Ode to a Nightingale: by John Keats - Critical Analysis

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      Written in the spring of 1819, this Ode was inspired by the song of a nightingale that had built its nest close to the house of a friend in Hampstead. The bird’s song, we are told often threw Keats into a sort of trance of tranquil pleasure. The proper subject of the poem is not so much the bird itself as the poet’s “aspiration towards a life of beauty away from the oppressing world’’—a beauty revealed to him for a moment by listening to the bird’s song.

Development of Thought (Summary)

      The effect of listening to the song of the nightingale is that the poet’s heart is full of aching pain and his senses are dulled, owing to the very happy participation in the happiness of the bird. The pain is the outcome of excessive joy of the poet to think that the nightingale should thus sing in full throated ease in the care-free manner.

      The poet longs to lose himself into the happy spirit of the bird, and leave the world unseen and fade away into the dim forest. At first, he proposes to do so with the help of a cup of wine that has been cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth, and is rich with all the associations of the songs and dances of Provence, its country of origin. If he can do so, he will leave behind him all the woes of the world, the weariness, the fever and the fret of the world where we sit and hear each other groan, where youth grow pale all too soon, and beauty fades in no time. But on second thought he understands, wine is not potent enough to transport him into the ideal region. Poetry alone shall transport him. For a moment he mistrusts his own power, but the next moment he fields himself in imagination by the side of the bird, listening to the bird’s song in the woodland.

      The poet describes the romantic forest into which he has flown on the viewless wings of poetry. In the darkness he cannot see the flowers, but can guess each of them by its peculiar fragrance—the hawthorn, the eglantine, the violet, and the musk rose.

      In this beautiful romantic scene the poet thinks of many associations of the bird’s song as he listens to it. “In his joy he remembers how often the thought of death has seemed welcome to him, and thinks it would be more welcome now than ever.” The nightingale would not cease her song—the poet will die but the bird will sing on—he contrasts the transitoriness of the individual human life with the permanence of the song-bird’s life, meaning the life of this type. The bird was not born or to die; the voice that the poet hears was heard in ancient times by emperors and clowns, by the good Moabitess Ruth, by some damsel kept captive in some medieval castle.

      The illusion is broken; the poet comes back to his daily consciousness and regrets that imagination has not the power to beguile him for ever.

Critical Comments on “Ode to a Nightingale” (Analysis)

      The song of the nightingale sets aglow the imagination of the poet. As he listens to the song, he feels pain in his heart through excess of joy.

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains.
My sense,

      A drowsiness steals over him as if he has drunk an opiate. Her wishes for a draught of vintage, which would carry him out of the world into the abode of the nightingale. He would thus leave behind him the sorrows of the world. He thinks of the universal, sorrows of man, and his own particular and personal griefs. The youth that grows pale and specter-thin and dies, is his own, dearly loved brother Tom who had died a few months before, and beauty’s lustrous eyes are according to Middleton Murry, the eyes of Fanny Brawne, whom Keats loved. “This stanza is tense with the emotion of personal suffering controlled by poetic genius”.

      The poetic genius transports him. Not with the help of wine but on the wings of poetic imagination, “he flies to the realm of forgetfulness—viz, the romantic world of the nightingale. This world is “a heaven of joy”, where the poet listens to the song of the nightingale. Now more than ever it seems to him rich to die, and cease upon the midnight with no pain. But if he was indeed to die, he would not hear the song. Thus, mortality has its poor advantage, in that he, while living, can hear the enchanting song of the bird. “Mortality is re-asserted against the immortality of which the bird’s song is at once the symbol and the elixir”.

      Then with a magnificent sweep of the imagination, he sees the bird and the song as one. “The bird becomes pure song and inherits the eternity of beauty”.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird, No hungry generations; tread thee down.

      The poet here passes from the world of time into the world of eternity (as he does in the Ode on A Grecian Urn). The song of the bird is the voice of eternity heard by emperors and clowns of all ages:

The same that oft—times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

      The spell is broken as the bird flics away. The heaven of joy and beauty vanishes and the poet finds himself back in the realities? of life. The world of eternity into which the poet was transported by the wings of poesy is replaced by the world of time.

      The Ode to a Nightingale is one of the greatest lyrics in the English language. “I could not name,” says Bridges, “an English poem of the same length which 'contains so much beauty as this Ode”. Middleton Murry says: “For sheer loveliness this poem is unsurpassed in the English language”. It reaches the peak of romantic poetry in the lines:

The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, etc.

      The poem represents the fleeting experience of the poet—an intense imaginative experience in which sorrow is fused into joy, and the world of time merges into the world of eternity. It is a romantic poem, but it denies nothing of human experience; it tells of the sorrows of life and it reveals also that the bitterest human experience can be transmuted into beauty, which is truth.

      The Ode to a Nightingale is “a poem of midnight, and sorrow .and beauty”. The poet hears the song of a nightingale when the night is tender:

And haply the Queen Moon is on her throne,
Clustered around by her starry Tays.

      He contemplates the sorrows of the world to which all mankind is subject, and longs to get away from them. How? By means of his imagination which reveals to him the truth of beauty, he at once passes from this physical world —the world of time—to the world of eternity. The song of the nightingale represents beauty — ideal beauty that never fades. It is the eternal spirit of beauty; it is the voice of eternity that transcends the bounds of space and time:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird.

