“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats: A Summary

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at 2016.10.12
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One of the most personal of Keats’s odes, “Ode to a Nightingale” was written when the poet was going through a very turbulent phase of his life. His brother, Tom had died of tuberculosis and his affair with his neighbor Fanny Brawne was also not going smoothly. The poem as such explores his contemplations about the validity of life, death, beauty, and love. Let’s go through the summary.

Stanza wise summary

Stanza 1

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.

The Summary: The poet starts off with a declaration of his physical and mental state. His heart pains and he feels drowsy and numb as if he has taken the poison, “hemlock” or the drug, “opiate” or immersed in the Greek river of forgetfulness, the “Lethe‑wards.” But he clarifies that his trance-like condition is not in envy of the bird’s unhindered bliss; rather he feels “too happy” on hearing the nightingale sing rapturously of summer from some shady plot.

Stanza 2

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:

The Summary: Keats does not wish to remain content with an overzealous adoration of the bird’s blesses state; he pines for a long preserved vintage wine, “ draught of vintage,” that typically conjoins the taste of flowers “flora” plants, song, dance and happiness “sunburnt mirth.” An alternative for him would be “a beaker” containing the rejuvenating essence of the “warm South” and brimming with the reddish liquid of the fountain “Hippocrene.” And all these would aid him to leave this physical world “unseen.”

Stanza 3

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.

The Summery: The poet’s earnest desire to “fade away” becomes more prominent now. He desperately yearns to “dissolve” so as to be freed from the depressing clutches of “weariness,” “fever,” “fret,” by which all (except the nightingale), are affected. Also included in the list is the glaring reality, old age before which even “Beauty” and “Love” turn immaterial and redundant.

Stanzas 4 and 5

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

The Summary: However, “Bacchus,” the wine God would not assist him in his flight, it would rather be accomplished by taking the aid of his “wings of Poesy.” It is important to note that after an elaborate description of his fanciful soaring so far, he now offers us a glimpse of his immediate surroundings.  It is a soft and “tender” night with a visible moon and stars, but there is hardly any light, except the tiny amount that penetrates when the breeze blows the branches. Bereft of vision, the poet employs his olfactory senses to give a full-fledged portrayal of the flowers and the grass that touch his feet.

Stanzas 6 and 7

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.

The Summary: While relishing such an invigorating ambiance, the poet wishes to have a peaceful death such that there is no pain even if his ears would become useless “vain” to continue appreciating the ecstatic song of the bird, then symbolizing a “requiem” or church music sung in remembrance of a dead person. The poet then invests the bird with an everlasting quality, “immortal Bird” and further extends its trait of triumphing over the constraints of time by saying that its song has been heard by the Biblical character “Ruth” as well as by other ancient emperors and kings. The song also possesses a magical quality and is thereby “charmed” to open “casements” on a ship.

Stanza 8

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?

The Summary: It is the utterance of the word “forlorn” at the end of the seventh stanza that drags him back to his present self and the realization that his wishful thinking “fancy” has not been effective in transporting him into the land of the carefree nightingale. As the bird flies away, he bids farewell, “Adieu” and keeps pondering whether the entire experience had been a reality or imagination, “waking dream.”


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