Table of Contents
Ode to Nightingale by John Keats
About the Author: John Keat was an English Romantic poet (31 October 1795– 23 February 1821). He was one of the leading figures of the second generation of Romantic poets along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, although his work was only published four years before his death. Keats ‘ poetry is characterized by sensual imagery, most notably in the series of odes.
Main Idea: Ode to a Nightingale is one of the finest Odes of John Keats. Listening to the nightingale’s song, the poet is obsessed by its beauty and joy. He wishes to escape to the world of the forest so that he may be free from the worries and sorrows of daily human life. The sensuous quality of Keats’ poetry is highlighted when he describes the natural beauty of early summer is Stanza 4. It this moment of ecstasy, when the nightingale is singing he longs for “easeful death”. In the concluding stanzas as the song of the nightingale fades away, the poet returns to the real world with joy.
About the Poem
“Ode to a Nightingale” is a poem written in May 1819 by John Keats either in the garden of the Spaniards Inn, Hampstead, London or, according to Keats ‘ friend Charles Armitage Brown, in the garden of Keats House, also in Hampstead, under a plum tree. A nightingale had constructed his nest close his home in the spring of 1819, according to Brown. Keats composed the poem in one day, inspired by the song of the bird. It quickly became one of his odes in 1819 and was first released the following July in Annals of the Fine Arts. “Ode to a Nightingale” is a private poem describing the voyage of Keats into the state of Negative Capability.
The poem presents Keats’s ‘unappeased craving for permanence, his failure to escape the mutable world and die into a higher life.’ The speaker (the poet) is overpowered by the spontaneous melodious song of a nightingale, he hopes to follow it into the forest dim, leaving behind the spectacle of human death, suffering, fret, and fever, and die so as to perpetuate the ecstatic moment. The poet on the viewless wings of poesy moves into ‘the eternal realm of song’ and is able to feel the charm of the embalmed beauty of nature and experience and visualise the magical effect of the song of this immortal bird not only on himself but also in remote times on Ruth, Kings, Clowns and the maidens imprisoned in the castles located on the shores of perilous seas. The poet is transported to a world of eternal joy and immortality, his return to actuality is very shattering. The nightingale impresses upon him the consciousness of his own mortality and sharpens the contrast between sensation and thought. The poem also highlights the contrast between the raptures of the bird’s song and consecutive reasoning of the perplexing and retarding “dull brain.” Like the “Ode to Psyche” this ”Ode on a Nightingale” extols the autonomous power of imagination which can create ‘beauty as a compensation of the life’s losses’. The bird’s song also reveals how beauty consists of ‘the ecstasy’ (158) of fulfilment as well as the “plaintive note” of disillusion. If Keats suspects the power of visionary experience in the “Ode to Psyche”, in this Ode he is unable to sustain the ecstasy of that experience till the end of the poem and he is forced to return to the actual world, from the realm of fancy. The ending of the poem—Do I wake or sleep—undermines the poet’s song-inspired visionary flight and casts doubt on the whole nightingale episode. Critics call the Ode ‘a reverie, in spite of the fact that Keats had actually heard a nightingale’s song from ‘their Hamstead home and the bird’s song, had inspired him to write this Ode.’ (Brown’s letter in Keats’s Circle II, 65).”
Summary of ‘ Ode to Nightingale ‘
Keats listens to the song of the nightingale. He feels extremely happy at its singing. He experiences an aching pleasure, a pleasure felt as pain. He seems to have forgotten his surroundings. The poet longs for a cup of wine to escape into the happy world of the nightingale. He is then acutely reminded of the tragedy of human for the fever and fret of life. Keats then seeks the help of poetic imagination. With Poesy, he finds himself transported into the world of the nightingale which has all the beauty of early summer. His happiness is intense and he is completely lost in that happy world.
