The Genesis of This Ode
In the early months of 1819, Keats was living with his friend Brown at Wentworth Place, Hampstead. In April a nightingale built her nest in the garden. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in its song, and one morning, sitting in a chair on the grass-plot under a plum-tree, he composed a poem containing his poetic feelings about the song of the nightingale. This was his Ode to a Nightingale which was first printed in July, 1819. Subsequently it formed part of the volume which appeared in 1820 entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.
The Same Train of Thought in Four of the Odes
Four of Keats’s odes, the Ode to a Nightingale, the Ode on a Grecian Urn, the Ode on Melancholy, and To Autumn should be studied together. They were all written in 1819 and the same train of thought runs through them all. One can even say that these four odes sum up Keats’s philosophy.
The Most Passionately Human and Personal of the Odes
“The first-written of the four, the Ode to a Nightingale, is the most passionately human and personal of them all”. It was written soon after the death of Keats’s brother Tom, to whom he had been deeply attached and whom he nursed to the end. Keats was feeling keenly the tragedy of a world in which a young man grows pale, becomes a skeleton, and meets his end prematurely (“Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”). The song of the nightingale aroused in him a longing to escape with it from this world of sorrows to the world of ideal beauty. The song of the nightingale somehow symbolised to him a world of ideal beauty. “He did not think of a nightingale as an individual bird, but of its song, which had been beautiful for centuries and would continue to be beautiful long after his generation had passed away; and the thought of this undying loveliness he contrasted bitterly with our feverishly sad and short life. When, by the power of imagination he had left the world behind him and was absorbed in the vision of beauty roused by the bird’s song, he longed for death rather than a return of disillusionment.”
A Key Contrast in the Poem
The poem contrasts the immortality of the nightingale (as symbolised by its song) with the mortality of human beings. It also contrasts the happiness and joy of the bird with the sufferings, sorrows and afflictions of the human world where youth, beauty and love are all short-lived.
2. CRITICAL SUMMARY
The Benumbing Effect of the Nightingale’s Song
The poet’s heart aches and his body is benumbed as he hears the song of a nightingale. He feels like one who has taken a benumbing poison or a dulling drug. This effect is produced on him by the happy song of the nightingale who is singing in a joyous, glorious voice among the green beech-trees; and who is called by the poet a light-winged nymph of the trees.
The Effect of Languor Heightened by the Very Movement of the Verse
It is to be noted that the poet lapses away into a kind of swoon on hearing the ecstatic song of the nightingale and he seeks oblivion. The following words in this stanza produce a cumulative effect of drugged languor: “aches”, “drowsy numbness”, “pains”, “dull opiate”, “Lethe-wards had sunk”. The very movement of the verse here contributes to the total effect of languor that is produced.
The Excess of Happiness
It is an excess of happiness, occasioned by the bird’s song, that produces the mood of languor in the poet. However, the narcotic effect is to some extent relieved by a feeling of renewed life that is produced by a reference to the “light-winged Dryad of trees”, “the melodious plot of beechen green”, and “summer”.
The Poet’s Desire For Some Marvellous Wine
The poet craves for a drink of some marvellous wine brewed in the warm, gay and mirthful regions of France, or a large cup of red wine fetched from the fountain of the Muses. He wants this wine to enable him to leave this world of reality and to escape into the forest where he can join the nightingale.
An Atmosphere of Warmth in this Stanza
The nightingale and its songs have given way, in this stanza, to other thoughts—thoughts of wine, the colourful lands in which its grapes are grown, and the gaiety which it brings, A general atmosphere of warmth predominates in this stanza. “Sun-burnt mirth” combines the idea of the sun’s warmth with the warmth of joy in the merry-makers. This is a richly sensuous stanza with its references to gaiety and merrymaking, the cool wine, the dancing, the blushful wine with its bubbles winking at the brim. The poet’s desire for wine does not mean a desire for warmth and gaiety; it is a desire for escape from the world of realities.
The Sorrows in Human Life
The poet wishes to forget himself and escape from this world of perplexity and sorrow into the forest to be in the company of the nightingale. Life, he says, offers a depressing spectacle with its weariness, fever, and fret. This is a world in which people hear, each other’s groans, a world in which palsy may attack the old and consumption may attack the young, in which merely to think is to become sad, and in which both beauty and love are short-lived.
