Ode to Melancholy: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis on Ode to Melancholy

Melancholy by William BlakeMelancholy is another word for depression, a feeling of sadness, of being dejected or mournful. The poem addresses the problem of how to deal with it. The first stanza is concerned with what the sufferer should not do. They should not ‘go to Lethe’ and try to forget their feelings. Suicide is also no solution; neither should the melancholic become obsessed with symbols of death such as the beetle, the death’s-head moth or the owl. All these will only deaden, not confront the pain.
Rather, the sufferer should be as alert as possible to the full extent of their suffering.
The second stanza then turns to what the sufferer should do. They should immerse themselves in natural beauty, drinking it in from nature or from the eyes of their beloved.
The explanation for this advice comes in the final stanza: pleasure and pain are closely linked. All things on this earth are doomed to fade and die. The shrine of Melancholy is inside the ‘temple of Delight’. However, it is visible only to the person who has such imagination and sensitivity that s/he can penetrate into the inner mysteries of Melancholy to see that it really resides in the centre of joy. The one who is capable of such insight shall ‘taste the sadness of [Melancholy’s] might’ and shall be hung as a trophy in Melancholy’s temple.

Commentary on Ode to Melancholy

Keats had been reading Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy shortly before he wrote this poem in 1819. That work, published in 1621, deals with the causes and symptoms of melancholy as well as its cures and the specific melancholies resulting from love and religion. Keats’ friend Charles Brown had given him a two-volume edition of the work. 
However, in his ode Keats dismisses the traditional cures which Burton lists in the first 150 pages of Volume 2. 
Unlike the earlier Romantic poet, Coleridge, Keats vehemently rejects drugs as a solution. Rather, he thinks that the soul must keep itself awake in order to accept its anguish, the depression of spirit which Keats knew so well. When ‘the melancholy fit shall fall’, the sufferer must remain focused on everything around them and take an extra enjoyment in symbols of beauty such as the rose, the peony and ‘the rainbow of salt sand-wave’.


Lethe: the river of forgetfulness in Hades, the kingdom of the dead
Wolf’s-bane: aconite, a poisonous plant
nightshade: a plant with poisonous red berries
Proserpine: the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She had to spend half of each year as the consort of Pluto, ruler of the Underworld. However, she was allowed to return to earth each spring.
yew-berries: poisonous berries of an evergreen tree commonly found in graveyards
death-moth: the death’s head hawk-moth, which gets its name from the skull-like markings on its wings
beetle: refers to replicas of the large black beetle, the scarab, which were often used by Egyptians in their tombs as a symbol of resurrection
Psyche: the soul, sometimes represented in ancient times as a butterfly or moth, fluttering out of the mouth of a dying man. The allusion may also be to the death’s head moth, which has skull-like markings on its back. 
sorrow’s mysteries: ritual worship of the goddess Melancholy
globed peonies: The peony is a shrubby plant cultivated for its globe-like, showy flowers.
She: The first word of stanza 3 refers to the goddess Melancholy rather than ‘thy mistress’ (line 18). Keats may have been thinking here of the way in which Milton personifies Melancholy in his poem L’Allegro and Il Penseroso.
cloudy trophies: objects which commemorate victory in battle, such as the helmets and banners that were displayed in churches (or classical temples).

Investigating commentary on Ode to Melancholy

  • What do you understand ‘melancholy’ to be in the context of this poem? 
  • What is its literary significance?
  • According to medieval medicine, melancholy was one of the four humours or bodily fluids which had an important effect on a person’s character and mood. Try to find some references to melancholy in the works of Chaucer and compare Keats’ use of the term here.
  • What advice does Keats give to the sufferer?
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