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A final project submitted in partial fulfillement

of the B.A degree in English literature

Supervisee : Supervisor :

C.N.E : 2321877831
N d’insc : 14704

Academic year : 2005 / 2006

I am so indebted and grateful to my
supervisor Dr. Omar BSAΪTHI whose help
and advice were a motive for me to fulfil this research
I offer the fruit of three years of hard work
to my beloved mother and father whose love
and affection have been, and still, the elixir
my life to my grandmother Fadma
To the spirit of my deceased grandparents

The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

April 21st, is the day that witnessed the birth of the first
Keatsian ode, which is that of to a psyche. This announced a new
poetic period in Keats life. A period which knew, in addition to
the changes in the level of poetic creativity, many psychological
problems and disturbances. Keats's psychological state, at the
time, was in bad conditions, series of crises, depressions and
indefinite feelings of sadness and (sometimes) madness. The
pains that Keats experienced during his life, his deep reading of
the human literary heritage and the richness of his imagination,
were behind the magic of his odes.

In this research, I will be dealing with the theme of

melancholy in Keats' odes, since it is the pot in which all the
"sub-themes" are melted and I will be dealing with beauty and
how he did illustrate it. This does not mean that it is a thematic
study or approach towards the odes, but it is an attempt to analyse
and examine the ways in which he incorporated both melancholy
and beauty to his odes in that way to his odes.

Indeed, the process of explicating those odes involves

different variables that are to be taken into account; one of them
is the socio-cultural background of the poet, which is a debatable
issue in modern critical approaches. Honestly speaking, I prefer,
when studying literature, to isolate the text from any external
factor, believing that the text is to be studied from inside and not
from outside, because the writer cannot reflect his life in a
photographic way, neither can he be totally out of his human

No two people can claim their complete understanding of a

literary text, no matter how it seems easy, because literature and
poetry in particular does not explain thing, but it rather provides a
symbolic language and opens widely the door of interpretation
and criticism. Hence, when dealing with Keats' odes, I found
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

myself in a dilemma, and wondered whether to include the

biographical and socio-cultural background of the poet or not;
especially that the odes as mentioned before, were written in a
specific period of Keats' life.

After a deep thinking in this mater, that really worried me , I

decided to shed light on some relevant biographical elements
before moving to the stage of critical analysis.

The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

I – Keats' socio-cultural background

John Keats' was born in Finsbury pavement, near London in
October 31st, 1795. He had a sister and three brothers, one of
them died in infancy, when john was eight years old. His father,
who was working as a stable-keeper, was killed in an accident. In
the same year, his mother married again, but little again divorced
from her husband and took her children to live with her mother.
John attended a good school where he became well acquainted
with ancient and contemporary literature.

In 1810, his mother died, leaving the children to their

grandmother. In 1814 john left school and became a student of
medicine in London. Under some circumstances, he sacrificed his
medical ambitions and devoted himself to poetry and its beautiful
madness. He soon became acquainted with the poets of his age
and published his first poem in a magazine.

After receiving a negative feed-back, Keats traveled to the

Isle of Wight on his own in spring 1817. First signs of his fatal
disease forced him to go back to England1, where he found his
brother seriously ill. In December 1818 Tom Keats died. John
moved to Hampstead hath, where he lived in the house of Charles
Brown. Keats son made the acquaintance of Mrs. Brown and her
sixteen years old daughter Fanny. Since the ladies were still
living in London, John fell in love with Fanny. Being absorbed in
love and poetry, he exhausted himself, and in autumn 1819, he
tried to gain some distance from literature through an ordinary
occupation after the composition of the odes.

In February 1820, his life knew a new period. He couldn't

enjoy the positive reaction of the readership after the publication
of his first volume "lamia and Isabella", including his most
famous odes. Keats was suffering from a bad sore throat and had
to be shipped back to London. This experience was very
G.S.Fraser, “John Keats’ odes”. Macmillan, 1970. p: 446
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

influential on Keats' ideas about life and poetry. In the late

summer of 1820, his doctors ordered him to avoid the English
winter and move to Italy, his health improved temporarily to
collapse finally2, he died in Rome on 23 rd of February, 1821.
The following line was engraved in his tombstone: "Here lies one
whose name was writ (written) in water".