Most Pessimistic Lines
Here we have some of the most pessimistic lines in English poetry. Of course the picture of life depicted here is one-sided, but it is nonetheless realistic and convincing. It cannot be doubted that the amount of suffering in this world is far greater than the amount of happiness. Apart from that, these lines echo the poet’s personal grief caused by the premature death of his brother Tom. Although these lines are prompted chiefly by personal grief, yet their universal character has to be recognised.
The Nightingale’s Happiness
The Nightingale is believed by the poet to be happy because it is not human, because it has never known the weariness, the fever and fret of human existence. “And the poet knows too well that the happiness is mentally following the bird into its world among the leaves cannot last, for he is a human being after all, and what is human must pass away. His depression is thus implicit in the happiness itself.”
The Poet’s Use of His Imagination to Escape from Life •
Dismissing the idea of wine, the poet decides to fly into the forest on the wings of his poetic imagination. He rejects Bacchus and seeks the help of Poesy. The next moment he feels transported into the forest. The moon is shining, surrounded by the stars, but the forest is dark because very little light can penetrate the thickly-growing leaves of trees.
The Beauty of Nature
After having given expression to thoughts of human sorrow in the third stanza, the poet here makes a vigorous effort to get back into a happy mood. Gloomy thoughts about the human lot are now brushed aside, together with the possibility of wine. Seeking refuge in poetic fancy, he draws pleasure from the glory of Nature. However, the picture of Nature in the second half of the stanza has been criticised as being “affected” because of the reference to the “Queen-Moon”, and the idea of the stars as fairies. “Keats is being self-consciously poetical in the bad sense, as though he had gone back to the ‘pretty’ manner of Endymion. It is not accidental that he has used the rather affected word “Poesy” here. The lines are exceedingly charming, and when we have said that, we have made a point against them. This kind of charm is not what we have come to accept from the mature Keats.”-—(Robin Mayhead)
The Flowers in the Forest
The poet cannot see what flowers grow at his feet in the forest and what blossoms are on the fruit trees. However, by the scents that fill the dark air, he can guess that the forest is full of white hawthorns, sweet-briers, violets, and buds of musk-roses which will in due course attract multitudes of flies on summer evenings.
A Richly Sensuous Stanza
This is again a richly sensuous stanza. The poet makes a delighted response to the sensuous beauty of the world of Nature.
The Poet’s Desire for Death
As he hears the nightingale’s song in the darkness, he remembers how on many occasions in his life he has wished for death that would bring a release from the burden of existence. More than ever before, he now feels a desire to die, though he would like to die a painless death: “To cease upon the midnight with no pain.” The nightingale will continue to pour forth its ecstatic melody even when he is dead and become completely deaf to it.
A Morbid Mood
The mood of the poet has again changed. He started the poem in a mood of ecstasy which changed, into a mood of extreme sorrow in the third stanza. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, he changed back into a joyous mood. Now he expresses a wish to die. In this stanza he is therefore in a most morbid mood. The desire for death is obviously an unhealthy one and, though the reader may have been sharing the preceding moods of the poet, he may not be able to share this desire for death.
The Mortality of Human Beings Versus the Nightingale’s Immortality
The poet now contrasts the mortality of human beings with the immortality of the nightingale. The nightingale’s song, he argues, has not changed for centuries. The voice of the nightingale which he now hears is perhaps the same as was heard in ancient times by emperor and clown, the same as was heard by the miserable Ruth as she stood in the alien corn. It is the same voice which has often cast a spell upon the enchanted windows of a castle situated on the shore of a dangerous ocean in “fairy lands forlorn”.
Illogical Reasoning in this Stanza
There is something illogical about the poet’s attributing immortality to the nightingale but, of course, he is referring to the continuity of the bird’s song which has remained unchanged through the centuries. He certainly does not mean that the bird is literally immortal. He only takes the nightingale’s song as a symbol of permanence. Generations pass, yet the song of the nightingale continues from age to age. In the Ode On Melancholy, Keats accepts impermanence as inevitable, but here he dwells upon the idea of permanence.
The Famous Closing Lines of this Stanza
The last two lines of the stanza have become famous for the sense of wonder and mystery which they arouse. It is said that in these two lines Keats has touched the high watermark of romanticism.
The Poet’s Disillusionment
The word “forlorn” acts on the poet’s mind like the ringing of an alarm bell and reminds him of his own forlorn condition. As the song of the nightingale becomes more distant, his imagination which had carried him into the forest also decline, and the poetic vision fades. He knows that he is moving back from the region of poetic fancy to the common world of reality. After all, “the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do.”
