Ode to a Nightingale Questions and Answers
by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale book cover
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Please explain the following stanza from "Ode to a Nightingale" by Keats. 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, 5 But being too happy in thine happiness, That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The first stanza represents the speaker's fraught emotional state. The sweet song of the nightingale induces a sense of longing, making the speaker feel numb as if he'd only recently taken hemlock, a deadly poison that causes numbness in the limbs before it kills you. He also feels like he's taken opium, a drug that has the effect of inducing drowsiness. Yet the speaker is neither poisoned nor drunk; he's simply enraptured by the gorgeous melody of the nightingale as it twitters away happily in the distance, somewhere among the shadows of the trees.

The speaker makes it clear that he feels such drowsy numbness, not because he is envious of the bird's evident happiness, but because he shares in that happiness too completely. He identifies with the nightingale to such an extent that its happiness is his happiness too. Yet this strong identification also creates a problem in that the nightingale's song is immortal, whereas the speaker is all too aware of his own mortality.

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accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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You have cited the first stanza of this remarkable poem. The stanza opens by describing the melancholy attitude of the speaker. We are not given a reason for his feelings, but perhaps he is heartbroken, as he describes "numbness" as something that characterises his condition. It is in this state, that the speaker hears the beautiful song of the nightingale. The quality of this song, as it is both exquisite and melancholy, seems to fit the mood of the speaker, as it captures the paradoxical response of both happiness and sadness. The speaker feels happy because of the way that the bird represents a lust for life as he sings in "full-throated ease," but at the same time it heightens his state of being alone and his melancholy thoughts. The first four lines are important because it helps explain the way that the speaker goes on to have a kind of out-of-body experience as the song of the nightingale enraptures him and moves him beyond himself.

 

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