The pleasure that he feels is so rich and true that he wants to make this luxurious moment a permanent one. So he yearns for death. ‘It is rich to die’ in that temporary heaven. It would be a luxurious experience for him because the nightingale is singing in ecstasy and he would die listening to it. Thus death would become a boon, a positive, healthy experience for Keats now. Soon he realizes the impossibility of the fulfilment of his desire. The idea of death reminds him strikingly of the immortality of the bird (its song), nature’s music as contrasted with human mortality (change and decay). The nightingale is immortal in the sense that its song knows no death. The beauty and joy of the nightingale’s song do not change with the passage of time. Its song is the same today as it was heard ages back, by kings and peasants, by Ruth, the Moabite woman in the days of the Old Testament and by princesses in forlorn fairyland in the middle ages of magic and romance. So the song of the nightingale knows no historical or geographical limits. The closing of the 7th stanza with the word lorlon’ wakes him up from the world of poetry. He realises that he cannot escape from the realities of the world as easily as he had desired and pretended to. He bids the bird good-bye and imagines the bird fading away into distant lands. The poet returns to the realities of life, somewhat dazed. He is uncertain what is real—the little happiness that he was lulled into or this dull life he was living. (M. Samuel)
Study Notes | Explanation of Poem
Keats describes here the effect of the song of the nightingale upon his mind. As the poet listens to the song of the nightingale, his heartaches.
It is a feeling experienced due to excessive joy at the bird’s song. That is so to say, the happiness that he shares is so intense that it becomes an aching pleasure, a pleasure felt as pain.
The poet feels that a numbness creeps over him—that his senses have been paralyzed as if he had taken some sleep-inducing drink (narcotic) like hemlock or some sedative drink made from opium. This again is due to excessive happiness at the bird’s song, the joy that he feels overpowers his senses. In a minute the poet seems to forget his surroundings and is rapt in the song of the nightingale. He feels as if he had sunk into Lethe (the river of forgetfulness in Greek and Roman mythology, one of the rivers of the underworld or Hades).
The souls of the dead, according to ancient Greek belief, had to drink from Lethe before they entered the Hades, the home of the dead.
The aching pleasure that the poet feels is not because he is envious of the bird singing so joyously but because he feels too happy in the happiness of the nightingale. The result is that he is completely lost in it.
The poet loves the bird as it sings like a Dryad (wood nymph) who is supposed to be the presiding deity of the forest in Greek mythology. The poet regards the bird as the spirit of joy that is found in the woodland world. The poet imagines the nightingale to be a spirit of the wood-land singing of the glories of summer so spontaneously in some “far off scene, of woodland mystery and beauty”.
Melodious green: a green plot of ground, overgrown with beech trees and resounding with the melody or music of the bird’s song.
Shadows numberless: light and shade falling upon the grassy plot as the light of the sun filters through the foliage of trees.
Singest of summer: Probably it was due to the drugging effect that the poet felt so as the poem was written in the spring season.
Full throated ease: a.rich and condensed expression. Like an expert musician, the nightingale is straining her throat to the fullest, yet the song is not strained but natural and spontaneous.
The Poet shows an intense desire to escape or pass into the delightful world of the nightingale, leaving the miserable world of the Man. He seeks the help of wine to effect this escape.
Keats longs for a draught of the richest wine, rare old wine cooled in the deep cellars of the earth for long years. It should be rich with the romantic spirit of the spring-season when festivities are held in honour of Flora, the goddess of spring, by the grape gatherers in the warmer regions of Southern France (Provence).
In other words, the wine that the poet would like to drink should be rich with its associations of the rustic and merry-making activities like song and dance held in honour of Flora in the country green (the village common) by the sunburnt Italian and French grape gatherers. Italy and Provence being in South of Europe are comparatively warm hence the natives of these regions are ‘sunburnt’ as we Indians are. People in southern regions of Europe are more cheerful and romantic because the climate itself is inspiring these qualities.
Warm South: wine prepared in the warm regions of Italy and Provence. The poet does not want ordinary wine, but one rich in contents and distilling all the romantic associations and spirit of the warm southern regions especially of France and Italy. The greenness of the happy earth, the sweetness of the flowers, the mirth, and mystic of the sunburnt children of Provence. All things should combine to add to its flavour, taste, and delicacy.
Blushful: red. Note that good wines are generally colourless. But the poet, to indulge his taste for rich colours, must have it red.
