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Keats’s Gleaming Melancholy: A Reading of Endymion


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1It may seem paradoxical to analyse the nature and the work of melancholy in Keats’s poetic creation without concentrating on the celebrated “Ode on Melancholy”, written in May 1819, in the height of the annus mirabilis. And it may seem somewhat provocative to choose instead Endymion, written two years before, in 1817, a notoriously “long poem”, as critics (taking up Keats’s own phrase) usually say to present it— a hardly engaging epithet to the 20th or 21st century poetry reader who shares Ezra Pound’s opinion that “It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works”. Endymion is thus a poem that Keats’s critics never approach with much happiness and regard, with some condescension, as the product of a juvenile exercise in verse writing: “one of the most diluted poems in a century often given to poetic dilution”, which makes it (in comparison with Keats’s later production, especially that of the odes) “the most atypical of Keats’s major poems”, so that “the admirer of Keats, though prepared to be indulgent to every awkwardness and excess, has never really found the poem as a whole to be as interesting as he secretly thinks he should find it”. I am quoting Walter Jackson Bate who points out as well, in his authoritative book on Keats, the confusing and hardly significant economy of a text in whose making the young, inexperienced poet “kept adding details, snatching at embellishments as mere filler as he dashed forward”, uncertain as to where the composition might lead (171-4).

2I would like in this paper to challenge that widely accepted view and to offer a thorough revaluation of the poem by showing that Endymion is indeed a myth of melancholy, and that read systematically as such, it emerges as a fully consistent, significant and profound text. It is a text, I mean, that poses and works at solving — through its so called “details” and “embellishments” — a crucial problem of poetics which is that of the so to speak impossible relation between melancholy and writing; and as such, it lays out the field—the problematic field—of Keats’s poetic writing, that very writing which is to produce the masterpieces of the great year.


3To the reader familiar, as Keats was, with Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, there is no doubt that Keats, in his description of Endymion throughout the Ist Book and more particularly in the opening scenes, is projecting an image of the melancholy self. Central to the scene of pagan celebration, as “shepherd prince”, and yet psychologically absent to the scene he is central to, Endymion offers some of the main features of Burton’s symptomatology: the sorrow without a cause but that “goes deep”, to quote a phrase from the Aristotelian description of melancholy in the Problems(Radden 58); the search for solitary places where the self can commune with his affect, as if his own affect was his object for want of a real one; the withdrawal, therefore, from the vital bonds woven by Eros, from inter-subjective connections and the life around him, which makes him “quite dead to every worldly thing” (IV.292), or again, as Keats will later write in “The Eve of Saint Agnes” (in the description of a female variant of the melancholy self) “All amort” to everything except to her (or his) secret longing or secret sorrow. And the insistent signifier in Keats’s text, “dead”, “amort”, points to a further symptom, a symptom mentioned indeed, among many others in most of the traditional discussions of the “black bile” disease, but which grows central in the image of the Keatsian hero who really seems haunted by a death wish, by something very much like the death drive to be discovered by Freud (XXII 103-8), namely that force which tends to destroy the motions and the bonds of Eros, thus dedicating the self it inhabits to Thanatos: a death drive which the Keatsian hero both inscribes in his body by mimetically assuming the stasis of death, as “in the self-same fixed trance he kept...Aye, even as dead-still as a marble man” (I.403-5), and projects in objective correlatives that surround his image like a death halo in the eyes of those who observe him: “But there were some who feelingly would scan / A lurking trouble in his nether lip… then would they sigh, / And think of yellow leaves, of owlet’s cry, / Of logs piled solemnly” (I.178-83), a sequence of emblematic images which looks, one may already observe, like a first draft of the opening stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy” in its evocation of the deathward attraction.

4Keats’s poem thus has as its referent a melancholic character. But what is more essential, is that it constitutes itself, as poem, as a text of melancholy by defining itself fundamentally, at the outset, as the field of a tension between two spaces alien to each other, say that of silence and that of speech. It does this by performing the double ritual that generally opens up the poetic narrative in the great tradition (that of the epic, that of medieval romance), namely that of the “proposition” (or statement of theme) coupled with that of the “invocation” (or propitiatory appeal to the Muse). Keats’s romance adopts—or pretends to adopt— the canonical ritual, but splits it up into two separate channels that lead into the two alien spaces. And that textual staging takes us no doubt far beyond Burton’s landscape of symptoms into the deeper problematics of melancholy.