      The nightingale whose song the poet hears is suddenly transported in a flash from the world of time to the world of eternity; it has been singing for ages and ages. Thus to the poet in that moment of imaginative ecstasy, the nightingale is not a solitary bird singing from its hiding place in the tree; the bird is turned into song; the bird and the song are one—therefore the bird is immortal, “not born for death”. This imaginative swerving from the finite to the infinite, from the world of the time to the world of eternity is a marked feature of the greatest romantic poetry. Blake expresses his imaginative vision of eternity in a wonderful manner:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

      To Wordsworth, the cuckoo becomes a wandering voice, which turns this world into a faery unsubstantial place. In the Immortality Wordswurth passes from the finite to the infinite when he says:

Hence in a season of calm weather Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea Which brought us hither

      Shelley says of the dead Adonias:

He lives, he wakes—his Death is dead, not he.

      Further, Shelley passes beyond the bounds of space and timer and expresses his poetic vision of the Infinite when he says:

The one remains, the many change and pass:
Heaven’s light for ever shines, earthy’s shadows fly.

      This glimpse of the Infinite, revealed to Keats for a moment by the song of the nightingale, is also suggested in that bold line:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird.

      Some superficial critics haye complained of the logical fallacy involved in the contrast between the transitory life of the individual man with the permanent life of the nightingale, conceived not as an individual but as a type of the race; but such critics, led by their prosaic method of criticism, have missed the real significance of the great line—‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird’.

      The poetic style of Keats reaches its peak of glory in the Ode to a Nightingale. As an example of almost perfect execution, the ode is one of the very greatest that have been written in the English language. It shows a perfect blending of classical balance and romantic inspiration. Every word is in its place, and there is a restraint of expression from the beginning to the end; yet it glows with emotion, which is romantic to the extreme. Starting in a mood of despondent contemplation of life, in which beauty perishes, the poet has a fleeting glimpse of a world—the world of eternity—where beauty does not perish. Behind the seen world, he has a vision of’ the unseen—and this is the very quintessence of romance.

      There is a Shakesperian felicity of expression in tho telling epithets and picturesque compounds throughout the poem:

Provencal song and sunburnt mirth.
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim.
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despair.
Now more than ever seems it rich to die.

      The stanza form, with its intricate rhyme plan is a beautiful invention of the poet. It has a sustained melody the rolling music of the lines being variegated by the introduction of a short line in each verse. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ababcdecde.

Critics Opinion

      Middleton Murray: For sheer loveliness this poem is unsurpassed in the English language. It is a poem of midnight, and sorrow and beauty.

      Oliver Elton: This ode is the greatest, as concerning composition, that Keats made, and is the richest in variety of passionate expression.

      Rossetti: The passage about magic casements shows a reach of expression which can almost be called the pillars of Hercules of human language. Far greater things have been said by the greatest minds but nothing more perfect in form has been said-nothing wider in scale and closer in utterance by any mind at whatever pitch of greatness.

      Cleanth Brooks and Robert Perna Warren: In this poem, the world of mankind and the world of the nightingale are contrasted with each other. The listener in the human world responds to the song of the nightingale, and feels an intense desire to find his way into the world in which the bird sings “of summer in full-throated ease”. For the poet, the world of the nightingale is a world of richness and vitality, of deep sensuousness; of natural beauty and fertility; this world appeals to the imagination.

      The Ode to A Nightingale is a very rich poem. Two particular issues in it deserve attention. One is the close connection that the poet establishes between pleasure and pain, and the other is the connection between life and death.

      The bird is not alienated from Nature, but wholly merged in Nature. The bird shares in the immortality of Nature which remains, through all its changes, unwearied and beautiful. The poet does not think this particular bird to be immortal. The bird is in harmony with its world—not, as man is, in competition with his (“No hungry generations tread thee down”): and the bird cannot conceive of its separation from the world which it expresses and of which it is a part. It is in this sense that the nightingale is immortal. Man knows that he is born to die, knows the weariness, the fever, and the fret of the human world, knows in short “What thou among the, leaves hast never known’’ (line 22): and this knowledge overshadows man’s life and all his songs. Such knowledge overshadows this poem and gives it its special poignancy.

      With the word “Forlorn” the poet’s attempt to enter the world of the nightingale collapses. The music which almost succeeded in making him “fade far away” now itself fades and in a moment is "buried deep in the next valley—glades" (Lines: 77—78).

      Robert Bridges: I cannot name an English poem of the same length which contains so much beauty as this ode.

      Sidney Colvin: It is among the varied glories of the English poetry.

      Richard Harter Fogle: In the Ode to Nightingale, Keats is affirming the value of the ideal, and this is the primary fact. He is also recognising the power of the actual, and this is an important but secondary consideration. Keats is at once agonized and amused at the inescapable discrepancy between them. He reconciles them by a prior imaginative acceptance of the unity of experience, by means of which he invests them with a common extremity and intensity of feeling. He need not give equal attention to both, for the actual can take care of itself; it is the frail ideal which requires support.


      The Ode to a Nightingale is a great poem in many respects. It is the high watermark in romantic poetry even in that age of romanticism in which it was produced. Both in point of high imaginative conception, and of noble, almost perfect execution, the ode is one of the very greatest that has ever been written by any poet. “The key to the whole poem is to be found in the fine sensuous nature of the poet; keenly susceptible to beauty, intensely suffering under the smart of the malignity of critics, and under the stern blow of the unseen hand of fate and circumstances. The starting point is a mood of despondent contemplation of life, in which beauty perishes and passion cloys when the poet finds refuge in the magic of romance. The emotion throughout is the emotion of beauty, beauty intensely perceived, intensely loved, questioned of its secret like the sphinx, imperishable and eternal, yet haunted as it were by its own ghost, the mortal bodies of the human soul. As no poet had more capacity for enjoyment than Keats, so none exceeded him in the luxury of sorrow”.

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