The Note of Frustration in the Final Stanza
In the concluding stanza, the poet introduces two new ideas. One is that even the song of the nightingale cannot be heard constantly and that it must fade away before long. Secondly, the poetic imagination itself has only brief flights and that, at the end of a poetic flight to beautiful regions, one must return to the painful realities of life-. Thus the ode, which had opened on a note of ecstasy, ends on a note of frustration.
3. A NOTE ON THE POET’S MOOD IN THE ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE
Joy and Ecstasy in the Opening Two Stanzas
The poet’s mood in the two opening stanzas is one of joy and ecstasy which almost benumbs his senses. This mood is due to the rapturous song of the nightingale. This mood leads him to a desire for a beaker of wine by drinking which he can forget this world or sorrows and misfortunes and fade away into the forest where the nightingale is singing its joyous song.
The Sense of the Tragedy of Human Life
The poet then expresses the sense of the tragedy of life and the sadness resulting therefrom. He refers to the weariness, the fever, and the fret of human life. This is a world where men sit and hear each other groan, where palsy shakes the few last hair of aged people, where young people fall a prey to fatal diseases (like tuberculosis), where merely to think is to become sorrowful, and where beauty and love are short-lived. Thus the mood of ecstasy with which the poem had opened changes here into a mood of deep pessimism and despair.
The Mood of Delight in the Midst of Natural Beauty
The mood of deep pessimism and despair gives way to a mood of delight occasioned by his imaginative contact with the beauty and glory of Nature. He has flown into the forest on the wings of his imagination in spite of the retarding effect of the dullness of the brain. (The pure reason or intellect hinders the free play of the imagination.) The moon, the stars, the flowers growing at his feet relieve his sense of the tragedy of life.
A Pessimistic Mood Once Again
Next, we find the poet “half in love with easeful death”. He refers to this desire for death on earlier occasions but at this moment especially he thinks it “rich to die”. This desire for depth shows a morbidity in the poet. He strikes an unduly pessimistic note. Life has its sorrows and griefs; beauty and love and youth are short-lived; but Nature has its joys, its charm, its glory. The reason why the poet yields to a feeling of utter despair is that his personal circumstances are at the back of his mind when he is writing the poem. His brother Tom had died of tuberculosis; he himself suffered from this dreaded disease; and his love for Fanny Brawne had not been fulfilled.
The Poet’s Envy of the Nightingale’s Joy
The thought of his own death makes the poet contrast the mortality of human beings with the immortality of the nightingale. He feels that the song of nightingale which he is now hearing is the same as was heard in ancient times by emperor and clown, and by the tearful Ruth, the same that often in the past had unlocked magic casements in the solitary countries of the fairies or the legendary countries of romance. Having denied a feeling of envy of the nightingale’s joy in the opening stanza, he now is undoubtedly in a mood of envying the immortality of the nightingale. A desire to die, expressed in the preceding stanza, here imperceptibly leads him, though implicitly, to envy the supposed immortality of the bird. In the final stanza, he is again overcome by a feeling of melancholy because, not only is the nightingale’s song fading away, but also because his imaginative flight into the forest has ended and he finds himself face to face with the stern realities of life. He finds that the nightingale’s song gives rise to an illusion, and illusion which fails, leaving the listener alone with his cares and griefs.
4. CRITICAL APPRECIATION
The Ode to a Nightingale shows the ripeness and maturity of Keats’s poetic faculty. This poem is truly a masterpiece, showing the splendour of Keats’s imagination on its pure romantic side, and remarkable also for its note of reflection and meditation. The central idea here is the contrast of the joy and beauty and apparent permanence of the nightingale’s song with the sorrows of human life and the transitoriness of beauty and love in this world.
Its Melancholy, and the Note of Pessimism
A passionate melancholy broods over the whole poem. The passage describing the sorrows and misfortunes of life is deeply pessimistic. The world is full of weariness, fever, and fret, and the groans of suffering humanity. Palsy afflicts the old and premature, death overtakes the young. To think here is to be full of sorrow; both beauty and love are short-lived.
The Reason for the Poet’s Despondency
Keats wrote this poem shortly after the death (from consumption) of his brother Tom to whom he was deeply attached. He was also perhaps thinking of the premature death of Elizabeth Taylor. He was therefore weighed down by a profound sense of the tragedy of life; and of that sense of tragedy, this poem is a poignant expression.