Hippocrene: Greek word for the fountain, of Horse. A fountain on Mt. Helicon in Greece, is said to have arisen, where Pegasus kicked Helicon. Its was sacred to the Muses who preside overall arts and poetry. Its waters were said to be capable of imparting poetic inspiration. Here it means stimulant of
fancy or poetic inspiration.
Beaded bubbles: bead-like bubbles.
Winking…brim: it is a graphic description of the idea of effervescence. As old, well-fermented wine is poured into a glass or beaker, bead-like bubbles rise to the brim of the glass and then burst and disappear.
Purple stained mouth: the mouth of the glass or its brim is stained purple with the frothy wine.
The poet desires for a beaker full of the wine of the fountain of Hippocrene with the bubbles I shining at the surface and even the mouth of the beaker may be stained with the purple or red colour of the wine.
Note: “The poet desired wine as a means of escape from the pain of his own thoughts and of the world”. By drinking the wine Keats hopes to be absorbed wholly in the nightingale’s song and thus be happy with the bird in the shady wood.
These lines bring out clearly one of the characteristics of Keats as a romantic poet—his sensuousness.
We have an abundance of sensuous imagery in this stanza where the poet expresses a passionate desire for some Provencal wine or wine from the fountain of muses. The original and highly expressive phrases like “blushful Hippocrene, `beaded bubbles Winking at the brim’, ’embalmed darkness’, ” are highly pleasing to the sense of sight and sense of taste. Matthew Arnold says, “Keats as a poet is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous”.
Pain and misery of life are depicted. The stanza starts with the poet’s intense longing to escape from the world of pain and misery and to become one with the bird and its happy woodland life. In the very effort to forget his own misery or melancholy, Keats remembers only too acutely, the universal tragedy of human destiny, the ills that assail life from all quarters sparing neither age nor sex nor beauty. Man suffers from boredom, disgust, and despair, from irritation and feverish excitement. Misery is widespread.
People helplessly hear each other groan. All those things which we value most—youth, beauty, and love are subject to disease and decay. A thinking person is subject to grief and trouble. Keats feels bitter that Love and Beauty,-the two things that he desired most are short-lived. The thought of it fills him with sadness.
Gloomy thoughts about human destiny are soon dismissed together with the possibility of wine as an escape from them. Soon, the vehicle of flight is no longer wine but poetic fancy or imagination. He is already with the nightingale among the branches of trees in a summer garden hidden from the light of the moon who like a fairy queen holds her court in the sky surrounded by her courtiers i.e. the stars. [Poetic imagination helps the poet to pass from the real world to the ideal world.] Although the moon is shining in majestic glory in the sky, it is only when the night breezes sway the branches and part the leaves that the gleams of moonlight somewhat lessen the darkness under the trees full of green foliage and along the zigzag moss-covered paths between them.
verdurous glooms — the green shadows of the forest.
heaven — the (moonlit) sky.
Note: Poetic fancy is a state of mental exaltation.
The poet is already with the bird in the forest in imagination. The place is dark but filled with the perfume from the flowers growing on the bushes around his feet. Though he cannot see, from the scent emanating from the flowers he can guess what flowers are at his feet or what blossoms are above his head. He can feel more than the sensory eye can see. The atmosphere is filled with the sweet fragrance of flowers. From the sweet smell, he can name several flowers and plants that bloom there. He calls the darkness ’embalmed darkness.’ He guesses that the white hawthorn, the eglantine, the violet, the wild fruit trees, the first flower of mid-summer (middle of May) the musk rose which is soon to blossom and which is full of dew and honey to which the buzzing bees are attracted by its fragrance, are around the place.
Soft incense: a delicate, soothing perfume (A reference to the sense of smell).
The seasonable month: the month which is favourable to the growth of season’s flowers (Spring).
Pastoral eglantine: a kind of wild rose which grows in country places.
Fast fading violets: short-lived violets.
musk: a substance with a very strong smell, obtained from the male musk deer and used for making perfumes.
Mid-May’s eldest child: the first flower to bloom in the middle of May.
