The Value of Suffering in Keats


The Flight of Madeleine and Porphyro, William Holman Hunt

In a letter to his brother and sister-in-law written in 1819, Keats interrupts his musings on the pleasures of indolence to note that he has just received word that a friend’s father is on the brink of death. This news, coming amidst an afternoon of selfish pleasures, jars him: “This is the world,” he observes, using the vague demonstrative pronoun to encapsulate the unjustness of it all, cramming into that one word a bursting sense of inarticulable feeling. “Thus,” he continues,

we cannot expect to give way many hours to pleasure. Circumstances are like Clouds continually gathering and bursting. While we are laughing the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events—while we are laughing it sprouts, it grows and suddenly bears poison fruit which we must pluck (1289).

Here, in a few brief lines, we get a sense of Keats’ understanding of the essentiality of paradox to human experience. In his vision of the world, pleasure and suffering come eagerly on one another’s footsteps, ineluctably entwined in an alternation of of joy and sorrow, from which one can never escape. While at first such an understanding seems bleak, for Keats the recognition and acceptance of this truth is not pessimistic, but rather the basis for the foundation of the soul.

It is this paradoxical entwinement of pleasure and pain Keats seeks to articulate in his “Ode on Melancholy.” In that poem, he celebrates the tragic intensity with which man experiences delight when he is aware that at its center lies melancholy and on its heels follows suffering. The ode begins in media res with an appeal to the reader to “go not to Lethe…/…Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d / By nightshade” (1253, 1,3-4), beseeching him not to give in to the temptation of drugged apathy or easeful death as an escape from “the wakeful anguish of the soul” (1253, 10). In asking the listener not to end his wakeful anguish, Keats implicitly asks him to hold on to that anguish and his awareness of it. What Keats fears for his listener is not death itself, but rather a “drowsiness” which will “drown” not the anguish, but the awareness of that anguish and the ability to sense it. Of all the things Keats asks the reader to refrain from doing in the first stanza, only two are active (the twisting of the wolf’s-bane and the making of the rosary of yew), while the rest are indictments of passivity. Keats asks that the reader not “suffer” his forehead “to be kiss’d” (1253, 3) the passive voice emphasizing the passivity of the action, while the use of “suffer” connotes a passive allowance “by reason of indifference.” It is this passive apathy which Keats rails agains, entreating the listener to remain “wakeful” to his anguish. 

In the second and third stanzas, Keats explicates the reasoning behind his exhortation, operating on a more abstract level in which he personifies emotions. Melancholy is figured as the listener’s mistress as Keats entreats him to “Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave” (1254, 19), reemphasizing the importance of holding onto one’s pain, rather than seeking a release from it.  That melancholy’s hand is “soft” rather than hard or harsh even as she “raves” introduces the paradoxical nature of melancholy which Keats will describe in full in the third stanza. Mistress Melancholy “dwells with Beauty … and Joy… and aching pleasure” (1254, 21-23), Keats tells us, “aching pleasure” itself emblematic of his paradox—that pleasure should ache at all is oxymoronic.

Why then is melancholy so inexorably wrapped up in these, the goals towards which humanity strives? Keats suggests that is precisely the inevitability and imminence of suffering, of trouble, of pain and melancholy which make delight, joy, beauty, and pleasure so powerful. True pleasure must ache precisely because it must end. Keats tells us that Beauty “must die” (1254, 21) and that Joy’s “hand is ever at his lips / bidding adieu” (1254, 22-23)—their ephemeralness is essential to their nature. There are no two ways about it; beauty “must” die and Joy constantly anticipates its own exit. This imperative hearkens back to Keats’ letter to his brother and sister-in-law, wherein Keats insists that the poison fruit sewn in laughter “must” be plucked: we have no choice about the coming of suffering and the cessation of pleasure. As such, we must enjoy pleasure while we can and do so intensely. But we cannot enjoy pleasure to its fullest if we are not aware of its inevitable end, if we are not aware that beauty dies, joy leaves, and at delight’s center is melancholy. Without this awareness, we are not able to experience pleasure to its limit and feel its ache—an ache triggered by the awareness of the fruitlessness of our own desire to extend the moment of pleasure and prevent it from shattering.

