Discussion Topic

Comparisons of sorrow in Keats' "Ode on Melancholy" and "Ode to a Nightingale."


In "Ode on Melancholy," Keats explores sorrow as an intrinsic part of beauty and joy, suggesting that melancholy enhances the appreciation of life's fleeting pleasures. In "Ode to a Nightingale," sorrow is depicted through the speaker's yearning to escape human suffering and find solace in the nightingale's eternal song, highlighting the contrast between mortal pain and the bird's seemingly immortal beauty.

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How does Keats portray sorrow in 'Ode on Melancholy' and 'Ode to a Nightingale'?

What is interesting about both of these poems is that they go significantly beyond a shallow proclamation like, "I'm Sad!"

"Ode on Melancholy" is the shorter of the two poems and is made up of three stanzas. The first stanza stands out as the voice (speaker of the poem) seems to plead to an undisclosed person stricken by the same sorrow that the voice has experienced ("No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist/ Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;").

Within the second stanza, the voice then goes on to suggest other acts that are more fruitful in the place of the acts denounced in the first stanza ("But when the melancholy fit shall fall . . . Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose"). The third stanza explains further how essential it is to allow sorrow to come ("Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine"), because accepted grief, in conjunction with attempts to enjoy life, spawns happiness.

"Ode to a Nightingale" is made up of eight stanzas. Throughout the eight stanzas, the voice expresses a stream-of-consciousness-like shift in thought, emotion, and opinion.

The voice opens with its usual proclamation of sorrow ("My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,"). The voice goes on to find solace in a nightingale, or "light-winged Dryad of the trees." The voice frets about his own mortality ("Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,") but slips into a daydream and wishes to be free of worldly pressures.

The voice recognizes the reality of the situation and penultimately asserts that sorrow brought him back ("Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self!/ Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well") but ultimately cannot give up entertaining this romanticized version of the surroundings in his head ("Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?").

Sorrow is portrayed as an accumulation of various experiences and assertions contrasting with each other.

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What comparisons exist between Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode to Melancholy?"

Notwithstanding the obvious comparison that both poems are odes--lyric poems of elaborate form and exalted or enthusiastic emotion--both works are Romantic in nature, exhibiting a typical  characteristics.  For one thing, they find beauty in simplicity and plainness as well as in human emotions. Keats reflects on the "sweet-unrest" of his feelings in communion with Nature in both odes, accepting melancholy as a desirable experience.  In lines 15-18 of "Ode on Melancholy," the poet urges his reader to

glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,/Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,/ Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

In another juxtaposition, Keats contrasts positive feeling with melancholy in lines 21-25:

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

Similarly, in "Ode to a Nightingale, Keats makes this same juxtaposition, the simplicity of the bird's song and making of its nest in Nature with melancholy feeling:

Darking I listen, and, for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death/Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme (ll. 51-53)

And, as in "Ode to Melancholy," Keats also senses the difference between him and Nature.  While in "Melancholy" he urges the reader to not tie his sorrow to Nature in lines 5-10, in "Nightingale" the bird "hast never known/The weariness, the fever, and the fret" (ll. 22-23).

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