The coming musk rose: the musk rose with the fragrance of musk which is about to bloom.
This was most probably written in early May.
Dewy wine: full of dew and honey (dewdrops in the cup of the flower are referred to as wine by the poet).
Murmurous haunt: haunted by flies or bees with a murmuring or buzzing sound.
embalmed darkness: The whole darkness of the garden has been made fragrant by the flowers of the season (darkness filled with a balmy fragrance). Embalmed is also associated with death.
Stanza V shows the delighted response to the sensuous beauty of the physical world. The poet is not describing what he actually sees around him. He tells us explicitly that there is no light for him to distinguish the flowers growing on the ground and the blossoms on the trees and hedges. He can only guess what they are from their scents.
Notice that ‘soft incense’, ’embalmed darkness’, ‘dewy wine’, ‘seasonable month’, are word pictures. Only Keats who is abundantly and enchantingly sensuous can convert incense and perfume into something virtually solid. In this stanza, we can say he has woven around scent, warmth, colour, taste, and sound into a texture of unforgettable beauty.
While listening to the song of the nightingale in the dark, the poet. feels that it would be ‘a luxurious experience’ to die at such a moment, to fade away from existence without suffering any pain at the mystic hour of midnight while listening to the rapturous and ecstatic song of the nightingale. In fact, the poet wants to perpetuate this moment of enchantment, and ecstasy. It is rich to die now for the nightingale’s song will be a funeral prayer for Keats and he will die listening to it. The nightingale would go on singing even when he is dead and can no longer hear it.
Note: By the end of this stanza human and nightingale’s worlds have been entirely separated.
Call’d…names: have addressed him by many endearing epithets.
The idea of death gradually brings him back to reality. The process starts in stanza 7 and ends in stanza 8.
The poet calls the nightingale an immortal bird. The nightingale has now been transformed into a symbol of its race and the song of the nightingale heard by countless generations over centuries is symbolised by its permanence. The poet here means that the song or voice of the nightingale carries the same freshness and music as it did in the past and it will continue to do so in future (though this particular bird will die).
Generations of nightingales follow one another, and they remain immortal in their songs, their song is as sweet and charming today as it was in ancient days, in the Bible-history or even in .fairy romance.
Immortal Bird: The epithet is justified if the nightingale is taken as the type and symbol of its race.
No hungry…down the bird is not crushed to death in a savage struggle for existence such as is waged in human society.
The song of the nightingale that the poet now hears is exactly the same song that was heard in ancient times. It is this characteristic that makes the poet give the title of immortality to the nightingale.
The bird’s song opens. the flood-gates of the poet’s memory and takes him into the far-off age of legendary romance. It is the same song that the nightingale has been pouring out since the beginning of the world, the same song which in ancient days must have been heard by king and peasant alike; the same song which Ruth heard when she stood sad and lonely in the cornfield of a strange land; the same song to hear which maidens dwelling in magic castles, must have opened their casement windows in desolate fairylands. The magical effect of the song has been highlighted.
These castles are built on rocks of stormy seas in forlorn fairyland. The song of the nightingale must have cheered the heart of a disconsolate princess held in duress by her demon lover.
this passing night: to-night.
emperor and clown: the greatest and the humblest. Clown here means common person.
the sad heart of Ruth: A reference to the story of Ruth in the Old Testament.
Ruth, a woman of Moab, was married to a Jew in Moab whose father had come from Bethlehem of Judea. After her husband died, she migrated with her mother-in-law Naomi to the distant ancestral land of Judea i.e., Bethlehem. There she began to glean corns of barley left by the reapers in the field of Boaz, a distant relation of her father-in-law. He treated her kindly and afterwards married her.
The Bible story does not say that Ruth was homesick or sad, but this would be natural even if the sense of duty to her mother-in-law had led her to leave her home.
sick: pining, longing.
alien corn: foreign fields as she migrated from Moab.
