Ode to a Nightingale

Notes on Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

One of the major themes of the Romantic era was the conflict between the claims of the Imagination and the claims of real life.  This conflict is seen clearly in this earlier ode.  It also touches on the idea of a proposed ‘valley of soul-making’ instead of the Christian ‘valley of tears’

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-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Feels both joy and pain– ambivalent response
Semantic field: pain
Semantic field: pleasure

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal 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-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim
:

Moving into a world of imagination to escape the confusing joy-pain reality.
Associates wine with particular state he is seeking.  Alcohol will get him into a half state so that he can join the nightingale’s world.
Semantic field of green: life
Green countryside, country dances outside in summer...idealistic images of never-ending life and happiness experienced in his imagination.
‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’: alliteration– the sounds duplicate bubbles breaking.  Sparkling wine… the sounds bring the image to life and we can sense it for ourselves.

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;
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.

His awareness of the real world brings him back to the reality of pain-joy.  His thinking of the human condition intensifies the poet’s desire to escape the world.
‘Fade’ used in last line of stanza II and the first line of stanza III– ties them together… thoughts moved swiftly and fluidly.  ‘Fade’ and ‘dissolve’- he wants to escape (possibly to get away from the illness of TB that Keats developed in real life)

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.

Turns to fantasy again– rejects wine in line 2. In line 3 he announces he will use the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ to join the nightingale’s world.  In choosing poesy, he is calling on poetry and Imagination…
Imagined world described as dark… the whole stanza is full of senses which heightens the whole experience.

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.

Because the poet cannot see through the darkness

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 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!
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 oft-times 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 toil 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:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

General points:

In this ode, Keats focuses on immediate sensations and emotions
At the start, the bird is represented as real.  As the poem progresses, it becomes a symbol.  Possible symbols are:

- freedom (a bird can fly away)

- pure joy

- the artist (bird’s voice = self expression)

- Imagination (a journey)

- the beauty of nature

- the ideal


Ode to a Nightingale - Further Notes

Summary
The speaker opens with a declaration of his own heartache. He feels numb, as though he had taken a drug only a moment ago. He is addressing a nightingale he hears singing somewhere in the forest and says that his "drowsy numbness" is not from envy of the nightingale's happiness, but rather from sharing it too completely; he is "too happy" that the nightingale sings the music of summer from amid some unseen plot of green trees and shadows.

In the second stanza, the speaker longs for the oblivion of alcohol, expressing his wish for wine, "a draught of vintage," that would taste like the country and like peasant dances, and let him "leave the world unseen" and disappear into the dim forest with the nightingale. In the third stanza, he explains his desire to fade away, saying he would like to forget the troubles the nightingale has never known: "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" of human life, with its consciousness that everything is mortal and nothing lasts. Youth "grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies," and "beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes."

In the fourth stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale to fly away, and he will follow, not through alcohol ("Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards"), but through poetry, which will give him "viewless wings." He says he is already with the nightingale and describes the forest glade, where even the moonlight is hidden by the trees, except the light that breaks through when the breezes blow the branches. In the fifth stanza, the speaker says that he cannot see the flowers in the glade, but can guess them "in embalmed darkness": white hawthorne, eglantine, violets, and the musk-rose, "the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves." In the sixth stanza, the speaker listens in the dark to the nightingale, saying that he has often been "half in love" with the idea of dying and called Death soft names in many rhymes. Surrounded by the nightingale's song, the speaker thinks that the idea of death seems richer than ever, and he longs to "cease upon the midnight with no pain" while the nightingale pours its soul ecstatically forth. If he were to die, the nightingale would continue to sing, he says, but he would "have ears in vain" and be no longer able to hear.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale that it is immortal, that it was not "born for death." He says that the voice he hears singing has always been heard, by ancient emperors and clowns, by homesick Ruth; he even says the song has often charmed open magic windows looking out over "the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." In the eighth stanza, the word forlorn tolls like a bell to restore the speaker from his preoccupation with the nightingale and back into himself. As the nightingale flies farther away from him, he laments that his imagination has failed him and says that he can no longer recall whether the nightingale's music was "a vision, or a waking dream." Now that the music is gone, the speaker cannot recall whether he himself is awake or asleep.

