In the second stanza, the words “glut thy sorrow” encapsulate the poet’s prescription. Do not be afraid of melancholy: enjoy it. Look at all the beauty of nature, including the beauty in a beautiful woman’s eyes, and reflect upon the sad truth that none of it can last. Similar thoughts are expressed in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale.” The fragility and perishability of beauty evoke melancholy but make the beautiful object more precious.
Pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, delight and melancholy are opposite sides of the same coin: It is impossible to have one without the other. Anyone who is particularly sensible to beauty and pleasure is bound to be painfully susceptible to melancholy. Only the aesthetically sensitive person can appreciate the beauty of melancholy; melancholy adds dignity and spiritual significance to beauty. Vulgar, insensitive people will be afraid of it as of some threatening aberration and will try to escape from it with drugs or in extreme cases even in suicide.
Keats suggests throughout the poem that the way things look depends upon the emotional state of the observer. When one is in a melancholy state, things can look particularly vivid and beautiful. This impressionistic approach to artistic subjects became an enormously important movement throughout Europe and America later in the nineteenth century, and Keats may be regarded as one of its forerunners. It is not until almost the end of the poem that Keats uses the word Melancholy, with a capital “M,” personifying or reifying melancholy and turning it into a goddess. There was no goddess of melancholy in Greek or Roman mythology; Keats is creating his own mythology. By doing this, he is suggesting that melancholy can be more than an aesthetic experience—it is actually akin to a religious experience—and implying that the numinous quality of the experience frightens unworthy people into seeking escape through oblivion.
The three stanzas of the “Ode on Melancholy” address the subject of how to cope with sadness. The first stanza tells what not to do: The sufferer should not “go to Lethe,” or forget their sadness (Lethe is the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology); should not commit suicide (nightshade, “the ruby grape of Prosperpine,” is a poison; Prosperpine is the mythological queen of the underworld); and should not become obsessed with objects of death and misery (the beetle, the death-moth, and the owl). For, the speaker says, that will make the anguish of the soul drowsy, and the sufferer should do everything he can to remain aware of and alert to the depths of his suffering.
In the second stanza, the speaker tells the sufferer what to do in place of the things he forbade in the first stanza. When afflicted with “the melancholy fit,” the sufferer should instead overwhelm his sorrow with natural beauty, glutting it on the morning rose, “on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,” or in the eyes of his beloved. In the third stanza, the speaker explains these injunctions, saying that pleasure and pain are inextricably linked: Beauty must die, joy is fleeting, and the flower of pleasure is forever “turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”