Study Guide

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” begins with no introduction: The poet describes himself in a profound state of mental torment, as if drugged into a sleep state, engrossed in an unseen nightingale’s song. The setting is unspecified, but readers can imagine the poet in a garden or perhaps in the woods, during springtime, when nightingales nest. The poet addresses the bird directly, a poetic device known as apostrophe, stating his admiration for the nightingale’s happiness. At this point the nightingale suggests to the reader that it embodies, at minimum, two symbolic meanings: The bird’s song suggests that the bird represents art, while the poet’s description of the bird as being like a Greek wood nymph suggests that the bird symbolizes nature.

In stanza two, the poet yearns for an imaginative identification with the bird, perhaps assisted by wine, by which he can escape the ordinary world and disappear into the happier world represented by the nightingale. In stanza three, the bird’s world is contrasted to all the pain—such as aging, disease, and despair—that defines human experience. In line 26, Keats could be alluding to the death of his brother Tom in 1818.

In the fourth stanza, the poet rejects the escape that alcohol can provide, preferring the flight of poetry. Overall, through his desire for symbolic union with the bird, stanzas two through four outline the poet’s desire to escape the human condition. The...

(The entire section is 447 words.)

Ode to a Nightingale Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“Ode to a Nightingale,” along with “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn,” all of which were written between March and September of 1819, document Keats’s ongoing struggle to reconcile himself to his own mortality. The deaths of his father (1804) and mother (1810), combined with the imminent death of his brother, Tom, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis, as well as the recent diagnosis of his own contraction of tuberculosis, brought the poet to consider the transient nature of human existence and to search for some form of permanence in nature or in art. The song of the nightingale, which is seen as a kind of natural poet, offers Keats such a symbol of permanence. The poem records Keats’s struggle to merge his life with the immortal song of that bird and thereby escape, at least temporarily, his own mortality.

The poem can be divided into three movements or parts. The first part, stanzas 1 to 3, describes the narrator’s anguish upon hearing the immortal song of the bird in the distance. The “full-throated ease” with which it sings completely captures the poet’s attention, causing him to forget, temporarily, his own mortality. That happiness, however, is short lived, for it quickly becomes the occasion for the poet to remember his own temporary existence.

The pain of that recognition is what generates the desire for escape through wine in the second stanza. Through wine, the poet may find some release from the pain invoked by the bird’s song. Clearly, the poet sees the wine as an agent of nature, which further suggests that he sees nature as a source of escape from his own mortality, a common notion among many Romantic poets. The poet reasons that if he can forget his impending death, he will be able to join the bird and subsequently escape what the bird has never known: “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other...

(The entire section is 801 words.)