The Desire to Die
The note of pessimism is found also in the lines where the poet expresses a desire to die, “to cease upon the midnight with no pain”. When we remember that Keats actually died a premature death, we realise the note of unconscious prophecy in these lines, which for this reason become still more pathetic.
Sorrows of Life in General; and the Personal Griefs
The passionately personal and human character of this poem is thus obvious. It reveals Keats’s sense of the tragedy of human life in general and his sense of personal suffering in particular. The poem brings before our eyes a painful picture of the sorrows and griefs of human life, and at the same time it conveys to us the melancholy and sadness which had afflicted Keats for various reasons. The poem is the cry of a wounded soul.
Its Rich Sensuousness and Pictorial Quality
The poem is one of the finest examples of Keats’s pictorial quality and his rich sensuousness. We have an abundance of rich, concrete, and sensuous imagery. The lines in which the poet expresses a passionate desire for some Provincial wine or the red wine from the fountain of the Muses have a rich appeal:
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 sun-burnt mirth!
These lines bring before us a delightful picture of Provence with its fun and frolic, jollity, merry-making, drinking and dancing. Similarly, the beaker full of the sparkling, blushful Hippocrene is highly pleasing.
Then there is the magnificent picture of the moon shining in the sky and surrounded by stars, looking like a queen surrounded by her attendant fairies:
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne.
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays.
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays.
The rich feast of flowers that awaits us in the next stanza is one of the outstanding beauties of the poem. Flowers, soft incense, the fruit trees, the white hawthorn, the eglantine, the fast-fading violets, the coming musk-rose full of sweet juice—all this is a delight for our senses.
Apart from these sensuous pictures, there is also the vivid and pathetic image of Ruth when, sick for home, she stood tearful amid the alien corn. This is a highly suggestive picture calling up many associations to the mind of one who is acquainted with the Bible.
Its Lyric Intensity
The poem is a beautiful example of lyrical poetry, poetry which is the impassioned expression of passionate feelings. The poem opens with a passionate feeling of joy akin to the benumbing effect of some drug. This is followed by a passionate desire for wine. Then comes a passionate melancholy born of the spectacle of sorrow in this world. Next is the passionate delight in flowers and blossoms, followed by & passionate desire for death. The lyrical intensity of this ode is, indeed, one of the reasons of its greatness as poetry.
The poem is written in a superb style. It displays Keats’s power as a master of poetic language at its highest. Keats here shows consummate skill in a choice of words and in making original and highly expressive phrases. Certain phrases, expressions and lines continue to haunt the mind of the reader long after he has read the poem. The phrase “the blushful Hippocrene” which refers to the fountain of the Muses and its red wine looking like the blushing cheeks of a pretty girl is indeed beautiful. Again, this wine has beaded bubbles “winking at the brim”. The word “winking” here means sparkling but how much more is suggested by this word! The bubbles seem to be inviting a man to the wine as a girl’s wink would invite him to her company. Another expressive phrase is “purple-stained mouth”, that is, a mouth which has been stained red by wine. Memorable also are the following phrases and expressions—”verdurous blooms” (line 40); “embalmed darkness” (line, 43); “Mid-May’s eldest child—the coming musk-rose” (lines 48-49); “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves” (line 50). The line “the weariness, the fever and the fret” admirably describes the sorrows and perplexities of life. “Leaden-eyed despair” effectively conveys the dullness in the eyes of a man who is in a state of despair. Still another memorable line is: “To thy high requiem become a sod.”
The Romantic Character of the Poem
The Ode to a Nightingale is a highly romantic poem. Its romanticism is due to (a) its rich sensuousness, (b) its note of intense desire and its deep melancholy, (c) its suggestiveness, (d) its sweet music, and its fresh and original phrases. Two lines in the poem represent the high water-mark of pure romanticism:
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
The touch of the supernatural, the mystery, and above all the suggestiveness of these lines have made them a test by which purely romantic poetry can be judged and measured.
In form this poem is a “regular ode”. There is a uniformity of the number of lines and of the rhyme-scheme in all the stanzas.