Celebration of the tragedy of our experience of pleasure is not confined to Keats’ “Ode on Melancholy,” though, but is rather one of his major themes. His early poem “The Eve of St. Agnes” takes this celebration for its subject as it freezes a moment of pleasure in a world outside time in order to examine and revel in its beauty, suspending awareness of the inevitability of disaster for a moment of untainted joy. Or so it seems. “St. Agnes” begins and ends in the cold of a colorless wintry night, where evens the owls in their feathers and the sheep in their wool feel the chill’s bitter bite. It is out of this cold that Keats conjures a little glowing world apart, where color abounds and the numb beadsman of the first few stanzas couldn’t seem further away. This is the world which Madeline and Porphyro inhabit in the brief scenes of their swift romance.

Porphyro comes to Madeline in the night and with him he brings warmth and color, whisking her out of the harsh reality of the cold winter night and into a carefully constructed bubble of a world, suspended amid the raging storm outside and resplendent in its luxury and detail, which Keats describes with tender pleasure. Porphyro (whose name, tellingly, comes from the Greek for purple, porphura) enters Madeline’s room and immediately “soft he set / A table, and, half anguish’d, threw thereon / A cloth of woven crimson, gold, and jet” (1244, 254-56). This cloth marks Porphyro’s entry into the poem and the beginning of his transformation of the world into one of light, warmth, and color as it introduces color to a world which had previously been only pale, lit by “the faded moon” and its “dim, silver twilight” (1244, 2253-54). Not only are the colors of the cloth antithetical to the pale colors rendered by the light of the moon, but they are surprising in their intensity. Not merely “red,” but crimson. Not merely “black,” but jet. Porphyro goes on to lay out “candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon” (1244-45, 265-267) the very syllables of which convey the food’s variety and luxury. Keats’ description of Porphyro and the world he creates for himself and Madeline is overflowing with rich, varied, luxuriant and intense detail such as this. And yet, Porphyro and Madeline themselves seem to have no awareness of paradox of pleasure and suffering so essential to Keats and which, according to “Ode on Melancholy,” is essential to the ability to experience the world intensely.

Madeleine Undressing, John Everett Millais


The fairy tale-esque world of pleasure in “The Eve of St. Agnes” appears to fly in the face of Keats’ philosophy of paradox. Madeline dreams of Porphyro, he comes to her and bids her enter a world of color and luxury, they unite with one another in this world and then run off, escaping the castle and her family, two young lovers running off into the sunset. And yet there is no sunset. There is the omnipresent “elfin-storm from faery land” (1245, 343) into which they do not run joyfully, but “flee” (1245, 371). And in the last stanza, the reader is left with an image not of young lovers, but of death and cold as Keats returns to the beadsman and Angela, both now dead. All the warmth and light of the dreamlike encounter between the lovers dissipate like so much smoke in the face of “Angela the old” dying “palsy-twitch’d, with meagre face deform” and “The Beadsman, after thousand aves told / For aye unsought for slept among his ashes cold” (1246, 375-378).

The uncomplicated, harsh syllables of these last few lines mimic their straightforward, grim import and starkly contrast the luxurious and sumptuous language with which Keats painted the lover’s bubble. The poem’s ending casts a shadow over Porphyro and Madeline’s seemingly perfect world of pleasure. It is the shadow of reality, which creeps in to remind the reader that suffering follows swiftly on the footsteps of pleasure, even if Porphyro and Madeline do not know it yet. The bubble of their world has not yet burst as we leave them, but the feeling is ominous; the cold, grim reality of the poem’s opening has not been escaped, but merely avoided for a few frozen moments. The lovers are on the cusp of returning to reality, which Keats figures as the storm raging outside the castle’s walls, recalling his image of “circumstances … like clouds continually gathering and bursting.” The metaphorical bursting of their pleasurable world has not yet occurred, but its coming feels inevitable as Keats pulls back from the lovers to paint their eerie and ominous surroundings.

