Ode to a Nightingale

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale Summary

In Short

  • As the poet listens to the song of the nightingale he feels pain in his heart because of excessive joy. He is very much overwhelmed with happiness at the bird’s song.
  • The poet longs to escape from the world under the effect of the nightingale’s song. For this, he seeks the help of wine. He points out that the bird is ignorant of the woes and sufferings of the world. He wants to be carefree like the bird.
  • Keats declares that he will not drink wine, but he will instead achieve bliss by writing this poem. At the next moment he finds himself with the nightingale. In the darkness of the forest, he follows the bird.
  • The darkness reminds him of death. He thinks that it will be the richest moment for him to die with the song ringing in his ears. He notes that the nightingale’s song is immortal. It once soothed the heart of people in ancient days. Now he is listening to it too.
  • Keats is ultimately called back to his ‘sole self’ (reality) and wonders whether he actually overheard the nightingale’s song or whether it had been a dream.

Ode to a Nightingale Explanation

Stanza 1

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:

The poet feels pain in his heart. His senses become numbed. He feels as though he has drunk hemlock, a plant which produces poisonous juice. Or rather, it is as if he has taken some kind of opiate drug just a minute ago. Opium causes the poet to be lost in oblivion. He feels as if he has fallen in Lethe, a river in Greek mythology. Its water creates forgetfulness.

‘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.

Now, Keats reveals to us what causes his pain, numbness and forgetfulness. There is a nightingale singing. The poet says that he is not jealous of the bird’s happiness, but he is too happy listening to the song. In his heart he feels a sensation of pain because of excessive joy.

The poet compares the nightingale to “light-winged Dryad”, i.e., a wood-nymph in classical mythology. Like a wood nymph, the nightingale sits on some trees and sings a melodious song in ecstatic joy. There are beech trees in that plot and they make countless patches of light and shade. The nightingale sings spontaneously to celebrate the charms of summer.

Stanza 2

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 Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

The language of intoxication continues in the second stanza. The poet wishes for a cup of wine that has been cooled and stored for years under the earth. The wine tastes like flowers. It reminds him of the merry festivities in honour of Flora, the Goddess of flowers in Roman mythology. It also reminds him of dance, song and merry-making.

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;

The poet again seeks a beaker full of wine produced in the southern country. Keats here identifies wine with the water of Hippocrene.

Hippocrene is the name of a spring on Mount Helicon, the haunt of Muses. The winged horse Pegasus created it by stamping its hoof into the ground. Drinking from it was supposed to give poetic inspiration.

The drink should be blushing with its redness. There should be beads on the surface of the wine cup just like the bubbles on the Hippocrene water coming out of the earth. The border of the cup should be glowing red with the rich colour of the wine.

The poet’s wish to drink from the Hippocrene tells us of his longing to become a great poet.

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

The poet now reveals his intention behind the drink. He says that he wants to escape the world under the effect of the drink and vanish into the darkness of the forest with the nightingale.

Maybe he wants to forget his problems. Or perhaps, he yearns to lose himself completely into the song of the bird.

Stanza 3

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;

So, the speaker dreams of leaving the world and disappearing from it so as to be by the side of the nightingale where it was singing. Thus, the poet wishes to fade away into the joyous world of the nightingale. He wants to lose his identity. He would like to forget the woes and limitations of this unhappy world.

The poet is very much aware that life I full of pain. The world is full of ‘weary’ people. We see restlessness and anxieties among people. But the bird knows nothing of these sufferings of human life. It is carefree. In this painful world, one sits and hears the others groan. The poet wants to be carefree like the bird.

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,

The poet continues to depict the sorrows and sufferings of the world. Old men here get afflicted with palsy. Young men grow pale. They become thin as ghost. As a result, they die prematurely. In this world, any kind of thought leads to sadness. They can’t bring joy or peace. The despairing thoughts make the eyes heavy with the weight of sorrow.

