Ode To A Nightingale: by John Keats - Summary & Analysis

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Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness
My sense, as though of hemlock I had
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had
’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
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt
O, for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world
And with thee fade away into the forest

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin,
and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-

Thou wast not born for death, immortal
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick
for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the
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 fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still
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?

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk: ’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, But being too happy in thine happiness, That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
Ode to a Nightingale

Summary & Analysis


      Ode To A Nightingale is one of the noblest achievements of the genius of Keats. It is a poem inspired by the joyful song of a nightingale that the poet had heard. The song induces in him a mood of deep delight which becomes painful in its intensity. The dominant characteristic of the ode is its rich sensuousness. Keats had once said - "O for the life of sensations rather than of thoughts."

      In other words, he cared more for sensations produced by the outward beauties of nature its music, color, and scent than for thoughts. He loved to dwell upon the thrills of sensation and passion in life. Thus the ode begins with a record of sensation which is purely physical. He has drunk in the rich music of a nightingale's song; his whole being is full of it. The effect is like that of hemlock or some dull opiate. From this dullness of spirit, the poet likes to stimulate himself. Quite in the manner of a sensuous poet Keats thinks of the intoxicating power of wine. It must be cooled in a cellar for a long time and must have a poetic association with the places like Italy or Provence where they are manufactured. Thus the richness of sensation is described with a voluptuous enthusiasm. But it is only a passing phase. The poet rejects the idea of wine and would depend on his imaginative power to 'fade far away and dissolve' in the land of romance and beauty that the song of the bird typifies. Imagination makes him forgetful of the miseries of life and thrills him with joy, even though the joy has a tinge of sadness. Rossetti has rightly said - "As no poet had more capacity for enjoyment than Keats, so no one exceeded him in the luxury of sorrow." "The emotion throughout is the emotion of beauty, beauty intensely perceived, intensely loved."

Critical Analysis

      Again, Keats's 'susceptibility to delight' is "close-linked with after-thought - the pleasure with pang". The initial mood of joy induced by the song is mixed up with a pathos that springs out of the contemplation of life. The ode is a "richly meditative one". The poet soon passes from the world of sensation to the sphere of thought. The view of life expressed here is highly tragic and this finds concentrated expression in the third stanza where he speaks of the weariness, fever, and frets, the changes of life, the transience of youth, love, and beauty. It is the bird's freedom from these sorrows that fills the poet with a longing to escape into the dim forest of the bird and be absorbed in it. The spell is complete and for a few moments, the poet remains in a paradise of joy. But the spell is soon broken; he is awakened to the reality of life. Thus the poem is rich in its emotion and thought contents.

      Other elements of Keats's poetry of the ode illustrates are Keats's love of nature, love of romance, and Hellenism. The description of the woodland scene with its rich treasure of fragrant flowers is wonderfully done. The spirit of romance is embodied in the bird itself. To the poet, the nightingale is no creature of flesh and blood. The nightingale singing in the dark cannot be seen by the poet. His imagination is set on fire by the ideal blessedness of the bird and it becomes to him to be the spirit of joy and beauty that has been singing from the remotest days of history to the present moment. This is the meaning of the line - "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird." Again the whole spirit of medieval romance has been condensed in the highly suggestive lines charmed magic casements etc. As we read the lines we are transported to the days of medieval romance and seem to see actually before our eyes the imprisoned princess in some enchanter's castle in a kingdom by the sea listening to the song of the nightingale, sitting in the charmed, magic casement. Lastly, Keats's love of the beautiful mythologies of Greece and Rome is evinced by the "surfeit of mythological allusions which heighten the beauty of stanzas Lethe, Dryad, Flora, Hippocrene, Bacchus, Queen Moon are some of the glaring examples.

      In the Nightingale ode, the poet feels a yearning to participate in the bird life which symbolizes for him a larger reality, a higher plane of existence. The pain in his heart indicates his gradual sinking into unconsciousness (Lethe-wards). The effect of the bird song is pain and oblivion. As the first trance dissolves, he aspires to the bird's ecstasy, and to achieve this he wishes for a drink of wine, for a stimulant that would lift him out of himself. The wine would help him escape from awareness and achieve identification with the birdlife. The third stanza, with its grim picture of actuality, clarifies the need for and the urgency of the mind's release from the mortal condition. The ideal world that he desires is placed in sharp opposition to the human predicament, to the scene of mutability. He seeks to escape into an eternal present, release from flux. This he wants to achieve through the dissolution of consciousness. He dispenses with external stimulants like wine and relics on his imaginative powers. He could affect his escape into the dark world of the bird-life through imagination. He is merged into the world of natural things. Just as separate things of daylight experience become merged in darkness, so his different sensations are merged in the dark world of the nightingale's song. Embalmed suggests death and he wishes painless death to annihilate his consciousness. He knows, however, that to die would mean the loss of the richness of the nightingale world. The nightingale lives in a kind of timeless present. It does not bear the burden of consciousness that every human being is forced to bear. The last stanza underlines the inadequacy of imaginative powers. Imagination cannot long sustain the spell of withdrawal from reality and consciousness. The 'high requiem' becomes the plaintive anthem.

      On its artistic side, the poem has some very remarkable qualities. The diction has 'a rounded felicity of expression', which according to Matthew Arnold is almost Shakespearean in its beauty. Expressions like 'verdurous gloom', 'embalmed darkness', 'full-throated ease', 'melodious plot', 'beechen green' etc. are beauties of the style. Again the inspired felicity of the lines 'charmed magic casements' with their rich suggestive power, is almost unequaled in English poetry. "Nothing more perfect in form has been said-nothing wider in scale and close in utterance by any mind of whatsoever pitch of greatness" (Rossetti). Lastly, the rhythmic quality of the verse, with the skillful arrangement of rhymes contributes to the melody of the poem. It is, as one hears it, like the song of the nightingale as the poet heard it. Fowler observes about the meter: "The charm of the verse depends partly on the inevitable, yet unmonotonous, recurrence of the rhymes, partly on the effect of the shortened eighth line in producing a momentary pause that heightens the force of the full music of the last two lines.

      In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats longs for an escape from the cares and anxieties of the present, forgets the memories, and immerses himself in the timeless joy and beauty symbolized by the song of the nightingale. He wants to throw off the burden of self-consciousness and sink gradually into the dark world of unconsciousness. 'Fade and dissolve' signify gradual fading into unconsciousness. The nightingale sings in darkness, and his world is one of shadows numberless' and 'verdurous gloom'. The bird-sang symbolizes timelessness. The death wish is a natural culmination of the love of darkness and unconsciousness. The poet is called back to self-consciousness. The poem is thus a temporary spell of an imaginative excursion into the realm of unconsciousness where the poet's yearnings and longings find poetic release.

      It is not true to say that romantic poets are escapists. Keats escapes from present reality into the higher reality of dreams and yearnings. He remains there for a time by strength of his imagination. In the last stanza, there is an ironic reversal of the poet's fantasy.

      The romantic poets create an imaginative ideal world of beauty that is free from the cruelties of time. Keats in 'Ode to a Nightingale' takes refuge in this world of timeless beauty and joy. He seeks to escape into an eternal present, a release from flux, from the world of process. The poet desires escape from actuality (Fret, fever, and weariness) as well as from his consciousness of the past and the present.

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