My New Year’s Resolution: “. . . glut thy sorrow on a morning rose . . .”

The beautiful poison Yew Berries

The beautiful poison Yew Berries

Everyone over 50 years old has a 50-50 chance of recognizing those poetic words, perhaps even remembering where they are from. Everyone who went to high school before AP English ruined education, that is (1).

There I go, taking the part of the grump on New Year’s Day. Sorry. Broke my New Year’s Resolution already.


A critic says this poem by John Keats (1795-1821) is among the ten most significant poems in the English language. The poem is Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” one that people my age or older were likely to have been assigned to read in high school. I know I was.

The poem is written, one might think, somehow in praise of melancholy. It is quite the opposite. A bit more of the context reveals Keats’s advice that

. . . when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud . . .
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave . . .

Find yourself a morning rose to take your mind off your melancholy. The poem is not an ode “to” melancholy, as I for so long misunderstood. Don’t, Keats says, look for release from your sorrow in the poisonous yew-berry or the death-moth. (Fans of Silence of the Lambs know about the death-moth.) Don’t’ go looking for symbols of death, but of life.

Sounds like good advice to me.

That’s not going to be an easy task for me. My default mode is to find all the death-moths and deadly yew-berries I can—or it’s the other way ‘round. They come looking for me. That’s what clinical depression is all about. Last night, waiting for a friend to pick me up to go to a meeting, I was sitting in my favorite (permanent) depression on my sofa, crying. Don’t ask me why. It was not the New Year’s fireworks exploding over the Sydney Opera House the 6 o’clock PBS Newshour was showing. It was not the (moderate) pain from the small surgical procedure I had yesterday morning. It was nothing.

The beautiful Death Moth

The beautiful Death Moth

Here’s my New Year’s Resolution. When “the melancholy fit shall fall/Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud . . .” I am going to find a “wealth of globèd peonies” and learn to let melancholy “rave,/  And feed deep, deep upon her [own] peerless eyes.”

Truth be told, I have on my refrigerator door (yes, I know it’s tacky to post things on the refrigerator door—Nate Berkus would not approve, but until someone calls him to come and “do-“ my apartment “over,” I don’t care) a list of actions to take when I find myself slipping into an unfathomable depression. The first item on the list is, “Call someone.” The rest are as simple. I can do them. I have done them before. I kept myself out of the hospital at least once in 2013 by following the rules.

Yesterday on her talk show on KERA radio, Krys Boyd replayed her interview from last summer with Adam Leith Gollner, a young whipper-snapper (37 years old) who last year published a book titled The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic behind Living Forever (Scribner, 2013). Only a 37-year-old would have the presumption to publish a book with that title.

He hasn’t yet had enough time even to imagine what it means to ask the question whether or not we will (can) live forever. It’s all a mind-game with him (listen to the interview at the link). I heard part of the interview on my way home from my minor surgery (I listened to the entire interview the day it first happened).

Gollner sounds as if the subject is great fun to think (and do plenteous research) about. Wait until he’s two days short of 69. He will realize that it is not a subject for clever (he’s more than that—he’s probably brilliant) young men to research and talk about.

I am two days short of my 69th birthday. I am giving notice right now. My writing about, pondering, questioning—even being frightened by—the subject of my own mortality (and yours, too, if you’re ready to think about it) this year is not, I repeat,

It’s one of the things a person my age must think about. And talk about. Or write about. If we are the only creatures who know we are going to die, then knowing it as fully as possible makes us fully human.

I know when to put myself under the direction of that list on my refrigerator door. However, when I am contemplating the most serious concept we can consider, I do not need to “call someone,” or “take a walk.”

John Keats was only 26 years old when he died. Like Adam Leith Gollner he had no business contemplating death when he wrote his “Ode on Melancholy.” But, unlike Mr. Gollner, I’m pretty sure Keats knew the difference between death-awareness and melancholy.

I do, too.

Imagine standing in the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The procession is lining up at the back of the church, and the organist is playing, waiting for the signal the clergy are ready for the Mass to begin. It’s the 16th century and Girolamo Frescobaldi is the organist, the music his “Toccata before the Sunday Mass.”

I know no music that sounds more as if something important is about to begin.

When you read the writing of an old person like me about the reality of being human, take it as the music just before something important is to begin.

(1) Bernstein, Kenneth. “Warnings from the Trenches.” Academe 99.1 (2013): 32-36.  “. . the AP course required that a huge amount of content be covered, meaning that too much effort is spent on learning information and perhaps insufficient time on wrestling with the material at a deeper level . . . From what I saw from the free response questions I read, too many students in AP courses were not getting depth in their learning and lacked both the content knowledge and the ability to use [write] what content knowledge they had.” |
(2) John Keats. 1795–1821. 628. Ode on Melancholy:

NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
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 hill 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 globèd 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 sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous 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.

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