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

In this world full of sorrow, beauty lose its charm. A woman’s eyes can’t retain the bright glow for long. Here, love loses its warmth too soon. Even newly-born love is temporary. In a few days the new love cools and proves its futility.

The poet yearns to free himself from the burden of cares and anxieties and to immerse himself in the world of nature.

Stanza 4

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

In the fourth stanza, Keats asks the nightingale to fly away. He will follow the bird away from the world. But, he won’t go there riding the chariot of Bacchus.

In Roman mythology, Bacchus was the god of wine, usually represented riding in a chariot pulled by leopards. So, the reference to Bacchus here indicates to wine. The poet gives up the idea of flying up to the bird with the help of wine. It is not potent enough to carry him to the world of the nightingale. He will rather do so on the invisible wings of poetic imagination.

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee!

The poet’s brain becomes dull. He mistrusts his power of imagination for a moment. He thinks he can’t produce anything creative any more. His imaginative power also flies away with the bird.

       tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;

The scene now shifts to the night. The night is beautiful. The moon is in the sky. The Queen-moon here suggests Diana. She is surrounded by star-like fairies.

But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

But here where the nightingale flies, there’s no natural light. Only heavenly light falls here. The sweet breeze has blown through the darkness. The darkness of the grove is caused by the numberless trees and their leaves. The zigzag paths are covered with moss. It creates a magical place.

Stanza 5

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;

It is the night time. As the poet hears the song of the nightingale, he is transported in imagination and forgets his present surroundings. In the darkness, he can’t see the flowers at his feet. Even he can’t see the plants that produce the pleasant fragrance. But he can guess the flowers by its smell. Many a fragrant flower has bloomed amidst the grasses, on the thickets and the trees. He can identify them from their scents.

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.

The poet can identify some flowers. These are the white hawthorn, the eglantine, violets and the first flower of the middle of May, i.e., the musk rose. The middle of the musk-rose is cup-like. Dew fills it. On the summer evening, swarms of buzzing flies crowd in large numbers over the musk roses for honey.

So, the poet doesn’t find much difference between spring and summer. Basically, he has left the world of reality and has gone to the world of nightingale.

Stanza 6

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 Keats hears in the darkness the calling of the nightingale. He then says he has often been in love with easeful death. Darkness seems related to the experience of death. He is alone in the forest and feels like death is very much near to him. Many times, he invited death in endearing terms to come upon him in well-thought out verses. He asked him (death) to take out his breath into the air, i.e., to kill him.

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!

There is wealth for him in the thought of death under such circumstances. It is the prime time, the richest moment for him, to die with the song ringing in his ears. Death in the present moment will be a luxury.

He wants to die at sweet midnight, while the nightingale continues singing with its whole heart and making its song heard from far away (pouring forth thy soul abroad). The bird is completely lost in pure joy.

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

After the death of the poet, the bird will be singing still. But the poet would no longer be able to hear it. The song of the nightingale might then be called a beautiful hymn (high requiem) to celebrate his death. However, the poet would be lifeless like a sod (turf) then.

Stanza 7

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:

The nightingale is not born for death. The voice of the bird is immortal. The bird cannot be immortal as an individual bird. It is the species that is immortal. But Keats makes the individual bird immortal while he makes the individual man mortal.

The generations of mortal men are hungry for material benefits. They are ready to trample down what is beautiful. But, even they could not crush the bird. The nightingale with its beautiful song has lived through the ages.

The poet is not the first person to hear its song this night. In the old days, the song of the bird comforted all alike – the emperor and the 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;

Keats here alludes to the “Old Testament” story of Ruth to emphasize how the nightingale’s song had been heard in ancient times too.

Ruth is the principal character of the “Book of Ruth” of the Old Testament. She was a Moabite woman, the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi. After the death of her husband, she migrated with her mother-in-law to Judah. There she gleaned corn in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of her mother-in-law. She married Boaz in the end.

Keats imagines that while Ruth gleaned corn and her sad heart pined for her home, she heard the song of the nightingale.