Keats' poetic life can be divided into two main periods, the
first one is that of the "pre-odes" period which is characterized by
his serious attempts to create his own poetic personality and
remain individual in the way he conceptualizes the existence. He
composed many poems and sonnets but he was known for the
second period in which he composed the odes3, to which we will
come back in an extensive and more detailed way. He spent many
years studying Greek mythology and reading literary classical
and contemporary masterpieces

What made Keats' life more tragic is his love story and his
inability to reveal his feelings to Fanny, to whom he wrote an ode
(Ode to Fanny), despite they were living under the same walls.
Anyway we cannot call it a story since love was aroused only
from the part of Keats while Fanny was not even aware that she
inspired a magician. Soon later, an other lady stole his heart and
inspired him "bright star". This one is called Mrs. Jones4.

Ibid, p : 381
John Halloway, “the ode of Keats” in “John Keats’ odes”, G.S.Fraser. p : 166
Robert Gittings, John Keats: “the living year”. London: Heinemann, 1978. p: 25
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

II- Beauty and melancholy in the odes

1) What are the odes?

The term ode in Oxford dictionary stands for a long poem

that speaks to a person or celebrates an event. If we apply this
academic definition to the odes of Keats, we will find out that he
used the preposition "to" to refer to the destination of his speech ,
or , in other wards, to whom he is addressing his message . A
close scrutiny here proves also that he used a sort of narration of
events and description of the concrete and the abstract, which
enhances the feeling that he didn't go beyond the common
meaning of the term .yet, his use was objective and pictorial in a
manner that did not empty the word from its inherited
significance and further connotations. But "Ode" became closer
to the term "song" rather than "poem" that is suggested by the
literal interpretation.

Keats wrote more than ten, but only eight of them were
published, namely: To a nightingale, On melancholy, On
indolence, To autumn, To Fanny, On the sonnet and On a
Grecian urn. They were all written between April and June, 1819,
except To autumn which he composed in September. Those were
written under the pressure of pain and illness: “they make up a
psychological document an unexpected one of unique interest”5
and “speak of desires and yearnings, of possibilities and
impossibilities, of the joys of imagination and the frustration of
human state”6 .they, above all, explore internal conflicts and the
problems of the human psychology.

The odes are explorations of these preoccupying conflicts

and it is important to realize that they are the mature
expressions of a number of deep-seated anxieties, so that
the occasions in which they were written come as

John Halloway, “the odes of Keats” p : 166
Kenneth Muir, “the meaning of the odes” in “John Keats’ odes” p: 223
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

unbidden yet appropriate moments, containing with

themselves an essential presentation of the idea which
the poet had the genius to perceive and make into great
art… the odes are rich because they contain material
from many areas of Keats’ sensibility7.

To make things clearer and more practical, I chose only four

odes to illustrate what has been said. Indeed, the criterion upon
which I based my choice was the relevance and the artistic value.
This does not mean that those that are not chosen are not of a
unique importance and relevance. But, the ones chosen are more

2) The incorporation of beauty and melancholy in the

2.1) Ode to a nightingale

The nightingale ode in Keats’ nightingale ode is not only

used as a symbol of the imaginary world in which he longs to live
, but it is also an intimate companion in his solitary life and
journeys of exile . a semantic and semiotic approach towards this
poem proves that the poet is addressing his message to a potential
partner which is the nightingale, this may be proved by the
repetition of : “thou”, “thee”, and “thy”. This technique (the
personification of the elements of nature) which is used by most
romanticists, such as Edgar Alan Poe in his “the raven”,
including Keats’, makes the reader closer to the poet’s aims by
dramatising the events of the poem in a poetic way.

The poem opens by revealing the poet’s “heat aches” and

“pains”, and then he affirms that his happiness goes back to the
happiness of the bird “not through envy” of him. Keats’, who was
not satisfied at all with his life, says that he “might drink and
leave the world unseen” and “fade away into the forest dim” with
the nightingale by flying on “viewless wings of poesy”. Many

J.R Watson, English poetry of the romantic period 1789-1830.London & New York: Longman.1985. p:280
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

critics consider Keats and some f his contemporary romanticists

as escapists because they couldn’t cope with the harsh dictations
of their lives. In the fifth stanza we discover that the sense of
sight was suppressed in favour of the other sense, the poet was
not seeing what is around him, but rather he was feeling it an
experiencing that sort of connection with nature and its elements.