Sidney Colvin Observes
In the Ode on Melancholy, Keats expresses his experience of the habitual interchange and alternation of the emotions of joy and pain. The same crossing and inter-mingling of opposite currents of feeling finds expression, together with unequalled touches of the poet’s feeling for Nature and romance, in the Ode to a Nightingale. It is not the particular nightingale he had heard singing in the garden that he speaks about in the poem, but a type of the race imagined as singing in some far-off scene of woodland mystery and beauty. Thither he tries to follow her: first by aid of the spell of some southern wine—a spell which he makes us realise in lines suggestive of the southern richness and joy. Then follows a contrasted vision of all his own and mankind’s sufferings which he will leave behind him. Nay, he needs not the aid of Bacchus. Poetic fancy alone shall carry him thither. For a moment he mistrusts its power, but the next moment finds himself where he longed to be, listening to the imagined song in the imagined woodland, and imagining in the darkness all the secrets of the season and the night. In this joy he remembers how often the thought of death has seemed welcome to him, and thinks it would be more welcome now than ever before. This nightingale would not cease her song—and here, by a breach of logic which is also a flaw in the poetry, he contrasts the shortness of human life, meaning the life of the individual, with the permanence of the nightingale’s life, meaning the life of the race. This last thought leads him off into the ages, whence he brings back memorable touches of far-off Bible and legendary romance in the stanza closing with the words “in faery lands forlorn”. Then, catching up his own last word “forlorn”, with an abrupt change of mood and meaning, he returns to daily consciousness, and with the fading away of his forest-dream the poem closes.
According to Sidney Colvin, the Ode To a Nightingale is not strictly faultless, but its revealing imaginative insight, its conquering poetic charm, its touch that strikes so lightly but so deep, are preferable to faultlessness. With the Ode On a Grecian Urn, this poem is “among the veriest glories of our poetry”.
Allen Tate calls the Nightingale Ode “an emblem of one limit of our experience: the impossibility of synthesizing, in the order .of experience, the antinomy of the ideal and the real”…..Allen Tate finds little to say in defence of the third stanza which, he says, is bad eighteenth-century personification, without on the one hand Pope’s precision, or the energy of Blake on the other. “It gives us,” says Tate, “a picture of common reality, in which the life of man is all mutability and frustration. But here if anywhere in the poem the necessity to dramatise time or the pressure of actuality, is paramount. Keats has no language of his own for this realm of experience.”
F.R. Leavis has said that the Ode to a Nightingale records the poet’s mood of indulgence and serves equally as an indulgence for the reader. Leavis is obviously being too severe or austere in his disapproval-of the “fine excess” of the poem. Keats’s profusion and prodigality, one must recognise, is here modified by a principle of sobriety. Wholeness, intensity, and naturalness are the qualities of this ode. Nature is, indeed, the real norm, Nature as it appears to the romantic imagination; wholeness and intensity are attributes of Nature, as are freedom, ease, spontaneity, harmony, and sobriety. Imagined as the golden age of Flora and the country green, and more fully as the forest of the nightingale, it becomes first the bird, the voice of Nature; then the ideal poet; and finally the ideal itself. This Nature is the antithesis of the world of privation depicted in the third stanza.
Cleanth Books and Robert Penn Warren on the Ode to a Nightingale
A Striking Contrast in the Poem
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 and has its own ideality.
The Poet’s Reverie and its End
The reverie into which the poet falls carries him deep into the “embalmed darkness” out of which the bird is singing and deep into a communion in which he can make his peace even with death. But the meditative trance cannot last. With the very first word of the eighth stanza, the reverie is broken. The word “forlorn” occurs to the poet as the adjective describing the remote and magical world suggested by the nightingale’s song. But the poet suddenly realises that this word applies with greater precision to himself. The effect is that of an abrupt stumbling. With the new and chilling meaning of “forlorn”, the song of the nightingale itself alters: it becomes a “plaintive anthem”. The song becomes fainter. What had before the power to make the sorrow in man fade away from a harsh and bitter world, now itself “fades” (line 75) and the poet is left alone in the silence.
Two Issues in the Poem
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 Double Effect of the Bird’s Song
The song of the nightingale has a curious double effect. It makes the poet’s heart “ache”, but this ache results from the poet’s being too happy in the happiness of the nightingale. The song also acts as an opiate, making the poet feel drowsy and benumbed. Opiates are used to deaden pain, and in a sense the song of the bird does give the poet momentary relief from his unhappiness, oppressed as he is with the “weariness, the fever, and the fret” of the world of humanity.