5“Invocation”: beyond the conventional address to the Muse by the narrator’s discourse (“O kindly Muse! let not my tongue falter / In telling…”, I.128-34), the true invocation comes indeed within the narrative itself, in the reported speech of Pan’s worshippers as they both invoke the god and evoke his mysteries in a gorgeous, already ode-like lyric in five stanzas (I.232-306)—the purple patch, incidentally, which the young Keats was once invited to recite before the lionized Wordsworth and which Wordsworth declared, presumably to the young Keats’s embarrassment, “a very pretty piece of paganism”. More seriously, in this lyric, Keats interprets the figure of Pan as a life-force, a life-god “to whom every faun and satyr flies / For willing service” (I.263-4), so as a permanent movement and interplay of energy within the living, in other words as an allegory of drive-life. But what is most specific to Keats’s vision—and what Wordsworth obviously failed to see—is that the mysterious realm of Pan is not only a locus of instincts or of drives, but somehow a locus of signifiers, since those drives seek after expression, they exist as inscriptions as well as energy-charges, producing “strange overgrowth[s]” (I.241), uttering “undescribed sounds” (I.285). The realm of the Keatsian Pan, therefore, is not symbolic (it is not a place of words and of signification), but it is nonetheless a place of meaning, a field of primary inscriptions, of traces and structuring rhythms—made audible on the supra-segmental level of the text in pulsating alliterations, like that of “the dreary melody of bedded reeds” (I.239). It is thus a place, one might say, which corresponds to that infra or pre-symbolic field which Julia Kristeva has defined as the “semiotic”, namely the psychic marks and imprints wrought by the drives as they displace and condense energy in the psychosomatic world of the emerging self(Revolution in Poetic Language 25).

6The realm of Pan is thus a locus where it speaks. And what it speaks about is loss, an inconsolable sense of loss, and here lies Keats’s ground-breaking exploration of melancholy. Melancholy is no longer a sadness without a cause, but a sadness with a secret cause, which is the loss of a primordial object, a loss with which the self cannot come to terms:

O thou, whose mighty palace roof doth hang
From jagged trunks, and overshadoweth
Eternal whispers, glooms, the birth, life, death
Of unseen flowers in heavy peacefulness;...
And through whole solemn hours dost sit, and hearken
The dreary melody of bedded reeds—
In desolate places, where dank moisture breeds
The pipy hemlock to strange overgrowth;
Bethinking thee, how melancholy loth
Thou wast to lose fair Syrinx... (I.232-43)

7In this picture of Pan as a self-absorbed being forever brooding over an object he has lost and yet cannot lose, over a Thing for which there is no possible mourning, Keats offers us, so to speak, his own Melancholia, his own version, I mean, of Dürer’s celebrated engraving, but a version that probes deeper into the essence of melancholy, since it pictures the void at the heart of the brooding figure—of the brooding angel or the brooding god—: the Thing’s absence which is Melancholia’s secret centre.

8Keats’s mythological representation of the lost Thing, moreover, as Syrinx (whose story is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses) is fully significant in that Syrinx-the-nymph in her primal state (the love object the god has lost) will be finally transformed into Syrinx-the-instrument (so a metonymy of musical expression), which amounts to say that Pan could enjoy her as transposed, that he could relate to her symbolically, if only he first accepted to lose her as Thing, as the Thing she was in her primal state: a double process of gain through loss which is in fact the destiny of the self as he becomes a subject of language, as he acquires the mastery of signs by losing all immediate relation to a primal love object. This process of loss as the price to pay to enter the symbolic order is what Pan is “loth” to go through: melancholy-loth-to-lose, an extraordinarily dense formula, a Keats created lexeme which captures the essence of melancholy as we can understand it to-day in the light of Freudian analysis(XIV 237-58) and still more of Kristeva’s further development of Freudian theory, namely as “the impossible mourning for the maternal Thing” (Black Sun 9) in a self that doesn't know how to lose, that fundamentally rejects, therefore, the symbol which would represent the object and thereby inscribe its otherness, and that remains nostalgically riveted to it in a speechless space—the secret lair of Pan—, sheltered from all symbolic alienation, withdrawn in a bitter-sweet asymbolia where (in the words of Kristeva) “he gives up signifying and submerges in the silence of pain or the spasm of tears that celebrate reunion with the Thing” (41).