The poet explains why he considers the nightingale immortal. In Romantic stories like Arabian Nights, we hear of enchanted castles in which princesses are imprisoned in magic castles and their magic windows open on the stormy waves of a wild sea; opening and shutting automatically by magic. As the nightingale passes over the enchanted castle singing its magic song, windows open of themselves to allow some imprisoned princess to hear its song.
fairylands forlorn: some far off deserted uninhabited lands of the fairies or legendary countries of romance as in the Arabian Nights.
forlorn: solitary or deserted.
“These two lines condense the whole world of romantic imagination and conjure up by their suggestion, the very world of romance. In all poetry, there is no better expression of the spirit of romance than these lines”.
We see the voice of the nightingale is made immune first to history than to geography; it can establish a rapport with dead generations of fairylands.
The mood of exaltation is over. The use or thought of the word `forlorn’ acts like a rude reminder to the poet of his own forlorn or solitary condition (Mention of the word ‘forlorn’ has broken the spell of imagination). The word has brought him back to reality. It is just like the tolling of a bell that reminds him of some forgotten work. It reminds the poet of the realities of life which he had forgotten on account of the nightingale’s song.
The poet finds that after all the powers of fancy are exaggerated. Man cannot ignore the sad realities of life even with the help of fancy or imagination. As the spell of imagination breaks, the poet feels that the bird has flown away and he bids good-bye to the nightingale. He is disappointed in man’s imaginative faculty, which is commonly believed to have great powers of making people forget themselves and their surroundings. In his case, the spell of imagination has been short-lived, he is already awake to the sad realities of life.
The poet is not sure whether he had been seeing a vision in sleep or dreaming while awake.
“Was it a vision of a waking dream? Fled is that music. Do I wake or sleep?” There is at least one clear change in the situation. He has ceased to hear the nightingale’s song. How is he to explain this?
plaintive anthem: song full of complaint. It refers to the legendary story of the nightingale. Her human name was Philomel. They were two sisters. Her elder sister married and went off with her husband. But she loved her so much that she sent back her husband to fetch Philomel. On the way, he raped her and to conceal his secret, he cut off her tongue. The gods turned her into a nightingale, and she goes about pouring out her complaint against that injustice.
Ode to a Nightingale contains the spirit of romance and it is extremely passionate and sensuous in its descriptions and expressions. The sensuousness of Keats should not be misunderstood for delight in cheap sensual pleasures. Keats’s sensuousness is, in fact, a higher conception of beauty. He presents the details with such expressions that the reader’s eyes, ears, and other senses perceive and appreciate and feel what he describes.
The descriptions of the poet’s desire for a cup of cool Provencal wine tasting of flowers, dance and sunburnt mirth and his longing for a beaker of the warm southern wine which would inspire him like the water from the fountain sacred to the muses (Hippocrene) are highly sensuous and appeal to the reader’s sense of sight, and smell. Equally pleasing to the senses is the description of the flowers and plants in the embalmed darkness of the forest and of the white hawthorn, fast fading violets, mask rose, mid-may’s eldest child, etc. These are concrete pictures which the reader can see easily with his inward eye and derive an aesthetic satisfaction.
Allied to his sensuousness is the love of nature, again an aspect of romanticism revealed in this poem. Nightingale’s song is dear to the poet. Nothing can surpass the delicate beauty of the heavenly light that falls when blown by the breezes, on the ‘verdurous glooms’ and ‘winding mossy ways’. In this ode as in several others, we find a note of sadness, in the background of the music of Nature and Art.
Melancholy is again a romantic quality. Stanza III depicts the pain and misery of life and transitoriness of the things we value most—youth, beauty, and love. Keats sees this in contrast to the happiness of the nightingale’s world.
The last three lines of the Stanza VII, “The same that oft-times hath/Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” breathe the spirit of romance. Keats’s love of the sensuous luxury of the medieval atmosphere is also visible here. It may also be noted that the poem is highly self-revealing which is again a romantic quality. With all these qualities, the poem finds a responsive echo in the hearts of the reader.
