Ode to a Nightingale
Ode to a Nightingale
John Keats 1819
In the spring of 1819, the months during which Keats wrote four of the five great odes, Keats stayed with his friend Charles Brown in Wentworth Place, Hampstead. Brown later wrote the following account, which may offer the reader insight about the experience expressed in “Ode to a Nightingale”:
… A nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.
In the ode, the speaker responds to the beauty of the nightingale’s song with a both “happiness” and “ache.” Though he seeks to fully identify with the bird—to “fade away into the forest dim”—he knows that his own human consciousness separates him from nature and precludes the kind of deathless happiness the nightingale enjoys. First the intoxication of wine and later the “viewless wings of Poesy” seem reliable ways of escaping the confines of the “dull brain,” but finally it is death itself that seems the only possible means of overcoming the knowledge and fear of time. The nightingale, after all, is “immortal” because it “wast not born for death” and cannot conceive of its own passing. Yet without consciousness, humans cannot experience beauty, and the speaker knows that if he were dead
his perception of the nightingale’s call would not exist at all. This paradox shatters his vision, the nightingale flies off, and the speaker is left to wonder whether his experience has been a truthful “vision” or a false “dream.”
Born in 1795, Keats, the son of a stablekeeper, was raised in Moorfields, London, and attended the Clarke School in Enfield. The death of his mother in 1810 left Keats and his three younger siblings in the care of a guardian, Richard Abbey. Although Keats was apprenticed to an apothecary, he soon realized that writing was his true talent, and he decided to become a poet. Forced to hide his ambition from Abbey, who would not have sanctioned it, Keats instead entered Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospitals in London, becoming an apothecary in 1816 and continuing his studies to become a surgeon. When he reached the age of twenty-one, Keats was free of Abbey’s jurisdiction. Supported by his small inheritance, he devoted himself to writing. Keats also began associating with artists and writers, among them Leigh Hunt, who published Keats’s first poems in his journal, the Examiner. But within a few years the poet experienced the first symptoms of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his mother and brother. He continued writing and reading the great works of literature. He also fell in love with Fanny Brawne, a neighbor’s daughter, though his poor health and financial difficulties made marriage impossible. He published a final work, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, which included his famous odes and the unfinished narrative, Hyperion: A Fragment. Keats travelled to Italy in 1820 in an effort to improve his health but died in Rome the following year at the age of 26.
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 wingéd 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-delvéd 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-stainéd 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 specter-thin and
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
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalméd 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 easel Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a museéd 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
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
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 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 ode opens midway through an experience that might seem typically “poetic”: the speaker is alone and undergoing an emotional response to something of extreme natural beauty—the nightingale’s song. Some readers have argued that the physical setting is actually daytime and that the nocturnal imagery predominating much of the poem is only symbolic. The woods, after all, are described as “beechen green”—a color the speaker might not detect in darkness—and as casting “shadows numberless” from, it might seem, some source of light. Yet later in the ode the speaker envisions many objects he cannot physically “see.” Further, the sum effect of infinite shadow must be full darkness, a highly figurative description but one most readers probably comprehend without much resistance. Lastly, the nightingale, as its name suggests, is famed (especially in literature) to sing at night.
External sight, however, is important more in its absence than in its presence. At night, internal visions often replace the physical world that darkness obscures. In keeping with this, the poet describes a “numbness” of his senses comparable to that brought on by poison or by “some dull opiate.” Further, he never actually witnesses the nightingale. Instead, its presence is revealed only by sound, as later the qualities of the woods are revealed by scents. The bird’s song haunts the speaker until his “heart aches,” but the ache is not simply a form of loneliness or self-pity. Rather, it is the ache we sometimes experience in the presence of great beauty—the ache of wanting to bridge the distance between ourselves and the object of beauty, to perhaps possess the object or even to “become” it. Keats once described this impulse while criticizing a painting by the American Benjamin West, whose work Keats felt lacked the aesthetic urgency necessary to create such an ache: “There is nothing to be intense upon,” he wrote of the painting; “no woman one feels mad to kiss; no face swelling into reality.” Thus, the speaker’s pain, while genuine, is also a type of happiness—of “being too happy in thine (the nightingale’s) happiness.” This is the first of the ode’s many paradoxes—happiness in pain—but the reader also must note the ease with which one thing becomes another even in the first stanza. The nightingale already has transformed into something more than a bird. It is a wood-nymph, a “light wingéd Dryad,” which suggests the qualities of nature that are apart from man’s experience. The “ache” compels the speaker to attempt to identify with—to get closer to—these natural qualities. His own qualities—the aspects of human consciousness, which create man’s essential separation from nature—stand in the way.
The speaker first considers wine as a means of overcoming the consciousness that separates him from the nightingale. Wine is obviously associated with “dance,” “song,” and “mirth”—three activities or states that temporarily make us forget ourselves. Wine has also played a role in the ceremonies of many religions, including those of the ancient Greek Dionysian cult and Christianity. The use of wine in religious rituals hints at the connection people have made between the effects of intoxicating drugs and achieving transcendental experiences: that by quieting or changing the normal state of human consciousness, a person might enter a state of spiritual inspiration. Keats addresses this possibility in other poems. Here, he associates wine with the Provencal troubadours, whose songs attempted to identify completely with the beloved, and with the “warm South,” where life is imagined to be lived in an easier and less self-conscious manner. Similarly, the speaker considers wine to be, like the nightingale, both immune to the pressures of time (it is “cool’d a long age”) and a symbol of organic nature (the “deep-delved earth, tasting of Flora and the country green”). Finally, he compares wine with the waters of the “blushful Hippocrene,” the fountain of poetic inspiration, which the speaker considers to be “full of the true.” Drunk, the speaker hopes, he can “leave the world unseen,” fading with the nightingale away from the concerns of man and “into the forest dim,” which is the unthinking state of nature.
In mythology, to drink the waters of the Lethe (the river of Hades) is to forget the sadness of life, yet to reach the Lethe one must first die. Thus, death is oblivion and vice-versa. In the third stanza, the speaker focuses on the forgetfulness of death. He wishes to enter the “immortal” world of the nightingale, to “leave the world unseen” and to “dissolve, and quite forget” the sufferings of a human world overshadowed by the knowledge of death. That world, characterized by “weariness” and “fret,” is one ravaged by the consequences of human foresight, “where but to think is to be full of sorrow.” Because consciousness brings on “leadeneyed despairs,” youth lives under the gloom of death and beauty becomes tainted by the knowledge that it is passing. Thus, under the normal conditions of man’s existence, both beauty and the response to beauty are undermined by the limiting nature of time and death. In contrast, the nightingale does not need to “forget” or to be numbed by wine. On the contrary, it “hast never known” the fear of time and death because it does not “think.” It therefore can enjoy a “happy lot” and sing “of summer in full-throated ease.”