9Endymion the hero is thus a surface projection of the melancholic god. He is “melancholy loth”, as well, to lose an object he has met in dream—and we know, after Freud, the “regressive” nature of dream, how the dream-world is fundamentally connected with the archaeology of the subject. The object Endymion longs after is, in the first Book at least, unnamed, which means unnameable (“Cynthia”, “Diana”, the names that will appear later will be but Keats’s concession to mythological tradition). Unsignifiable, it is not, therefore, a love object properly speaking (i.e. an other to whom the subject relates in desire), but a Thing in the Lacanian sense: an archaic other that escapes representation, that “prehistoric Other that it is impossible to forget,... something strange to me, although it is at the heart of me” (The Seminar VII 71), so a symbiotic not-yet-other with which the not-yet-subject is (or was) at one. Endymion’s dream experiences, as he recalls them, are indeed fantasies of ecstatic fusion with elements and landscapes which are cosmic avatars of the Thing’s body, imaginary encounters exclusive of any third, mediating agency: mute identifications with the Thing which are the way the melancholic self unites with the lost object by losing himself as a subject in death fantasies. The enclosed places Endymion keeps haunting in the first Book—arbours, grottoes, hollows—are places for “dying”: both tombs where the buried Thing can be joined in death, and wombs for the dying subject to be incorporated. They are thus, like Pan’s dwelling, speechless spaces, since being true to the unsignifiable Thing means remaining a stranger to the world of signs. And that is why Keats’s hero, as he is described in the first Book, is fundamentally divided, split into a subject that speaks and a being of silence: he is a speaking and even highly articulate subject, but a subject whose speech is like a “foreign language” to him (Black Sun 55), i.e. a speech disconnected from the affective field, as abstract as it may be brilliant, like the famous lecture he delivers to his sister about “happiness” and “fellowship with essence” (I.777-842), a brilliant paper, if I may say so, which Keatsian criticism has often highlighted as the gist of Keats’s ethics, but which I rather see, in an ironical perspective, as a symptom of the gap within the melancholic self. For the self, while speaking, is elsewhere: in those grottoes, in those crypts of silence where it seems “rich to die”, to anticipate a line of the future “Ode to a Nightingale”, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die”.


10Melancholy’s rich death, the silence of melancholia, is thus, I should say, Keats’s fundamental temptation. From this temptation, projected in the Melancholia of the “invocation”, the subject can only be saved through a reconciliation—a problematic reconciliation— with the symbolic order. And this is precisely the function of the other facet of the split up epic opening, that of the “proposition”. Keats launches it as a kind of rite of entry, as a speaking or writing ritual, by displacing its object from the theme of the forthcoming narrative (i.e. the story of the hero) to the process of narrating, from the hero’s spatial journey through the elements of the world to the journey of writing in creative time:

Therefore, ‘tis with full happiness that I
Will trace the story of Endymion...
                                I will begin
Now while I cannot hear the city’s din;
Now while the early budders are just new...
                                And as the year
Grows lush in juicy stalks, I’ll smoothly steer
My little boat, for many quiet hours...
O may no wintry season, bare and hoary
See it half finish’d: but let Autumn bold,
With universal tinge of sober gold,
Be all about me when I make an end.
And now at once, adventuresome, I send
My herald thought into a wilderness. (I.34-59)

11In a world that feels the spell of melancholy, writing is not taken for granted, it is what is at stake. Language will not “express” melancholy—whose heart is silence—, it will rather counteract it: counteract it, that is, without cancelling it, for if the silence of melancholy is to be abolished, its jouissance should be preserved.

12Can the silence of melancholy, in other words, be articulated? Such is the aporia, the highly problematic issue which the Keatsian myth sets out to explore. It does this by bringing into play two agencies, a melancholic third person—I should rather say a “no-person”, for here Benveniste’s grammatical concept(251-7) takes on a specific significance, that of the dead subject, so to speak, of melancholy—, and a writing or narrating “I”, strongly established, as has been observed, in the “proposition” ritual (“I narrate”, “I write”): thus two agencies, heroic no-person and subject of enunciation, wide apart in the narrative grammar but included in a myth that will work, somehow, at their problematic coalescence in the field of a new language and which is, therefore, a myth of creation.

