Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

It was because Keats took such intense delight in all the visual beauty of nature that he was also subject to melancholy. He had to reflect that he was going have to leave all this beauty when he died, and he was already suffering from premonitions of death at the time he wrote his “Ode on Melancholy” and the other great odes of his annus mirabilis, 1819. His brother had recently died of tuberculosis, and Keats had apparently become infected with the disease while nursing him. Keats was only twenty-five years old when he died in 1821. During his short career as a poet, he managed to secure a permanent place among the foremost English poets; however, one of the great tragedies of literary history is the loss of all the works this genius might have produced if he had been permitted to live out a normal lifespan.

Since Keats was subject to fits of melancholy, he took a strong interest in it. He lived long before the days of Sigmund Freud, or he would have been fascinated by psychoanalysis. One of Keats’s favorite books was Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which might be described as a primitive study of psychoneurosis. Like Burton, Keats realized that melancholy was a complex state that could be the source of intellectual as well as artistic inspiration, and that it was an ailment to which artists were particularly susceptible. As another great Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, expressed it: “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.”

What Keats is doing in “Ode on Melancholy” is exactly what twentieth century musical artists such as “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, Huddie (“Leadbelly”) Ledbetter, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Eleanor (“Billie”) Holiday, and other jazz greats did with the blues. Melancholy can be defined as “the blues,” and the word “melancholy” is invariably used in defining the blues.

In his “Ode on Melancholy,” which by definition is a piece written in praise of melancholy, Keats is saying that the mood is something to be relished rather than something from which a sensitive person should seek to escape. His thesis is summed up in the following lines of the concluding stanza: “Ay, in the very temple of Delight/ Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” The fact that he was able to use his melancholy moods to create this masterpiece is proof in itself of his thesis.