The poem is an expression of an intense personal mood of the poet, a sense of pity for himself (presented obliquely) and sympathy for humanity, and as such it possesses much human interest. It expresses a familiar mood, a desire for death, for release from this worldly life of sorrow and struggle, from fever and fret of this life into the world of the nightingale which to the poet is a world of lasting peace and happiness, of music, joy, and beauty. Thus we get a painful contrast between the world of Man and the world of the Nightingale. The world of the Nightingale appeals to the poet for it is a world of richness and beauty, of deep sensuousness and of natural loveliness.
The nightingale’s song becomes merely a peg on which to hang the varied wealth of the poet’s mind, his sense of beauty, his sense of music and his sense of sadness arising out of the transitoriness of human happiness and struggle of human life.
A critic says, ‘His mind is lifted out of the thought of pain by the song of the nightingale which his imagination transmutes into the immortal voice of romance vibrating with all the remembered melodies of the past. When the music is fled, his spirit turns for lonely back to earth and seems to say to us, “Life with all its contradictions, pain and pleasure, beauty and ugliness is still beautiful. It must be accepted or faced bravely.” (Mary Samuel)
The tone of the poem denies the optimistic pursuit of pleasure discovered in previous poems by Keats and investigates the themes of nature, transience, and death, the latter being Keats’s most personal.
The nightingale depicted in the poem is experiencing a kind of death but is not actually dying. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, a fate that can not be expected by humans. The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure can not last and that death is a component of life that is inevitable. Keats imagines the physical world’s defeat in the poem and considers himself dead — as a “sod” that the nightingale sings about. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man sitting in his garden is created even more intense by the imagination’s attempt. The existence of weather in the poem is visible, as spring arrived early in 1819, bringing nightingales all over the heath.
When it came to vowel forms, Keats incorporated in his ode a pattern of alternating historically “short” and “long” vowel sounds. In specific, line 18 (“And purple-stained mouth”) has a historical pattern of “short” followed by “long” followed by “short” followed by “long.” This change is continued in longer lines, including line 31 (“Away! away! for I will fly to thee”) which contains five pairs of alternations.
Other lines, however, such as row 3 (“Or emptied some dull opiate into the drains”) depend on a pattern of five “brief” vowels followed by “long” and “short” vowel pairings until a “long” vowel ends. These are not the only combination patterns present, and the patterns of two “short” vowels followed by a “long” vowel in other rows, including 12, 22, and 59, are repeated twice, followed by two “short” and “long” vowel pairs.
“Ode to a Nightingale” depicts a sequence of disputes between reality and nature-uniting romantic ideals. In Richard Fogle’s words, “The principal stress of the poem is a struggle between ideal and actual: inclusive terms which, however, contain more particular antitheses of pleasure and pain, of imagination and common sense reason, of fullness and privation, of permanence and change, of nature and the human, of art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream.” The nightingale within the poem is also the object of empathy and praise. The nightingale and debate of the nightingale, however, is not just about the bird or the song, but about human experience in general. This is not to say that the song is a simple metaphor, but it is a complicated picture that is created through the interaction of voices of praise and questioning in conflict.
The poem suddenly starts with the use of heavy sounding syllables (“My heart aches” line 1), as it introduces a hidden bird’s song. The narrator is immediately overcome with such a sensation that he thinks that a drug has either poisoned him or affected him. It is quickly disclosed that this feeling’s origin is the song of a nightingale. The narrator empathizes with it and discovers that his mind has been paralyzed.
The imagination world is not a place in which a person could ever reside. As the imaginary world is destroyed, this understanding causes the narrator to become disheartened. Can’t have the imaginary land for the narrator. Not only is he separated from the bird, but he is also generally separated from poetry and fantasy. In the final lines of the poem, the narrator mourns as he realizes that his art has left him.
Questions of Ode to Nightingale
1. To who or what is the speaker addressing in the poem?
Answer: The speaker is addressing his poem to a nightingale he hears singing in a forest.
2. In the third stanza, the speaker announces, “Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” What other poet presented in this anthology shares the speaker’s idea that youth and innocence dies with age and experience?
Answer: The theme of innocence and experience is most evident in the poetry of William Blake.
3. How will the poet follow the nightingale, according to the fourth stanza?
Answer: The speaker will follow the nightingale through his poetry, not through alcohol.