After the highly lyricized affirmation of his intent (“Away! Away! for I will fly to thee”), the speaker selects as his means of escape “the viewless wings of Poesy” instead of wine. The choice between the two seems to acknowledge something about their relationship. In his letters Keats insists that poetry—or the intense, poetic identification with some external object—enables a person to transcend the rational “meaning” of his own existence. More than escapism, Keats considered this power a kind of “Negative Capability” inherent in man, the ability to overcome the “doubts” and “uncertainties” of life through the selfless regard for beauty. This idea calls to mind the songs of the troubadours. Intense poetic fancy, like wine, releases a person from the clarity and logic of the “dull brain.” This type of vision is “viewless” because it originates from the spirit rather than from the eyes, yet even in physical darkness the world of the nightingale is mysteriously illuminated by the “Queen-moon and her starry Fays.” This light from “heaven” is enough to produce rich, “verdurous” visions of nature. Thus, though the speaker “cannot see,” the visions produced by his imagination are among the most beautiful and sensuous in the poem.
The reader should note the sonic devices that contribute to the sensuous effect of the fifth stanza. One of these is the alliteration of the “m” sound in the final three lines: “mid-May,” “coming,” “musk-rose,” “murmurous,” and “summer.” Another is the assonance, or the repetition of internal strong-vowel sounds, that occurs throughout the stanza: “flowers,” “boughs,” “child,” “wine,” “flies,” etc. These sonic devices emphasize the natural beauty of the nightingale’s world. Curiously, though the speaker “cannot see,” the woods’ beauty is conveyed through “sight” details: “white hawthorn,” “violets covered up in leaves.” Because the darkness precludes the speaker’s physical perception of these sights, we must assume they represent an ideal world conjured in the speaker’s imagination: the nightingale’s world. In such a world, death is portrayed far differently than in the human world of stanza three, where “men sit and hear each other groan.” “Embalmed darkness,” which in human terms might be associated with the grave, is here depicted as the natural aroma of “sweet” organic growth. While the violets are “fast fading,” their death is a natural consequence of the “seasonable” progression that leads to “the coming musk-rose” and “flies on summer eves.” Thus, death has its place in the natural order of things. By yielding to new life, death is in fact part of the process of fertility and regeneration, which is a form of immortality.
Having become attuned to nature’s “immortal” process of death and fertility, the speaker in stanza six approaches the possibility that “it is rich to die.” More than wine or even poetry, death here represents the consummate state of identification with the nightingale’s world, for it is the knowledge of death that in stanza three marks the essential division between man and nature. The speaker has in mind an “easeful Death,” a cessation “upon the midnight with no pain.” To some readers, this might imply that the speaker would willingly die if death were not accompanied by physical suffering. But a likelier interpretation is possible. If the man’s misery (the “leadeneyed despairs” of stanza three) are brought on by consciousness (“to think is to be full of sorrow”), then to pass eternally from consciousness is to escape forever life’s pain. Death, in other words, retains power only over a living man who is able to fear his own end; through death, therefore, death can be overcome. This, of course, has paradoxical implications. While the beauty of the nightingale’s call reminds the speaker that consciousness is what alienates him from nature, the speaker also realizes that death would end his perception of that same immortal beauty: “Still wouldst thou (the nightingale) sing, and I have ears in vain.”
The speaker, the violets, and every individual thing born of nature must die. Yet the nightingale is an “immortal Bird.” Since the speaker cannot reasonably believe one creature alone possesses the power to avoid physical death, other meanings for immortality must be suggested. In one sense, perhaps, it is the nightingale’s call that is immortal. The same song (though sung by different individual nightingales) has been heard over time by all types of people—both “emperor and clown.” Its beauty thus transcends the human boundaries of time, class, and even geography. Upon hearing the same call, the Biblical Ruth (or so the speaker imagines) felt the same sense of alienation the speaker has experienced. In this sense the call is immortal because it speaks to man in a way that does not change over time. In a second sense, the nightingale itself is immortal simply because it “was not born for death. Lacking the ability to think—and thus to foresee its own destiny—it cannot conceive of its own passing as humans can. It feels no rift between itself and the natural world whose song it sings with such “full throated ease.” Free from fear, the nightingale is naturally immune
- An audio cassette titled John Keats: Poems, is available from HighBridge Co.
- Poetry of Keats is available on audio cassette from Harper Audio.
- The Keats-Shelley Journal website can be accessed at: http://www.luc.edu/publications/keats-shelley/ksjweb.htm.
to the power death has over thinking humans and is, in a way, “immortal.”
The word “forlorn” has at least two meanings that may come into play in the transition between the last two stanzas. In one sense, the word means “deserted” or “abandoned,” and this might apply to the “faery lands” of myth or the imagination. But in the transition the word calls to the speaker’s mind a second meaning: “desperate” or “without hope.” With this meaning, the word “is like a bell” that calls the speaker away from his vision and back to the objective world. Physically, we might assume the nightingale has simply flown away—“past near meadows, over the still stream” and finally into the next “valley-glades.” But in fact the nightingale itself has never appeared in the poem. What departs is the sound of its song and along with it the speaker’s vision. The language of departure recalls the speaker’s earlier consideration of death: the song “fades” and is “buried.” Yet the speaker’s identification with the nightingale is already ended even as the bird flies off. He is drawn back into his “sole self”; the song has turned from “happy” to “plaintive.” With the shattering of his identification, the speaker is left alone to puzzle over the experience. “Fancy,” which before was a means to immortality, has become a “deceiving elf” who “cannot cheat so well.” Thus, the final questions are ones of poetic consequence that the speaker cannot himself answer. Does the imaginative experience reveal truth, as in a “vision,” or is it simply a pleasant but false form of escape, as a “dream”?
By the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” in 1819, John Keats was familiar with the tribulations of life. He enumerates them in the third stanza of his poem: We must work and worry, grow old, become infirm, feel pain. Even “youth grows pale, spectre-thin, and dies.” But far worse than the afflictions that come with being mortal, man must live with the awareness of age, death, and loss: “But to think is to be full of sorrow / and leadeneyed despairs,” he writes. Knowledge and reflection bring unhappiness. When we are still young we know that we will one day die; when we are in love, we know that beauty and love will one day pass. To this sorrowful self-awareness, Keats contrasts the unthinking happiness of the nightingale. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” the poet says. Death cannot interfere with the nightingale’s happiness because the nightingale knows nothing of death.
At the beginning of the “Ode,” thought is weighing down on the poet. His “heart aches,” he feels “a drowsy numbness,” sensations which the unselfconscious happiness of the nightingale’s song only seems to intensify. He longs to escape from consciousness. At first he speculates that wine will enable him to “fade away into the forest dim.” But in the end he decides that there is only one vehicle that can transport him out of self-consciousness: Poesy, the imagination.
It works—for a while, at least. Keats is transported into a gentle bower, where the nightingale sings but is never seen. In the “Ode,” vision represents conscious, reflective thought. “Here there is no light.… I cannot see,” the bower is a place where self-consciousness does not exist. In the bower the poet has reached a state like unto the nightingale. He experiences pure sensation, nothing more. There is no past or future. He experiences everything as it is now. He is no longer aware of change. Things obviously change in the bower—“fast fading violets … / The coming musk-rose”—but the poet no longer reflects on it.
Even death is somehow present in the little bower, indicated by the murmuring of the flies. But it is not something to be feared or lamented. Death is now “easeful” because it annihilates thought and ends the awareness of human misery forever. But as seductive as the idea of death is to Keats, the song of the nightingale makes him hesitate: If he were to die, he would be free of the cares of existence. But he would give up everything that might be precious to him, like the lovely song that has transported him to this blissful state.