Form
Like most of the other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale" is written in ten-line stanzas. However, unlike most of the other poems, it is metrically variable--though not so much as "Ode to Psyche." The first seven and last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented syllables instead of five. "Nightingale" also differs from the other odes in that its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (every other ode varies the order of rhyme in the final three or four lines except "To Psyche," which has the loosest structure of all the odes). Each stanza in "Nightingale" is rhymed ABABCDECDE, Keats's most basic scheme throughout the odes.

Themes
With "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats's speaker begins his fullest and deepest exploration of the themes of creative expression and the mortality of human life. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy of old age ("where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies") is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale's fluid music ("Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!"). The speaker reprises the "drowsy numbness" he experienced in "Ode on Indolence," but where in "Indolence" that numbness was a sign of disconnection from experience, in "Nightingale" it is a sign of too full a connection: "being too happy in thine happiness," as the speaker tells the nightingale. Hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker longs to flee the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird's state through alcohol--in the second stanza, he longs for a "draught of vintage" to transport him out of himself. But after his meditation in the third stanza on the transience of life, he rejects the idea of being "charioted by Bacchus and his pards" (Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and was supposed to have been carried by a chariot pulled by leopards) and chooses instead to embrace, for the first time since he refused to follow the figures in "Indolence," "the viewless wings of Poesy."

The rapture of poetic inspiration matches the endless creative rapture of the nightingale's music and lets the speaker, in stanzas five through seven, imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The ecstatic music even encourages the speaker to embrace the idea of dying, of painlessly succumbing to death while enraptured by the nightingale's music and never experiencing any further pain or disappointment. But when his meditation causes him to utter the word "forlorn," he comes back to himself, recognizing his fancy for what it is--an imagined escape from the inescapable ("Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf"). As the nightingale flies away, the intensity of the speaker's experience has left him shaken, unable to remember whether he is awake or asleep.

In "Indolence," the speaker rejected all artistic effort. In "Psyche," he was willing to embrace the creative imagination, but only for its own internal pleasures. But in the nightingale's song, he finds a form of outward expression that translates the work of the imagination into the outside world, and this is the discovery that compels him to embrace Poesy's "viewless wings" at last. The "art" of the nightingale is endlessly changeable and renewable; it is music without record, existing only in a perpetual present. As befits his celebration of music, the speaker's language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of sight in favour of the other senses. He can imagine the light of the moon, "But here there is no light"; he knows he is surrounded by flowers, but he "cannot see what flowers" are at his feet. This suppression will find its match in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which is in many ways a companion poem to "Ode to a Nightingale." In the later poem, the speaker will finally confront a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time; in "Nightingale," he has achieved creative expression and has placed his faith in it, but that expression--the nightingale's song--is spontaneous and without physical manifestation.

Commentary on ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE 1819 (1820)