13The three following Books of Endymion, whose theme is the hero’s journey into the depths of earth, sea and air, will be no other than this work towards coalescence, a work along which the no-person gives itself over to the abysses of melancholic depression while the subject, far from negating or erasing those abysses, offers them their richest representation, making literally the melaina kole shine through the power of words in new gorgeous Melancholias: to Endymion, descending into the earth’s depths,

‘Twas far too strange and wonderful for sadness;
Sharpening, by degrees, his appetite
To dive into the deepest. Dark, nor light,
The region; no bright, nor sombre wholly,
But mingled up; a gleaming melancholy;
A dusky empire and its diadems;
One faint eternal eventide of gems. (II.219-25)

14Fashioning the black sun is acknowledging the empire of melancholy; but it is at the same time finding in the very fashioning, in the making of the artefact, an “appetite”, a jouissance in the mastery of signs which transcends melancholy’s speechless voluptuousness. And it is also, implicitly, recognizing the loss that opens the way to the symbolic “appetite”, and thereby saving oneself as a subject.

15This rescue of the death driven self through his connection with the symbolic will be the programme of Endymion’s voyages in Books II and III: for in his journey through earth and sea he will be confronted with implicit analogies of himself in melancholy, with representations—significantly taken from the cultural thesaurus—and thus summoned to recognize his own image in a series of “mirror stages”, so to speak, in which his ego will be reshaped and secured. The scene of Adonis asleep in the 2nd Book, “safe in the privacy / Of this still region all his winter sleep” (II.481-82), an ambiguous image of death as well of rest within a primal body reflecting Endymion’s own melancholic state; again, later in the Book, the dialogue of Alpheus and Arethusa whose theme is the pursuit of an impossible union, a further reflection of Endymion’s search for the lost Thing: those are meta-narratives that tend to free the self from a speechless or purely semiotic field of experience through the threefold mediation of mythological lore, scenic representation and narrative discourse, and thus to reinsert him fully into the symbolic.

16The process will be carried on in the 3rd Book where Endymion, now in his underwater journey, encounters a new specular image as he discovers

                       far in the concave green of the sea
An old man sitting calm and peacefully.
Upon a weeded rock this old man sat,
And his white hair was awful, and a mat
Of weeds were cold beneath his cold thin feet;
And, ample as the largest winding-sheet,
A cloak of blue wrapp’d up his aged bones,
O’erwrought with symbols... (III.191-8)

17The concave mirror is the poem’s way of producing a misshapen reflection of melancholy’s asymbolia so that its attraction may be cancelled. Adonis asleep, a still enticing image of melancholy’s stasis in the 2nd Book, is now reshaped as Glaucus, a cadaverized figure on the frontier of life and death, whose story—related in a new meta-narrative— is a reflection of Endymion’s might-be, or might-have-been, had he remained under the sway of melancholy’s asymbolia. Unable to come to terms with the loss of Scylla, “melancholy loth” to lose her, Glaucus has grown alienated from the symbolic: the “cloak... o’erwrought with symbols”, a metaphor of the symbolic order, hangs around him like a disused garment, somewhat like the discarded geometric symbols, creative of form, strewing the ground around Dürer’s Angel of Melancholia, for he has let himself be carried away, “dead drifting” (Keats’s own phrase, III.417) to the realm of a fascinating but lethal female (the enchantress Circe) in that kind of Letheward self-surrender which will be repudiated in the opening stanza of the “Ode on Melancholy”.

18Glaucus thus enters the myth in Book III as a negative of the poetic subject the Keatsian myth is trying to generate. And it is that counter-model of the poetic that Endymion is called upon to exorcize by what the narrator calls an “achievement high” (III.714): he puts on the “cloak... o’erwrought with symbols”, the thesaurus of signs where “every ocean form / Was woven in with black distinctness” (III.199-200), thus putting an end to all imaginary identification with the lost Thing and identifying instead with a third dimension, the symbolic, and re-anchoring the melancholy self to the universe of signs: signs through which the self will relate to things as separate potential objects of desire. Armed with the power of the cloak, Endymion resurrects the dead bodies—that of Scylla and those of the beloved that lay dormant, submerged under the sea—by spreading over them the letters of the manuscript whose existence Glaucus had forgotten: in other words he retrieves the departed as signs, words, signifying forms in the field of representation and of artifice.