Reflecting on the song, Keats is drawn back to his “forlorn” life, back into his “sole self.” The song of the nightingale and its pure, unconscious happiness disappear. The poet’s moment of self-forgetfulness ends. When he returns to normal awareness, he is not sure what has happened. The two modes of experience, conscious thought and unconscious perception, are so different that it is impossible to comprehend one with the other. Keats is left wondering which of the two is real: the mode of experience that has just slipped through his fingers, or the one he experiences now.
Art vs. Experience
Keats compares the nightingale’s song, which is “such an ecstasy,” to everyday life, with its trials and troubles. Compared to the bird’s “full-throated ease,” the poet feels numb: in other words, he does not feel to the extent he should. The bird’s “art” touches the poet and leads him to the same experience that will enable him to transcend normal experience. In this, imagination is the key. “The dull brain perplexes and retards,” so he has to feel his way slowly toward heightened experience. It may be possible through wine, “the blushful Hippocrene.” But the thought of wine draws him only more deeply into “the weariness, the fever, and the fret,” and he realizes that only “Poesy,” the imagination, and art can bring him to the heightened state he craves.
The change happens abruptly. And the two kinds of awareness are literally as different as night and day, for when the poet first hears the nightingale it is day, but after he is swept away “on the viewless wings of Poesy,” it is suddenly night. He is in a universe where every sensation is heightened and meaningful, where “the Queen Moon is on her throne, / Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays.” Even death takes on a new, artful meaning. Keats recalls the “soft names” he has called death. The nightingale’s song makes death seem “rich” and inviting, until the poet realizes that to die would entail giving up the ecstatic song. He would “have ears in vain,” Keats says, suggesting that the whole point of existence might be to experience art and beauty.
Besides presenting heightened, more meaningful experiences, art, embodied in the bird’s song, lives forever, unlike everyday experience which passes quickly into nothingness. Through the ages, art has been experienced by all classes, “emperor and clown”; it has consoled the sorrowful. But as important as it is to man, art cares nothing for its audience. It “oft-times hath / Charm’d magic casements … / … in faery lands forlorn”—it can exist just as fully realized in a land where there is no person to witness it. Suddenly a “bell” tolls. Keats is roused from the meditative trance he was in. Back in everyday consciousness, he realizes that the imagination falls far short of its reputation. The “deceiving elf” has teased him with the idea that he might be able to escape humdrum reality—that is what many consider the function of art—but the experience proved to be only temporary. Keats can only ask himself if the heightened perception achieved by Poesy was real or merely a dream.
The term ode is of Greek origin, meaning “sung.” While traditional examples of the form adhere to complex and strictly set patterns designed to be put to music, the ode by Keats’ time had undergone enough transformation that it really represented a manner—rather than a rigid method—for writing a certain type of poetry. In general, the ode of the Romantic era is a poem of 30 to 200 lines that meditates progressively upon or directly addresses a single object or condition. In addition to “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats wrote odes about the season of autumn and a Grecian urn as well as about indolence, melancholy, and even the poet John Milton’s hair. Keats’s odes are characterized by an exalted and highly lyrical tone, and while they employ specific stanza forms and rhyme schemes, these can vary from ode to ode.
“Ode to a Nightingale” consists of eight, ten-line stanzas, each following a single rhyme scheme that combines the quatrain of a Shakespearean sonnet with the sestet of a Petrarchan sonnet. Thus, the first four lines of each stanza rhyme ABAB while the final six lines rhyme CDECDE. Generally the stanzas are thematically constructed in just the way their hybrid rhyme scheme would suggest. In a Shakespearean sonnet, the three quatrains present some problem or question to be reconciled in the final couplet. In a Petrarchan sonnet, a similar concept is reconciled in the last six lines. Thus, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” the quatrain of each stanza tends to present a problem or condition that is addressed, explained or elaborated in the sestet. In the first stanza, for instance, the quatrain describes the pain
Topics for Further Study
- What might make the poet think his “normal,” waking life was a dream? Compile a list of images that suggest your everyday life is only a dream you are having.
- Keats writes “’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, / but being too happy in thine happiness.” Why would sharing the nightingale’s happiness cause the poet feel unhappy?
- In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats uses various words to show that his ability to see is disappearing. What are some of them? Imagine you are in a familiar room or landscape. Describe it as completely as possible without describing anything you can see.
in the speaker’s heart and the numbness of his senses. The sestet reveals the cause of the pain: the nightingale’s song.
The beginning of the Romantic movement in English poetry is usually identified with the publication of Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798. Wordsworth’s “Preface” to the second edition described poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling.” This Preface crystallized the movement’s philosophy and became a Romantic manifesto.
The elder generation of Romantic poets was led by Coleridge, Wordsworth, and William Blake. This first generation of Romantic poets was profoundly revolutionary, and those beliefs became part of the Romantic worldview. Politically, they supported the ideals of the French Revolution and Napoleon. They rejected the new rational, scientific view of the world personified by Isaac Newton, and advocated replacing it with a new outlook, determined by art, nature, perception, and imagination.
Compare & Contrast
- 1819: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been in print one year. It is the story of a scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who goes against natural and religious law and creates life in the laboratory. The creature kills everyone Frankenstein loves before destroying the doctor as well.
Today: Genetic engineers are able to modify the DNA in various food plants and domestic livestock to create essentially new types of living things with specific “designer” characteristics. One of the most ambitious scientific projects is the mapping of the entire human genome.
- 1819: Hans Christian Oelmsted discovers that an electrical current will cause a magnetized needle to align itself along the direction of the electrical wire. This discovery shows that electricity and magnetism are different aspects of a single force.
Today: Spurred by the growth of the Internet and long-distance telephone companies, the United States is crisscrossed by a network of fiber optic cable, along which incredible amounts of information are transmitted via light impulses.
- 1819: Police foil the Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to assassinate the entire British cabinet. The plan was fomented by an disgruntled ex-soldier who believed that it was the duty of a true patriot to overthrow the government. Five conspirators are executed for high treason.
Today: Conspirators alleged to have blown up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City are tried. One, a disgruntled ex-soldier who served in the 1991 Gulf War, is convicted and sentenced to death.
- 1819: After publicity revealing the dangerous and unhealthy working conditions in cotton mills, the British Parliament passes a law prohibiting the employment of children under the age of nine in the mills. Children nine years of age and above are allowed to work no longer than twelve hours a day. This law is only sporadically enforced.
Today: In 1997, with 17 percent of Americans living below the poverty level, the minimum wage is increased for the first time in five years. Ten million Americans now earn the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. More than 36 million Americans lived below the poverty level in 1995.
They opposed industrialization, which was quickly taking shape around them, and were highly critical of its effects on humanity and the natural world.
The younger generation of Romantics was comprised primarily of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Keats. Their work, which represented the zenith of English Romantic poetry, reached its peak in the late 1810s. Shelley and Byron took up the activism of the earlier poets. Shelley’s poem “Queen Mab,” for example, was critical of the English monarchy, the church, marriage, and meat-eating. Keats and Shelley continued the earlier generation’s quest for an idealized world; poetry and art were seen as privileged routes to heightened, more genuine experience. Their search for transcendent knowledge led to their rejecting such middle-class values of family, work, and materialism which were then widespread. Lord Byron was particularly flamboyant in this respect. He flouted established ideas about marriage and respectability with a string of love affairs that stretched across the European continent. His active participation in various national liberation movements helped form the ideal of the Hero, an ideal that was important to the Romantic movement. The early success and early death of the three great later writers of Romanticism—Keats at 25, Shelley 30 and Byron 36—solidified the image of the doomed Romantic poet.