In this meditation on poetic experience, the poet attempts to conceptualise a reconciliation of beauty and permanence through the symbol of the nightingale The poet begins by explaining the nature and cause of the sadness he is experiencing, a sadness translated into a physical ache and a drowsy numbness. He feels as he might if he had taken some poison or sedating drug. This feeling is in fact the result of a deep awareness of the happiness of the nightingale he hears singing. His resulting pleasure is so intense it has become painful. He longs for some intoxicant that will let him achieve union with the nightingale, take him out of the world, and allow him to forget human suffering and despair and the transience of all experience. Wine, however, is rejected in favour of the poetic imagination. He enters some twilight region of the mind. While he can see nothing, the other senses feed his imagination, constructing within his mind what cannot be seen in fact. This prompts him to contemplate leaving the world altogether. He realises, however, that the ultimate form of forgetfulness, of escape from the troubles of life, would be death. Death at such a moment, listening to the nightingale pouring forth its soul in ecstasy, would be the supreme ending. And yet death is rejected. As the poet realises, the bird would sing on, and he would be unable to hear it. While all humans must die, the nightingale is, in some sense, immortal. The poet, thinking back to the classical world of the Roman emperors and to the Old Testament world of Ruth, considers how its song has been heard for so many centuries. Keats takes us even further back, into a fairy world, a landscape both magical and yet forlorn. With this word `forlorn', the spell is broken: the poet returns to the self, to the present. Fancy, he claims, has failed him once more. He again becomes aware of the landscape around him and the bird's song begins to fade, leaving him wondering whether his experience was a vision or a waking dream.

The nightingale has traditionally been associated with love. The influential myth of Philomela, turned into a nightingale after being raped and tortured, stresses melancholy and suffering in association with love. It has also been associated with poetry. Keats no doubt knew Coleridge's two poems `To the Nightingale' (1796) and `The Nightingale: "A Conversation Poem"', and, according to his letters, only days before writing this ode he had talked with the older poet on such subjects as nightingales, poetry and poetical sensation.

Why did Keats choose the nightingale's song as the basis of meditation in this poem? Is he drawing upon its traditional associations or not? Such critics as Helen Vendler believe that in the choice of music Keats finds a symbol of pure beauty, non-representational, without any reference to ideas, to moral or social values. The nightingale's song is vocal, but without verbal content, and can serve as a pure expressive beauty. Others have argued that it represents the music of nature, which can be contrasted with human art, verbal or musical.

The poem is basically structured around the contrast between the poet, who is earthbound, and the bird, which is free. A related opposition is that between the mortal world, full of sorrow and marked by transience, and the world of the nightingale, marked by joy and immortality. One of the points that has troubled many critics is this claim of immortality for the nightingale: 'Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!' (line 61). The nightingale is, after all, a natural creature. It has been suggested that Keats is referring not to the individual bird, but to the species. This solution has been strongly criticised, however, as humanity, the `hungry generations' (line 62), could also be credited with such immortality as a species. An alternative suggestion is that the nightingale addressed in stanza 7 is purely symbolic; is this solution more convincing? If so, what does the nightingale symbolise? A further interpretation might be that, since the nightingale sings only at night and was traditionally thought of, therefore, as invisible, it, through its `disembodied' song, transcends the material world (so in that sense is immortal); and here Keats is talking of `embalmed darkness', an atmosphere of death.

Another problematic point is Keats's final question on the status of his experience: `Was it a vision, or a waking dream?' (line 79). Some critics have decidedly affirmed that the poem is about the inadequacy of the imagination, a rejection of the `deceiving elf' (line 79). Others see more ambivalence in Keats's attitude. After the possibility of joining the bird in its immortal world has been rejected as a trick of the fancy, they would argue, Keats still suggests through his final question that such vision or transcendent experience is possible, or, at least, still something for which he longs. Is this, ultimately, an escapist poem, or is Keats emphasising the need to accept the human condition, with all the suffering that is associated with it? Compare the ode, in this respect, with the `Ode on Melancholy'.