The theme of death is also extensively tackled throughout the

ode, despite the ambiguity that surrounds it. Death accompanied
Keats since his childhood (the death of his parents and his brother
Tom), so he believed that it is the destiny of all mankind, but the
fact of being “half in love with easeful Death” and calling “him
soft names in many a mused rhyme” to “take into the air” his
“quiet breath” reveals much and speaks up for how sorrowful his
life was. As we mentioned before, Keats couldn’t cope with
reality and complexity, so death, at least, would set him free and
help him gain some peace of mind. He contrasted the mortality of
the mankind with the immortality of the bird “whose art is
endlessly changeable and renewable”. The last stanza is Keats’
coming back ticket to “his sole self”, but still, he wondered
whether his journey was “a vision, or a waking dream?”, after
that music fled.

2.2) Ode on a Grecian Urn

This ode states many paradoxical possibilities such as being

closer to the beloved and unable to kiss her, preferring the
unheard music to that which is heard and the association of
beauty and truth as though they were two faces of the same coin.
The ode opens by the description of the ode as “unravish’d bride
of quietness” and as a historian (story teller) who “canst thus
express a flowery tale more sweetly than” the poet’s rhyme
(poem). This stanza seems to be introductory to the following
ones since it raises many questions that are either discussed or
left unanswered:

The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

In the tempe or in the dales of Arcady?

What men are gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy.8

With the second stanza we move to the world of the urn to

examine to what extent it represents the values given to it by the
poet in the first stanza. But as we go along the paradox of
unheard music breaks our reading hypothesis. How can silence be
melodious if it is below the “heard”? The song does not cease,
the lover cannot leave his song, the maiden is supposed to be
kissed but actually never kissed, just like the urn (unravished),
still new, untouched and not ravished even by a kiss and perhaps
the beauty of the Urn and the maiden springs from this fact. The
last verse of this stanza (the 2nd) “forever wilt thou love, and she
be fair” came as a conclusion and a judgement: Forever the lover
will love the maiden, and forever she will be fair, beautiful and
more importantly unravished (this verse perhaps has something to
do with Keats’ inability to reveal his love to the women he
knew). So, neither love nor music were achieved.

The third stanza, as various critics pointed out, recapitulates

earlier motifs, the melodist and the lover reappear. It (this stanza)
seems to be a sort of pause or a break for Keats to go back in the
later with. The repetition of the word “happy” is very significant
here, it recapitulates the previous stanzas. The fourth stanza
forms a contrast with the previous ones; it emphasizes communal
life rather than individual desires and yearnings. It is an other
story told by the “sylvian historian”, we don’t know the occasion
of sacrifice nor the town from which the celebrants came.

This stanza (the 4th) raises many questions and every single
word in it suggests more than one connotation. The image of the
silent and desolate town can embody both pain and joy; these two
themes seem to “co-exist” throughout the stanza. In the fifth
Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1st stanza
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

stanza the poet remembers the Urn as a whole vision an we don’t

know whether he is involved in the life of the Urn or he is just an
observer ; perhaps the Urn “dost tease us of thought as does
eternity” refers again to the “dull brain” that “perplexes and
retards”. Again the idea of out-of-body experience repeats itself,
eventhough there isn’t much emphasis on it, like the nightingale
ode. Hence, the Urn ode does not seem to be a temporary escape
as the nightingale ode seems to be. The beautiful truth and the
true beauty, as mentioned before, break the reading hypothesis
and represent the climactic point of the poem. Much was written
on this poem, but none of the critics claimed the legacy of his
analysis. Anyway some of them suggested that this statement
may be said either by the Urn “since it is quoted” or by the poet
himself, and it is in knowing the speaker that we can attempt to
understand the statement. T.S.Eliot called these lines “a blemish
on a beautiful poem and the reason must be either” he “failed to
understand it, or it is a statement which is untrue”.9

As in the nightingale ode, the poet wants to create a world of

pure joy. But what differentiates the two odes is the two different
ways of life that the poet tackled (imaginary and individual life
Vs down to earth communal life).

The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is significantly different. It

is an indoor not an outdoor poem and it deals with art
and not nature. It belongs to the part of Keats’ mind
which responded eagerly to the Engin marbles and to all
other Examples of great art: its style, in consequence is
subtly altered… The “Ode on Grecian Urn” has a
network of sound patterns, of assonance, of deliberate
echoes, all of which suggest that the poet was aiming for
a purposeful effect.10

2.3) Ode to a psyche

Cleanth Brooks, “Keats’ sylvian historian” in “John Keats’ odes” . p: 132
English poetry of the romantic period 1789-1830, p : 284
The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

The basis of the story of the psyche ode is a Greek myth.