The Post-Napoleonic World
By 1819 Europe was in the midst of a period of extreme conservatism, a backlash against the revolutionary upheavals prevalent at the turn of the century. The French Revolution had lasted much of the 1790s, followed by the rise of Napoleon and his wars of conquest in the first two decades of the 1800s. In 1815 the allied nations of Europe defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, ending the French emperor’s quest of empire. The Congress of Vienna ushered in a “new” European order, restoring the French monarchy, all of which seemed to the Romantics and others a throwback to the previous century. The post-Napoleonic settlement at Vienna was intended to act as a guarantee against the outbreak of another continental war, like the one that had recently been fought against Napoleon, and the outbreak of lower-class revolution. It signaled—or seemed to signal—the end of any revolutionary activity that might upset the political order. To many artists who had seen true hope for mankind in revolutionary Europe, the renewed strength of reactionary forces was a cause for profound disappointment. Within four years, however, separatists in Spain and anti-Turkish revolutionaries in Greece had started uprisings which drew the support of many European artists, including poets like Lord Byron, who died while working with Greek freedom fighters.
For the better part of fifty years, England had been undergoing a revolution of its own, one which was economic and technological, not political—though it had serious political ramifications. The Industrial Revolution, which historian Eric Hobsbawm called “probably the most important event in world history,” began with the mechanization of the English cotton mills. The changes in work and production it introduced caused irreversible changes in life. The English Romantics, especially William Blake (who wrote of industrial England’s “dark Satanic mills”), were among the first to understand the effects industrialization would have on individuals. The focus of life shifted from villages to cities, and from farms to factories. Skilled labor became less and less important. Unskilled women and children—the cheapest labor available—could be employed both in textile factories and mines. As the poor moved en masse into cities to be closer to the factories, they were crowded into cramped, unhealthy slums. The move from the country and the loss of age-old means of livelihood contributed at the same time to a loss of old forms of culture, which the new mercantile society was unable and unwilling to replace.
Though Keats was often assailed by critics of his time, the great works of the annus mirabilis began receiving praise even as the poet himself was dying. In an essay dated 1820, John Scott writes particularly enthusiastically about the second-to-last stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale”: “it is distinct, noble, pathetic, and true: the thoughts have all chords of direct communication with naturally constituted hearts: the echoes of the strain linger about the depths of human bosoms.” Later critics, of course, came to regard “Ode to a Nightingale” as one of Keats’s most important works and one of the great poems of the Romantic period. Douglas Bush writes in 1937 of the ode’s weighing of the relationship between beauty and time. Though the nightingale’s song is “an imperishable source of joy,” Bush writes, the ode is not a “hymn of triumph” because it expresses the awareness that beauty must die: “Even when Keats proclaims the song of the bird is immortal … his deepest emotions are fixed on the obverse side of his theme.” Though Keats “tries to believe” in the eternal nature of beauty, “he is too intense a lover of the here and now … to be satisfied with his own affirmations.” Harold Bloom writes of the speakers uncertain assessment of the experience in the final stanza, where the question is whether the poetic flight has been “fully manifest, as in a vision, or merely the latent content of a waking dream.” In the end, Bloom writes, the speaker is left “pondering the contraries: Is the act and state of creation a heightening or merely an evasion of the state of experience? Once back in experience, the honest answer is in the continued question, both as to fact and to will: ‘Do I wake or sleep?’”
Fraser Sutherland is a writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Here, Sutherland explores impersonality in “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The life and legend of John Keats sometimes gets in the way of understanding poems like “Ode to a Nightingale.” Practically from the time of his
What Do I Read Next?
- The Letters of John Keats. Letters are the primary source for the facts of the poet’s life and offer a glimpse into his passionate personality.
- Thomas de Quincey also wrote during the Romantic period. He describes William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, two of the earliest English Romantic poets, in his Reminiscences of the Lake Poets.
- The Romantic movement spread throughout Europe and continues to be influential today. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is a novel which displays many of values that were important to the Romantic writers, notably a spirit of opposition to the effect of industrialization upon culture.
early death in 1821, Keats’s literary reputation has never waned, though not everyone has liked his work. Writing not long before Keats died, Byron remarked in a letter that Keats’s work was “a sort of mental masturbation.… I don’t mean he is indecent, but viciously soliciting his ideas into a state, which is neither poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium …”More soberly, Miriam Allott’s pamphlet for the British Council (1976) speaks of “the debilitating prettinesses of his poetic language.”
Nonetheless, Keats has endured, and like Shakespeare’s, many of his lines and phrases have entered the common language: “half in love with easeful Death” and “To cease upon the midnight with no pain,” to name two taken from “To a Nightingale” alone. F. Scott Fitzgerald took “tender is the night,” another phrase from the poem, as the title for one of his best-known novels. There is even a current periodical, The Keats-Shelley Journal, devoted to him. There are several reasons for Keats’s staying power, quite apart from the high merit of his work. First of all is the pathos of his short, afflicted life, an orphanhood that was conducted in stages. Aged nine, Keats lost his father; at ten, he lost his grandfather; at 15, his mother; at 19, his grandmother; at 23, his brother Tom. Less than three years later he was dead himself of the tuberculosis that had killed his mother and brother.
Keats was no luckier in his love for Fanny Brawne. Toward the end of his life he was too sick to marry Fanny; earlier, he had been too poor. Born at the livery stable his father kept, Keats never had money, and his lifelong poverty was worsened by the fact that his legal guardian, Richard Abbey, was reluctant to give him any. He often relied on the generosity of several devoted friends, notably the poet, critic, and editor Leigh Hunt. The loyalty of his friends points to another element in the Keats legend; his sweetness and charm seems to have captivated everyone who knew him well. Beset by his own troubles, he never lacked sympathy for others’ suffering, writing marvelously expressive and empathetic letters to Fanny and his family and friends. He was steadfastly fond of his sister and two brothers, one of whom, Tom, he nursed during the final months of his fatal illness.
Against this background, it is hardly surprising that Keats’s poems, especially “To a Nightingale,” often seem like elegies for himself, saved from self-pity by their sensuous qualities and sheer loveliness. Astonishingly, this large body of work was compressed into just five years, beginning at age 19. During the last year of his life, gravely sick, he wrote only letters. The fact that he died in Rome, to which he had ill-advisedly gone to recover from his tuberculosis, only added glamour to the legend.
A prime ingredient in the myth-making that surrounded Keats after his death was the supposed abuse he suffered at the hands of critics; his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley accused them of hounding him to death. “Adonais,” Shelley’s poem in tribute to Keats and, like “To a Nightingale” a permanent anthology piece, is at once eloquent, melodramatic, and misleading. “I weep for Adonais—he is dead!” Shelley begins, identifying Keats with Adonis, the handsome young man whom the goddess Venus loved and whom a wild boar killed. Identifying Keats’s critics with a wild boar is about the kindest thing Shelley has to say about them; elsewhere in the poem he calls them reptiles, “herded wolves,” “obscene ravens,” “carrion kites,” and vultures “whose wings rain contagion.”
