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Ode on Melancholy

Ode on Melancholy

by John Keats

Death Theme

No matter how you slice it, there's a lot of death in the "Ode on Melancholy." Flowers and beauty die, suicide is contemplated and rejected. This is a poem about melancholy, and what's a more melancholy event than death? How about… contemplating your own mortality, and the eventual death of every beautiful thing you ever see?

Questions About Death

  1. Why does the speaker keep referencing classical Greek myths about the Underworld (the river Lethe in line 1, Proserpine in line 4)? Why not keep it contemporary by referencing, say, all the deaths of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s?
  2. The speaker personifies "Beauty" in line 21 when he says that "Beauty […] must die." Why is he emphasizing the mortality of Beauty, rather than the eventual death of the "mistress" herself?
  3. Read through the poem and make a list of everything that the speaker imagines dying, either in reality or metaphorically. How many did you come up with, and what do all those things have in common, besides their mortality?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The speaker alludes to classical Greek myths about the Underworld in his discussion of mortality because the line between the living and the dead was much less definite in ancient Greek religion, and the speaker wants to emphasize that life and death are closely linked.

Although the speaker says that melancholy can descend suddenly and without an obvious reason, the true cause of his melancholy is the inevitability and universality of death.

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