Psyche was the youngest and the most beautiful daughter of a
king. She was so beautiful that Aphrodite, the Goddess of love
and beauty, asked her son Eros, the God of love (the winged boy
in the poem) to punish her for being so beautiful. But Eros was so
startled by Psyche’s beauty that he picked himself with an arrow
and fell in love with her. Eros summoned psyche to his palace but
he remained invisible to her, coming to her only by night and
ordering her never to try to see his face.

Keats opens this poem by asking Psyche to hear his words.

He probably saw her wondering through the forest that very day,
they embraced each other with both their arms and their wings,
and though their lips did not touch, they were close to each other
that they were ready “past kisses outnumber”. The poet says he
knew the winged boy, but asks who the girl was. He answers his
own question, she was Psyche. Then, in the second stanza, the
poet describes her as the youngest and the most beautiful of all
the Olympian Gods and Goddesses despite the fact that Psyche
had none to worship: she has no temples, no altars and no chair to
sing for her. In the third stanza the poet afire that he can be
Psyche’s chair, music and oracle. Then he continues declaring
that he will become Psyche’s priest and build her a temple in an
“untrodden place” of his mind, a region that will be surrounded
by thought and resembles the beauty of nature. Finally, he
promises her that the window of her adobe will be left open so
that her winged boy can come in.

In this ode Keats discovered a Goddess to worship since he

dedicated himself to be her temple, her priest and prophet at the
same time. It is (this ode) a song of love and creative
imagination, it represents something between “Ode on Indolence”
and “Ode to a Nightingale”. He wrote a letter contextualizing it:

The following poem, the last I have written is the first

and the only one which I have taken even moderate

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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

pains, I have for the most part dash’d off my lines in a


Again the theme of escapism seems to dominate the poem.

This time through fancy, imagination and madness. Keats
perhaps, when composing this ode, was suffering from a sort of
alienation and boredom that’s why he chose such imaginative
journey in the dreary areas of the self to explore hidden things.
Fancy in the elixir of life of this ode and almost all the odes.
Escape and again escape, but escape from what? No doubt from
melancholy, a feeling that changes essentially the perspective
from which the one sees life.

2.4) Ode on Melancholy

In a critical essay entitled “the ambiguity of melancholy”,

William Empson12 affirms that the ambiguity of the melancholy
ode resides in the paradox it represents:

Opposite notions combined in the poem include death

and sexual act… the conception of the woman as at once
a mistress and a mother, at once soothing and exiting,
whom one must master, to whom one must yield13.

The way those contradictions are associated and stated makes

direct appeal to the logical habits of the mind:

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud
That fasters the droop- heades flowers all
And hides the green hill in an April shroud14

For Keats, weeping produces the flowers of joy which are

themselves sorrowful, the hill is green and young, fresh and
Kenneth Allot, “the ode to psyche” in “John Keats’ odes”. odes p: 195
Wiliam Epson, “the ambiguity of melancholy” in “John Keats’ odes”. p: 146
Ibid. P : 147
Ode on melancholy, 2nd stanza
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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

springing, and April’s mouth is both rainy and part of spring

time. Either “Give rein to sorrow, at the mortality of beauty” or
“defeat sorrow by sudden excess and turn it to joy at the intensity
of sensation . Morning is parallel to April and pun with morning.
The flowers stand at once for the more available forms of beauty
and for the mistress at the meantime:

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows

Imprison her soft hand, and left her raw
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes15

The mistress that Keats speaks about is so in the beginning

because it represents some degree of joy

She dwells with beauty, beauty that must die

However, taking this verse as a meaningful unit proves that

this joy will not last long. This is an other instance of the co-
existence between joy and “veiled melancholy”; she is veiled
because only in the mistress of her ambivalence, true joy is
found. The mistress has become joy and melancholy, but above
all, she remains a mistress.

This ode is the only one written in he first person and the use
of the imperative mode to advise sufferers of melancholy springs
from the fact that this advice is the result of a hard-won
experience which deserves being taken into account. It is a
synthesis of al the odes, the passion and the fancy of the
“Nightingale”, the philosophy of the “Urn”, and the beautiful
descriptions of nature in the “Psyche”. Hence, it explores also the
nature of life and the connection of pleasure and pain.