Shelley would not have been a Romantic poet if he had not been prone to overreaction, but what are the facts? Shelley was alluding to an anonymous negative review of Keats’s Endymion in the Quarterly journal, later revealed to be by the Tory politician and critic John Wilson Croker, in any event pale stuff compared to the editor and critic John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s Magazine. Beginning in 1817 Lockhart frequently attacked what he called the “Cockney School of Poetry,” which included Keats, Leigh Hunt, and the critic William Hazlitt, all of whom were friends, Londoners, and of middle-class or working-class origins. A year later Lockhart described Endymion as having a “calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy.”
Two points need to be made. First, people took poetry in Keats’s time very seriously indeed, and critics regarded bad writing as a personal insult. A book of poems could be a bestseller, and among writers in our own century perhaps only Hemingway has had anything like the sort of immense fame Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott enjoyed or contended with. Secondly, there is no evidence that harsh criticism daunted Keats, and may even have done him some good. He was tough-minded enough to give up pharmacy, for which he had been trained, so he could devote himself to writing poems. And, though his books sold poorly, he had fervent admirers in Hunt, Hazlitt, and Shelley, important names and active advocates. Two months after Keats’s death, Byron wrote Shelley to say that the review of Endymion was “severe,—but surely not so severe as many reviews in that and other journals upon others.” Byron was thinking of how he himself had often been savaged. In any case, Keats spat blood because of tuberculosis, not hostile commentary.
Just as we should not be blinded by the sad allure of Keats’s life so we must approach “Ode to a Nightingale” in a spirit of caution. The message seems straightforward enough. Keats compares his pain-wracked and apparently doomed life to the beautiful, melodiously carefree song of a nightingale he hears one day in the forest. He longs for what the bird represents: warmth, wine, and “full-throated ease.” Unlike him, it seems, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” Then, like life and death, the bird vanishes, and all is silent.
“Ode to a Nightingale” is an odd poem because it both conforms to and contradicts some of the ideas he expresses elsewhere, notably the famous concept of “Negative Capability,” first named in a 1817 letter to his brothers George and Tom. He considers “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.…” This can be taken several ways, but is often linked with another famous statement, in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, “If a sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.” Writing in 1818 to another friend, Richard Woodhouse, he says, “A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity.” This total identification of the observer with the observed may be what Keats meant by the final two lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (with which “Ode to a Nightingale” is often compared): “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” As Walter Jackson Bates, perhaps the foremost Keats scholar, observed in John Keats (1963), the poet recommends that (like a playwright or novelist) we abandon our own egos in favor of participating in and identifying with the nature and character of another creature. Thus Shakespeare could be Hamlet, Macbeth, or Cordelia, and Keats could be a sparrow, a nightingale, or anything else he wanted. Yet this seemingly selfless objectivity works out differently in “To a Nightingale.” For one thing, the “I” is very much front and center, and every carefully recorded detail of wood, stream, and bird is paralleled by the poet’s understandable obsession with his own predicament. It is hard to imagine that Keats, in contrasting the nightingale’s world with a world of pain and grief, was not thinking of himself when he spoke of a “youth” who “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” He may also have been thinking of Italy in longing for the “warm South” as a countervailing force to mortality. Italy exerted a great gravitational pull for Romantic poets: it attracted Byron in 1819, and Shelley a year later. As it happened, both Shelley and Keats died there.
The poem’s texture also belies impersonality. Although not as excessively as in some other poems, Keats uses a highly artificial language, which was considered archaic even in 1819—“beechen green,” “starry Fays [fairies],” “verdurous [freshly green] glooms.” Nothing could be further from a transparent engagement with what is being observed. The wealth of allusions from Greek and Roman mythology (among the Romantic poets’ work, only Shelley’s is more saturated with classical myths) and one Biblical allusion (Ruth who, “sick for home,” stands “in tears among the alien corn”) also point toward art, not nature. Two phrases even unite these tendencies. The “blushful Hippocrene” alludes to the fountain of the Muses, here emblematized by a beaker of wine, and “charioted by
“Keats uses a highly artificial language, which was considered archaic even in 1819.”
Bacchus and his pards” refers to painters’ depiction of the god of wine in a chariot drawn by leopards. Of course, Keats is not just showing off his erudition. The timeless quality of myths is opposed to the transience of life. In “To a Nightingale” both the living and the eternal are combined. Even the transient birdsong, Keats says, “was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown”.
All Keats’s references to nature are wonderfully exact but they too are artfully shaped by synaesthesia, the act of recording one sensation as if it were another, or mingling several together. Richard H. Fogle in The Imagery of Keats and Shelley (1949) has pointed out how Keats’s images are compressed, complex, yet quietly and absolutely right. The earth tastes of Flora, the goddess of flowers, and the beaker is “full of the warm South.” Moreover, the lines “With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained mouth,” quickly move the reader from touching to tasting to seeing.
To these characteristic traits must be added what can only be called stylistic tics, the occasional note of uncouthness or grotesquerie mixed in with the metrical perfection. Lines like “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” or “To thy high requiem become a sod” were considered imagistically jarring by critics even in Keats’s day. But Keats died so young that it is impossible to know what stylistic directions he might have taken had he lived longer. Though he probably never would have become a systematic thinker, we may be sure that brilliant new insights would have matched new modes of expression.
While Keats’s begins his poem with “a drowsy numbness pains / My sense,” the poem that follows is anything but numb or drugged. But the opening ties in with the words that end the poem: “Fled is that music—Do I wake or sleep?” Life is or may be a dream—a very Shakespearean image—but, dreaming or awake, perception and empathetic participation are rooted in Keats’s own consciousness. It is only in dreaming, Keats says, that we can become conscious of, and merged with, the life around us.
Source: Fraser Sutherland, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Karl P. Wentersdorf
In the following essay, Wentersdorf discusses some of the history behind the imagery and symbols in “Ode to a Nightingale” as found in various works of literature since the classical era.
It is commonplace that the greatest poems written by Keats embody the theme of love. Certainly his main preoccupation during the writing of the three long narrative poems published in the volume of 1820 was with the complexity of human love: its ambiguous nature (“Lamia”), its potential for pain and disaster (“Isabella”), and also its potential for ecstatic happiness (“The Eve of St. Agnes”). Enraptured as Keats was by his love for Fanny Brawne, he was not spared the agonies of frustration and jealousy. Since his torments were exacerbated by his weakening physical condition, there were times when he wished to banish love from his life; but it proved impossible to exclude altogether the motif of love from his work.
In the “Ode to a Nightingale,” as in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy,” Keats is concerned intellectually with the inexorable effects of the passage of time on beauty and on human love. The world of everyday realities is a place of weariness, frustration, and change, “Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, / Or new Love pine at them beyone to-morrow.” What Keats wishes to do is to reach out to a world in which love and beauty are not subject to change. His prime symbol for the imaginative power that will take him on this journey is the nightingale, or more specifically its song.
