One of the most striking devices of this poem is the use of o sounds to evoke a mood of melancholy. The first five words of the poem all contain the letter o and, in contrast to the dominant iambic rhythm of the remaining lines, these first five words, “No, no, go not to,” are all heavily stressed. As well as setting the overall mood, the stress on the first five vowels serves notice that the poem is intended to be read slowly. What is being done here is similar to what a composer does with a musical composition when he marks his score largo: The performer is advised that the piece is to be played in a slow and solemn manner.
The o sounds are so densely crowded into the first two stanzas that scarcely a line does not contain at least one. The word “nor” is used four times in the first stanza, echoed by the word “or” which is used three times in the second stanza. In one line in the first stanza, there are five o sounds: “Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl.” These sounds mimic the moans and groans of a person suffering from acute melancholy and help produce a mood of sorrow and despair.
A poet can convey feelings through the manipulation of the sounds of words just as a composer can with musical notes; modern poets, beginning notably with the French in the time of Charles Baudelaire, Prosper Mérimée, Arthur Rimbaud, and Paul Verlaine, experimented extensively with the use of such purely mechanical devices to create emotional effects. It is impossible to say who invented the idea, because it goes back at least as far as ancient Greece, when poets accompanied their recitations by strumming on musical instruments. William Shakespeare was certainly well aware of the power of the mere sounds of words to create moods, and Keats revered Shakespeare to the point of idolatry. Keats also seems to have been influenced in this area (as well as in his interest in the subject of melancholy) by the senior Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was a bold experimenter with the technical aspects of poetic composition, as demonstrated in his strange and wonderful fragment “Kubla Khan.”
In “Ode on Melancholy,” the o sounds are so densely crowded into the first two stanzas that scarcely a line does not contain at least one. The word “nor” is used four times in the first stanza, echoed by the word “or” which is used three times in the second stanza. In one line in the first stanza, there are five o sounds: “Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl.” These sounds mimic the moans and groans of a person suffering from acute melancholy and help produce a mood of sorrow and despair.
As in all of Keats’s best poetry, there is extensive employment of visual imagery in “Ode on Melancholy.” The many references to drugs and poisons reflect Keats’s early training as an apothecary. He was developing a dangerous fondness for alcohol, and some of his poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale,” suggest that he may have done some experimenting with drugs as well. The unusual images are what admirers of Keats admire most about him. Some examples in “Ode on Melancholy” are the twisting of wolfsbane until the roots are tightly wound around each other like the strands of a rope; making a rosary from poisonous yew berries; the downy owl; the weeping cloud; the bee-mouth sipping nectar from flowers. All these images demonstrate Keats’s unusually vivid visual imagination, the faculty he exploited to write his greatest poems. An image worthy of Shakespeare himself, and reminiscent of his play The Tempest (1611), is “the rainbow of the salt sand-wave”: that is, the rainbows that can be seen hovering just above the crests of breaking waves on bright, sunny days. This is the kind of natural beauty that people see but are not usually aware of seeing until an artist takes the image out of nature and uses it in a painting or a poem.