The six odes are among the most famous of John Keat’s poems, they include ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. While it is unclear in what order they were written, Keats wrote them in batches, and scholars argue that when one reads them in sequence, one can see them form a thematic whole.
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Summary of Ode to a Nightingale
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ was written in 1819, and it is the longest one, with 8 stanzas of 10 lines each. It was written at Charles Brown’s house, after Keats was struck by the melancholy singing of a nightingale bird, and it travels through the cabal of the Greek gods, all the while emphasizing the feeling of melancholy – a tragic and often very Greek emotion that Keats would have no doubt learned through his readings.
Analysis of Ode to a Nightingale
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
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-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O for a draught of vintage! t
hat hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
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 grey hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
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.
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:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
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.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd 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.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd 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!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
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 same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
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 famed 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:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?
The poem itself is very unhappy; Keats is stunned at the happiness of the bird, and despairs at the difference between it and its happiness and his own unhappy life. At the start of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the heavy sense of melancholy draws allusions to Ode to Melancholy, and Keats – despite the death imagery – does not really want to die. The conflicted nature of human life – a mixture of pain/joy, emotion/numbness, the actual/the ideal, etc – dominates the poem, so much so that, even at the end, it is unclear whether or not it happened – ‘do I wake or dream?’
It can also be assumed that the heavy imagery of death and sickness could hark back to his experiences taking care of his elder brother, who died of tuberculosis underneath John Keats’ care. The unhappiness, however, that Keats feels in the poem is not necessarily miserable – Keats writes that he has been ‘half in love with easeful Death’, and describes the joy of listening to the nightingale’s song in a sort of euphoria. It can therefore be considered that Keats would rather forget his unhappiness than die: the references to hemlock, and Lethe, solidify this argument, as both would blur the memory enough to allow Keats to forget.
There are heavy allusions to mythology: Lethe, the river of forgetting that flows through the underworld; Hippocrene, the fountain of the Muses made by Pegasus’ hooves which brings inspiration; dryads, the spirit protectors of the forest; Bacchus, god of wine and debauchery; Ruth and the corn-field is a reference to the book in the Bible; hemlock, the poison that killed Socrates; Flora, the Roman goddess of nature.
Nature and imagination are shown to be a brief reprieve from human suffering, hence the song of the nightingale, and its impressions. There is also a shi from reality to idealism: Keats says that he would like to drink from ‘a draught of fine vintage’ (a very fine wine) and transport himself to the ideal world that the nightingale belongs to. He states that he will not be taken there by Bacchus and his pards (Bacchanalia, revelry, and chaos) but by poetry and art. Keats then goes on to describe his ideal world, making reference to the ‘Queen Moon’ and all her ‘starry-eyed Fay’ – however, Keats cannot actually transport himself into this world, and the end of the nightingale’s song brings about the end of his fantasy. ‘Country green’, ‘Provencal song’ and ‘sunburned mirth’ all point to a highly fantastical reality, especially considering the status of the world at the time, and the mythological references help to maintain a surreal, dreamlike state throughout the entire poem and to charge Keats’ fantasies with identifiable ideas and figures.
Keats uses the senses heavily in all his poetry, relying on synaesthetic description to draw the reader into ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. It works especially well here because Keats’ fantasy world is dark and sensuous, and he ‘cannot see what flowers are at my feet’; he is ‘in embalmed darkness’. The darkness may have helped his imagination to flourish and furnish his ideal creation, as well as lending a supernatural air to ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
The drowsiness comes from the longing to flee the world and join the nightingale – to become like the nightingale, beautiful and immortal and organic – and after rejecting joining the nightingale through Bacchanalian activity, he decides that he will attempt to join the bird through poetry. Thus, the rapture of poetic inspiration matches the rapture of the nightingale’s music and thereby links nature to poetry to art (nature as art and beauty, a Romantic ideal). He calls the bird ‘immortal’, thereby also stating that nature will survive man.
The bird’s song translates inspiration into something that the outside world can understand; like art, the nightingale’s singing is changeable and renewable, and it is music that is ‘organic’, not made with a machine. It is art, but art that cannot be viewed and has no physical form. As night shifts into the day – shifting from the supernatural back into fact – the bird goes from being a bird to a symbol of art, happiness, freedom, and joy, back to being a bird. It is contrasted, in the third stanza, by the reality of the world around him – sickness, ill-health, and conflict.
The first half of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ represents the way man was – the pleasurable moments of life that overwhelm and leave a gap behind when they’re over; the second half is maturity, understanding truth, which leads to pleasure but also leads to pain.
In the end, Keats realizes that merging with the ‘embalmed darkness’ means dying, giving himself up completely to death, and becoming one of the worlds that he admires, however it would mean that he can no longer hear the nightingale and would be farther away from beauty. Neither life nor death is acceptable to Keats. He belongs nowhere.
In 1819, Keats left his paid position as a dresser at the hospital to devote himself to a career in poetry, and it was during the spring that he wrote the five major odes, before delving into a variety of other forms of poetry. More on John Keats can be found here.