"Ode on Melancholy" by Keats:
New Critical Approach and Beyond
  the poem and the poet;
the poem in colors
Literary Criticism, Fall, 99; New Criticism

first draft, Kate Liu, 10/4/1999

    In The Well-Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks sees the last quotation in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" ("'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'") as an integral part of the poem, but not--as T.S. Eliot criticized-- a doctrine attached to the poem and "an intrusion upon the poem" (152).  "The very ambiguity of the statement," Brooks claims, "ought to warn us against insisting very much on the statement in isolation, and to drive us back to a consideration of the context in which the statement is set" (underlines added; 153).   The same thing can be said of the first line in the third stanza of "Ode on Melancholy": "She dwells with Beauty--Beauty that must die."  For those who see Keats as only a poet of sensuality ("the burster of Joy's grape" as Stillinger puts it humorously; 15), the ode can be great in its compilation of sensual details, from which the line is an awful digression.   However, the co-existence of contraries, or paradoxes, in this statement, for me, reflects not only Keats's central ideas but also his poetic style of this poem.

    The sense of contradictions--between the good and the bad, the powerful and the powerless, the mortal and the immortal-- is dominant in the description of Melancholy in the third stanza.  Melancholy, being a goddess, is immortal, but she lives with Beauty, Joy and Pleasure, all of which suggest either mortality (transience) or pain (Beauty "must die"; Joy always "[bid] adieu" and "aching" Pleasure turns things into poison).  Melancholy has a temple, but it is rarely visited and her power is a sad one.  The "he" that can see Melancholy seems powerful with "strenuous tongue" and active in tasting her sadness, but he is also "hung" there as one of the trophies of Melancholy.

    Through these contradictions, what Keats suggests is a central paradox in life: life is good but transient, and all the good elements in life, such as beauty, joy and sensual pleasure, are mixed with pain and mortality.   In face of the transient, melancholy and the sense of powerlessness/pain are inevitable, which, as Keats suggests in the first two stanzas, should be intensely appreciated.  Before Keats the general description of Melancholy's temple (an abstract embodiment), however, Keats offers the concrete dialectically.  He first rejects traditional concepts of melancholy (associated with death and oblivion) in the first stanza, and then suggests ways of intense appreciation of life as a way to welcome melancholy in the second.  Opposition exists not only in between the two stanzas, but only in each stanza, and in each example he offers.
    [Analysis of paradoxes in each stanza.]
    [Analysis of the continuity and development of the poem]
Beyond New Cricisim: