John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 53|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The world's great ode to Melancholy was etched by Albrecht Dürer on a copper plate. There one sees the tools and instruments which have given man dominion over worldly comfort and worldly knowledge. The star blazes, the rainbow glows, the magic crystal offers its illusions. And the majestic figure sits—staring with sad eyes into space—toiled. It is the ultimate symbolism of the futility of human intelligence. Keats' "Ode on Melancholy" is also a reading of fate. It is not so intellectually complex as Dürer's. It is almost wholly emotional. Yet an emotion, profoundly felt, reaches fundamental truth and becomes intellectual. The Greeks sometimes sculptured on tombstones the alto-relief of a lady about to die. The maid holds her casket of jewels, her lover clasps her hand, a friend stands beside. Her grief is the inevitable end of her joy. This is the truth which Keats has felt poignantly. He who would go in quest of Melancholy needs no wolf-bane, no distemper, no abnormal stimulus. Melancholy dwells not in the realm of the morbid. Her shrine is in the very temple of delight, her reign is the recessional of natural joy. He only can enter her dark holy of holies who has drained the cup of happiness from the full to the dregs. And then he must submit to the law of compensation; the payment of the price.
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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
Veil'd 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.
This is not the melancholy of the foiled intellect. It is not the despair of the diseased mind. It is the melancholy, inherent in mortal fate, of the fleeting emotion of delight.
It may be worth while to note that the theme of this ode is a replica of the ode to "Sorrow" in the fourth book of "Endymion." There Sorrow is pictured in the guise of health, full of lustrous passion and borrowing "Heart's lightness from the merriment of May." In both poems the symbolism expresses that richness of joy which only can give admittance to the palace of Melancholy. The strenuous tongue that bursts the grape against the palate is the "classical terseness" for the elaborate description of the revels of Bacchus. A comparison of the stanza just quoted with one from the earlier ode will show how Keats' style gained (and lost) as it developed toward the austere.
I saw Osirian Egypt kneel adown
Before the vine-wreath crown!
I saw parched Abyssinia rouse and sing
To the silver cymbal's ring!
I saw the whelming vintage hotly pierce
Old Tartary the fierce!
The kings of Inde their jewel-sceptres vail,
And from their treasures scatter pearled hail;
Great Brahma from his mystic heaven groans,
And all his priesthood moans;
Before young Bacchus' eye-wink turning pale.
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