Sunday, 29 March 2015

Ode To A Nightingale by John Keats

If my memory serves me well, I believe this poem is a favourite of Jason at Literature Frenzy and it was his love of it that inspired me to include it in my Deal Me In Challenge.  Without this inspiration, it would probably still be unread, as Keats, for some reason, intimidates my uneducated poetic sensibilities.

Common Nightingale
Source Wikipedia

Ode to a Nightingale

The Dryad (1884-85)
Evelyn De Morgan
 Wikimedia Commons
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
         But being too happy in thine happiness,—
                That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
                        In some melodious plot
         Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
                Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

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 Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
         Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
                With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
                        And purple-stained mouth;
         That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
                And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

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

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
                Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
                        But here there is no light,
         Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
                Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
         Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
                Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
                        And mid-May's eldest child,
         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
         No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
                Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
         To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
         As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Illustration of Poem
W.J. Neatby
source Wikipedia
Keats initially uses extreme contrasts of his dulled, poisoned senses to the happy nightingale, its song urging him out of his despair; one wonders if it will completely succeed.  In the second stanza the poet relates his desire for wine. Why?  Because wine is made from grapes, will it allow him to meld more with nature, or does he simply want to get intoxicated to forget his troubles?  He admits then that he wishes to escape the suffering of life and expresses regret at the transience of youth and life.  Ah, now he claims that he won't reach the nightingale through wine but poetry, and expresses almost a dualism in that his brain is dull perhaps still with care, yet he is already with the joyous nightingale.  The fifth stanza is even more curious. Though he is in the forest with the nightingale, he cannot see the beauty there, as if he can only get glimpes as he is unable to liberate himself from life's hardship.  The poet admits to being "half in love with .... Death," ---- I had thought the poet was equating the nightingale's song with joy, but now he appears to be marrying it with death.  Is this part of his confusion or something deeper that I'm missing?  Yet if he dies, he will cease to hear the song, so perhaps he realizes the dilemma.  The poet then equates the nightingale with immortality and, as we've read, the bird almost transcends earthly constraints; its song has been a continuous joy in a temporal world. But alas, the poet is recalled to his sad state, the nightingale's song abandons him and he is left to wonder if his whole experience was real or a dream.

Portrait of Keats listening to a nightingale (1845)
Joseph Severn
source Wikipedia
This was certainly a difficult poem for a rank amateur.  The themes I could pick up were isolation, death, a transcendent joy that perhaps may be unreachable at least for the poet, abandonment, disconnection, transience of life, and a longing for something beyond this life.

As I was reading, I wondered if the poet was trying to match his creative expression with the nightingale's song.  It would seem impossible to create at the level of God, but I felt such inspiration in the poem, almost as if Keats was trying to create the poem as intensely as the poet of the poem was wishing to escape earthly adversity.

I'm no expert, but this poem seems to pair well with Percy Bysshe Shelley's To A Skylark, which O reviewed recently on her blog Behold the Stars.  Both poets put nature front and centre, but Shelley has a much more positive outlook, while Keats' poem is filled with more nuanced emotions and contradictions.  The similarities and contrasts between the two are intriguing.

Deal Me In Challenge #9 - Ace of Diamonds


  1. I think your reading is pretty spot on! :) Also, I think the wine is only a metaphorical reference to wanting to forget. To drink away thoughts, so to speak.

    Keats believed that the human life filtered itself through a "mansion of many apartments." He believed most people were in the thoughtless chamber. In this chamber, people are basically unaware. They live their day to day life and don't think much. If they venture beyond their daily routine, they sometimes advance to the chamber of maiden thought. Here the person moves beyond thoughtlessness to notice light and joy. Most people, according to Keats, stay here, but a poet moves on to a place where dark mist replaces the light, and an awareness of human misery replaces the thoughtless elation. Here the person realizes that the world is filled with misery, and they deeply feel that misery. Not only this, they begin to understand that life is an utter mystery, as is death. Keats felt most people never reached this chamber, but a true poet could. A true poet could lean into the misery -- it was a gift and a curse.

    Keats wrote this ode as he was dying, and was contemplating the longevity of his artwork (represented by the nightingale) and how much he longed to not be cursed with an awareness beyond bliss. He wanted back into the thoughtless chamber. He wanted innocence and peace. He'd just watched his brother die by the disease that was racking him and would eventually take his own life, and he was sad, and feeling deep misery, and both wishing the sadness would leave him in peace, that he could forget everything (take the drug which would make him forget, mentioned early in the poem -- either an actual drug, or imagination, fantasy, poetry), and that he could just be a regular guy, and not a poet, because a regular guy wouldn't feel as completely as he did.

    At the same time, he is celebrating the eternalness of poetry. He knows that even as he leaves the earth, his poem will live on. He is drawn to that eternalness as to death itself. He begins to conflate the eternalness with escape, then realizes that poetry cannot save him from his immediate present, which is miserable enough that the very thought of it drops him back into reality at the end of the poem.

    When Keats wrote this poem, he was at a friend's house and saw the bird outside. He took a chair outdoors and sat to watch it for a couple hours as it sung, and this is what came out. It's a bit of an ode to both the present and the future. He is in awe of the bird's beauty, irritated that the bird lulls him into forgetting his miseries when they are forever awaiting him, and moved that the bird represents a sort of blissful, singing beauty, like art, which can live forever. Pretty much like you said. :) I love Keats.