His excursion in search of that unchanging world, made on the “the viewless wings of Poesy” carries him far away from the problems of humanity, out and up into the night sky, yet the trip does not provide him with a vision of an Elysian realm. There is nothing to be perceived, nothing to be recalled in tranquillity and set to paper, because “here there is no light.” After the “viewless” excursion is over, all that remains is the memory of the ineffable pleasure given by the nightingale’s song. That music, exquisitely melodious at the beginning of the poem and plaintive at the end, calls forth from the underground worship of the poet’s mind a series of images deriving ultimately from ancient times, images that create an emotional sub-text for the poem. Through allusions to the experiences of those who have known the ecstasy of mortal love, Keats reveals his continuing delight at the thought of the joys of young lovers and his deep yearning for the fulfillment of his own unassuaged and incompletely suppressed desires.
The first of the images of love in “Ode to a Nightingale” is the apostrophe in stanza 1 to the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad,” pictured as being in “some melodious plot/ Of beechen green.” According to classical mythology, dryads were beautiful nymphs who inhabited the woods of the Mediterranean area; they were passionately pursued by satyrs of fauns with what post-classical writers have variously regarded either as carefree amorousness or as a brutish lust. Hence an allusion to dryads and satyrs (or fauns) has sufficed ever since classical times to conjure up the motif of the pursuit of love: as [English anecdotists] Joseph Spence put it [in his book Polymetis], “The chief passion, both of the Fauns and Satyrs, seems to have been for the nymphs,” and one of their chief characteristics “is their lasciviousness.” Occasionally poets are concerned only with the amorousness of the dryads: thus in the Satires of Propertius, Gallus is warned to protect his handsome slave-boy from the assaults of the dryads who burn to steal him; and in Paradise Lost, shortly before the seduction of Adam, Milton likens Eve to a “Wood-Nymph light, Oread or Dryad.” Keats’s awareness of the tradition is readily demonstrated: he alludes to it in Lamia when he states that “faery broods / Drove Nymph and Satyr from the prosperous woods” and Oberon “Frightened away the Dryads and the Fauns”; and in the poem “I stood tip-toe upon a little hill,” he sympathizes with the unfulfilled love of the nymph Syrinx and the Acadian god Pan—“poor Nymph,—poor Pan.” Hence when Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale” about the “happy lot” of the “light-winged Dryad” singing “of summer,” the kind of song that he has in mind is one prompted by the natural preoccupation of the wood-nymphs in summertime—a song of love.
The nightingale was often linked with eros by classical, medieval, and Renaissance writers. It appears in Paradise Lost when Adam and Eve withdraw for their wedding night, and all creatures fall silent except for the nightingale singing “all night long her amorous descant”; and it reappears when Milton tells how the primal couple celebrated “the Rites / Mysterious of connubial love” and “lull’d by Nightingales imbracing slept.” To [English poet Samuel Taylor] Coleridge, the bird’s delicious notes were a “love-chant” (“The Nightingale”). Keats’s use of this literary tradition is exemplified in Endymion, where the nightingale, perched high among the leaves, “sings but to her love,” and the summer melody which the bird in “Ode to a Nightingale” sings with “full-throated ease” is a symbol for the passion Keats yearned to be able to express without restraint.
The intimation in stanza I that the poem deals in a muted way with the theme of passionate love is supported by the implications of several images later in the poem. Thus stanza 2 contains allusions to manifestations of eros both in classical times and in the Middle Ages. The poet calls for wine, “Tasting of Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!” Flora, whose festival was celebrated in Rome at the end of April and the beginning of May, was a goddess not only of flowers but also of fertility. The festivities of the Floralia signalized the annual renewal of life in nature, and they have been variously regarded as joyous revels or as licentious orgies. [Roman poet] Orvid, who gives a detailed account of the activities (Fasti), says that they are marked by wantonness greater than that manifested at other festivals, because Flora warns her devotees to use life’s flower while it still blooms, and because the gifts she brings lend themselves to delights. In spite of strong opposition by the Church, the Floralia survived through the centuries as “the bringing in of May,” and evidence for the enduring popularity of the festival in Britain is provided by the criticism of a sixteenth-century Puritan, by the poetry of [English poet Edmund] Spenser (Shepheardes calender), and by the accounts of folklorists.
The traditional association of Flora with the activities of young lovers in the spring is frequently reflected in literature. According to [Guillaume de Lorris’s and Jean de Meun’s] Roman de las Rose, Flora and her husband Zephyrus each year bring forth the flowered counterpanes of the meadows for encouragement of lovers everywhere. The myth was well known to Spenser, [English poet Ben] Jonson, and Milton, and Keats himself makes frequent mention of it. Thus in the lyric “O come, dearest Emma!” the “riches of Flora” provide the romantic setting for the persona’s “story of love”; in “Sleep and Poetry,” the poet envisions the realm “Of Flora, and old Pan” as a place where he can pursue nymphs and “woo sweet kisses,” and where one of the nymphs will entice him on “Till in the bosom of a leafy world / We rest in silence” [in The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition].
It is appropriate that in “Ode to a Nightingale” Flora is linked in stanza 2 with the medieval troubadours, for their songs were primarily associated with Flora and her festival. The love motif in Provencal literature proved to be more than merely a widely imitated literary convention: it helped to disseminate the idea that eros was potentially ennobling for the individual and to set in motion far-reaching chances in society. Although some critics feel skeptical about [English writer] C.S. Lewis’s sweeping statement that the Renaissance itself is “a mere ripple of the surface of literature” compared with the ethical and artistic revolutions which began with the troubadours’ praise of human love, it is undeniable that the modern romantic treatment of love in western literature had its origins in Provencal poetry.
The works of the troubadours were not known directly to most English writers of the Neo-classical and Romantic periods, but continental authorities persuaded them of the innovative achievements of the Provencal literary phenomenon. [English poet Alexander] Pope acknowledged that English love poetry originated in the poetry of Provence; [English literary historian and critic] Warton, after demonstrating how the “Provincial” bards had inspired medieval poets like Dante and Chaucer, noted [in his The Four Ages of Poetry] that the chief subject of troubadour poems was love; and [English novelist and poet] Peacock commented on “the exaggerated love that pervades the songs of the troubadours.” It is to their role in the evolution of love poetry that Keats alludes in “The Eve of St. Agnes” when he ways the Porphyro’s love-song comes from Provence, and in stanza 2 of the Ode when he mentions “Provencal song.”
In stanza 4, Keats returns to classical imagery as he enlarged on the concept of his imaginative journey through space:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy.…
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry fays.
Here the imagery is more complex in its import. Keats’s disclaimer—the statement that his flight is made not in the chariots of Bacchus but on the wings of poesy—involves the rejection of one of the most dynamic images of classical antiquity. Bacchus is often depicted in art as a reveller accompanied by satyrs, and sometimes in a chariot drawn by pards. He was revered as the god who gave mankind the gift of wine, and who also inspired poets. In the long passage about him in Endymion, his chariot symbolizes the poetic means by which Keats hopes to go beyond the fascinating realm of his daydreams, inhabited by Flora and Pan (cf. “Sleep and Poetry”), and to reach in Ian Jack’s words [in Keats and the Mirror of Art] “the more serious territory of poetry that lay beyond it.” In “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats still calls for a symbolic “draft of vintage” and “a beaker full of the warm South.” But Bacchus in his car is no longer a suitable image for the poet on his aesthetic journey toward a more significant realm of poetry, because more than intoxication and inspiration was involved in the god’s influence. The Bacchanalia had been an uninhibited celebration of life, marked by drunkenness, debauchery, and bloodshed. Bacchus was a god not only of inspiration but also of the wildest passions. The pards drawing his car, beautiful but terrifying in their savagery, symbolized the disorderly and sometimes violent manifestations of human sexuality. Hence in turning away from the pard-drawn chariot, Keats reject the dangerous aspects of eros.