19In this sense, Endymion’s high achievement is, one might say, the Keatsian version of Orpheus, that is of a triumphant Orpheus, so indeed an inverted Orpheus who would accept to lose Eurydice so as to be able to signify her or evoke her through the power of song and to meet her again in the world of representation: an Orpheus, therefore, who would be ready to translate the beloved in order to create the song, to betray the Thing in order to make the poem. Here is no doubt a decisive progress in the Keatsian myth, since at that point, in his Orphic role, the melancholic no-person tends to merge into the poetic subject. Endymion’s journeyings now tend to become the metaphor of a poetic dis-course where the desiring subject moves though a “diamond path”, from “gem” to “gem” (to reintroduce imagery from the 2nd Book), from poetic image to poetic image, from “thing of beauty” to “thing of beauty” in a metonymic movement which is, as Lacan has shown, the essence of desire.

Poetics of melancholy

20Keats’s Endymion, then, is no neoplatonic romance, but a myth of creation: a myth that defines poetic creation as a problematic interplay between the mobility of desire and the stasis of melancholy, between speech and silence. And it is precisely this work of creation which is displayed in the 4th Book, and more particularly in a lyric, the so called “Ode to Sorrow” (IV.145-290), which thus functions indeed as a “mise en abyme” of the whole myth. The “Indian Maid” who sings it will function of course (later in the Book) as a potential substitutive erotic object to Endymion, an object of desire both like and (inevitably) unlike the lost Thing—hence her constant anamorphosis, her shifting between two figures, in a scenario which, incidentally, strangely seems to prefigure Bunuel’s Obscure Object of Desire. But she is, to begin, in her lyrical role, a sexually inverted double of Endymion, since she portrays herself as a melancholic female fixated to the image of a lost divine lover. Now the “I” that speaks in the lyric is a poetic subject who constructs himself through the circular movement of a rondeau that evokes desire and melancholy in a virtually permanent interplay: celebrating melancholy’s silent stasis in the seven opening stanzas, the lyric comes round to it in the three closing ones; and in between—thus both following and preceding the melancholy stasis—the central stanzas develop an exuberant counter-theme of Dionysian revelry in the evocation of the orgiastic pageant of “Bacchus and his crew”: a “very pretty piece of paganism” as well (as Wordsworth might have said), but more essentially, in Keats’s vision, a powerful and ceaseless motion, “Onward” and “Onward”, “thorough kingdoms wide”, “Over wide streams and mountains”, so an insatiable pursuit after ever new objects which is as such an epiphany of desire, namely, in the words of Lacan, that “frenzy mocking the abyss of the infinite” and which “amounts to no other derangement of instinct than that of being caught in the rails—eternally stretching forth toward the desire for something else—of metonymy”(Ecrits 166-7).

21That singular space where the frenzied song of desire both counteracts and feeds on the silence of melancholy—for without melancholy’s inconsolable sense of loss there would be no desire—, that interplay between the symbolic and melancholy’s asymbolia, is for Keats the field of the poetic. Hence the persistence to the very end of the Endymion myth (and counterpointing Endymion’s new love attachment) of the melancholy theme and notably the composition of a final Melancholia in the description of the “Cave of Quietude”, visited—and virtually to be ever revisited— by the hero now merged with the poetic subject:

                                           There lies a den,
Beyond the seeming confines of the space
Made for the soul to wander in and trace
Its own existence, of remotest glooms.
Dark regions are around it, where the tombs
Of buried griefs the spirits sees, but scarce
One hour doth linger weeping, for the pierce
Of new-born woe it feels more inly smart:
And in these regions many a venom’d dart
At random flies; they are the proper home
Of every ill: the man is yet to come
Who hath not journeyd in this native hell.
But few have ever felt how calm and well
Sleep may be had in that deep den of all. (IV.512-25)

22This is maybe the most impressive of Keats’s Melancholias, a composition in which melancholy is painted as a place, a place both within the self and for the self to be within: a silent psychic inside the subject keeps within himself, a crypt of sadness, but of a sadness which, as unspeakable, allows an imaginary fusional reunion with the Thing. The silent crypt is thus, as well, a place to dwell in, in silent jouissance, a protective wrapping that recreates the lost body: “Happy gloom! / Dark Paradise!” (IV.537-8), as it is finally evoked by a text which is thus an unsurpassable nostalgic dedication to the never-lost-mother and yet, as a symbolic construct, an inscription of her death in the very performance of the amorous writing which erects the poetic construct into a new sublimated erotic object. One might recall here, as an illuminating counterpoint to the Melancholia, Keats’s later confession, in one of his letters, “I look upon fine phrases like a lover” (vol.2, 139).

