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In "Ode on Melancholy," Keats writes

For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul

What is meant by "shade to shade will come too drowsily"?

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2 Answers 2

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Keats is saying that if you try to immerse yourself in objects of sadness, then you won't be as aware of your own sadness as much. Shade (sadness) will come to (existing) shade too drowsily: i.e., it will not be as noticeable. But if it comes out of the blue, it will be that much more powerful.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud... Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose

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This is a notoriously difficult pair of lines whose meaning depends on how you interpret the argument of the whole poem. I’ll give two interpretations: the standard one first, and then an alternative due to Barbara Smith.

The first two stanzas of ‘Ode on Melancholy’ present contrasting approaches to dealing with a “fit” of melancholy. The first stanza warns against trying to “drown” one’s sorrows, either by forgetfulness—the river Lethe is the river in the underworld which spirits drank and “forgot all things” before being resurrected, in Plato’s Republic, book X—or with drugs—wolfsbane, nightshade, and yew-berries were all used as medicines in the early 19th century (in small doses, since they are deadly in larger doses). Then the second stanza, by contrast, advises actively confronting or “glutting” one’s sorrow instead.

So in the last two lines of the first stanza, Keats is contrasting the “wakeful anguish” of the soul confronting its melancholy, with the “drowsiness” of the soul trying to drown its sorrows. The phrase “shade to shade” is a play on words. A “shade” is a “disembodied spirit, an inhabitant of Hades” (OED) like the spirits who drank from Lethe, or, in context, the soul suffering from melancholy. Thus “shade” (meaning darkness, forgetfulness, or death) comes to the “shade” (meaning the melancholy soul), but in doing so “too drowsily” it will “drown” the soul along with its anguish.

Shade as soul, or mind, will be overtaken by shade as oblivion and be too drugged to resist death in the waters of Lethe of the first line.

Geoffrey Little (1990). ‘The Ironic Impulse in Keats: Three Poems’. Sydney Studies in English, volume 16, p. 115.

We don’t need to take “death” literally here, it could be a metaphor for drug- or alcohol-induced oblivion. There is a theory, due to Nicholas Roe, that Keats had been taking laudanum (a mixture of opium and alcohol) to cope after his brother Tom’s death in 1818, based on this passage in Charles Brown’s Life of Keats:

He was too thoughtful, or too unquiet; and he began to be reckless of health. Among other proofs of recklessness, he was secretly taking, at times, a few drops of laudanum to keep up his spirits. It was discovered by accident, and, without delay, revealed to me. He needed not to be warned of the danger of such a habit; but I rejoiced at his promise never to take another drop without my knowledge; for nothing could induce him to break his word, when once given,—which was a difficulty. Still, at the very moment of my being rejoiced, this was an additional proof of his rooted misery.

Charles Armitage Brown (1841). ‘Life of Keats’. In Hyder Edward Williams, ed. (1948). The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers 1816–1878, volume II, p. 73. Oxford University Press.

There is an alternative way of reading the poem, due to Barbara Smith, in which the argument of the poem is taken not as summarized above (if suffering from melancholy, don’t drown it, but confront it), but rather as:

if you seek Melancholy, […] do not summon poisons or associate yourself with other lugubrious paraphernalia; do not go to Lethe, the abode of death, for although you might think so, Melancholy does not dwell there. […] She is, indeed, finally located not at Lethe but in “the temple of delight”.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith (1966). ‘“Sorrow’s Mysteries”: Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy”’. In Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6:4, p. 684.

Smith interprets “shade to shade” as follows:

In the last two lines [of the first stanza], the explanation is in psychological terms: “wakeful anguish” is the sensation that defines true melancholy. The conjunction of “shade to shade,” of morbid thoughts and morbid props, will dull the sensation, not arouse it.

Smith, p. 686.

I don’t find this interpretation convincing, because the opening of the second stanza is “when the melancholy fit shall fall sudden from heaven”, which seems to refer to someone suffering from melancholy, not someone seeking out melancholy as in Smith.

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