Language is effectively used to create mood. In the opening of the poem, for example, a sense of sluggish weightiness is suggested by the heavy thudding alliterative `d', `p', and `m' when Keats describes his own dull ache. Compare this with the effects created in the second half of the stanza by the light assonantal sounds in such words as `light' and `Dryad' and the sensuous assonantal sounds of 'beechen', `green' and `ease' when Keats turns to the joy of the nightingale. Compare the vitality and the jubilant tempo of stanza 2 with the dull heaviness and monotony in stanza 3. How are these different effects created? Consider, for a start, the use of repetition, with devices like parallelism and anaphora. There is a dense concentration of sense impressions in this ode, and a frequent use of synaesthesia. In stanza 1, for example, the `plot' where the bird sings is itself `melodious' and the song contains `summer': the visual evokes the aural and the aural the visual. In stanza 2, Keats conveys the taste of wine with reference to colour, action, song and sensation. When Keats says, in stanza 5, `I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs', the suggestion that the incense could be seen emphasises the density and headiness of the perfume: it is so strong it seems visible, tangible. This is often said to be the most personal of the odes. Perhaps it would be better to say that from the abrupt opening of :"My heart aches' onwards, it creates the impression of being the most subjective. Leaving aside the claim by many critics that it is personal in an autobiographical way, how is this impression of subjectivity achieved? It is the processes and movement of the poet's mind that are the central focus of `Ode to a Nightingale', and the personal `I' is very much in evidence. In this respect compare the poem with the `Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

Lethe-wards (Greek myth) Lethe is one of the rivers of Hades; the dead are obliged to drink from it in order that they may forget everything said and done when alive
Dryad a tree nymph
Hippocrene (Greek myth) the fountain of the Muses on Mount Helicon and therefore associated with poetic inspiration; here the term is used to suggest red wine as another source of inspiration
Bacchus and his pards (Roman myth) the god of wine; the pards are the leopards which draw his chariot
Fays fairies
Darkling in the dark
Synaesthesia: A sensation that usually only affects one sense is used to trigger a response in another.


More notes on Ode to a Nightingale

Here are some fantastic notes that I believe I found on the internet some years ago, and appear not to exist anymore. I have reproduced them here. If you find these notes elsewhere, please let me know and I will gladly reference them.

2. hemlock: a poisonous plant which produces death by paralysis.
4. Lethe: a river of the lower world from which the shades drank, and thus obtained forgetfulness of the past.
7. Dryad: a wood nymph.
9. beechen: of the beech tree.
11. draught: what can be swallowed in a single drink.
13. Flora: the goddess of flowers, here used for flowers themselves. Cf. Keats' letter to Fanny Keats ca. May 1, 1819: "O there is nothing like fine weather ... and, please heaven, a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep -- with a few or a good many ratafia cakes -- a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in" (Letters, II, 56).
14. Provençal song. In the early Middle Ages the poets of southern France, the troubadours of Provence, were particularly famous for their love lyrics.
15. warm South: a southern wine.
16. Hippocrene: a fountain on Mount Helicon in Boeotia, sacred to the Muses.
26. Tom Keats died of consumption on Dec. 1, 1818.
32. Bacchus and his pards: the Roman god of wine, whho traditionally is shown in a conveyance drawn by leopards.
33. viewless: invisible. This phrase appears in half a dozen poems from 1765 to Mary Robinson's "The Progress of Liberty" in 1806 (II, 426).
37. Fays: fairies.
43. embalmed: full of balms, or perfumes. Lines 43-49 appear to echo Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.i.249-52 The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin, 2nd edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997):

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine ...

46. pastoral eglantine. Eglantine is properly the sweet-briar, though popularly applied to various varieties of the wild rose. "Pastoral" presumably because often referred to in pastoral poetry.
51. Darkling: in the dark; cf Milton, Paradise Lost, III, 38-40: "As the wakeful Bird/Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid/Tunes her nocturnal Note."
60. high requiem: a liturgical song for the repose of the dead.
67. alien corn: alien because Ruth was not an Israelite but a Moabitess, gleaning in the barley fields of Judah (Ruth 2:1-2).

