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“Ode to a Nightingale” (1819) is a Horatian Ode written primarily in iambic pentameter. The poem, composed after John Keats heard a nightingale outside his window, is a consideration of death, the apprehension of material beauty and the fascination of a world of deterioration. Keats was greatly admired in the Romantic poetic circle and “Ode to a Nightingale” stands as one of his most famous poems. Perhaps this is, in part, because the poem’s central figure, the nightingale, remains elusive and ambiguous. For instance, the line “ Already with thee!” in the fourth stanza signals, to many critics, that the poet has entered a trance. This is particularly interesting because Keats was not known to take mind altering drugs, for instance opium, like other Romantic poets such as his contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ambiguous language, such as found in this line, contributes to the poem’s universal appeal and allows modern readers to connect to the themes and motifs of the work. It is also noteworthy to consider how “Ode to a Nightingale” continues themes of subjectivity and self-consciousness that are found in his other works, such as “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “To Autumn.” In these poems, specifically in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats elaborates on the power of the imagination to escape ordinary, and often painful, reality. For instance, in the sixth stanza Keats writes:
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 exemplifies the power Keats places on the imagination. As the speaker listens to the bird, he escapes thoughts of “easeful death” which lure him to death. As the speaker considers what death might feel like, he hears the bird “pouring forth” his soul “In such an ecstasy!” Here, the narrator longs for death. Yet, in the final two stanzas, the narrator realizes that death would mean an end to the nightingale’s song, which he interprets as the end of art in nature. As the poem continues, the poet becomes less enchanted with the bird, who many critics interpret as a symbol of immortality. Ultimately, the nightingale represents flight and escape from reality; a symbol that Keats ultimately rejects.
John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" features the themes of nature and its beautiful qualities, as symbolized by the nightingale, and the pain of leaving it, as symbolized by death. It also features the nightingale as a symbol of immortality, as compared to death and mortality, which Keats was facing at the time he wrote the poem. The nightingale also is featured as a symbol of art, through its singing, and as a symbol of nature and its timelessness, as compared to death and the other parts of human life. The poet shows a desire to be like the nightingale, and not have to worry about death. He also shows a desire to escape his world, and join the nightingale.
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