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The Magnificence of Melancholy...

What Was Once Thought A Curse, I Think Is Lovely

The hauntingly beautiful painting by Hendrick ter Brugghen has stayed with me for many years, I keep going to visit it each time I go to see the main exhibits at the Art Gallery of Ontario. There I stand in front of the"Melancholia" for as long as I am able, like visiting an old friend, absorbing the vapours of spirit that eminate from the oil and canvass. For some unearthly reason, I seem to always whisper in the presence of the masterpiece out of respect for the artist and the emotions it evoke within me...

Melancholia exemplifies what a great piece of art is - something that inspires awe, evokes a special emotional response that is eternal, and timeless.

Hundreds of years ago, melancholia was treated as a branch of women's hysteria, the melancholic was unbalanced humors and required bleeding or some other removal. Having always had a melancholy disposition, I think it is absolutely something in the blood, but not something that requires an exorcism, but to be embraced, appreciated, savored because it is not a bad place it is helps one treasure the glimpses of joy that flicker and fade, but are fleeting.

There is an incredible, enchanting poem written in 1819 by John Keats, called ODE ON MELANCHOLY, which, like me, celebrated melancholy's beauty as one would revere an ancient veiled goddess come to earth for a momentary gaze of her creations. The poem celebrated the fleeting, transitory, perishability or life...For all that lives must die, all that grows must decay, and all that is built, eventually crumbles. Steeped in the macabre with its mystical magnificence, the alchemical elements and mythic references of Medusa, Psyche, Perserpine, mixed with the floral herbal witchiness, entangle to create such a marvelous "word picture" in my mind's eye.

All returns to the dust, the elemental particles, the stardust from whence we came, but we are while we are an enchanting, precious, sacred creature. Melancholy becomes like a phantasm, kindly spectre, or fairy that places a balm on your soul so that you feel not anguish nor despair, but feel the purity of sadness, sorrow, that are pleasant reminders of the opposites to come.

Here is the poem, with the *original stanza restored, is even more beautiful, poweful and ghostly. The supernatural and fanciful imagery of ghost galleons, a fleshy Frankensteined sail, and dragon-dead dragon remnants, Medusa's skull works for me. It reads:

Ode on Melancholy

*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, bloodstained 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.

No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist

Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss'd

By nightshade, ruby grape of Persepine;

Make not your rosary of yew-berries,

Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be

Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl

A partner in your sorrow's mysteries;

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,

And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall

Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

And hides the green will in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

Or on the wealth of globed peonies;

Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,

Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,

And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.

She dwells with Beauty---Beauty that must die;

And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips

Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,

Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:

Ay, in the very temple of Delight

Veil'd Melancholy has her soveran shrine,

Though seen of none save him whose trenuous tongue

Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;

His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,

And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

John Keats



Keats, John. "Ode on Melancholy." The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 1. 5th Edition, Volume 1. Ed. M.H. Abrams, et al, New York: Norton, 1987.

By Carmen Zavislake

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