In fact “The Eve of St. Agnes” is predicated entirely upon the awareness of impending doom in spite of its protagonists’ blissful unawareness of it. Because Keats is aware of the ephemerality of Porphyro’s little created world, he is able to describe it with the intensity he does and revel in its pleasures. Porphyro and Madeline do not get to experience their romance with the same intensity of Keats’ descriptive language because they are unaware of its expiration date and so do not test its limits. And so Keats and the reader look on as  the couple flee, having appreciated the pleasures in their time and anticipating the impending arrival of trouble.

But the existence of the paradox and the importance of acknowledging it is not the full extent of Keats’ point, but merely the precondition for understanding his entreaty. Returning to “Ode on Melancholy,” we find at the poem’s end a new, heroic, figure who, because he “can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine” (1254, 29) is the only one who can see “veil’d Melancholy” “in the very temple of delight” (1254, 27, 26). This is the figure of the man who lives and experiences intensely because he is fully aware of the paradox. The intensity of his being is reflected in the vigor of his action and appearance—in stark contrast to the passivity of the first stanza. This man “bursts” the grape (which has its direct parallel in wolf’s-bane, Proserpine’s “ruby grape” in the first stanza) with a “strenuous” tongue, both words conjuring an image of an energetic capacity for living far beyond that of the addressee of the first stanza. The synesthesia of the man’s ability to “taste the sadness” of Melancholy’s might” (1254, 29) further illustrates the intensity with which awareness allows one to experience the world, particularly in light of the fact that “Ode on Melancholy” is devoid of synesthetic language until this point, though Keats’ poetry—as in “The Eve of St. Agnes”—usually bursts with it.

However, the true prize of the man aware of the paradox is not his capacity for intensity of experience (this is both precondition and result of awareness), but rather his soul itself. While it is the man himself (and what Keats would call his “intelligence”) who understands the paradox of the entanglement of pleasure and pain, it is only his resultant soul—and its synesthetic capabilities—which can understand Melancholy’s own sadness in the face of her power. This, for Keats, is the true prize for awareness and acceptance of the inevitability of suffering. Without understanding and acknowledging that truth, man is not fully man; he has no soul. It is through his proximity with Melancholy—and his acceptance of both her and it—that man gains a soul and with it a capacity for deeper understanding. And this soul shall be a prize for him and a “cloudy trophy” (1254, 30) for Melancholy, proof of the merit of her power to bring pain, despite her own suffering.

It is because Porphyro and Madeline lack the awareness of this heroic figure that they appear as fairy-tale like as they do. They are flat and lifeless in comparison, though they have names and faces. Without awareness, they cannot achieve the creation of a soul and so they remain caricatures of themselves, doomed never to understand or reap the benefits of the woes they are about to face. Keats articulates this belief in the value of melancholy and suffering clearly in the continuation of his letter to his brother and sister-in-law. He figures the world—replete with its pain and suffering—as a “vale of Soul-making” (1291) whose “use” is to turn “Intelligences” into “Identities” and then Souls via experience. “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?” (1292) he asks. The world is “a place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand ways” if it is to be “the teat from which the Mind … sucks its identity” (1292). The world is this place of “circumstances” as Keats calls them—this is the fact which struck him so as he heard the news of his friend’s dying father and which his own life illustrates only too well. But it is only a fact, and it is up to us to decide what we do with it. In Keats’ system, we must not ignore pain and sorrow, nor must we fight them. Rather, as “Ode on Melancholy” describes, we must meet them head on, acknowledge them, and embrace them as part of the paradox of existence. It is only by doing so that we will be able to fully experience life’s joys and achieve the fullness of ourselves in becoming souls.


Keats, John. “The Eve of St. Agnes.” English Romantic Writers. David Perkins. 2nd Ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. 1241-1246. Print.

Keats, John. “Ode on Melancholy.” English Romantic Writers. David Perkins. 2nd Ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. 1253-1254. Print.

Keats, John. “To George and Georgiana Keats: February 14-May 3, 1819.” English Romantic Writers. David Perkins. 2nd Ed. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967. 1288-1293. Print.

1 comment
  1. Max Noack said:

    Great analysis! Really helped me understand the concepts at the centre of Keats’s poetry.

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