Saturday, March 8, 2014

Keats's Melancholy

Many poets write in praise of beauty. Many have written in praise of God or of a particular person. Poets have written in praise of nature, wisdom, love. But melancholy? Thomas Hardy’s melancholy runs deep, but he offers songs of regret, not of praise. But John Keats actually wrote an “Ode on Melancholy.” It starts as an urgent response to a suicide wish: “No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist / Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine.” The second of its three stanzas still sounds like a trope on the common encourager’s advice to stop and smell the roses. It advises the recipient, in fact, to “glut thy sorrow on a morning rose.” The surprise, though, comes in the third stanza:

She [i.e., Melancholy] dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu . . . .
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.

All beauty and joy must end, and then melancholy surely follows. Therefore, only the soul that knows melancholy, Keats argues, has experienced joy to its end. So go on and burst the grape!

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” the bird’s song makes the poet’s heart ache from “being too happy” that the bird never has to experience human sorrow. Sorrow about being happy about being sad. Keats and Sally Sparrow would get along just fine. After all this, it should come as no surprise then that Keats takes the stereotype of the poet writing in honor of spring and turns it on its daisy-covered head by writing “To Autumn.” After just two stanzas, the reader sees the oranges and reds of the pumpkin patch and the dying leaves, smells the newly reaped hay, feels the dry fading heat on the skin. And then Keats proffers his challenge to the poets of wildflowers and rain in these lines spoken to Autumn:

Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too –

What a shame Keats never got a chance to finish Hyperion. The would-be epic starts with a view of Saturn sitting alone and melancholy, regretting his fall from power at the hand of his son, Jove. After reading his famous odes, I see the frozen, helpless characters from the Grecian urn here. I hear the fading song of the nightingale. I can taste the melancholy grape in the temple of dying beauty. But soon a couple of the Titans start concocting a plan to rise up and take revenge on the ruling gods. What would have happened had Keats lived to write another three thousand lines? On second thought, it’s good that the poem never saw its completion; we might have had a happy ending that spoiled the mood.

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