The reader is not to go to the underworld (Lethe), nor to drink wolf's-bane (a poison), nor to take nightshade (also a poison), nor to have anything to do with yew-berries, the beetle, the death-moth, and the owl (all symbolic of death). Death and all things associated with it numb the experience of anguish. When a melancholy mood comes to the individual, he should feed it by observing the beauty of roses, rainbows, and peonies. Or if the one he loves is angry, let him hold her hand and feed on the loveliness of her eyes. Melancholy dwells with beauty, "beauty that must die," joy, and pleasure. It is to be found at the very heart of delight, but only the strongly sensuous man perceives it there. He is the one who can have the deepest experience of melancholy.
The "Ode to Melancholy" belongs to a class of eighteenth-century poems that have some form of melancholy as their theme. Such poetry came to be called the "Graveyard School of Poetry" and the best-known example of it is Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." The romantic poets inherited this tradition. One of the effects of this somber poetry about death, graveyards, the brevity of pleasure and of life was a pleasing feeling of melancholy.
Keats' special variation on the theme was to make the claim that the keenest experience of melancholy was to be obtained not from death but from the contemplation of beautiful objects because they were fated to die. Therefore the most sensuous man, the man who can "burst Joy's grape against his palate fine," as Keats put it in a striking image, is capable of the liveliest response to melancholy. Keats' own experience of life and his individual temperament made him acutely aware of the close relationship between joy and sorrow. His happiness was constantly being chipped away by frustration. He was himself a very sensuous individual. In the "Ode to Melancholy," Keats, instead of rejecting melancholy, shows a healthy attraction toward it, for unless one keenly experiences it, he cannot appreciate joy.
The abruptness with which "Ode to Melancholy" begins is accounted for by the fact that the stanza with which the poem begins was originally the second stanza. The original first stanza was
Though you should build a bark of dead men's bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, blood-stained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a dragon's tail
Long sever'd, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa, certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy — whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull.
We don't know why Keats rejected this original beginning stanza, but we can guess. He was straining to create images of death that would convey something of the repulsiveness of death — to give the reader a romantic shudder of the Gothic kind — and what he succeeded in doing was repulsive instead of delicately suggestive and was out of keeping with what he achieved in the rest of the poem. Moreover, he may have felt that two stanzas on death were more than enough. The stanza is crude and Keats realized it.
The stanza with which Keats decided to begin the poem is startling, but not crude. Keats brought together a remarkable collection of objects in the stanza. Lethe is a river in the classical underworld. Wolfsbane and nightshade are poisonous plants. The yew-berry is the seed (also poisonous) of the yewtree, which, because it is hardy and an evergreen, is traditionally planted in English graveyards. Replicas of a black beetle were frequently placed in tombs by Egyptians; to the Egyptians, the scarab or black beetle was a symbol of resurrection, but to Keats they were a symbol of death because of their association with tombs. The death-moth or butterfly represented the soul leaving the body at death. The owl was often associated with otherworldly symbols because of its nocturnal habits and its ominous hooting. Death is the common denominator of the displays in Keats' museum of natural history. The language of the stanza is vastly superior to that of the discarded stanza. Nothing in it can compare with calling nightshade the "ruby grape of Proserpine," the queen of the underworld, nor with making a rosary of yew-berries and thereby automatically suggesting prayers for the dying or the dead. The stanza is one of the richest and strangest in Keats' poetry.