The Yearning to Escape from the Human World
Secondly, the nightingale’s song makes the poet yearn to escape from a world overshadowed with death—”Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”, “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow”. Yet when he has approached closest to the nightingale’s world, the highest rapture that he can conceive of is to die—”To cease upon the midnight with no pain”. The world of the nightingale is not a world untouched by death, but one in which death is not a negative and blighting thing. The question that arises is, “What is it that prevents the poet from entering the world of the nightingale ?” He tells us himself: it is the dull brain that perplexes and retards. The beaker of wine for which he had earlier called, and the free play of the imagination (“the viewless wings of Poesy”)—both have this in common: they can release a man from the tyranny of the dull brain. The brain insists upon clarity and logical order; it is an order that must be dissolved if the poet is to escape into the richer world of the nightingale.
The World of the Nightingale, Also a Saddening World
But the world of the nightingale is also a world characterized by darkness. We associate darkness with death, but this darkness is replete with the most intense life. This darkness is, indeed, emphasised: “shadows numberless” (line 9); “the forest dim” (line 20); “verdurous glooms” (line 40). Having entered the dim forest, the poet “cannot see”. Though the fifth stanza abounds in sensuous detail and appeals so powerfully to all the senses, most of the images of sight are fancied by the poet. He does not actually see the Queen-Moon or the stars. He can only “guess” what flowers are at his feet. He has found his way into an “embalmed darkness”. The word “embalmed” primarily means “sweet with balm”, but the word is also suggestive of death. In finding his way imaginatively into the dark forest, the poet has approached death.
The Nightingale’s Environment Described Realistically
Keats has described the flowery environment of the nightingale with full honesty. His primary emphasis is on fertility and growth, but he accepts the fact that death and change have their place here too: the violets, for instance, are thought of as “fast-fading”. But the atmosphere of this world of Nature is very different from that of the human world haunted by death, where men sit and hear each other groan. The world of Nature is a world of cyclic change: the “seasonable month”, “the coming musk-rose”. Consequently the world of Nature can appear fresh and immortal, like the bird whose song seems to be its spirit.
Man’s Alienation from Nature
The poem is not only about man’s world as contrasted with the world of Nature, or death and deathlessness, but also about alienation and wholeness. It is man’s necessary alienation from Nature that makes death so horrible. To dissolve, to fade into the warm darkness is to merge into the eternal pattern of Nature. In such a communion, death itself becomes something positive—a flowering, a fulfilment.
The Bird, Wholly Merged in Nature
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.
The Effect of the Word “Forlorn”
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).
Richard Harter Fogle on the Ode to a Nightingale
A Picture of the Opposites in the Poem
This critic considers the Ode to a Nightingale to be a romantic poem of the family of Kubla Khan and The Eve of St. Agnes in that it describes a choice and rare experience which is remote from the commonplace. A treatment of this sort of experience requires great skill. The principal stress of the Nightingale Ode, according to this critic, is a struggle between ideal and actual. It also implies the opposition between pleasure and pain, imagination and reason, fullness and privation, permanence and change, Nature and the human, art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream.
The Meeting of Extremes
The drugged dull pain in lines 1-4 is a frame and a contrast for the poignant pleasure of lines 6-10; at th6 same time it is inseparable from it. Extremes meet, as Keats has said in A Song of Opposites and the Ode On Melancholy. They meet because they are extremes, as very hot and cold water are alike to the touch: their extremity is their affinity. Both pleasure and pain are in the opening stanza heightened, and meet a common intensity. The felicity which is permanent in the nightingale is transient and therefore excessive in the poet. It is so heavy a burden that it can be endured only briefly. Its attractions make everyday living ugly by contrast. Allen Tate refers to the Nightingale Ode as revealing the dilemma of the romantic imagination when faced with the contrast between the ideal and the real. Good romantic poems, like Kubla Khan and the Nightingale Ode, define this dilemma, dramatise it, and transform it to a source of strength.
Abundance, Fullness, or Completeness
The theme of the second stanza is abundance or fullness. The ideal lies in completeness. The nightingale sings in full-throated ease, and the beaker is full of the true, blushful Hippocrene. This fullness contrasts with the sad satiety of the third stanza, where but to think is to be full of sorrow; it is modulated in the embalmed darkness of the fifth stanza; and it ends in the sixth stanza in a climatic fullness of song, with the nightingale pouring forth her soul abroad in ecstasy.