A major concern in "Ode to a Nightingale" is Keats's perception of the conflicted nature of human life, i.e., the interconnection or mixture of pain/joy, intensity of feeling/numbness of feeling, life/death, mortal/immortal, the actual/the ideal, and separation/connection.
In this ode, Keats focuses on immediate, concrete sensations and emotions, from which the reader can draw a conclusion or abstraction. Does the experience which Keats describes change the dreamer? As reader, you must follow the dreamer's development or his lack of development from his initial response to the nightingale to his final statement about the experience. John Keats- Ode to a Nightingale

Stanza I.
The poet falls into a reverie while listening to an actual nightingale sing. He feels joy and pain, an ambivalent response. As you read, pick out which words express his pleasure and which ones express his pain and which words express his intense feeling and which his numbed feeling. Consider whether pleasure can be so intense that, paradoxically, it either numbs us or causes pain.
What qualities does the poet ascribe to the nightingale? In the beginning the bird is presented as a real bird, but as the poem progresses, the bird becomes a symbol. What do you think the bird comes to symbolize? Possible meanings include

  • pure or unmixed joy,
  • the artist, with the bird's voice being self expression or the song being poetry,
  • the music (beauties) of nature
  • the ideal.

Think of the quality or qualities attributed to the nightingale in deciding on the bird's symbolic meaning.

Stanza II.
Wanting to escape from the pain of a joy-pain reality, the poet begins to move into a world of imagination or fantasy. He calls for wine. His purpose is clearly not to get drunk. Rather he associates wine with some quality or state he is seeking. Think about the effects alcohol has; which one or ones is the poet seeking? Since his goal is to join the bird, what quality or qualities of the bird does he want to experience? How might alcohol enable him to achieve that desire?
The description of drinking and of the world associated with wine is idealized. What is the effect of the images associating the wine with summer, country pleasure, and romantic Provence? The word "vintage" refers to a fine or prime wine; why does he use this word? (Would the effect differ if the poet-dreamer imagined drinking a rotgut wine?) Why does Keats describe the country as "green"? Would the effect be different if the countryside were brown or yellowed? The activities in line 4 follow one another naturally: dance is associated with song; together they produce pleasure ("mirth"), which is sunburnt because the country dances are held outdoors. "Sunburnt mirth" is an excellent example of synaesthesia in Keats' imagery, since Flora, the green countryside, etc. are being experienced by Keats through drinking wine in his imagination.
The image of the "beaded bubbles winking at the brim" is much admired. Does it capture the action of sparkling wine? What sounds are repeated? What is the effect of this alliteration? Do any of the sounds duplicate the bubbles breaking? Say the words and notice the action of your lips.
This image of the bubbles is concrete; in contrast, the preceding imagery in the stanza is abstract. Can you see the difference?
Does the wine resemble the nightingale in being associated with summer, song, and happpiness?

Stanza III.
His awareness of the real world pulls him back from the imagined world of drink-joy. Does he still perceive the real world as a world of joy-pain? Does thinking of the human condition intensify, diminish, or have no effect on the poet's desire to escape the world?
The poet uses the word "fade" in the last line of stanza II and in the first line of this stanza to tie the stanzas together and to move easily into his next thought. What is the effect of the words "fade" and "dissolve"? why "far away"?
What is the relationship of the bird to the world the poet describes? See line 2. Characterize the real world which the poet describes. By implication, what kind of world does the nightingale live in? (is it the same as or different from the poet's?)
Lead is a heavy metal; why is despair "leaden-eyed" (line 8)?

Stanza IV.
The poet suddenly cries out "Away! away! for I will fly to thee." He turns to fantasy again; he rejects wine in line 2, and in line 3 he announces he is going to use "the viewless wings of Poesy" to join a fantasy bird. In choosing Poesy, is he calling on analytical or scientific reasoning, on poetry and imagination, on passion, on sensuality, or on some something else?
He contrasts this mode of experience (poetry) to the "dull brain" that "perplexes and retards" (line 4); what way of approaching life does this line reject? What kinds of activities is the brain often associated with, in contrast to the heart, which is associated with emotion?
In line 5, he succeeds or seems to succeed in joining the bird. The imagined world described in the rest of the stanza is dark; what qualities are associated with this darkness, e.g., is it frightening, safe, attractive, empty, fulfilling, sensuous, alive?