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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

III –Beauty and melancholy, any correspondence

The first question that came to my mind when I chose to
work on this challenging topic was: How did Keats manage to
unite beauty and melancholy. The attempt to answer this question
needs, to my understanding, a deep semiological and semantic
study of the text to see what connotations every paradigm (within
a syntagm) can suggest.

But, assuming that my research is only an attempt to examine

the ways in which Keats did incorporate both beauty and
melancholy into his odes, I did rely on my own explication and
on some critical essays that are of a unique relevance.

Most critics consider Keats’ odes as philosophical texts since

they raise unprecedented existential and philosophical questions
such as that of the “Grecian Urn”: “beauty is truth, truth is

For Keats, no beauty leaves such an impression, strikes so

deep, or links the souls of men closer than beauty. He went for
the platonic conception of beauty which associates beauty with
virtue, good with wisdom; “On a Grecian Urn” illustrates clearly
this idea. Beauty and truth are interchangeable throughout this
ode. However, the emphasis was also put on the co-existence
between beauty and pain; the infatuation with life despite painful
moments that the one experiences. Beauty depends on the
perspective from which we see life not on life itself. Yet, Keats
tackles it with a tone of sadness and disappointment.

In fact, it was difficult to contextualize beauty within Keats’

odes. If melancholy is, essentially, a theme that governs almost
all the odes beauty is not so; it is a value given by the poet to the
elements of nature that he describes (autumn, Grecian Urn,
nightingale….). He has a more delicate perception of the beauty
than common people. The “Grecian Urn” presents, in fact, the
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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR

same world as the world of passions, a world which is introduced

to us by art:

In addition to these problems of the existence of the

imagination in some middle state-neither in heaven nor
on earth-these is the further difficulty of the coexistence
on earth of beauty and pain.16

Melancholy, as the Oxford dictionary provides, id a deep

feeling of sadness that lasts long and this applies to a further
extent to what the odes suggest:

Do you see ho necessary a world of pains and troubles is

to school in intelligence and make it a soul? A place
where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand
diverse way?17

What differentiates Keats from his contemporary romanticists

is the difficulty, the complexity, and the variety of hardships that
made him feel and experience pain. Hence, he keeps shifting from
optimism to pessimism and the other way around. He sometimes
reveals his love and infatuation with life, but in some other cases
he affirms that “the best way to live is to die”

Melancholy is the pot in which all the themes are melted. It is

the common characteristic. Horror of death, failure of love, and
the collapse of dreams are factors that aroused melancholy in
Keats. Melancholy is seen in love as in joy, pain and death. It
satisfies him since:

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might

And be among her cloudy trophies hung

“English poetry of the romantic period” 1789-1830, P : 280
“John Keats : the living year” , p : 131
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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR


In fact it was not an easy matter for me, as a little critic, to

deal with one of the greatest poets of English literature. But, I
considered this task as a challenge that I have to find a solution to
regardless of the modesty of my knowledge in the field and the
difficulties that I encountered in the process of my research.

Keats remains, in my opinion, the greatest poet of all the

romanticists of his age. Not only because his odes were of a
unique artistic value, but because he came up with new meanings,
suggestive of different connotations and somewhat difficult to
decode and interpret (if we want to speak in semiological terms).

His poetry has been, and still, a rich raw material for critics
to work on, and regardless of what interpretations they suggest,
the odes will always remain controversial, ambiguous, and
beautiful; neither Keats could turn his emotions and depressions
into clear words, nor could we interpret his words , and here lies
the magic and beauty of great poetry.

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The dialectics of beauty and melancholy in Keats' odes - Ahmed LAHMAR


- Fraser, G.S. John Keats’ odes. London: The

Macmillan Press, 1971.

- Gittings, Robert. John Keats, London: Heinemann,


- Gittings, Robert. John Keats: the living year,

London : Heinemann, 1978.

- Watson, J, R. English poetry of the romantic period

1789- 1830. London & New York: Longman 1985.

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I – Keats' socio-cultural background…………………2
II- Beauty and melancholy in the odes…………….…5
1) What are the odes?...................................................5
2) The incorporation of beauty and melancholy in
the odes………………………………………...……..6
2.1) Ode to a nightingale……...……...………….6
2.2) Ode on a Grecian Urn……...….……………7
2.3) Ode to a psyche……………......……………9
2.4) Ode on Melancholy………..…………...….11
III –Beauty and melancholy, any correspondence.....13