4. In Stanza VII, find and record an example of an allusion.
Answer: The allusion in this stanza is to the book of Ruth in the Bible.
5. How does the speaker react to the bird’s flight at the end of the poem?
Answer: The speaker, upon losing hearing of the bird’s song, questions whether he is awake or asleep.
6. How does the tone of this poem differ from the tone found in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To A Skylark?”
Answer: Shelley’s “To A Skylark” has a positive tone that praises the beauty and power of the bird. It is filled with longing; the speaker wishes he could know what inspires the skylark to sing so wonderfully so he could be inspired also. It ends with the speaker’s request to be taught how to sing, so that he may share the song with the world.
This poem of Keats’ has a darker tone. The poem begins with the speaker describing his heartache, and a frustrated, forlorn tone continues through most stanzas. This poem ends with the speaker wishing the bird away, and then wondering whether seeing it was a dream.
A Critical Analysis of the “Ode”.
The poem consists of eight stanzas. In the first stanza, we find the speaker ‘benumbed, drained, as it were of all sensation through listening to the nightingale’s song’. Yet paradoxically he experiences pain and heartache. Then he claims to share in the bird’s song. The joy pain paradox, which he in his “Ode to Melancholy” asserts to be an essential characteristic of human existence, has a deeper meaning in the context of the “Ode to a Nightingale”. The poet’s (speaker’s) happiness in empathy with the bird is so intense and profound that it verges on pain. Their painful happiness crosses all limits so he feels exhausted and overcome by “drowsy numbness”. He is not envious of the bird’s ‘happy lot’, he can imaginatively participate in it. He also realises that his desire to join the nightingale may be eventually thwarted; he cannot avoid ‘envy’ as he longs for ‘the unearthly felicity enjoyed by the “Dryad of the trees”. The happiness is caused by ‘the momentarily shared ecstasy’, the pain is due to ‘the fore-knowledge of the ultimate frustration. Similarly, conscious cuts with pain across the drugged numbness of the opening lines before it temporarily recedes to make room for the empathetic identification with the bird’s “full-throated ease”.”
E.C. Pettet has demonstrated how the dull-half rhyming nasals of the opening quatrain, interrupted by assonance of the a in aches and pains and modulating into clean ringing long e and o sounds of trees, melodious beechen green and ‘full-throated ease” at the end of the stanza, reflect the speaker’s pain and numbness in contrast with the bird’s happiness. The Oxymoron of painful numbness and implied paradox of drugged happiness convey a peculiar state completely cut off from reality, with the poet poised for the visionary flight.
The speaker in the next stanza explicitly mentions his. the impulse to journey into the happy realm of the ‘nightingale and wine will be the vehicle. The poet’s throat wisher for a draught of vintage”, which brings into play all the five senses. First, we have ‘the complex synaesthetic imagery which conjures up the warm mirthful song and dance of Provencal in the cool taste and bubbling sound of the wine and the seductive, sensual blushing of Hippocrene. The imagery suggests that only through the life of senses one could journey into transcendence. Note the blushful Hippocrene is the fountain of the everlasting Muses and symbol of poetic inspiration. The speaker with the help of wine would like to journey the realm of the immortals—the home of the Nightingale, away from the actual world.’
In the third stanza, the speaker presents ‘the ode’s dialectic pattern by contrasting the imagined ideal world with our temporal world of human wretchedness.’ Here in this world a fatally ill youth like Torn Keats “with an exquisite love of life” falls into “a lingering state”. (Keats’s Letters I, 293) and “grows pale and spectre thin and dies”. Some critics have disparaged this stanza as “bad rhetoric” or attributed “weakness” to Keats for referring to his brother’s death. But there is. nothing ‘wrong in depicting an incident for the object Of the Ode is to present a symbolic conflict between the worlds of time and timelessness. In fact, the diction, imagery, symbolism, rhyme and “the prosaic matter of fact tone” of this “completely disintoxicated and disenchanted stanza” (F.R. Leavis) dramatise the contrast between the bird’s unself-conscious harmony with the natural surrounding (“among the leaves”) and man’s awareness of transitoriness, disappointment, disease and death, which leads to his alienation from his surroundings.
