Ode to Melancholy: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Ode to Melancholy

ProsperinaNotice how much death imagery there is at the start of the poem. ‘Lethe’ refers to the waters of forgetfulness in Hades. Prosperina is the wife of Pluto and thus queen of the Underworld. ‘Nightshade’ and ‘wolf’s-bane’ are poisonous plants. The ‘yew’ is a dark, funereal-looking tree usually planted in churchyards due to its longevity, supposed mystical powers and because it was needed to make bows but was poisonous, so could not be grown in areas used for animals.
The second stanza, by contrast, contains images of beauty on which one should ‘glut thy sorrow’. These images are characterised either by their fleeting quality (‘rainbow’, ‘cloud’, ‘sand-wave’, ‘anger’) or by their dark associations (‘April shroud’ and the idea of imprisoning the mistress’s ‘soft hand’. Thus images of beauty are intermixed with images of melancholy.
The final stanza personifies Melancholy as a goddess who dwells alongside the other ‘deities’ – Beauty, Joy and Pleasure. Each of these three, though having positive connotations, is yoked with a negative association – death, parting and poison. In antithesis, the negative impact of Melancholy is associated with the man of ‘palate fine’ (that is, the sensitive, imaginative artist). The image Keats uses here is of a connoisseur of fine wine, through which he suggests a deep and discriminating appreciation of the wonders of life itself, in all its transitory glory. This is the sacrifice demanded by Melancholy as a trophy delineating her power, hung in her ‘sovran shrine’.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Ode to Melancholy

  • Why do you think there is so much death imagery at the beginning of the poem?
  • How does the second stanza mix images of beauty and melancholy?
    • What is the effect of this mixing?
  • Why do you think Melancholy is presented as a female figure? 
    • How do you respond to this?
  • Why do you think the beloved’s anger is presented as one of the spectacles upon which the seeker of pleasure may feed?

Themes in Ode to Melancholy

Keats states in the ode’s final stanza that ‘Beauty .. must die’. This is not to be forgotten by drinking from the waters of Lethe and turning our eyes away from reality, but instead celebrated as the essence of life. The awareness of mortality should make us more appreciative of fleeting beauty rather than less. 
Keats urges his readers to avoid two extremes. The first is to escape into melancholy – a sort of immature, life-denying despondency. It is better to embrace the beauties of art and nature. These are sources of great joy; however they too cannot be the total solution to life’s problems. 
Keats harmonises the two reactions by finding in the presence of eternal beauty the source of the deepest melancholy, since the former emphasises just how fleeting human existence is. In other words, if you want to encourage your melancholy mood, do not look for things usually thought of as sad. Instead look on the most beautiful things which will provoke melancholy thoughts because they hint at the everlasting principle of beauty but are themselves bound to fade because they derive from an ephemeral world. 
Keats realises that it is when a man most deeply loves the beautiful, when he most exploits his capacity for joy, that he is most fully aware of the bitter contrast between the real and the ideal. Indeed full consciousness of this contrast is deeply painful. Imagination and sensitivity, qualities which all true artists must have in abundance, lead to suffering. If he loved beauty less, he would care less that he could not hold on to it for long.

Investigating themes in Ode to Melancholy

  • ‘Keats urges his readers to avoid two extremes.’ What are the dangers inherent in each?
  • What does Keats see as being so wrong about the ‘Lethe’ of forgetfulness?
  • The themes of the poem bring together feelings of pleasure and the ways in which they are intermingled with pain and sorrow. How does this yoking together of opposites compare with other Keats’ poems?
  • Why is it that the person who has the greatest capacity for joy is most open to melancholy thoughts?
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