly stated and doubles the effect indeed it even more emphasizes the deathly aspect. The importance of the symbol becomes more plainly through the references to wine with “ruby grape” (line 4) and “yew-berries” (line 5). It shows the awareness of the author of the danger of temptation of deathly attraction, as alcohol often stands for seduction.

The start of the third line “nor suffer” contrasts “go” and “twist” (line 1) because here even the passive approach towards false melancholy is disapproved not alone the active like before. This semantic passive is linguistically constituted by “to be kissed” (line 3). Keats clearly shows his disapproval towards death-centred melancholy whereas it is actively searched or passively endured. The picture “pale forehead to be kisses” (line 3) is again a variation of “poisonous wine” whereby pale is associated with sickness and kiss represents the positive side like the wine. The latter also refers to the sense of taste.

Looking at the fourth line, the symbol of “nightshade” stands again for death but like “Wolfsbane” (line 2) it is explicitly negative. Ever more, here the literally meaning is also dark. Dividing the word into “night” and “shade” the parts alone are associated with gloom, in their form together the poisonous aspect is added. Also the “night” is a contrast to “pale” before in regard to the sense of seeing. “Ruby grape of Proserpine” in the same line represents the former state of “poisonous wine” and is again deathly. The colour ruby contrasts to pale before and stands for beauty and life. But it is ambivalent in itself as the jewel ruby is hard, cold and lifeless. Here the grape repeats the soft and warm aspect just to convert into poison.

Line five captures the syntactic structure of the first line with “make not” and uses again active. Furthermore, it does not have or begin with an enjambment which emphasizes a new inner section. Consequently, the line introduces references to church which bring medieval allusions instead of the classical before. A new lever is achieved, not alone senses are addressed but with “rosary” the mind is added through the meaning of church, belief and worshiping. However, the earlier denial states that worship of melancholy as a death-wish is not supported but the worship per se is.

The next line switches again to a more passive form, “let” contrasts “make”. Through “beetle” and “death-moth” are animals as a new aspect added now not only mythology and plants are used. “Death-moth” again can be seen as pun of death-mouth which would refer to the sense of taste and the wine-motif. Nevertheless, both beetle and death-moth are symbols for decay.

The re-starting enjambments introduce a new idea in line seven. Here the first allusion to true melancholy happens: “your mournful psyche” declares melancholy as state of the soul not just an uncertain emotion or a condition of the body. Previously, the stanza concerns only about death of the body. In contrast to the picture of true melancholy, the second half of the line appeals to the stereotypical side. The “downy owl” is a typical symbol for a gloomy atmosphere, night and darkness. Although “downy” is positive and alludes to the sense of feel it is overwhelmed by the rest of the stanza (see Farrell 1989: 78). Through the use of the assonance “ow” both are connected.

The following enjambment binds the second terzet to the previous. Moreover, it points out the urgency to not choose the owl as “a partner”, some shall not take the darkness into their life as the use of “partner” suggests. However, “sorrow’s mysteries” in the second half pick up again the “ow”-assonance and speak of an emotional condition. Besides, “mysteries” refer to the mythological and dark symbols before which are combined with “your” – meaning the reader – personal concern.

The last two lines classical comment on the preceding as a lot of Shakespeare’s sonnets (see Farrell 1989:79). Additionally, they emphasize the importance as the beginning thesis because they generalize the ideas and symbols mentioned before and lead to the second stanza. Thirdly, both lines connect between the embracement of the dark side and the false melancholy and the accompaniment of the deadening of senses.

The repetition of “shade” refers to “nightshade” before but also doubling effect of shadowing and darkness. Together with the ongoing assonance of “ow” in “drowsily” and “drown” the repetition evokes a monotony which leads into sleepiness. Thus, however, is a variation of the previously forgetfulness and death and a symbol for the false melancholy. The monotony stops with the first definition of real melancholy: “the wakeful anguish of the soul” (line 10). “Wakeful” contrasts the sleepiness before whereas the second mentioning of “soul” emphasizes the role melancholy has for it. To experience true melancholy you need awakened senses, false would “drown” you together with your soul (see Farrell 1989: 79). The effect of wakening is linguistically produced through the variety in metre and the enjambments mentioned above.

Summed up, the whole stanza warns for the danger of thinking of melancholy as something related or being death-wishing and –worshiping. Especially the last words as a definition of the true melancholy are the introduction to the second stanza.

