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Ode to a Nightingale by Keats: Summary, Analysis & Themes

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Richard Davis

Richard teaches college writing and has a master's degree in creative writing.

John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' is a different flavor of Romanticism. There are no dancing daffodils or peaceful shepherds to be found here. In this lesson, we'll analyze each stanza of this famously dark poem, noting how Keats uses allusion and imagery to explore the poem's themes.

Introduction

John Keats 1819

Before we jump into John Keats' 'Ode to Nightingale,' let's learn a bit more background information. Born in 1795, John Keats was a key member of the Romantic movement in English literature. Essentially, Romantic poetry explores how the natural world and the inner, emotional world of the poet come together.

As you'll see, Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale' is an excellent example of this kind of poetry. Written in 1819 (only two years before Keats died of tuberculosis), the poem explores the ideas of mortality, ecstasy, and impermanence (to name a few). Because the poem is an ode, it directly addresses (or 'talks to') its subject, always keeping the nightingale as the focus of the poem's action.

Stanzas One and Two

So, let's dive into our analysis. We'll take a look at the poem stanza by stanza, summarizing each stanza's content and looking for any themes (ideas or emotions that hold a poem together) that emerge. Let's start with the first stanza:

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.

You can probably tell by the first few words ('My heart aches') that this isn't going to be an especially cheery poem. As the first stanza unfolds, the speaker compares his mental state to being intoxicated (or even poisoned, as suggested by 'hemlock'), even going so far as to allude to (make reference to) the river Lethe. In Greek mythology, the Lethe is a river in the underworld, whose waters will erase the memories of anyone who drinks them. As the stanza winds to its conclusion, we learn that the reason behind the speaker's trance-like state is the nightingale's song, which makes the speaker so happy that he can't focus on anything else.

Now, let's head into the second stanza, which builds upon the first stanza's theme of intoxication:

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:

To put it simply, this stanza is basically saying 'Gee, I wish I had some wine!' (but that wouldn't have been nearly as poetic as Keats' elaborate description of different varieties of wine). Except for the last two lines, this stanza is made entirely of imagery. Imagery is language that stimulates any of the five senses (not just sight, as the word 'image' implies). In imagining the different varieties of wine he wishes to drink, the poem's speaker stimulates our senses of touch (by describing the coolness of the wine), taste ('tasting of Flora and the country green'), hearing ('Provençal song'), and sight ('purple-stained mouth'). The last two lines, however, strike at the stanza's underlying theme: the urge to leave the physical world.

Stanzas Three and Four

Now, onto the third stanza, which builds upon the idea of 'fading away':

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.

As you can see, this stanza gives us a better sense of what the speaker of the poem wants to leave behind by following the nightingale's song. According to the speaker, the nightingale has 'never known' the sorrows of disease and death that dominate the physical world ('Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies'). This stanza narrows the focus of theme brought up in the second stanza. The speaker's fundamental problem with the physical world is that nothing lasts forever (particularly beauty and love, which appear in the last two lines).

Now, let's jump into the fourth stanza:

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.

Don't worry if this stanza seems a bit tougher than the ones before it. The reason for this is that Keats has brought in more allusions (like he did with the Lethe in the first stanza) to mythology. Bacchus is the Roman god of wine (called Dionysius by the Greeks), who was often depicted as riding in a chariot drawn by leopards (or 'pards,' as Keats calls them). The 'Queen-Moon' and 'Fays' refer to the fairies in European legends.

By alluding to these mythical figures, Keats emphasizes the difference between the gloomy physical world ('But here there is no light') and the dreamlike, spiritual world of the nightingale. Fortunately, Keats also acknowledges that he can use the 'viewless wings of Poesy' (poetry) to experience an amount (however small) of the nightingale's world.

Stanzas Five and Six

Now, onto the fifth stanza, which shifts our attention back to the physical world:

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.

Much like the second stanza, the fifth stanza exists mostly to stimulate the reader's senses (especially the sense of smell). The speaker admits that his vision is failing him (either due to his altered mental state or simply because it's dark), but this only makes his sense of smell stronger. Turning his attention to the scents of the 'embalmed darkness' (which hints, once again, at the presence of death), the speaker practically bombards our noses with the smells of the forest (grass, fruit trees, and flowers). The last line, however, appeals to our sense of hearing, drawing our attention to the murmuring of flies on summer evenings.

Next, the sixth stanza, which deals more directly with the thematic meat of the poem:

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.

This stanza offers us a somewhat unsettling revelation. The speaker doesn't just want to transcend the limits of the physical world…he actually wants to die ('Now more than ever seems it rich to die'). The reasons for this desire, however, are more complex than misery. Rather, as he hinted in the first stanza, the speaker feels so content and complete when he hears the nightingale's song that he wouldn't mind dying. Furthermore, the speaker notes that the nightingale's song would continue long after his death ('Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--/ To thy high requiem become a sod').

Stanzas Seven and Eight

Alright. We're on the home stretch. Let's tackle the seventh stanza:

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.

This stanza builds upon the idea that the nightingale's song is eternal, focusing on how long this song has been heard. Obviously, Keats doesn't mean that the same bird has been alive for thousands of years. Rather, he is suggesting that the beauty of the natural world has fascinated (and sometimes bewitched) humanity for generations upon generations. Once again, we're faced with another allusion. When the speakers mentions 'the sad heart of Ruth,' he is referring to the Biblical story of Ruth, a widow who travels to Bethlehem (where she lives off 'alien corn' taken from the fields), only to marry a farmer. Keats then balances this Biblical story with the pagan idea of 'faery lands forlorn.'

Now, onto the eighth and final stanza:

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?

In this stanza, the speaker essentially snaps out of it, brought back to his 'sole self' by the sound of the word 'forlorn' in the previous stanza. It is at this point that he realizes the nightingale's song (even if it is immortal) will not always be within his range of hearing ('Adieu! Adieu! Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side...'). This is a crucial insight for the speaker, who until this moment has wanted nothing more than to leave the physical world and follow the nightingale into a different, higher realm. Nevertheless, some traces of the speaker's trance-like state remain, because the poem closes with the question 'Do I wake or sleep?'.

Lesson Summary

It's been a bit of a long trek, so let's quickly go over what we've learned. Written in 1819 (two years before Keats' death), 'Ode to a Nightingale' explores the themes of mortality, transcendence, and impermanence. Because it is an ode, the poem addresses (or talks to) its subject directly. Over the course of its eight stanzas, the poem alternates between the physical world of the speaker and the 'eternal' world of the nightingale, using allusion (references to other pieces of literature or mythology) and imagery (language that affects the reader's senses). Ultimately, the speaker realizes the nightingale's song is just as fleeting as everything else around him, and he is left to wonder whether he is dreaming or awake.

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