Stanza V.
Because the poet cannot see in the darkness, he must rely on his other senses. What senses does he rely on? Are his experience and his sensations intense? for himself only or for the reader also?
Even in this refuge, death is present; what words hint of death? Do these hints help to prepare for stanza VI? Was death anticipated in stanza I by the vague suggestions in the words "Lethe," "hemlock," "drowsy numbness," "poisonous," and "shadowy darkness"?
The season is spring (the musk rose, which is a mid-May flower, has not yet bloomed). Nevertheless, Keats speaks of summer and in stanza one introduces the nightingale singing "of summer," and in this stanza he refers to the murmur of flies "on summer eves." In the progression of the seasons, what changes occur between spring and summer? how do they differ (as, for instance, autumn brings fulfillment, harvest, and the beginning of decay which becomes death in winter)? Why might Keats leap to thoughts of the summer to come?

Stanza VI.
In Stanza VI, the poet begins to distance himself from the nightingale, which he joined in imagination in stanzas IV and V.
Keats yearns to die, a state which he imagines as only joyful, as pain-free, and to merge with the bird's song. The nightingale is characterized as wholly blissful--"full-throated ease" in stanza I and "pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!" (lines 7-8).
How are the mixed nature of reality and its transience suggested by the contrasting phrases "fast-fading violets" and "the coming musk-rose"?
In the last two lines, the poet no longer identifies with the bird. He realizes what death means for him; death is not release from pain; rather it means non-existence, the inability to feel the bird's ecstasy. Is there any suggestion of the bird's dying or experiencing anything but bliss? Note the contrast between the bird's singing and the poet's hearing that song; what are the emotional effects of or associations with "high requiem" and "sod"? Why does Keats now hear the bird's song as a requiem? (He heard the bird's song very differently earlier in the poem). Might the word "still" have more than one meaning here?
Is there any irony in Keats's using the same word to describe both the nightingale and death--the bird sings with "full-throated ease" at the end of stanza I and death is "easeful" (line 2 of this stanza)?

Stanza VII.
Keats moves from his awareness of his own mortality in the preceding stanza to the perception of the bird's immortality. On a literal level, his perception is wrong; this bird will die. Some readers, including very perceptive ones, see his chracterization of the bird as immortal as a flaw. Before you make this judgment, consider alternate interpretations. Interpreting the line literally may be a misreading, because the bird has clearly become a symbol for the poet.

  • Is he saying that the bird he hears is immortal? or is he saying something else, like "the bird is a symbol of the continuity of nature" or like "the bird represents the continuing presence of joy in life"? In such a reading, the poet contrasts the bird's immortality (and continuing joyful song) with the condition of human beings, "hungry generations."
  • Does the bird symbolize ideal beauty, which is immortal? Or is the bird the visionary or imaginative realm which inspires poets? Or does the bird's song symbolize poetry and has the passion of the song/poem carried the listening poet away?
  • Has the actual bird been transformed into a myth?
  • Does this one bird represent the species, which by continuing generation after generation does achieve a kind of immortality as a species?
  • Is the nightingale not born for death in the sense that, unlike us human beings, it doesn't know it's going to die? An implication of this reading is that the bird is integrated into nature or is part of natural processes whereas we are separated from nature. The resulting ability to observe nature gives us the ability to appreciate the beauty of nature, however transitory it--and we--may be.

