Ode on Melancholy
by John Keats
Stanza 1 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
- The poem starts with a repeated denial or rejection—the speaker repeats "No, no!" as though he's telling us that we're doing something wrong.
- (Fun fact! Earlier drafts of the poem included a stanza before this one, so the "No, no" that opens it actually came in response to something that had already been said. Check out the "Best of the Web" section for more information on this deleted stanza, and tell us why you think Keats might have taken it out…)
- The speaker tells us not to go to "Lethe," which is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology. According to myth, any contact with the water of the River Lethe would make you forget all of your earthly cares and troubles.
- While that might sound like a good deal, our speaker doesn't want us to forget our troubles. Okay, got it.
- The speaker also tells us not to "twist" the roots of "wolf's-bane" for its "poisonous wine."
- No, he's not talking about the "wolfsbane potion" in Harry Potter that keeps you from becoming a dangerous werewolf. The speaker's referring to the wolfsbane flower, which is poisonous in large doses, but which is used in tiny quantities as an analgesic or mild pain reliever in some traditional medicines and herbal remedies.
- We can't quite tell whether the speaker is warning us not to use wolfsbane as a poison to end pain forever, or whether he's advising against the use of wolfsbane in small quantities as a pain reliever. Either way, though, it's clear that he doesn't want us messing around with plants or herbs to deal with our troubles.
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
- The speaker also advises against taking nightshade to relieve our pain. Nightshade is also a poisonous plant, but like wolfsbane, it can be beneficial as a medicine in small doses. So again, the speaker's meaning can be read in at least two ways: we shouldn't poison ourselves to end our suffering, but we also shouldn't try to relieve it using medicine.
- The speaker makes another allusion to Greek mythology here when he calls nightshade the "ruby grape of Proserpine."
- Let's pause for a cultural side note: Proserpine (a.k.a. Persephone) was the daughter of Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility and growing things (she's an important goddess to farmers, for obvious reasons).
- When Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapped Proserpine and took her to the land of the dead to be his wife, Demeter was so distraught that all living plants on earth died. This wasn't so good for the earth, so the other gods intervened and worked out a compromise: Proserpine would stay with Hades in the underworld for six months out of each year, and would return to her mother on earth for the other 6 months.
- And this, according to Greek mythology, is where seasons come from: when Proserpine is in the underworld, her mother is in mourning and we get winter. When Proserpine comes back, it's spring again. So this is a myth about new life and regeneration, and not just about death and sadness. Go check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for more on why this allusion to Proserpine is particularly appropriate in this poem.
- And speaking of the poem, let's get back to it.
- Check out the two references to wine or grapes in these lines. The speaker doesn't come out and say it, but maybe he's implying that we shouldn't use wine or other alcohol to dull our pain, either.
- The speaker also advises us not to make our rosaries, or our prayer beads, out of yew berries. Yew is traditionally associated with mourning, but—you guessed it—they are also extremely poisonous.
- Okay, speaker, we get it—we shouldn't poison ourselves to escape from our trouble. That's just plain good advice.
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, […]
- The speaker continues to advise us of what not to do when we feel down in the dumps, but this next one is pretty tricky, so let's take some time to tease it out.
- First let's look at the "beetle" and "death-moth," and then we'll figure out what he's saying about them.
Shmoopers, it's time for another ancient mythology side note. The beetle may be a reference to ancient Egyptian mythology in which the beetle was regarded as a sacred symbol of resurrection—scarab beetles were placed in tombs. Scarabs were associated with Khepri, the god of the rising sun, which represented new life. Ancient Egyptians believed that scarab beetles were able to generate themselves from nothing, since this species of beetle is hatched inside balls of dung without obvious parents.
- Okay, so the beetle seems to be associated with transformation, renewal, and resurrection. What about that death-moth?
- Here's a biology side note. The death-moth, or the death's-head moth, is a common name for the Acherontia atropos. It got the nickname—and the reputation for being an omen of death—because of the pattern on its body that looks like a human skull.
- The moth, like the beetle, is often seen as a symbol for transformation and resurrection, since (as we all know from having read The Very Hungry Caterpillar as little kids), caterpillars transform into moths or butterflies.
- Okay, so we've got two possible symbols for resurrection and transformation in this line, both of which are associated with death in some way. The speaker tells us that we shouldn't let them "be our mournful Psyche."
- Psyche is the ancient Greek root word in "psychology" and "psychic"—it means the "mind" or the "spirit" or "soul." In other words, we shouldn't allow our minds and souls to become transformed by sorrow or to become obsessed with these traditional symbols of death.
- But why does he say "Psyche" instead of "soul" or "mind"? Well, "Psyche" has another meaning, too, which means it's time for another mythology side note.
- In Greek myth, Psyche was the human lover of Cupid, the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Psyche was married to Cupid without knowing who he was, but was warned never to look at her husband's face when he visited her at night.
- She disobeyed (hard to blame her), and as a punishment, Aphrodite made Psyche perform a series of cruel and difficult tasks.
- Cupid pleaded their case to the rest of the gods, who told Aphrodite to back off and allowed Psyche to become an immortal.
- The story ends happily, with Psyche and Cupid reunited as equals.
- So when the speaker refers to a "mournful Psyche," he could be alluding to the part of the story when Psyche is abandoned and forced to perform penance for having dared to look at her immortal husband.
- On the surface, the speaker is telling us not to become obsessed with symbols of death, but we should also be aware of the fact that both the beetle and the death-moth are also associated with transformation and resurrection—and the myth of Psyche does end happily.
- What's up with that? Perhaps the speaker is trying to suggest—in a very subtle way—that death and mourning can often be transformed into new life and happiness? What do you think?
[…] nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
- The speaker adds that we shouldn't allow the owl—another traditional symbol of death—to become the "partner" of our sorrow.
- Again, we're not supposed to become too attached to symbols of sadness. Okay, okay, Keats—we get the point.
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
- Finally, the speaker explains why we're not supposed to look for relief from our sorrow from forgetfulness, drugs, or suicide, and why we're not supposed to obsess too much over traditional symbols of sorrow or death. It's because doing those things would "drown" our soul's anguish.
- But wait a second. Wouldn't it be a good thing to drown our sorrows? Wouldn't we want to make ourselves feel better, if we could? Why does he say this is bad?
- The key word here is "wakeful"—the speaker wants us to be alert and aware of our own anguish. We're supposed to acknowledge it, and not try to cover it up with medicine or other means.
- This seems like a good place to notice the rhyme and meter of the poem. Check out the ends of the lines. Notice anything?
Shmoop does: the rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE—the classic pattern in an ode.
- We've also got ten syllables per line in a sort of daDUM daDUM meter. That, ladies and gents, is iambic pentameter. Go check out the "Form and Meter" section for more on that.