“Ode on Melancholy” is a three-stanza poem addressed to people who are susceptible to fits of melancholy, and it offers a prescription for coping with “the blues.” John Keats says that the melancholy mood is full of beauty and potential spiritual instruction. Therefore, instead of seeking escape through intoxication or even suicide, the melancholy individual should savor the mood because it has divine properties. Lethe, referred to in the opening line, was one of the rivers of Hades in Greek and Roman mythology; drinking from it was supposed to cause forgetfulness. Proserpine was the goddess of Hades. Psyche was a nymph who represented the human soul. Wolfsbane, nightshade, and yew are all plants which have poisonous properties, and yew trees are commonly planted around cemeteries.
In the second stanza, the words “glut thy sorrow” encapsulate the poet’s prescription. Do not be afraid of melancholy: enjoy it. Look at all the beauty of nature, including the beauty in a beautiful woman’s eyes, and reflect upon the sad truth that none of it can last. Similar thoughts are expressed in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” The fragility and perishability of beauty evoke melancholy but make the beautiful object more precious.
Pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, delight and melancholy are opposite sides of the same coin: It is impossible to have one without the other. Anyone who is particularly sensible to beauty and pleasure is bound to be painfully susceptible to melancholy. Only the aesthetically sensitive person can appreciate the beauty of melancholy; melancholy adds dignity and spiritual significance to beauty. Vulgar, insensitive people will be afraid of it as of some threatening aberration and will try to escape from it with drugs or in extreme cases even in suicide.
Keats suggests throughout the poem that the way things look depends upon the emotional state of the observer. When one is in a melancholy state, things can look particularly vivid and beautiful. This impressionistic approach to artistic subjects became an enormously important movement throughout Europe and America later in the nineteenth century, and Keats may be regarded as one of its forerunners. It is not until almost the end of the poem that Keats uses the word Melancholy, with a capital “M,” personifying or reifying melancholy and turning it into a goddess. There was no goddess of melancholy in Greek or Roman mythology; Keats is creating his own mythology. By doing this, he is suggesting that melancholy can be more than an aesthetic experience—it is actually akin to a religious experience—and implying that the numinous quality of the experience frightens unworthy people into seeking escape through oblivion.