Saturday, October 10, 2009

Keats' Ode On Melancholy

I think I like this one best of all Keats' poems, though I don't know why—perhaps because I like the lines about the strenuous tongue deliberately bursting joy's grape against one's palate in order to 'taste' the deeper, gloomier, more enduring essence of Being. (I have to admit that I don't know how to do that—or, if I did, wouldn't be able to bring myself to do it.)

(Now it occurs to me that Keats may have 'said' in this poem all that needs to be said in response to Moneta's lecture on the "misery of the world" (cf. Keats' late, fragmentary, Fall of Hyperion.))

NO, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist 

Wolfs-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. 

About a hundred years later, in 1923, Wallace Stevens published at the age of 44, Harmonium, one of the most remarkable collections of pure and semi-pure poems ever written. It was his first book. It contains a number of poems which can be thought of as odes to or on melancholy. Here is one of them:

The Snowman  

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

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