In John Keats' poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," he is speaking directly to the creature reputed to have the loveliest song of all birds.
Keats was a key element in the Romantic Movement. Known especially for his love of the country and sensuous descriptions of the beauty of nature, his poetry also resonated with deep philosophic questions.
First Keats refers to heartache, numbness, as if from hemlock, a deadly poison, or some drug that has brought him near death, as he alludes to "Lethe-wards," Lethe being the river of forgetfulness in Hades—where the dead reside, in Greek mythology. Dryads are the tree nymphs in Greek mythology, and Keats describes the nightingale as one as he sings, moving among the upper limbs.
In the second stanza, Keats refers to the fountain Hippocrene, another allusion the to Greek mythology, the water of which was supposed to provide poetic inspiration if one would drink of it. There are repeated images of nature:...draught of vintage! that hath been Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth, Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
But Keats seems to wish, too, that such a drink would allow him to meld with nature to be with the nightingale:
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
In the third stanza, Keats turns to images of age and death, even youth and death. Keats himself suffered, and eventually died, from tuberculosis, a deadly lung disease of his day. His sadness is evident, whether for himself alone or for others as well, the promise of a lifetime lost because of impending death:
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Keats alludes again to mythological Bacchus, the Roman god of wine; Keats will not escape with drink, but with poetry ("Poesy"), even while his mind may not cooperate. He looks heavenward to the Queen-moon and her court of "Fays," (an archaic term for "fairies"), where the nightingale may reach, but not he on earth, where there is no light: perhaps no "hope," as it would seem the light of the moon does not reach him, and of Heaven, only a breeze may stir him.
The next stanza once again provides life-affirming images of nature. Though Keats cannot see the flowers around him or what fragrances come through the darkness (and this may be figurative darkness, close to death perhaps), he can still imagine what each month brings, going through the seasons, as if he will not be there to do so:
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 45 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 sixth stanza describes Keats' illness: he has been so ill that he has "been half in love with easeful Death." He sometimes senses that in a way it would be good to die: being released finally from his pain, even while the nightingale fills the night with song.
The following stanza praises the bird, speaking to his immortality, and man's love for his song down through the ages, even with Biblical Ruth, missing home, standing in the fields of corn.
His soul is brought back from its fancy, with the word, "forlorn," reminding him of his plight. Imagination ("fancy") can only distract him for so long. He bids the bird farewell, and wonders if he is awake or merely dreaming.
It is clear from the very start of this unforgettable poem that the speaker is entering a dream-like state that reflects an other-worldly experience. This is based on the intoxication that the speaker experiences when he hears a nightingale's song, combined with the images that it creates in his mind. This leads him to desire poetic inspiration and for the liberty to fly away from the suffering that time and change inflict on people. The speaker imagines that composing poetry could free him from his pain and distress and that even death would be a welcome release from the trials of life if he could be sung to his demise by the song of the nightingale. As the last notes of the nightingale's beautiful song die out, the speaker returns to his normal consciousness and wonders if all that he imagined was just a dream:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:--Do I wake or sleep?
Throughout the poem there is an opposition created between the realm of the nightingale and that of the speaker. The speaker is shown to live amid time and decay, whereas the nightingale lives in an eternal realm:
Thou was 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:
Lastly, however, the speaker is forced to concede that there is no way to escape his "sole self" and, as the music of the nightingale fades away, he is left bereft in his realm of decay and disintegration, resigned to his existence in his world:
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 famed to do, deceiving elf.
Thus the poem in a sense uses the nightingale as a symbol of art's ability to transcend life and approach or even touch the eternal. The nightingale is shown to dwell in this heavenly, celestial realm, and the speaker, through his dream-like state, is able to enter and comprehend this albeit briefly, before, after his rapture, he is rudely brought back down to earth.