In his visionary journey in “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats is not in search of Bacchic revelry, even with its possibility of inspiration; yet the dismissal of Bacchus does not imply a rejection of the whole classical experience. Keats seeks and achieves communion with the nightingale (“Already with thee”), and that communion yields an image for the kind of inspiration that is ardent and enthralling but without Bacchic elements of disorder and destruction. The image which comes to his mind is that of the “Queen-Moon,” enthroned and surrounded by her starry attendants.
The goddess of the moon, Cynthia or Diana, was the patroness of virgins. Although, historically, she was not commonly regarded as a patron of poetry, Keats’s allusion to Cynthia in the Ode is not surprising. He knew that she was Endymion’s muse; and in the poem “I stood tip-toe,” he apostrophized the moon as a “Maker of sweet poets.” In the same poem, as examples of the romantic stories told by moon-inspired poets, Keats mentions the myths of Psyche and Cupid, Syrinx and Arcadian Pan, Narcissus and Echo, and that “sweetest of all songs,” the legend of Cynthia and her Endymion. As Ian Jack points out [in Keats and the Mirror of Art], “each of these stories … can be used to describe the origin of poetry.”
Of course, Cynthia was more than just a “Maker of sweet poets”: she was also goddess of virginity. To some readers of the classics [like Joseph Spence in Polymetis], this meant that the love she felt for Endymion was purely Platonic in nature. Not so to Keats: he thinks of Cynthia-Diana as the patroness of chaste but earthly love. She appears in “Sleep and Poetry” as a timorous beauty attended by nymphs, but there her brief role is enigmatic. Elsewhere, Keats clearly thinks of her as experiencing a heart-warming and ultimately consummated love: “Cynthia is from her silken curtains peeping / So scantly that it seems her bridal night” (“To my Brother George”); “Cynthia! I cannot tell the greater blisses, / That follow’d thine, and thy dear shepherd’s kisses” (“I stood tip-toe”). Above all, in Endymion, the amorous youth exclaims that “Diana’s self must feel / Sometimes these very pang [of love]”; Endymion dreams that Phoebe (Cynthia) is his “beauteous … bed fellow”; he cannot “help but kiss her and adore”; and at the end he is triumphant, as Cynthia confesses her love for him. In Keats’s view, as set forth in a letter to his sister Fanny, Endymion “was a young handsome Shepherd who … lived solitry among the trees and Plains little thinking—that such a beautiful Creature as the Moon was growing mad in Love with him.” It is this concept of the timorously yet ardently loving moon-goddess that is present in Keats’s reference to the “Queen-Moon” in “Ode to a Nightingale.”
The whole of stanza 5 is concerned with flowers and blossoms, unseen by Keats but nevertheless identifiable in the scented (“embalmed”) darkness. Four in particular are mentioned: white hawthorn, eglantine, violets, and musk-roses. It has been said that the flowers named “are important chiefly for their pastoral associations” [according to Richard Harter Fogle in his essay “Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale”]. More specifically, they have a long history of use as symbols of love.
The violet is the most frequently used of these images. In classical mythology the flower sprang from the blood of Attis, the youth love by Cybele. In Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, the goddess attempts to seduce the stripling as they recline on a bed of violets; in [English poet John] Donne’s lyric “The Ecstasie,” the violet symbolizes the persona’s passion; the lady in [English poet Robert] Herrick’s “Meditation for his Mistresse” is a “dainty Violet”; and according to [English poet Richard] Lovelace (“love Made in the First Age: To Chloris”), lovers at one time could enjoy each other without sinning, on banks “Diaper’d with Violet Eyes.” Keats uses the image comparably. In Endymion, the young lover tells of a dream in which, as he madly kissed his beloved, he became aware of “A scent of violets, and blossoming limes”; later in the poem he comes across Adonis asleep in a “chamber, myrtle wall’d” (myrtle being sacred to Venus), and there a cupid “Rain’d violets upon his sleeping eyes.” The description of the violets in “Ode to a Nightingale” as “Fast fading” points, of course, to the transitory nature of human love.
On May-Day eve in earlier centuries, lovers went out into the country-side to gather branches of blossoming hawthorn and decorate their homes. Herrick’s “Corina’s going a Maying” celebrates this festival: “There’s not a budding Boy or Girle, this day, / But is got up, and gone to bring in May,” returning “with White-thorn laden”; “Many a green-gown has been given; / Many a kisse …, / Many a glance too has been sent / From out the eye, Love’s Firmament”; and the door of each house is now a tabernacle “Made up of white-thorn neatly enterwove: / As if here were those cooler shades of love.” The festival survived in some areas of Britain until the mid-nineteenth century.…
Next in literary popularity among the unseen flowers in “Ode to a Nightingale” whose fragrance Keats identifies is the eglantine of sweet-briar. Spenser is fond of the image: the Shepheardes Calender for May tells how “loue lads” and “Yougthes folke now flocken in euery where,” to gather “Hawthorne buds, and swete Eglantine”; and in the Faerie Queene, Cymochles dallies with “loose Ladies and lasciuious boyes” in an arbor “Through which the fragrant Eglantine did spred / His pricking armes.” The persona in [English poet Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s lyric “The Question” gathers a lover’s nosegay including violets, roses, and eglantine. The same traditional significance is reflected in Endymion: the love-sick youth envisions a spot where he might dwell with his beloved, and there he promises to plant eglantine.
[A] remaining flower named by Keats in stanza 5 of the Ode is the musk-rose, a rambling rose with white blooms; and like the other three flowers, it is found in poetry in settings redolent of the joys or pains of eros. All roses, of course, were sacred to Venus; and her son Cupid was said by Chaucer to wear a chaplet of roses (Romaunt). The mention of the musk-rose in “Ode to a Nightingale” in conjunction with violets and eglantine may have been prompted by the similar linkage in Shakespeare’s description of the spot where Titania will fall in
“Keats develops the concept that the idealized situations so often presented in poetry are far removed from the grim realities of life, with its weariness, disappointments, illness, and death.”
love and dally with Bottom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The strains of a shepherd’s love-song in Comus are praised as having “sweeten’d every musk-rose of the dale.” And Keats’s Endymion declares his beloved to be as “Sweet as a muskrose upon new-made hay.” There, as in “Ode to a Nightingale” the flower’s powerful odor is an image for the attractiveness of love.
The last element in the erotic imagery of the Ode may seem at first to be out of place. After stating in stanza 7 that the song of the nightingale was heard in ancient days by emperor and by “clown,” Keats goes on to strike a Biblical note:
The voice I hear this passing night was …
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
What is the pertinence to “Ode to a Nightingale” of Ruth’s story, the only element in the imagery of the poem that is both specific and historical?