The rhythmic flow of the line “what though amongst the leaves hast never known” is disrupted with the cataloguing of human ills. “The weariness, the fever, the fret” (Line reminds us of Wordsworth’s “Tintern
Abbey” Lines 39-40, 52-53). Here the word obstructs the fluent flow of the rhythm and diverts our attention to the human transitoriness (“few sad, last grey hairs,” “pale and spectre thin and dies”). Why does the poet desire to fade away, to dissolve, to forget? The poet would like to fade away into the nightingale’s forest to overcome his “leaden eyed despair” his visionary flight would carry him away from suffering mankind towards Dryad’s forest dim (1-20), the magic kingdom of Queen Moon and starry fays (36-37) or easeful Death (50). All these wishes are paradoxical and futile quest for permanence and unconsciousness.
Keats from the very beginning of the Ode prepares the reader for his equivocal death-wish. We have numbness, hemlock, Letheward movement in stanza one, then the desire “to dissolve and quite forget”(line 21) and “the embalmed darkness” (43) leaf-buried “fast-fading violets” of a landscape not seen but felt a half-supernatural bower. (Stanza 5). In this stanza, the poet penetrates into the essence of things with his imaginative power and gives us a picture of transcendence as if the “happiness on Earth” experienced in the first stanza were here “repeated in a finer tone” (Keats’s letters I 185).
The poet dreams of an easeful painless transition to a higher mode of existence—the presentation of the easeful death differs from the description of the frightening palsy ridden old age, or spectre thin youth or consumptive patients in the second stanza. Death would “take into the air” the poet’s “quiet breath” while “the nightingale is pouring forth (its) soul abroad/In such an ecstasy”. Death seems ‘rich’
for the poet would die into the eternal music. Note death only seems ‘rich’. Although in line 35 the poet claims “Already with thee”, but he had never left the earth, he has perhaps been entrancingly gazing at the direction of the song for here his dull consecutively reasoning brain in a brutal truncating monosyllable tells him that in death he would “become a sod”.
The recollection of the search bound condition ending in the silence of death once again stirs the speaker to contemplate on the music of the bird, which he is still hearing and he describes the nightingale as ‘Immortal’. “Thou was not born for death, Immortal Bird”. Critics have been debating why Keats has addressed the nightingale as Immortal bird Is the nightingale immortal because “of its imperishable song” (Colvin), because it stands for its species (Lowell) because it is a Dryad (Garrod), because it symbolizes poetry (Muir) or art (Hough) or because it lacks “man’s self-consciousness” and is “in harmony with its world” (Brooks and Warren). Andrew J. Kappel finds its immortality in its “native naturalness” and its “obliviousness to transience”.
Ruth’s homesickness is not mentioned in the Bible. Many critics agree with Garrod who suggests that the idea of a homesick gleaner is derived from Wordsworth’s The Solitary Reaper. Victor J. Lams finds the influence of Milton’s nightingale on the lines. Ruth’s homesickness and alienation underline the natural feeling of estrangement one experiences in an ‘alien’ land. “Just as the nightingale’s immortality fills the void left by Keats’s recognition of his own mortality, so Ruth sick for home standing ‘in tears amid the alien corn’ mirrors the poet’s need for perfect union with the ideal other, his yearning for the nightingale’s harmony with its environment, and his estrangement from the natural world in which the unconsciousness grain achieves fulfilment by being harvested.”
By presenting fancy as “a deceiving elf’ the speaker prepares himself to accept nature’s cyclical process of death (fading violets) and birth (the coming musk rose) depicted in stanza five. The recognition of the inevitability of change, of death, does not stop his yearning for immortality. He ends the Ode with a question—was he dreaming or sleeping. In the “Ode to A Nightingale” the speaker remains baffled by the burden of the mystery and the painful gulf between eternity (immortality) and an impermanent realm in which old age wastes generations hungry for permanence and perfection. Both in “La Belle” and “the Nightingale” the protagonist is driven back from a transcendental world to sordid actuality. (adapted).