{Fri 23 February 2007}   Seeking the Muse: Beautiful Melancholy
This poem by John Keats is one of my favourites. I return to its themes again and again as I try to understand that the capacity to enter fully into joy is the same one that enables me to grieve to the end of grief. Conversely, while my grieving is blocked, my bliss cannot flow.

The Ode on Melancholy urges me not to stop on the “obvious” expressions of Melancholy in my search for poetic feeling as this leads to a static non-productive depression, like artificially-induced altered states that purport to intensify experience but in fact deaden it. It urges me to yield to the exquisite apperception of true emotion that occurs when I am truly present to life and enter fully into its pleasures. A wholehearted contemplation of beauty must bring awareness of its transience. Ultimately, my pleasure in it is heightened precisely because of its transience. Human life is a bittersweet paradox of continual reaching for beauties which begin to dissipate almost in the moment of their flowering. The soul alert to this can truly feel.

Today, while researching it on the web, I was surprised to discover a discussion I hadn’t come across before (by marilee at englishhistory.net) of a preceding stanza that was removed before the Ode was published. It seemed at first a little impenetrable, but I realised that this was partly because I am so familiar with the other three stanzas. On rereading it, I was drawn in, especially by the idea that a poet might try to “stitch creeds together for a sail” — see my two previous posts!

Although I do think (as Keats and his publishers evidently did) that the poem as it is widely known can stand on its own, the possible prior stanza does convey the urgency that might drive the seeker to contemplate the extreme (suicidal) options covered in the stanza beginning “No, no…”. He really, really wants “To find the Melancholy”!

So… here it is, with four stanzas instead of the usual three.

Reading this poem slowly, aloud, is an incredibly rewarding experience. Enjoy!

Ode on Melancholy
by John Keats

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty – Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
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;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

Have you read the superb book by Christopher Ricks called ‘Keats & Embarrassment’?

Tia says:

No, I haven’t read it. Sounds interesting though, from the few references I could find online. I’ve requested Amazon to make it available on Kindle! In the mean time, I found this list of other Christopher Hicks writings about Keats: http://www.nybooks.com/contributors/christopher-ricks/

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