John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale

Summary: the speaker engages in a fantasy escaping his reality inspired by a nightingale.

This poem is special. It is one of literature’s most famous lyrical poems, meaning it focuses on the speaker’s emotions in an imaginative way. The only time a nightingale is mentioned is in the title. However, the entire poem is about the nightingale and its nightly world. There are several allusions to Greek mythology in this poem.  It is characteristic of Romantic poets to take interest in mythology, this in particular is sometimes called Hellenism. In a Greek myth, Philomela was turned into a nightingale to help her escape being murdered by her rapist. What does this mean in the context of the poem? It is about escaping reality. The ode is a form  of Ancient Greek song, generally to praise its subject. The meter is iambic pentameter (you will keep hearing this throughout your poetry course. It means there are 5 stressed syllables per line (penta=5). Iambic means that every second syllable is stressed. Consider this: You say, I'm crazy/ Cause you don't think I know what you've done. Every second syllable gets emphasis - except done is stretched out to take the place of two syllables. It’s the same in this poem.) The rhyming scheme is also quite regular. On an existential note, Keats came up with the term Negative Capability. This means that the poet pursues artistic visions that give rise to uncertainty rather than aim to solve problems/answer questions.

leaving cert english notes john keats
Do I wake or sleep?
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains 
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, 
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains 

The speaker is disoriented. He is comparing his feeling to being on opiates (morphine, heroin…)  In case you are wondering, this poem was written before Keats became seriously unwell with TB. Lethe was a river in the Underworld (the hell of Greek mythology). By drinking from Lethe, people were able to erase their memories. A Dryad is a female tree spirit (in Greek mythology).

         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: 
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 
         But being too happy in thine happiness,— 
                That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees 
                        In some melodious plot 
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
                Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 

He feels happy for the nightingale who can sing away carefree. This almost religious approach to the forest, to nature in general, is characteristic of Romantic poetry.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been 
         Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, 

The speaker is wishing for a wine that has been kept cool deep in the earth - and embodies the serenity and generosity of nature.

Tasting of Flora and the country green, 
         Dance, and Proven├žal song, and sunburnt mirth! 
O for a beaker full of the warm South, 
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, 

In Greek mythology, Hippocrene was the name of a spring that is sacred to the Muses and was formed by the hooves of Pegasus. It signifies a source of inspiration for poets.

                With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
                        And purple-stained mouth; 
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
                And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 

This wine, a powerful essence of nature, would bring him the feeling of the being in forest, away from his reality of worries and fretting, together with the nightingale:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget 
         What thou among the leaves hast never known, 
The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; 
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; 

Keats confronts time - that takes life away. This theme will recur in Ode On A Grecian Urn.

                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow 
                        And leaden-eyed despairs, 
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, 
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 

Back to reality: thinking always leads to sorrow and tired despair. Beauty doesn’t last; neither does love. Both are personified. It becomes obvious why the poet wanted to get away from it all imagining himself under the influence of drugs or alcohol:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee, 
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, 
But on the viewless wings of Poesy, 
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 

He isn’t going to rely on the Greek god of wine, Bacchus, to get away from reality. Instead, he will fly away from it on the wings of his own poetry. Pegasus, also a creature of Greek mythology, was a winged horse and the symbol of poetry. The poem is full of references and allusions to Greek mythology adding to its sophistication.

Already with thee! tender is the night, 
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, 

It is night time and the poet finally feels he is together with the nightingale. The fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald used “tender is the night” as the title of one of his novels over 100 years later speaks to how significant this poem is in English literature. The queen and her attendants are a metaphor for the moon and the stars. 

                Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays; 
                        But here there is no light, 
         Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown 
                Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 

Keats describes the forest without being able to see it (it’s dark). This heightens the readers’ sensual awareness, focusing of the olfactory sensations here:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 
         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 
         Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; 
                Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; 
                        And mid-May's eldest child, 
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 
                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 

Keats manages to find the flowers intoxicating: full of dewy wine. The poem was written in Hampstead, which is part of modern-day Camden, London. Having described the smells, he focuses on the sounds:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time 
         I have been half in love with easeful Death, 

He compares this experience with death and finds it easy, or easier than dealing with reality. Note that death is personified. The poet expresses a death wish, it will bring ease to him:

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme, 
         To take into the air my quiet breath; 
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain, 
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad 
                        In such an ecstasy! 

The extent to which Keats glorifies death is fascinating. There isn’t a hint of fear. It seems that death would bring pure pleasure and liberation. He is feeling sad and… enjoying it. It is typical of Romantic poetry: passionate, fearless and at odds with conventional norms. He notes that his death won’t alter the life of the nightingale - it will still continue to sing:

         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain— 
                   To thy high requiem become a sod. 

The nightingale transcends death. His song has been heard in ancient days and he is hearing it now. There’s a bittersweet irony here: Keats managed to transcend death - we are studying his poems almost 200 years on, so he didn’t fare much worse than the nightingale! He speaks directly to the nightingale. In poetry, this is known as an apostrophe (a figure of speech in which the poet addresses an absent person, an abstract idea, or a thing). The concept of transcendence is important in Romantic poetry.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! 
         No hungry generations tread thee down; 
The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
         In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn; 

The Book of Ruth is part of the Old Testament. She was forlorn in a foreign land - as was the nightingale who flew over the open waters of far away seas:

                        The same that oft-times hath 
         Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam 
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 

Back to reality, the only one forlorn is the speaker. He is now left without the nightingale. The nightingale flies away and the poet is left disappointed. 

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell 
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self! 
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well 
         As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf. 
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream, 
                Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep 
                        In the next valley-glades: 

The speaker is left wondering: was this a dream or maybe a hallucination? The rhetorical questions at the end of the poem call into question which of the two worlds is the actual reality.

         Was it a vision, or a waking dream? 

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