The poet contrasts the bird's singing and immunity from death and suffering with human beings, "hungry generations." What is he saying about the human experience with "hungry"? If you think in terms of the passage of time, what is the effect of "generations"?
The stanza begins in the poet's present (note the present tense verbs tread and hear in lines 2 and 3). Keats then makes three references to the bird's singing in the past; the first reference to emperor and clown is general and presumably in a historical past; the other two are specific, one from the Old Testament, the other from fairy tales. The past becomes more remote, ending with a non-human past and place ("faery lands"), in which no human being is present. Is Keats trying to limit the meaning of the bird's song with these images or to extend its meaning? What ideas or aspects of human life do these references represent?
The mixed nature of reality manifests itself in his imagining the nightingale's joyous song being heard by in the past in the series of three images. Is the reference to the emperor and clown positive or neutral? The story of Ruth is unhappy (what words indicate her pain?). In the third image, the "charm'd magic casements" of fairy are "forlorn" and the seas are "perilous." "Forlorn" and "perilous" would not ordinarily be associated with magic/enchantment. These words hint at the pain the poet recognized in the beginning of the poem and is trying to escape. Does bringing up the idea of pain prepare us or help to prepare us for the final stanza?

Stanza VIII.
The poet repeats the word "forlorn" from the end of stanza VII; who or what is now forlorn? Is the poet identified with or separate from the nightingale?
In lines 2 and 3, the poet says that "fancy" (imagination) has cheated him, as has the "elf" (bird). What allusion in the preceding stanza does the word "elf" suggest? What delusion is the poet awakening from?
The bird has ceased to be a symbol and is again the actual bird the poet heard in stanza I. The poet, like the nightingale, has returned to the real world. The bird flies away to another spot to sing. The bird's song becomes a "plaintive anthem" and fainter. Is the change in the bird and/or the poet? Is Keats's description of the bird's voice as "buried deep" a reference only to its physical distance, or does the phrase have an additional meaning? It is the last of the death images running through the poem.
With the last two lines, the poet wonders whether he has had a true insight or experience (vision) or whether he has been daydreaming. Is he questioning the validity of the experience the poem describes, or is he expressing the inability to maintain an intense, true vision? Of course, the imaginative experience is by its nature transient or brief. Is his experience a false vision, or is it a true, if transitory experience of and insight into the nature of reality?
Has the dreamer in this poem changed as a result of his visionary experience? For instance, has his life been improved in any way? has he been damaged in any way? (The effect of the dream on the dreamer is a thread that runs throgh Keats's poems. The life of the dreamer in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" has been destroyed, and there is a question about the impact of dreaming on Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes.) What does the tone of the ending seem to you, e.g., happy, excited, hopeful, depressed, sad, despairing, resigned, accepting?
Does Keats, in this ode, follow the pattern of the romantic ode?


Ode to a Nightingale (1819) Questions

One of the major themes of the Romantic Era was the conflict between the claims of the Imagination and the claims of real life (immortality v mortality, the preference for transience and half states) seen clearly in this early ode. It also touches on the idea of a proposed 'valley of soul-making' instead of the Christian, religious 'valley of tears'.

1. The first three verses express Keats' reasons for wanting to follow the nightingale into the forest. What are they?

 

2. Do thee reasons throw any light on II, lines 1-4 which describe the actual effect on Keats of the bird's song.

 

3. In verse four, Keats embarks on an imaginary journey into the Nightingale's world, with the help of the 'viewless wingson poesy'. What kinds of experience does he look for (one in verse 5, one in verse 6)

 

4. What does Keats mean by calling the bird 'immortal'?

 

5. How does the ending of the poem emphasize an aspect of Keats' original response to the bird?

 

6. Re-read from 'Already with thee!..' in verse 4 to the end of verse 5. The scene is peppered in terms of touch, smell and hearing, rather than sight. Do you see any significance in this? What do you notice about the phrases: 'soft-incence', and 'embalmed darkness'?

 

7. Re-read verse 6 in the light of your comments on the last question. Is the emergence of the 'death wish' surprising? How does Keats resolve the conflict between this impulse and the quality of imaginary experience in verses 4 and 5?


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-winged 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! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal 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-stained 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 gray 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 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.

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 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!
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 oft-times 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 toil 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:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?



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