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“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats: An Analysis

The Poem

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 Provencal 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 toil 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?

Starting with the poem

The second amidst the six celebrated odes of John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” is one of his most personal odes that were composed one spring morning, when he was enthralled by hearing the magical voice of a nightingale while visiting his friend, Charles Brown in Hampstead.

Following a traditional Greek Ode, this lyrical poem celebrates the nightingale as the main subject but incorporates other elements too that help it to remain one of the choicest poems of English literature.

The central idea

The poet, on hearing the song of the nightingale, feels enthralled and desperately wishes to fly away with it. But physical constraints prevent him and he consoles his depressed heart with the estimation that the nightingale is “immortal.” However, as the bird flies away, he is left pondering whether the entire experience had been a reality or a fragment of his imagination. Now, if you want to know more, you may read the stanza wise summary of the poem.

Critical Analysis

The themes

Contrast between mortality, represented by fragile man, as opposed to immortality, reflected by the bird

The poet significantly points out man’s frailty by the line, “where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” and contrasts it with the immortality the bird enjoys.

Wish to transcend reality – a poem of escape

Throughout the poem, the poet makes it clear that he frantically seeks to abandon the physical world full of agony and rather dwell in the blessed realm of the nightingale. In fact, this process of apparently losing himself while engrossed hearing the song of the nightingale makes use of negative capability.

Piercing realization of reality

Imagination can provide him momentary satisfaction only, and as soon as he grasps this truth, he cannot help but resign himself to the multiple sorrows of life.

Prominent literary devices

Symbols

  • The nightingale itself symbolizes eternal beauty, immortality and a gateway from the persistent troubles of the world.
  • The mentioning of “Death” in the second line of the 6th stanza, symbolizes a passage to an evergreen land that is bereft of all mortal afflictions. It is an “easeful” and “rich” experience such that he falls in love with it.
  • The “magic casements” in the last line of stanza seven, stands for an enchanting escapade into a world of the unknown.

Image and Imagery

It is appropriate to remark that this poem stands as one of the best examples of an efficient use of rich, sensuous imagery as well as vivid images. In fact, Keats deliberately involves all the five senses to allow the reader an opportunity of visiting the sacred and alluring world of the nightingale. Let’s explain how:

In the second stanza, when the poet states,

“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 sunburnt mirth!

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”

we may almost relish (taste) the spicy flavor of the wine, feel its chill of long storage in the “deep-delved earth,” hear the  jubilant note of “ Provencal song,” and visualize the “ purple-stained mouth.”

Further in the fourth stanza, when the poet remarks,

“tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays”

we get an image of the moon presiding as a “Queen” surrounded by her “starry” attendants or “Fays.”

The fact that light is available only when the branches move due to occasional breezes is made clear through another vivid image,

“But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways

The poet’s preoccupation with imagery ends in the fifth stanza. When he points out that,

 

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”

he makes use of the senses of smell and touch to give us a picture of the flowers that lie at his feet like, the “White hawthorn,” “the musk rose,” and the “pastoral eglantine.” The sense of smell is further stimulated by a beautiful image, “embalmed darkness” that describes how the flowers lend their fragrance to the night thereby turning it aromatic.

Finally, the last image, “The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves,” uses the sense of hearing to describe the sound of the flies.

Structure of the poem

The poem is written in ten-line stanzas with the first seven and last two lines of each stanza being in iambic pentameter while the eighth line being in iambic trimester.

Rhyme scheme

The rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE.

Figures of speech used

Allusion

  • The nightingale alludes to Philomela, a character in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, who was turned into a nightingale by the Gods to escape death from the hands of her rapist.
  • In line 4, the words “lethe wards” allude to the river of forgetfulness, Hades in Greek afterworld that caused memory loss in people that drank water from it.
  • In line 7, the bird alludes to a female spirit in Greek mythology when it is called a “light-winged Dryad.”
  • In line 16, the drink alludes to the spring “Hippocrene” that in Greek myth was created by the stamping of the winged horse, “Pegasus.”
  • In line 32, the poet alludes to the Greek God of wine, “Bacchus” as not responsible for his fanciful escape.
  • In the lines 63 66, Keats alludes to the Biblical figure, “Ruth” as being a listener of the magnificent song of the nightingale.

Personification

  • In line 16, the drink is invested living characteristics when it is referred to as “blushing.”
  • In lines 25 26, the disease “Palsy” is depicted as someone menacingly powerful, capable of causing seizures in men.
  • In lines 29 30, both “Beauty” and “Love” are said to lose their charm before relentless time.
  • In line 36, the “Moon” is personified as a female.
  • In lines 52 53, “Death” is personified as a long acquainted companion who would ultimately provide the poet permanent peace.

Simile

  • In lines 2 3, the poet compares his feelings to having taken poison (hemlock) or consuming a drug (opiate).
  • In lines 71 72, the word “Forlorn” is compared to a bell.
  • In line 74, the poet compares fancy to a “deceiving elf” famous for fooling people.

Metaphor

  • In line 15, the “ warm South” is compared to a beaker.
  • In line 33, “poesy” or poetry is compared to a bird.
  • In line 60, the poet compares the nightingale’s song to a “requiem.”

Apostrophe

  • In line 61, the poet’s direct addressing of the bird is an instance of an apostrophe.

Onomatopoeia

  • In line 1 of the first stanza, the poet uses the harsh “t” and “k” sounds of the word “heart aches” and the heavy “d” and “p” sounds of “dull opiate” to suggest his wearied mood.
  • This is contrasted with the light mood hinted by the usage of such words as, “light winged Dryad” in line 7.
  • In the last line of the fifth stanza, the poet uses the words, “murmurous haunt” to indicate the subdued tone of the flies.

The meaning of some important words

  • Provencal song: a region in southern France that is famous for its wine, the sun and lovely lyrics.
  • Darkling: in the dark
  • Warm south: a southern drink
  • Alien corn: the corn is called “alien” as “Ruth” was not an Israelite but a Moabitess

As a Romantic poem

The characteristic romantic features of the poem are:

  • Subjective narration of the poet’s feelings
  • Transience of life
  • Escape into the dream-like world of the bird
  • Permanence of Nature depicted through the bird

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