Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Summary and Analysis of "Ode to Psyche" and "Ode on Melancholy"

Summary of "Ode to Psyche":

Keats addresses the poem directly to Psyche, and apologizes straightaway for his "tuneless numbers" (1) -- his awkward lines of poetry. On a forest walk, either he "dreamt to-day, or did I see/ The winged Psyche with awaken'd eyes?" (5-6). Psyche is not alone, though: he has seen her and another "fair creature" (9) embracing on the "bedded grass" (15). They appear to be asleep after a romantic interlude; their lips are "ready still past kisses to outnumber" (19). He recognizes Psyche's companion, "the winged boy" (21), as none other than Cupid, Psyche's lover in Greek mythology.

As a deity who was originally mortal, Psyche is the "latest-born" on Mount Olympus, the mountain residence of the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses. As such, she does not have the privilege of being worshipped, unlike the other members of her divine "family." Keats lists everything Psyche lacks, from a temple, to a religious choir, to a prophet. Though Keats says that it is too late for "antique vows" (36) -- since he cannot travel back to the holy days of ancient Greece -- he promises to be Psyche's "choir, and make a moan/ Upon the midnight hours!" (44-45). The temple he will create for her will be most sacred, because he will erect it "in some untrodden region of my mind" (51). Imagination is limitless: the gardener called "Fancy," "who, breeding flowers, will never breed the same" (63), will ensure that Psyche's imaginary place of worship will reach perfection. There will, of course, be an open window that will allow her lover, Cupid, to enter.

Analysis of "Ode to Psyche":

In Greek mythology, Psyche was a mortal woman revered for her otherworldly beauty. Venus/Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, was incensed that people were overlooking her in favor of the mortal Psyche; consequently, she asked her son, Cupid/Eros, to make Psyche fall in love with a beastly man. But Cupid/Eros fell in love with Psyche himself and eventually married her. Psyche was made immortal and became the "newest" member of the Greek mythological family.

Psyche represents love, so that "Ode to Psyche" could be seen as an ode to love itself. This work could even be construed as a poem addressed to Keats' own love, Fanny Brawne, whose acquaintance he had made around the time of the poem's composition. "Ode to Psyche" could also be an ode the soul, which Psyche also represents. Though respected for such lyrical intensity and multi-faceted references, this poem is not considered as strong a piece of art as Keats' other odes.

Structurally, the poem is composed of four verses of varying length and has an unpredictable rhyme structure, features that place it in sharp contrast with other odes by Keats. The line count for verses 1-4 is the following: 23, 12, 14, and 18. This may have been intentional on Keats' part, an effect that mimics the disorientation of love. There is, however, abundant assonance; for example, in the second line, "sweet" and "dear," and in line 10, "deepest" and "beneath." The third verse uses the device known as anaphora, the repeated use of the same word in successive phrases, to rhetorically convey the absence of worship for Psyche: "Temple thou hast none,/ Nor altar heap'd with flowers;/ Nor virgin-choir..." (28-31), nor "voice, "lute," pipe," "incense," "shrine," etc. Much like "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn", this poem takes up the opposing realities of fleshly life and of the mind/soul.

In order to ensure that Psyche receives the most perfect worship, Keats promises to build her a temple (a "fane") in "some untrodden region of my mind" (51). The final stanza describes this world, where "branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,/ Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind" (52-53) and "a rosy sanctuary will I dress/ With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain" (59-60). Keats is thus making a direct comparison beteween the process of thought itself and "the ideal." However, this poem, unlike his others on similar real-versus-ideal themes, is not cynical -- at least not straightforwardly -- about the impossibility of achieving an ideal state. Instead, "Ode to Psyche" ends on a soft note: "a casement [window] ope [open] at night,/ To let the warm Love in!" (66-67). "Love" here is a likely reference to Cupid/Eros, Psyche's husband.

Summary of "Ode on Melancholy":

"Ode on Melancholy" is written in iambic pentameter with varying rhyme schemes. The first stanza is a list of ways that one might escape "melancholy," or depression, through suicide: the poisonous Wolf's bane, nightshade, and yew berry plants. The writer exhorts the melancholic reader not to indulge in any of these. Instead, in the second stanza, he encourages readers to "glut" their sorrow (15) on objects of beauty: morning roses, rainbows, peonies, or even the beautiful, angry eyes of a mistress. In the third stanza, Keats notes that pleasure, delight, and joy are all inextricably intertwined with melancholy; positive emotions cannot be experienced without negatives. Rather than feeling sadness at this revelation, Keats finds it a beautiful construct.

Analysis of "Ode on Melancholy":

Keats addresses the reader directly from the outset: "No, no! Go not to Lethe, neither twist/ Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine" (1-2). In the first stanza, he lists various ways that people might escape pain or melancholy through death, prefacing each method with a negative exhortation. He would prefer that the reader not attempt to drown the "wakeful anguish of the soul" (10). Although the present may be painful, it is at least "wakeful" -- that is, alive.

Keats' narration speaks of melancholy "fits" that strike people and come from "heaven" (11-12), and encourages the reader to view phenomena with melancholic eyes instead of hiding from such moods. Melancholy can imbue the already-beautiful with even more beauty. A "morning rose" (15) can only be viewed for a few hours at most, and Keats' typical emphasis on the passing of time heightens the perception of beauty. He also uses metaphor to describe April clouds and rain as forming "a shroud" (14). The stanza ends with a lover showing "rich anger," and Keats encourages the reader to, while the lover is "raving," observe the beauty of her eyes. In the next stanza, he writes, "She dwells with Beauty -- Beauty that must die" (21); "she" refers, at once, to the aforementioned mistress and to melancholy itself.

In the third stanza, Keats describes where melancholy can be found: in beauty, pleasure, joy, and delight. This poem, more than most of Keats' others, typifies the poet's stance on the nature of happiness and pleasure, pain and melancholy. It is the fleeting nature of life and of beauty that amplifies beauty; joy itself is an "aching Pleasure" (23).

Throughout "Ode on Melancholy", Keats was likely influenced by Robert Burton's 1621 collection of essays, Anatomy of Melancholy, which exhaustively analyzes the melancholic mood. This poem, with its love of the tragic, reflects Keats at the height of his Romantic persona.