2.2. The “true” antithesis

The second stanza presents the true melancholy especially combined and illustrated by nature which is so typical for the romanticism. Consequently, most of the symbols are happenings and scenes of nature and spring. Keats hereby states that melancholy can be just found in nature and “is thus a natural phenomenon [...], it cannot be artificially created nor can it be avoided” (Farrell 1989: 81). Besides the aspect of nature also emotions like love (“mistress” (line 7)) and “anger” (line 7) are added which completes the definition of melancholy as positive sadness or sweet pain. The stanza mixes positive symbols with sad ones but it does not lead into a death-wish instead you gain of it (see line 10).

The stanza is obviously declared as the antithesis to stanza one as it starts with “but”. Beyond, the repetition of the negation is replaced by a repetition of “or” which lists variations in experiencing nature melancholic. The rest of the outer form stays the same to connect the two stanzas, therefore it consists of ten lines and rhyme scheme is again abab cdecde.

The theme of the stanza, the true melancholy, is clarified by the first definite mentioning of “melancholy”. The second half “fit shall fall sudden” (line 1+2) alludes that melancholy comes suddenly, it cannot be forced. The picture of falling is displayed by the only enjambment in the stanza.

However, the second line adds again a religious aspect: “heaven” aims at once at God which states melancholy as something good even holy and remembers of a fallen angel. It also opposes stanza one with its symbols of death and underworld pointing upwards and to a life afterwards. Compared to the divinely aspect the simile “like a weeping cloud” in the second half refers to nature but is still in the air. Furthermore, it connects the three most important motifs of stanza two: heaven, nature and soul. Namely, because “weeping” with its different meaning wet and sad captures nature and mood whereas “cloud” is in the sky and leads to the rainy April later.

The third line constitutes melancholy as helping with sadness and not being the reason of it (“fosters the droop-headed flowers”). In contrast to the first stanza melancholy here brings life not death. The “droop-headed flowers” are opposites in themselves as they stand for sad and positive. Nevertheless, they picture an image of flowers after a sudden rain and melancholy helps them lift up.

The symbol of spring is repeated in line four: “hides the green hill”. Here the colour green is the colour of hope which is indeed hidden but it can also be seen as protection. The following “April shroud” set the contrast between life and death. April as a month of spring stands for overwhelming life, shroud belongs to death but it also hides and protects the dead from the decay. April again unifies positive and negative, it is the unsteadies and rainiest month of spring, therefore “cloud”, “flowers” and “green” are all hyponyms of it. Moreover, it represents melancholy which is positive sweet but also sad and painful at once.

The fifth line refers to the “sorrow” mentioned in stanza one. In addition to that it definite mentions the personal mood of the reader although now connects that with nature and natural symbols. It introduces to the list of ways to react to true melancholy or better how to receive it through nature.

Now in the next two lines are different symbols of nature used to convey the experience of melancholy. Instead of darkness and death everything is full of life, light and colour. All of them are alike positive which is linguistically illustrated by the anaphora “or”. The natural symbolisation in line five is “morning rose” which has a double effect. At first sight it is a plain positive motif “rose” a symbol for love, beauty and life and “morning” hints at the rising sun, light and hope. Yet there is no rose without a thorn and morning can be seen as a pun with mourning referring to the mournful psyche. The image is as ambivalent as melancholy itself. Eventually, in both symbols is the thought of decay because it is looked at the climax of perfection, the next thing to happen is decomposition.

Taking up again a similar symbol of nature, the “rainbow” in line six represents luck, joy and hope. It also shows every natural colour and therefore stands for the variety of nature. In spite of that it is a very unsteady and ephemeral phenomenon. The second half of the line works differently. Instead of the air it points at the ocean even though not with the endless water but with sand which is the last transformation of our body. The “salt sand-wave” is connected by the help of the consonance “s” which brings together the sand with the salt of a normal sea-wave. The image alludes to the symbol of a wave as something always repeating in its highest state of movement. Like the “morning rose” or the “rainbow” it is soon to vanish but at the moment it is most beautiful. “True melancholy is thus founded on the insight into the dialectics of life”(Farrell 1989: 82). However, it also links the sense of seeing to the one of taste (“salt”).

The “wealth” in line seven repeats the endless and everlasting nature which dies and rebirth throughout the time. It shows the contrast between the climax of beauty and its death coming alongside. Every natural beauty holds its death in itself, as every living has to die. Both belong together and cannot be seen without.

