The Physician, the Philosopher, the Poet: Ode on Melancholy

Millennia ago in ancient Greece a medical system evolved, out of even earlier Egyptian and Hindu beliefs, which aimed to understand the inner workings of the human body. At the hands of Hippocrates, (Greek physician, and ‘Father of Medicine’, c.460-370BC), the four humours were born.

Hippocrates believed that the human body was composed of four vital fluids:

  1. blood,
  2. phlegm,
  3. yellow bile, and
  4. black bile.

Total internal equilibrium was understood as the key to good health; bad health was attributed to an excess or insufficiency of one or more of these fluids.

Theories surrounding the influence of the fluids continued to develop. Each was associated with specific types of food, types of pain, areas of the body, and temperaments. The four vital fluids became the four humours:

  1. sanguine,
  2. phlegmatic,
  3. choleric, and
  4. melancholic.

The melancholic temperament, born of an excess of black bile, is the basis for melancholia – a gloomy state of sorrow, which in medical terms is a form of extreme depression, and in poetic terms is incredibly Gothic.

In 17th century Britain, it was this humour that Robert Burton (Oxford University scholar, 1577-1640) dedicated himself to. The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was his life’s work – an endless tome of psychological theories and findings, which grew with Burton across the years.

‘Robert Burton’, Gilbert Jackson (1635) | Wiki Commons

Though released under the pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’, The Anatomy of Melancholy may, in part, have been composed by way of self-treatment; “I write of melancholy,” Burton explains in his preface, “by being busy to avoid melancholy.” The problem is that, as one comes to expect with a 5-time revised epic treatise on the fluids of sadness, Burton has a sense of humour. Complete with a warning that melancholy men had actually better avoid his words, it’s not quite clear to the uninitiated (which I admit I am) where sadness, satire, and sincere advice begin and, assuming they ever do, end…

Fortunately, the Burton-initiated do exist, and a very special insight is available right here… but judging by that cheeky face, I will hazard a guess that Burton was a constant, albeit melancholic, joker.

Before then, why not look to Burton’s early readers for a little more context? Both Samuel Johnson (English writer, 1709-1784), of English Dictionary fame, and our dear John Keats (English Romantic poet, 1795-1821) apparently named The Anatomy of Melancholy amongst their favourite books. And Keats and Thomas Warton (English poet laureate and Graveyard poet, 1785-1790) both wrote poems on the melancholy, under the influence of Burton.

Keats was fascinated by Burton’s Melancholy. He expressed his adoration as many of us here do, interacting with the text through annotations and marginalia. And, in 1819, Keats paid Burton the highest, posthumous compliment: he penned a poem – an ode – which I have included for you to enjoy, below.

Keats’ own annotated copy of Burton’s ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’, Keats House Museum | © Generally Gothic

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 kiss’d
       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 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 sovran shrine,
               Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
       Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
               And be among her cloudy trophies hung.

– John Keats, 1820

What do you make of Keats’ representation of melancholy, veiled and in a temple of delight? Let’s chat below!


If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider making a small contribution towards my next tea or coffee, for they are the fluids vital to the equilibrium of this blog!

This piece is published as part of both my Dark Poetics and my Horrible Histories series – continue reading on Keats, or Burton (coming soon!), or click through the titles to explore all the articles in each series.

5 thoughts on “The Physician, the Philosopher, the Poet: Ode on Melancholy

  1. Excited for the Burton post! I knew Keats was a fan, but don’t know much about him. I’ve read this poem a few times before, but these lines jumped out to me in particular this time:

    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.

    Of all the odes, I never paid “Melancholy” as much attention as it deserved, and I love this sense of those who spout joy and happiness being exposed to that true, inner sorrow. It comes up a lot even now, like when Robin Williams died. It’s very sad.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sam! Sorry I didn’t reply sooner – what an incredibly insightful parallel to make.
    Yes, I love those lines; the alluring imagery of Melancholy as woman, the palpable pain and suffering. Keats has always been a mixture of melancholy and joy in my mind, and I think you’ve highlighted a moment where he describes that dichotomy perfectly. Thank you so much for sharing! ♥

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dammit. I didn’t mean to press send and can’t work out how to delete the comment (just call me a boomer). Anyway, I agree it’s that strange mix of joy and melancholy that makes him such a great poet, he does both extremes so well! Will always appreciate Keats content 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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