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

The same song must have reached the ears of a captive lady. It regaled her soul as she stood at the open window (casements) of an enchanted castle. The window is opened out onto the sea. There is an air of danger – the sea is perilous. The place is a kind of fantasy land. The fairyland belongs to the remote past (forlorn).

Stanza 8

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

The word “forlorn” here in the last stanza of the poem reminds Keats of his own miseries and desolate state. Keats has used the word in the previous stanza in its archaic sense of “utterly lost”. But the meaning of “forlorn” is definitely shifted, as the poet repeats the word. It describes the poet’s own state. He comes back to reality. All of a sudden, the very word recalls him from the world of fancy to the actual world.

The poet bids farewell (Adieu) to the bird. He now realises that though fancy is known to be a mischievous fairy, she is unable to deceive him in the manner she usually does. Fancy so long held the poet spell-bound and transported him into a region of unearthly beauty and happiness. The poet now realizes that fancy can create a world of beauty only for a brief span of time. Fancy or imagination is, after all, temporary.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:

The poet again bids good bye to the bird. The bird is flying away. As Keats’ mood turns to regret, the song appears sad (plaintive). The nightingale’s song recedes, and it becomes harder to hear as the bird flies from the nearby meadows, across a stream, up a hill and into the next valley. He can’t hear it now.

It has been a quick anti-climax from the fanciful world where we the readers along with the poet were moments ago.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

These are the concluding lines of the poem. The poet was deeply enthralled by the song of the nightingale. When the bird leaves, he returns to reality. The poet is in a dilemma. He fails to understand his state at his present. The illusion produced by the song has vanished. The poet now asks himself whether the song of the nightingale was real and he was listening to it or whether he had been day-dreaming. He wonders if he is awake or asleep.

Ode to a Nightingale – Critical Commentary

The poem “Ode to a Nightingale” was written in the spring of 1819. It was published in July the same year. There is a story behind writing this poem. Charles Armitage Brown, Keats’ friend, states –

“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continuous joy in her song, and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass under the 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.”

Thus, the poem was written.

It should be remembered, however, that the nightingale, a bird whose song is heard chiefly at night, had been a traditional subject for poetry from middle ages. The nightingale is a symbol of beauty, immortality, freedom and eros. In Greek and Roman myth, the nightingale also alludes to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from revealing her rape and who was turned into a nightingale by the gods to escape from death at the hands of her rapists.

An ode is a poem typically in the form of an address, praising or glorifying an event or an individual. “Ode to the Nightingale” is a regular or Horatian type of Ode. The metrical structure is Keats’ own invention. Each stanza consists of ten lines; all the lines are iambic pentameter. This ode is a lyric par excellence. The rhyme scheme employed throughout the poem is ABAB CDECDE.

Keats’ rich knowledge of mythology is evident in the entire poem and the use of those allusions give it an archaic and out-of-the-world feel away from reality.

It is a poem of genuine personal emotion, giving expression to the longings that wrings the poet’s inmost soul. On account of the intensity of personal emotion it rises into universality by awakening the thoughts of aching which all human hearts are liable to.

The poem has special significance as a lyric of personal passion. A few months earlier, the poet had lost his brother Tom who died of consumption and whom he nursed till the end. Keats himself was not quite well in health and spirit. Keats’ brother George and his wife departed for America, leaving him almost alone. All these find a touching expression here.

“Ode to a Nightingale” is sometimes described as an escapist poem because it alludes to a number of ways of avoiding reality, such as poison, narcotic drugs, wine, loss of memory, imagination and finally death itself. But alongside, the images of light, warmth, energy and pleasure are piled on one another so that the dominant mood is of vigorous cheerful life.

The subject of the ode is not the nightingale itself but an aspiration towards a life of beauty away from the oppressive world. In the poem, Keats portrays a state of intense aesthetic and imaginative feeling too poignant for long duration which arises with the song of a bird and vanishes when the song is done.

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