    1. Bless you, Corinne! What a wonderful background and so helpful. I really appreciate you taking the time to type it all out.

      I feel that I picked up on Keats' desperation and some of the conflict that he must have been feeling. His is such a sad story. I hope he found his nightingale and that it's still singing, just like his poetry still resonates today!

    2. Indeed you are correct. This is my favorite poem and if I wasn't rushing out the door, I would elaborate more on the subject. I will return later to add a few more thoughts in response to your review.

      However, let me just say quickly that I think it would be unfounded to belittle yourself as being an an amateur when it comes to reading poetry. Come on now, you were able to tackle one of the most difficult poems in the English language: Paradise Lost. Not many people can claim to have done that. You're a pro, a real natural. Leave the cynicism and self-deprecation to me, that is my area of expertise. :P

      You have shown time and time again that you are more than capable of doing close readings, especially when it comes to poetry as indicated by this excellent review. You outline many of the themes and ideas with insightful observations. I especially like the way you dissect the line "half in love with easeful Death." I always read this line as the speaker coming to terms with his own mortality, facing death head-on, embracing the inevitable; providing him a release from all the suffering brought on by illness (it is difficult not to read this lines as autobiographical). But then how does one account for the other half? Well, the obvious answer would be that he doesn't want to die so soon and is terrified of what comes next. Like you say, if he dies then he will not be able to listen to the bird's beautiful song. However, during that brief reverie, he is able to lose himself, transported to a higher level of human consciousness; unshackled from the burdens of the flesh and brought a little closer to accepting the fact that while death is unavoidable, there are still moments of beauty in nature that make up for life's hardships, i.e, the nightingale. This is a sad and depressing poem depending on your interpretation but I have always found the last line interesting: Do I wake or Sleep? He can either choose to face reality or stay in the dream-world of poetry brought on by the nightingale. It's purposefully ambiguous I get the sense that the speaker yearns to return and perhaps dwell forever within the realms of poetry, which in effect, will make him immortal. Both you and Corinne touch upon this theme and I am inclined to agree with what you say about the poet wanting to be recognized as a great poet, relegated to posterity in a similar way the Nightingale is symbolic of beauty, freedom and of course, immortality.

    3. Well, please hurry back because I would love to hear your further comments. I really appreciate your kind words because this poem was difficult for me. I sensed so many contradictions and allusions within these mere 8 stanzas and I just went with my gut feeling. Poetry really takes more brain-power and a more detailed, finicky reading than prose to get the sense of its meaning.

      With regard to the waking and sleeping, I thought perhaps he might be alluding to the question if there is life after death, in which case he would still be awake after death; or is death the final end, in which case he would be perpetually sleeping. If I'm honest, to me there is nothing in the poem that directly addresses this question but I would think this would be a question that someone who is dying would ask themselves regardless of whether they have faith or not. I can't help but believe that Keats must have thought about it, but, as I said, I don't actually see it in the poem.

  2. You did an excellent job reviewing this poem!
    I dread reviewing poetry b/c I have no idea where to start.
    I have a few books of poetry to read for Nobel Prize winners.
    Perhaps I can muster up the energy to review 1 poem during the Easter weekend with a huge chociolate Easter egg as a reward!

    1. Thanks, Nancy. I had no idea where to start either, but since Corinne and Jason (who are two of the most erudite people I know when I comes to poetry) told me that I did a good job, I feel very pleased with myself. One of my goals is to read more poetry and this challenge is forcing me to get out of my comfort zone. Yay!

  3. One of the joys I have when reading Keats are the challenges. The diction, the themes, the allusions all require my full engagement. However, most 21st century readers are not interested in taking on the challenges; the allusions are alien, the diction is formal, and the themes are illusive abstractions. I love those challenges.

    1. Oooo, I'll have to search your blog for Keats posts! While I like those challenges too, I often don't have the time or patience for them to be appealing to me. My goal is to change that outlook and have more enjoyable moments, such as the one I've had with this poem!

  4. Funny how I seem to be talking about my mum to you today. But she read it to me first and I remember her telling me that she stumbled upon it when reading English LIt during her undergrad days...they read Shelly but not Keats!! Years later, I read it again as part of my under grad (The Univ. Board had revised their curriculum by then!!Thank Heavens!) and loved it. I agree with you that this is a difficult poem to crack, but it is simply marvelous. It is one of those things that you keep coming back to again and again. There is such an element of pathos in this poem, but it contrasts so well with all that eternal and beautiful and long lasting!!

    1. Yes, mums seem to be a hot topic lately. The wonderful thing about its difficultly is that you can visit it over and over again and still get something out of it. And I like the contrasts of death and nature. It's not an expected pairing, at least not for me. I'm sure other poets have paired the two as well, but probably none so well as Keats!

  5. I was just watching a quiz programme my boyfriend and I like (Eggheads) and there was a question on this! I wish I had have read this post this afternoon when I meant to instead of now, I might have made myself look intelligent! :)

    I love your review - very helpful. I'm rather intimidated by the Romantics!

    PS - Played the nightingale song - my budgies loved it :)

    1. That's funny to think that my post stood between you and intelligence! ;-)

      Thanks ...... it's probably the review where I felt the most inadequate but it's inspired me to read more poetry.

      I can imagine your budgies chirping away, wondering where the strange bird was hiding!