August 22, 2008

An Imperfectly Depressing Poem


NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of glob├Ęd peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

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.

— John Keats (The Oxford Book of English Verse:
1919 edition)

How very classy I feel this week! Keats!

Ah, there is nothing so fine as a bout of wakeful anguish, despite the fact that our culture is well-medicated against anguish, melancholia and depression of all kinds. I came across this ode this week and had to read it over and over again. I am for some reason charmed by the spelling in this poem -- words like "kist," "soveran" and "emprisoned" are lovely examples of the indifferent spelling practices of the 19th century.

Keats is like many of the 19th century's British poets, in that he equates pleasure with pain and desire with fear or suffering. It seems their happiness could never be unalloyed; in a time when people died from seasonal bouts of influenza and lovers caught in the Spring rain might mean one of them would die of some hideous fever in June, it's easy to imagine why even joy was something viewed with caution -- these poets were literally waiting for the other shoe to drop. Joy is seen blowing kisses, bidding the poor mortals fond goodbyes, as poison comes to take the place of pleasure. Whee.

Startlingly, it seems that Keats is encouraging his readers to embrace melancholy and seek out its veiled hiding places among the raptures of joy. He wants us to look forward to the sadness soon-to-come sadness. In the very temple of delight lurks melancholy. Seems crazy, no? American's are raised with Puritan ideals, so this sort of ...wallowing in grief and soaking up the sadness isn't something quite tasteful, somehow. We learn pretty early that "suck it up" is the only way to get through. Laugh and the world laughs with you, after all...

An interesting world, where melancholia was prized. Perhaps there used to be a certain nobility in suffering, because it was believed that the sufferer was made melancholy by thought, and thought, of course, is a safely intellectual and highly erudite pursuit. Nowadays, melancholy is shoved rudely aside for bleak depression, which is not the same at all.

If you, as I, were not gifted with a thoroughly classical education, you might not know that Lethe is the River of Oblivion in Greek mythology. Lethe is one of the rivers which flows through the unlovely region of Hades, and the recently dead were required to drink from in, to forget their lives in the living world.

Wolfsbane is not only a flower which allegedly could help identify werewolves, it's also a pretty wicked drink made of bitters, cider, blackcurrant and rum, according to the Wiki. (I have to show off my new knowledge of what "bitters" are -- some distilled herbal thing British people put in drinks in the pub. Still am not quite sure why anyone wants to drink something bitter, and learn.)

You should also know that nightshade has scarlet berries, which are here paralleled to the "ruby grape" of the pomegranate, and every part of the yew tree is deeply poisonous, except the fleshy part of the berry, though its poison was used in medieval medications.

Poetry of a more cheerful countenance can doubtless be discovered at the blog of Read. Imagine. Talk, location of this week's Poetry Friday.


Anonymous said...

"F*ck me, I love Keats." There. I didn't say it in my own Keats post today, but in a comment to yours.

He was part of the twisting over to what became Victorian values, where sexuality was to be feared and guilt at good feelings became prevalent. I did know the Lethe and wolfsbane stuff, but it was still so cool of you to include it. Great post.

(I hope you aren't too melancholy.)

tanita✿davis said...

Kelly, I TOTALLY DID THIS BECAUSE OF YOU! I thought, "This is SUCH a Fineman post!!!"


I'm not too melancholy... I am still just trying to "get" this guy, and take a different attitude toward the fact that it's already really autumn here in Scotland, and the Long Dark is approaching, and I know it's going to be... a time of huge melancholy, so... I'm getting prepared to enjoy it? Or something.

tanita✿davis said...

And THANK YOU for the Hugh quote. Heeee!

Anonymous said...

It does get dark up there, that's for sure. Perhaps you should read (or re-read) The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.

I almost downloaded an icon with the Keats quote, but didn't want to completely offend any random readers.

Sara said...

You guys are making me laugh. You're all "Lethe and wolfsbane" and all I can think of is Eeyore. Okay, well, and Hamlet. That redeems me a bit.

The thing about reading melancholy poems is that you're not alone. You're singing harmony with Keats. And that kind of makes it okay.

David T. Macknet said...

Full-spectrum light bulbs will tear us away from the Great Dark, never fear!

(We'll still be depressed, however.)

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Melancholy serves its purpose, too. And when you're there, this is the poem to accompany you.

Jules, grateful for the explanations, too.

Anonymous said...

I think Keats -- and you -- are onto something here that's not confined to the Victorians. Our truest feelings are always mixed and cross-grained, and your observations about the way our age tends to want to Prozac away all but happiness -- leaving something much more insipid than happiness behind -- are right on.

Not saying permanent wallowing is advisable... Just appreciating this poet's wise outlook. It's not fair, someone so young comprehending so much. :-)

Mary Lee said...

I'm going to take away one phrase from this poem in the hope that I can use it with fellow teachers or students (or both) next week when grumbles about starting school happen:

"glut thy sorrow on a morning rose"