The eighth line and the last terzet now brings humans to the natural experience which is equal to nature as still the same anaphora “or” is used. “Mistress” symbols a lady or love definitely somebody who has a higher status than the reader which is emphasized by “rich” later and the previous “wealth”. However, the image “rich anger” combines wealth with emotion it is sudden like the April shower without any artificial assistance. Human can show explosive feelings and are natural. In combination with the natural phenomena it states how beautiful real emotions in their pureness are. So again beauty, energy and briefness are related (Farrell 1989: 83).

“Imprison her soft hand” in line nine pictures the opposite of a prison with hard bars with the softness of the lovely mistress. Contrary to that the second half “and let her rave” lets her free and do what she wants, just the need to get near her from the “imprison” comes along. It is an alternation from active to passive, the want of experiencing is great. In addition to that, “rave” is linked with anger as a sudden burst of emotion.

The last line emphasizes the desire for natural experience. The assonance in “feed deep, deep” and “peerless” and moreover the repetition of “deep” binds them together and points out the profundity of feelings, the need and intensity to enjoy beauty, nature, emotion and sadness all together. It also shows a reference to all senses: see (“peerless eyes”), taste (“feed”), hear (“rave”) and touch (“soft”). Therefore, it can be seen that melancholy experiences beauty with all senses all of them stimulated and stimulating. Melancholy is producing and is produced and belongs together with natural beauty. You can experience them only with awakened senses done by melancholy and just in that case you can feel real melancholy. It is clearly the antithesis to stanza one: melancholy cannot be found in the darkness and in death but in life because it makes you feel it intensified: “life is the source of and the key to melancholy” (Farrell 1989: 83).

2.3. All- embracing in the third stanza

As the last lines of the second stanza implies the last stanza generalizes themes of the previous stanza and presents melancholy as a combination of joy and sadness which is worth to be worshipped. Moreover, it functions as a synthesis bringing the first and second stanza together and draws consequences and conclusions out of them. Like the ones before the third stanza consists of ten lines but has the first irregularity in its rhyme scheme. Thus, in the second terzet switches the rhyme from cde to dce which connects the same rhyme lines more intensively and lets the reader focus more on the terzet.

Looking now at the imagery, the first line is clearly the most important statement because it states the main topic of the poem: the importance of beauty in relation to melancholy. Beauty and death go always hand in hand, beauty exists of its coming death, the knowledge of decay let us feel things as beautiful, “The experience of Beauty is a revelation” (Holloway 1952: 63).Linguistically the relevance of the line is achieved by putting it at first and even more the repetition of “beauty” and the syntactical cross structure mirrored again by “beauty”. It leaves the question who “she” is but considering the fact that the stanza is meant as the synthesis and the poem is dedicated to melancholy it is melancholy itself. Nevertheless, it also refers to the mistress of stanza two and her attributes and therefore reaches a connection between the last two stanzas. This interaction is repeated by “dwells” referring to spring and life and even widened to stanza one by “die” which pick up the death motif.

“Joy” in the second life refers to spring in the second stanza and is together with beauty one of the aspects of melancholy, moreover, “the perfection of [...] the ode lie in [...] the single antithesis which unites Melancholy to Joy”(Empson 1930: 147) The personification with “hand” and “lips” repeats the allusion to the senses of feel and taste. Additionally, the mentioning of “lips” introduces the strong motif of mouth which can be found throughout the whole stanza. It applies to the sense of taste, feel and further on the possibility to speak and kiss.

In line three starts the repetition and listening of images presented by the present continuous which points to the active again. The first “bidding adieu” represents a variation of death displayed as goodbye and separation which still holds a note of regret and eagerness (“bidding”) in it. Deeping that image “aching “pleasure” sums up the essence of true melancholy, it combines sweet sadness and points out that beauty and joy inextricably linked with pain and death. They cannot go without each other and their link is melancholy.

The beginning of line four “turning to poison” is just another variation of “aching pleasure”. It just adds the link to stanza one by using “poison” and therefore represents the negative form of the symbol mouth. In contrast to that, “while the bee-mouth sips” is the positive half. “Bee” alludes to spring in stanza two and beyond that to flying and freedom. The link to honey deepens the double mentioning of “mouth” and “sips”. Nevertheless, in that case the honey will become poisonous, so it remembers of the certainty of decay of everything.

