The three stanzas of the “Ode on Melancholy” address the subject of how to cope with sadness. The first stanza tells what not to do: The sufferer should not “go to Lethe,” or forget their sadness (Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology); should not commit suicide (nightshade, “the ruby grape of Prosperpine,” is a poison; Prosperpine is the mythological queen of the underworld); and should not become obsessed with objects of death and misery (the beetle, the death-moth, and the owl). For, the speaker says, that will make the anguish of the soul drowsy, and the sufferer should do everything he can to remain aware of and alert to the depths of his suffering.
In the second stanza, the speaker tells the sufferer what to do in place of the things he forbade in the first stanza. When afflicted with “the melancholy fit,” the sufferer should instead overwhelm his sorrow with natural beauty, glutting it on the morning rose, “on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,” or in the eyes of his beloved. In the third stanza, the speaker explains these injunctions, saying that pleasure and pain are inextricably linked: Beauty must die, joy is fleeting, and the flower of pleasure is forever “turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.” The speaker says that the shrine of melancholy is inside the “temple of Delight,” but that it is only visible if one can overwhelm oneself with joy until it reveals its center of sadness, by “burst[ing] Joy’s grape against his palate fine.” The man who can do this shall “taste the sadness” of melancholy’s might and “be among her cloudy trophies hung.”
“Ode on Melancholy,” the shortest of Keats’s odes, is written in a very regular form that matches its logical, argumentative thematic structure. Each stanza is ten lines long and metered in a relatively precise iambic pentameter. The first two stanzas, offering advice to the sufferer, follow the same rhyme scheme, ABABCDECDE; the third, which explains the advice, varies the ending slightly, following a scheme of ABABCDEDCE, so that the rhymes of the eighth and ninth lines are reversed in order from the previous two stanzas. As in some other odes (especially “Autumn” and “Grecian Urn”), the two-part rhyme scheme of each stanza (one group of AB rhymes, one of CDE rhymes) creates the sense of a two-part thematic structure as well, in which the first four lines of each stanza define the stanza’s subject, and the latter six develop it. (This is true especially of the second two stanzas.)
If the “Ode to Psyche” is different from the other odes primarily because of its form, the “Ode on Melancholy” is different primarily because of its style. The only ode not to be written in the first person, “Melancholy” finds the speaker admonishing or advising sufferers of melancholy in the imperative mode; presumably his advice is the result of his own hard-won experience. In many ways, “Melancholy” seeks to synthesize the language of all the previous odes—the Greek mythology of “Indolence” and “Urn,” the beautiful descriptions of nature in “Psyche” and “Nightingale,” the passion of “Nightingale,” and the philosophy of “Urn,” all find expression in its three stanzas—but “Melancholy” is more than simply an amalgam of the previous poems. In it, the speaker at last explores the nature of transience and the connection of pleasure and pain in a way that lets him move beyond the insufficient aesthetic understanding of “Urn” and achieve the deeper understanding of “To Autumn.”
For the first time in the odes, the speaker in “Melancholy” urges action rather than passive contemplation. Rejecting both the eagerly embraced drowsiness of “Indolence” and the rapturous “drowsy numbness” of “Nightingale,” the speaker declares that he must remain alert and open to “wakeful anguish,” and rather than flee from sadness, he will instead glut it on the pleasures of beauty. Instead of numbing himself to the knowledge that his mistress will grow old and die (that “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,” as he said in “Nightingale”), he uses that knowledge to feel her beauty even more acutely. Because she dwells with “beauty that must die,” he will “feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.”
In the third stanza, the speaker offers his most convincing synthesis of melancholy and joy, in a way that takes in the tragic mortality of life but lets him remain connected to his own experience. It is precisely the fact that joy will come to an end that makes the experience of joy such a ravishing one; the fact that beauty dies makes the experience of beauty sharper and more thrilling. The key, he writes, is to see the kernel of sadness that lies at the heart of all pleasure—to “burst joy’s grape” and gain admission to the inner temple of melancholy. Though the “Ode on Melancholy” is not explicitly about art, it is clear that this synthetic understanding of joy and suffering is what has been missing from the speaker’s earlier attempts to experience art.
“Ode on Melancholy” originally began with a stanza Keats later crossed out, which described a questing hero in a grotesque mythological ship sailing into the underworld in search of the goddess Melancholy. Though Keats removed this stanza from his poem (the resulting work is subtler and less overwrought), the story’s questing hero still provides perhaps the best framework in which to read this poem. The speaker has fully rejected his earlier indolence and set out to engage actively with the ideas and themes that preoccupy him, but his action in this poem is still fantastical, imaginative, and strenuous. He can only find what he seeks in mythical regions and imaginary temples in the sky; he has not yet learned how to find it in his own immediate surroundings. That understanding and the final presentation of the odes’ deepest themes will occur in “To Autumn.”