February 27 2011
Melancholy and Joy: A Mutual Experience
The powerful emotional states of melancholy and joy are often mistaken for being complete opposite experiences. However, they are linked closely together. When an individual has an immense emotional capacity, they experience sentimental climaxes and a sequential valley afterward. Clinging to the climax of our emotional state is what we know to be joy: the all-encompassing possession of a euphoric feeling, not to be confused with the fleeting and ever-changing state of happiness. Melancholy, on the other hand, is the valley that follows the climax. It is not to be confused with sadness, as we are to embrace melancholy, only to know that joy will soon follow. John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” supported the idea that melancholy and joy are not only part of the same experience, but also rely on one another for their very existence.
In the poem “Ode to a Nightingale”, a man ponders our world as we see it through the eyes of a human, and then through the eyes of a bird. He sees our earth as being a place “Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes” (29). To the speaker, the earth is cast in this light only to human consciousness, and the other species of animals do not see the world this way. For instance, he proclaims “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” (61). This is because we can grasp our morality, therefore knowing our surroundings will cease. In “Ode to a Nightingale”, the poem reaches a climax when the speaker imagines himself as the bird, at last freeing his burdened mind. In his emotional climax, he admits that “I have been half in love with easeful Death” (52) because he feels such a euphoria at this moment that he’d rather die than sink into the deep valley that follows. However, at this point he realizes that if he dies he cannot hear the song anymore. In the final stage of the poem, he feels the full effect of melancholy: “Forlorn! The very word is like a bell/ To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” (72). After feeling the elation of experiencing the world through the bird, he sinks back to his human self and into morality. Thus, he feels melancholy. The last line of “Ode to a Nightingale” reveals the lasting question of our lifelong journey: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?” (79-80). This is the speaker’s way of questioning the entire experience of melancholy and joy. Should we die or stay alive and experience the extremes of the emotional spectrum?
Melancholy and joy are most definitely of the same experience. To have one is to have the other. The great goal of life is to hover in the state of euphoric joy—the climax. When we sink below the peak and into the valley of melancholy we must let this pass through us as well. Our souls must revel in it in order to again climb back up toward eternal joy where there is no time or change. However, melancholy is just as important. To let ourselves feel as deeply as it is to be melancholy is an awakening experience and prepares the soul to accommodate joy. Therefore, the two go hand-in-hand. John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” wholly supports the notion that melancholy and joy are tied very closely within the human emotional state.