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A literary analysis of John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"

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“Ode to a Nightingale”

   “Ode to a Nightingale” was written in the spring of 1819, with Keats in full flow of what some consider to be his true poetic form, that of the ode. As with many of his poems, Keats uses “Nightingale” to convey some of the ideas in his head- “Yet let me tell my sorrow, let me tell| Of what I heard, and how it made me weep”-, mixed with elements of traditional Romantic style.

   The first stanza has a heavy tone, but still shows the skill of Keats’ poetry, with some of the lines being very beautiful imagery and reading like poetry in motion, effortlessly flowing. Belief in the power of the altered state to offer a different perspective on life is a constant theme throughout the poem, beginning here “drowsy numbness...hemlock I had drunk...dull opiate”. However, in this poem they seem to be linked with the suggestion of death, hemlock is a poison after all, and this is appropriate as that is one of the images conjured by the nightingale, as well as the whole transcendent theme in the poem.

   As with the first stanza, the second helps set the natural scene that Keats uses for this poem. One of the ideals of the Romantics’ was to allow themselves to explore not only art and love, but their own ideals and nature, and this sort of Arcadian setting was commonplace, as it reflects not only the Hellenic revival of the time, but gives a perfect place to spell out these ideas in their poetry. Keats uses very sensual language, like “beaded bubbles”, to allow the reader to lose themselves in the setting, as he himself is losing himself in the bird’s song. This place is imaginative and very peaceful, a place one can escape to away from the problems shown in the third stanza- “The weariness, the fever and the fret”. Yet there is a darker side to this place, as it is somewhere that you get lost in, to escape the problems of life, as in through alcohol or drugs. The second stanza ends with “And with thee fade away into the forest dim-“. There are some self-destructive elements to this, as the ultimate form of escapism is death, the complete obliteration of self from life.

   In the third stanza Keats is telling us the problems with the real world, and why someone might want to be free of it. In some of his poems, Keats shows love as the answer to these problems, presenting it as a powerful force that can help those that have it through hard times. This is not the case in “Nightingale”, where love cannot “pine” at beauty “beyond to-morrow”- it is not the eternal, all encompassing thing that he has sometimes shown it to be. Instead of being eternal, it is like “Fast fading violets covered up in leaves”. This stanza contains the line “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow”, and this draws on the idea of should we live a “life of sensations rather than thought”, and this theme is a recurrent one in Keats’ poetry. Paradoxically in this poem, the sensations of life both free and chain him- the wine and empathy with the free bird set him away from this world, yet he rejects the wine and says of the bird “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain”, as he would not be able to hear it the song in death.

   “Away! away!” begins the fourth stanza, and with it the rejection of wine as the answer to freedom. His ideas now shift to thought, as he says he will join the nightingale not by wine, but by the “wings of Poesy”, god of poetry. It seems important that it is in this stanza, after speaking of poetry as his way to the bird, which also embodies immortality, that he reaches a moment of freedom. He sees a celestial sight, “tender is the night...Clustered around by all her starry Feys”, but, as in his other poems such as “Lamia”, the moment is lost and the world comes crashing back, like opening your eyes from a dream. The actual moment of return is very desolate “But here there is no light” and emphasises just what is lost.

   Stanza six is like a sonnet to death, appearing almost to be a love poem- “half in love with easeful Death| Called him soft names...” Keats is listening to the song, and asks why not die now, in such a perfect moment “To cease upon the midnight...While thou art pouring forth thy soul”? The transient nature is alluring to the poet, yet it’s physical characteristic- the song- keeps him bound to this world, as he asks if death would be worth not hearing the song again.

   In stanza seven, the bird is used as a metaphor for the soul- “Thou wast not born for death”, expressing his belief that it will live on after the body is gone. He continues, saying how the bird’s song has been heard in the past, and will continue to be heard in the future, almost as a consolation to mankind. However, the darker side of this, as expressed in a lot of Romantic poetry, is that the bird is like a binding force to life, something that you can not escape, although it can escape you.

   The first line of the final stanza heralds the end of the poem “Forlorn! the very word is like a bell”, and the end of the imaginative exploration, empowered by the bird. The bird’s song slips away, along with the Arcadian world “Past the near meadows, over the still stream” and leaves Keats with one of his most famous lines “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?| Fled is that music- Do I wake or sleep?” His journey into thought has ended, and he is left almost confused, wondering if he received a vision from the nightingale’s song, or if it was indeed his imagination. More strange is the question “Do I wake or sleep?” It seems likely that Keats is asking a question about the nature of life- are we really awake and alive in this reality, or is life just a semi-conscious daze full of pain, with the soul waiting for release?

   The whole poem seems to be a metaphor for the search for truth by the imagination. The nightingale is used as it has a lovely song, and Keats believed that what the imagination seized as beauty was truth, and so the bird is an appropriate means to explore. True to form Keats conveys his ideas in an almost paradoxical manner, shrouding the search for truth in ambiguity- only by actually living can you search for truth, yet it is life that keeps on distracting you from it.

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