A Concentration of Effect
The draught of vintage has been cooled a long ago in the deep-delved earth; the fountain of the Muses is the true, the blushful Hippocrene, and the beaker is brimful, with purple-stained mouth. Such concentration of effect is probably what Keats had in mind when he advised Shelley to “load every rift with ore”
An Escape from Actuality Through Wine
The draught of vintage symbolises an imaginative escape from actuality. The longing to fade away into the forest dim is in order to avoid another kind of fading away, the melancholy dissolution of change and physical decay. In the third stanza a world of privation is substituted for the golden world of the second stanza. For ease is substituted the weariness, the fever, and the fret; for abundance, a few, sad, last grey hairs. In this world of privation youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.
A Vivid Picture of Distress and Grief
The privation of the third stanza is as vividly depicted as the ideal abundance of the second. The personifications of age, youth, beauty, and love are vitalised by their contexts; they are comparable to “veiled Melancholy” in her “sovran shrine” in the Ode on Melancholy, and the personifications of To Autumn. The process of tedium, time, and decay is effectively conveyed in the third stanza, and the four-fold repetition of “Where” is a further reinforcement.
(According to Douglas Bush, the real theme of Keats’s six great odes is the sadness of mutability.)
The Value of the Ideal
In the Nightingale Ode, 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 agonised 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 feelirtg. He need not give equal attention to both, for the actual can take care of itself; it is the trail ideal which requires support.
The Romantic, Picturesque Fourth Stanza
The forest scene of the fourth stanza is romantically picturesque without being really pictorial: one does not visualise it, but its composition is describable in visual metaphor. The moonlight, a symbol of imagination, intermingling with darkness suggests the enchantment of mystery. After thus using suggestion Keats goes on, in the fifth stanza, to specification. The imagery in the fifth stanza is particular and sensuous, but not highly visual. Hawthorn, eglantine, violets, and musk-rose are important chiefly for their pastoral association. Here, as in the second stanza, the theme is fullness, but with an added pathos because of the introduction of darkness and death in the sixth stanza. The generous fertility of Nature is inseparable from the grave.
A Reasonable Inference from the Experience of the Forest
The death mentioned in the sixth stanza is a reasonable inference from the experience of the forest. As freedom, ease, intensity, fullness, and consummation the two are one. Death is easeful and rich. “To cease upon the midnight” is in one respect the same as “pouring forth thy soul abroad”. In each is an outpouring, and a release from the prisoning self. This imaginative acceptance of death is not, however, without reservation. The poet has been only half in love with easeful death. The acceptance, in fact, includes the reservation, since it is an acceptance of the limits as well as the freedoms of this death:
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
To thy high requiem become a sod.
The Nightingale’s Immortality
In a swift transition the death theme of the sixth stanza turns to a basis for the immortality of the nightingale in the seventh stanza. The objection that the nightingale, is not immortal need not trouble us. The objection has been met by the suggestion that Keats is thinking of the race of nightingales, and not the individual nightingale. At any rate, the bird in this stanza is a universal and undying voice: the voice of Nature, of imaginative sympathy, and therefore of an ideal romantic poetry, infinitely powerful and profuse (compare the “profuse strains of unpremeditated art” of Shelley’s To a Skylark, and the “music loud and long” of Kubla Khan). As sympathy, the voice of the nightingale resolves all differences: it speaks to high and low (emperor and clown); it comforts the human home-sickness of Ruth and frees her from bitter isolation; and equally it opens the casements of the remote and magical. Lines 65-70 combine the two kinds of romanticism— the domestic and the exotic. But both the kinds are linked by their common purpose of fusing the usual with the strange. Ruth is distanced and framed by time and rich association, but in relation to the magic casements she is homely and familiar. These magic casements are the climax of the imaginative experience.
The Fancy Cannot Cheat So Well
The final stanza is a soft and quiet withdrawal from the heights. The word “forlorn” is like a bell which tolls the death of the imagination. Ruth is forlorn in her loneliness. The faery lands are pleasurably forlorn in a remoteness which is really the condition of their value. In any case, the word brings the poet to the common, everyday world. The fact that fancy cannot cheat so well is not a rejection of imagination but part of the total experience.
The Complexity of Feeling and Thought in the Poem
The Ode to a Nightingale contains the highest, the fullest, the most intense, the most valuable mental experience which Keats can imagine. This experience is the centre of the poem, and the basis of its unity. Within this unity, however, is a complex of feeling and thought which moves in alternate rises and falls, a series of waves. These waves are not of equal height; they rise gradually to a climax in the seventh stanza, and the rise subsides in the conclusion.