Line five brings a new abstract level of generalisation. “Temple” refers to mysteries and mythologies presented in stanza one which are classical, too. There is also again the religious allusion and the repetition of worship. Looking at the whole image “temple of delight” belongs together with joy and beauty. All of it declares melancholy as definitely not death-centred like presented in stanza one but being home somewhere positive and full of light.

Deepening the aspect of worship, the next line alludes with “veiled melancholy” to the hiding in stanza two but also the covering of woman in religious context. Furthermore, it is the second actual mentioning of melancholy. The second part of the line “sevran shrine” emphasized by the consonance displays again melancholy as something to worship which belongs to heaven and is to be seen like a mistress or goddess.

This idea is varied in line seven by “save him” because you can only be saved by self experience of life and melancholy through all senses. “Save” in that context refers to the ability to confront life whereas the aspect of senses is displayed by “strenuous tongue” which picks up again the motif mouth.

Line eight refers with “joy’s grape” to stanza one and repeats with “burst” the emotional outburst of the mistress in stanza two. Bringing the image together they build the climax of the beauty of a grape and an emotion which is soon to be destroyed. Thus, when the grape is bursting in his mouth (“his palate fine”) it will be vanished although you will still feel the taste of it.

The sense of taste and the associated motif mouth is widened in the penultimate line. “Soul shall taste” inherit a reference to stanza one, it also comes from nature back to the state of soul but unifies all of that through the use of senses. As mentioned above, “taste” as variation of motif mouth holds always all senses in one: you feel everything you eat, smell and see it before you actually taste it. Although it is impossible to taste “sadness” at first sight it is a hint at the experience through all senses, the mixture of body and emotion. Moreover, “sadness” is the contrast to joy, pleasure and delight but in melancholy all belongs together (“aching pleasure”). Every pleasure has its end which brings sadness. The link between delight and sadness is linguistically achieved by the use of the same rhyme scheme. The whole image “soul shall taste sadness” presents a synaesthesia emphasized by the consonance. Soul, body and emotion are summed up and all together. Therefore, melancholy is a state of soul but experienced by your senses which means nature and performed by your emotions. “Might” is another hint to the mistress and melancholy as a goddess, something which is higher and powerful. You cannot escape her if you once feel her.

Consequently, the last line hints that some will belong to her, to her “cloudy trophies”. It is also a reference to cloud and April of stanza two and the trophies of stanza one. “Experiencing melancholy remains ambivalent to the end” ( Farrell 1989: 86) including soul, senses, the experience of beauty, nature, life and death, a thing nobody can escape but which cannot be forced to come or stay, melancholy will heighten your life experience but just through the reminder of death.

3. Conclusion

As the three stanzas show melancholy cannot be found in death-centred myths but only in life’s beauty. Unlike critics throughout the time say melancholy is not an illness belonging to the gloomy graveyard-poetry. Melancholic’s does not avoid life and worship death instead they accept death as an important part of life which intensifies beauty. Because every beauty will decay and melancholy admires the border between both. Whereas the false melancholy sees and feels nothing but the wish to die true melancholy awakens the senses and enjoys the nature more than others. Life is not an everlasting time of joy, death and sadness are just as that a part of it. There is no light without darkness and to see how beautiful life is there is the knowledge of death needed. Melancholy is not a temporary emotional fluctuation; it is a way of experience life and enjoying. But still if you feel melancholy you cannot show it to someone who does not understand it, it is only understood by those who feel it themselves. Keats poem transforms all his feelings and experience into a perfect form delighting everyone who claims himself a melancholic. Therefore, “Ode on Melancholy [...] represents one of the most obviously decadent developments of Beauty-addiction [...]” ( Leavis 1936: 71).

Works Cited

Empson, William (1930). “The Ambiguity of ‘Melancholy’.” John Keats: Odes A casebook. Ed. G.S. Fraser. Houndmill etc: Palgrave. 146-150

Farrell, Jennifer (1989). Keats – The Progress of the Odes. Unity and Utopia. Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang GmbH.

Holloway, John (1952). “The Odes of Keats.” Critics on Keats. Readings in Literary Criticism. Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 59-69

Keats, John (1820). “Ode on Melancholy.” Romanticism. An Anthology. Ed. Duncan Wu. Oxford etc: Blackwell Publishing. 1400-1401

Leavis, F.R. (1936). “A Revaluation of Keats.” Critics on Keats. Readings in Literary Criticism. Ed. Judith O’Neill. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 70-78


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