Ode to a Nightingale Questions and Answers
by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale book cover
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Please explain these lines. O for a draught of vintage! that hath been     Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,   Tasting of Flora and the country-green,     Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!   O for a beaker full of the warm South!   15   Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,       With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,             And purple-stainèd mouth;     That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,       And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

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At the beginning of the poem Keats states that he feels that his heart aches and that he is experiencing a "drowsy numbness" as if he had drunk hemlock or an opiate such as laudanum but that he feels happy in sharing the nightingale's happiness which is expressed in its song. He imagines the bird singing safely concealed in its usual habitat among shadowy leaves and thick branches.

Keats was a young man, but he had already developed a fondness for alcohol. He wishes he had something to drink here and now, but since he doesn't have anything he decides to try using his imagination to get intoxicated and join the bird in his fantasies. He is looking for escape from the world. He is seriously concerned about his health, since he may have already been afflicted with the terminal tuberculosis that was to cause his death in Italy a few years later.

He wishes he had a big bottle of red wine that has been cooled and aged for years in a wine cellar. He can almost taste it. His lush descriptions are his outstanding poetic gift, and this famous ode is full of them. Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers, so the imaginary wine tastes of flowers. Hippocrene was a fountain on Mount Helicon in Greece which was sacred to the Muses (demi-goddesses who inspired creative persons of all types) and considered a source of poetic inspiration. So the imaginary wine tastes like water from that sacred fountain.

The best line of all, showing the vividness of Keats' imagination is:

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

Who has not noticed how the little bubbles that form at the top in a glass of wine all cluster together and are replaced by others as they continue to burst. This is true even if the wine is not champagne or some other sparkling variety. "Winking" is a great word! "Winking at the brim indicates that Keats is wishing he had a beaker full all the way to the top." Why not? Keats' fantasy wine is purple, a burgundy or claret perhaps, and it stains the tongue and inner lips purple. It is French wine, of course. "Provencal" means it comes from the south of France, where there is plenty of good wine and the weather is usually warm. A "beaker" would fill up many wine glasses.

Really, all Keats is saying is that he feels a craving for alcohol and would like to get drunk and forget about his own worries and fears as well as those of everybody else in the entire world. He succeeds in doing this very briefly in his imagination. He joins the nightingale in its hideaway and imagines the world from the bird's point of view. F. Scott Fitzgerald borrowed the title of his best novel from Keats' first lines describing his arrival in the nightingale's secret thicket:

Already with thee! tender is the night.

The world might have been deprived of one of the greatest poems ever written if Keats had been able to get hold of a real bottle of wine on that occasion, because drinking and creative writing do not go well together, although many aspiring writers may believe otherwise.

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