23I hope I have shown, in this reading, that Endymion, far from being “the most atypical” of Keats’s poems, is a text that lays the foundations of Keats’s poetics, establishing it as a poetics of melancholy , in other words defining poetic writing as, I should say, a profound artifice: an artifice forever haunted by the silence which underlies it. This perilous oscillation of the creative process, thus dramatized in the Endymion myth, will be replayed precisely in the great “Ode on Melancholy”, the text I mentioned at the start of this paper and to which I am finally coming round, as a further evidence of the fundamental status of Endymion in Keats’s work.

24For the ode, in the unfolding of its three stanzas, is a movement that goes from a lethal attachment to an unsignifiable Thing, which consigns the self to a world of shades and of muteness (first stanza) towards the open field of a desiring metonymy which transposes the Thing into nameable and describable objects of desire (second stanza), until it eventually seems to surrender (in a fascinatingly ambiguous third stanza) to the self’s desire to be the object of the Other’s desire, and thus to the rich death of 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 kissed
              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... (1-7)

25The melancholic fixation to the Thing has to be enunciated—through a negation whose insistence testifies to the force of the attraction—over the space of the whole opening stanza, together with the death drive that carries the self, with the magic immunity of negation, on the way to mystic nuptials with a mother-death, with the death-moth[er] inscribed in the emblematic “death-moth” of the sixth line.

26A “death-mother” to be translated, and thus betrayed, in the rich pageant of erotic symbols which the second stanza displays in a virtually endless sequence that carries the self, in a controlled “frenzy”, from object of desire to object of desire. Reading the flow backward towards its source, “peerless eyes” of the mistress (20), “wealth of globed peonies” (17), “rainbow of the ralt sand-wave” (16), “morning rose” (15): a rose born in the morning, thus an object available for the pleasure of one day before desire moves on to a new object, but as well a rose born out of a mourning, through the fulfilled mourning for a lost Thing which is at last given up, a mourning which thus introduces Eros to the symbolic, opens the way to the metonymy of desire and frees the self from the lethal attraction:

But 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,
                             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. (11-20)

27With each symbol of this second stanza the Thing is—so to speak, or rather to speak like Yeats—“murdered with a spot of ink”: murdered and yet eternal, since a new symbol, or a new ode, or a new poetic romance, will always be needed to enact the murder again, to convince the self that the Thing is, as the opening utterance of the final stanza will admit with poignant finality, “Beauty that must die”.

28And yet the ode, in the last resort, is far from asserting unambiguously an ethos of desire: for it cannot help coming round, in its third stanza, to a new celebration of melancholy, now featuring it as an indescribable She, “veil’d Melancholy”, and fantasizing her as a “shrine”, so again as a place where to be enshrined (like the “Cave of Quietude” forever revisited by the subject in Endymion), as a body for the subject that “dies” as he [re]enters it:

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. (25-30)

29One cannot help being fascinated by the final inflexion of the ode, by the way it stages a fading of the subject both (in the penultimate line) through the erasure of the grammatical person which had been so far “you”, an oblique signifier of the speaking subject, now fading away into the no-person of a death driven self, and (in the ultimate line) through the finally passive position of that no-person. The poem’s ultimate fantasy, as inscribed in its last utterance, thus features not so much the symbolic triumph of a subject as the triumph of a death-mother, of a Thing that takes in a dying self in some melancholic Pieta. Once more, therefore, the Thing will have to be murdered, in a new poem, in a new well-wrought Urn which will nevertheless commemorate the Thing’s eternity, in a vacillation between “heard melody” and melody “unheard”, between song and silence: Keats’s way of making Melancholia shine.

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Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XIV. ed. James Stratchey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1957.

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Keats, John. The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1973.

——. The Letters of John Keats. ed. Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vol. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Kristeva, Julia. Revolution in Poetic Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

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Radden, Jennifer, ed. The Nature of Melancholy. From Aristotle to Kristeva. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Christian LA CASSAGNÈRE, « Keats’s Gleaming Melancholy: A Reading of Endymion »e-Rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 7, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Lumière-Lyon 2
Christian La Cassagnère is Professor Emeritus at. He is the author of La Mystique du Prometheus Unbound de Shelley (Lettres Modernes), Introduction à la poésie de Coleridge (Aubier Flammarion) and of articles on romantic, Victorian and modern poetry. He is also the editor of collections of essays on English Romanticism, of which the latest volumes are Byron, lectures du Don Juan (Didier Erudition), Wordsworth ou l'autre voix, and Keats ou le sortilège des mots (Presses Universitaires de Lyon).

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