"Beauty That Must Die"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: To Keats the great tragedy of life was the transitoriness of physical beauty. In the world of nature all things fade and change; it is only in the world of art, as exemplified by the figures on the Grecian Urn, that beauty is everlasting. This thought so haunted him that, in various expressions, it appears repeatedly in the great Odes in the volume of 1820. In the "Ode on Melancholy" the poet establishes a sharp distinction between the conventional symbols of sadness–the River Lethe, wolf's-bane, deadly nightshade, the death-moth–and those aspects of the physical world that are truly conducive to melancholy. We are urged by the poet to turn away from these conventional symbols which, after all, merely "drown the wakeful anguish of the soul," and to contemplate those aspects of nature which, if we would be sad, are the genuine causes of melancholy: the beauty of a flower that is soon to fade and, above all, the ephemeral beauty of a woman. Here true melancholy is to be found, for

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
Veiled 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.