In this stanza, Keats adverts for the first time to the effect that the nightingale’s song has on others than himself, in fact on the whole spectrum of society, from the ruler to the lowest of the ruled. By introducing a notable Old Testament figure, he expands the scope of his meditations to embrace not only the pagan world of Flora, Bacchus, and Diana but also the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Furthermore, the Biblical image serves as a link between the imaginative world of untrammelled joy conjured up by the images in stanzas 1-2 and 4-5, and the prosaic world of unceasing pain and death reflected in stanzas 3 and 6, since even Ruth was ultimately happy. Of course Keats does not think of the emperor, the peasant, and Ruth as being moved to speculate, as he is doing, on philosophical and aesthetic matters. To rulers, ruled, and displaced persons alike, the bird’s melodious song would have been a token of happiness or of consolation for unhappiness, especially in affairs of the heart.
There has been some uncertainty as to Keats’s intention of introducing the un-Biblical description of Ruth as being “sick for home … amid the alien corn.” The scriptural account of Ruth the Moabite tells how, after the death of her Israelite husband, she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi to Judah, a land alien to Ruth; and there, with Naomi’s encouragement she took steps to obtain a new husband, Boaz. It is likely that for Keats, it was not only the change of domicile but also, and more importantly, the loss of the marital love she had enjoyed that made her heart sad. This interpretation aligns the reference to Ruth with the other images in the poem having as their common denominator the motif of love. It is noteworthy that [English poet] Thomas Hood’s “Ruth” (1827), a poem apparently inspired by Keats’s lines, takes a clearly romantic view of her. There Ruth is “Like the sweetheart of the sun, / Who many a glowing kiss had won,” and Hood’s farmer summons her: “Lay thy sheaf adown and come, / Share my harvest and my home.”
It is evident that in “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats no longer possesses that relatively simple enthusiasm, manifested in early works like “Sleep and Poetry,” that made it seem that the domain of the imagination could provide something like an antidote to the ills of the real world. His imaginative faculties can still conjure up powerful imagery to body forth the beauties of nature and the glory of humanistic achievement; but he now knows that it cannot provide a substitute for, or even a temporarily satisfactory retreat from, the pain of loving. In a sense, the excursion in “Ode to a Nightingale” record in brief the aesthetic and psychological journey that had led Keats to a more mature judgment regarding poetry and its relation to live.
At the outset of the Ode, as the poet first becomes aware of the thrilling song of the nightingale, the bird’s apparent happiness makes him desire to pass once again through the charmed casements opened up by his craft, and to soar on the wings of poetry into an ideal realm free from the painful realities and bitter frustration of everyday life, a realm filled with glamorous images of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance era. But even in the course of this magic journey, the real world intrudes; the poet realizes that the nightingale has never known, and hence its song does not reflect, the “weariness, the fever, and the fret” endured by humanity, on an earth where even “youth grows pale” and dies, and where the mere act of thinking about life is enough to plunge one into “leadeneyed despairs,” as beauty fades and love pines.
In spite of everything, the poet is determined to continue his flight (st. 4-5), but the visual element is missing. The excursion is “viewless”; nothing is visible because “here there is no light”; in fact Keats cannot see, though he can smell, the flowers at his feet. Again the muted pleasure is intruded upon (st. 6) by gloomy thoughts, this time about mortality: Keats recalls that he has often ruminated on “easeful Death” and remarks wistfully that the nightingale will pour forth its song long after he himself is dead.
In its primary metaphorical significance as the embodiment of the literary imagination, the nightingale is, unlike the poet, “Immortal.” It has been pouring forth its soul ever since ancient times, imperial as well as Biblical, and it will continue to do so. But even as Keats is proclaiming the immortality of poetry, he questions the nature of its achievements. That it has often opened up “Charm’d magic casements” is undeniable; but what the magic now reveals to the poet gazing through those casements is enigmatically described as “the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery land forlorn.” Even these less than comforting visions will not last: “fancy,” that aptitude for imaginative invention, is a “deceiving elf”; and from the fact that the literal nightingale’s song fades as the bird moves on to “the next valley-glades,” the reader recognizes the poet’s awareness that his inspiration will likewise cease. But this bleak conclusion is mitigated by the sub-text of “Ode to a Nightingale.” John Clare [in The Prose of John Clare] was right when he observed that the scenery in Keats’s poetry reflects “nature as she appeared to his fancies & not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he describes.” The details are more often symbolic than realistic. In this respect Keats is following in the footsteps of Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton. It is this tradition that provides the clues to the sub-textual concerns of Keats in his Ode.
At the level of conscious thought, Keats develops the concept that the idealized situations so often presented in poetry are far removed from the grim realities of life, with its weariness, disappointments, illness, and death. Yet the exemplars evoked, rather than delineated, in the excursion stanzas (1-2, 4-5, 7) are images of love—young, passionate, and fulfilled. Even the last of these images, that of the historical Ruth standing in tears amid the alien corn, does not exemplify the extremes of despair and agony that prevail in stanzas 3 and 6, since the reader knows (or is expected to know) that Ruth, after much suffering, finally achieved her goal of remarriage, and with a kind and generous man.
Thus stanzas 1-2 and 4-5 contain images evoking the carefree, ecstatic fulfillment of love, a fulfillment not achieved by Keats. The poet offers brief glimpses of a dryad in a grove, awaiting pursuit by a satyr; of amorous Romans participating in the riotous celebrations honoring Flora; of Bacchus in his pard-drawn chariot, enamored of Ariadne; of Renaissance lover going a-Maying to bring home boughs of hawthorn, or reclining on lawns sprinkled with violets, or lingering in bowers of musk-roses and eglantine; and then of the compassionate Israelite farmer, offering love and security to the disconsolate Ruth. Love, like beauty, has endured through the ages and will continue to endure, for mankind if not for the individual.
The existence of these ideas just below the surface of the primary level of communication in “Ode to a Nightingale” indicates that there is a dichotomy between what the poet has come to recognize as the grim truth about life and, on the other hand, man’s eternal hope (however irrational) that fate will bring some measure of happiness in response to the need for love. The truth that he has arrived at intellectually and experientially, that man must reconcile himself first to the physical and spiritual pains of life (st. 3) and then to the ultimate oblivion of death (st. 6), evidently does not destroy every vestige of hope before he “become[s] a sod.” It is that hope which led Keats to compose the impassioned lines “To Fanny” some months after the writing of “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is the same muted hope that shines through, however fitfully, in the subtext of the Ode.
Source: “The Sub-Text of Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’” in Keats-Shelley Journal, Vol. XXXIII, 1984, pp. 70-84.
Bloom, Harold, “Introduction” and “John Keats,” in his The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, Faber and Faber, 1962.
Bush, Douglas, “Keats,” in Keats: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Walter Jackson Bate, Prentice-Hall, 1964, pp. 13-40.
Scott, John, in a review of “Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems,” The London Magazine, Vol. II, No. IX, September, 1820, pp. 315-21.
A strong introduction to Keats that traces some of the influences upon the “Ode.”
Bate, Walter Jackson, John Keats, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
The standard biography of Keats, very accessible and with a good overview of the themes in the “Ode.”
Bush, Douglas, John Keats, New York: Macmillan Co., 1966.
An engaging critical biography.
Motion, Andrew, Keats, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998.
Recent biography of Keats, containing informative treatment of the “Ode.”
Pettet, E. C, On the Poetry of Keats, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1957.
An interpretation of Keats’s poetry that focuses upon its Romantic aspects.
Vendler, Helen, The Odes of John Keats, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.
Examines the “Ode to a Nightingale” for evidence of the poet’s attitudes toward consciousness and in relation to his other odes.