How does Keats' Ode to a Nightingale follow the pastoral tradition? 

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durbanville eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ode To A Nightingale by John Keats is inspired by his surroundings. He is the narrator and yearns to have the same freedom as the nightingale which unwittingly contributes to his melancholy. He wishes for an appreciation for nature without the commensurate complications which plague him and which create inconsistencies. The nightingale draws attention to his problems rather than making it easier for him to forget. Whilst his "heart aches," the nightingale is "too happy in thine happiness." This confirms the pastoral tradition of this poem. 

Pastoral poetry combines, paradoxically, all the elements of an uncomplicated lifestyle such as that within a rustic setting with the elegance and sophistication of contemporary life. Such is Keats's problem. Ironically, he wishes for some wine, "a draught of vintage," to help him cope so that he can, in fact, lose himself. He wants to "leave the world unseen" and simply "fade away into the forest." However, enjoying the best of both worlds does, by definition, insist on compromise and acceptance and, in this poem, Keats explores this contradiction. He speaks of "The weariness the fever and the fret" and muses how much easier it would be not to have experienced "What thou among the leaves hast never known." 

Creating images from an idealized setting against a backdrop of real life is a hallmark of pastoral poetry. There is always a contrast between reality and imagination. For Keats, what may be enduring qualities soon turn to evidence of aging and "sorrow," so that "leaden-eyed despairs," remove the illusion. Earthly beauty is fleeting and cannot be enjoyed for long; it cannot maintain "Its lustrous eyes...Beyond tomorrow."  

In keeping with the pastoral tradition, the desire to escape the trappings of urban life and to accept the romanticized version which the nightingale alludes to, creates a yearning which sets the mood and atmosphere, contributing to the theme of mortality and immortality. Through Keats' words, visual images are generated in the minds' eye and ensure that the reader can appreciate the conflict which he must resolve. Poetry, as an escape, at least extends the fantasy.

Momentarily, at least, Keats begins to lose himself in the nightingale's world and begins to relax in the setting of the "embalmed darkness," to the point of almost accepting death as a means to end his pain, except then the bird would remain but he would not be able to enjoy its presence, having "ears in vain." He snaps himself out of his reverie only to remain "forlorn," questioning his existence; the nightingale flying away to the "Next valley-glades," confirming his inability to escape his reality. Pastoral poetry elevates the imagined perfection and compares it to the harsh reality and a good example is how the nightingale is everything pure about nature, idealistic and free from corrupt influences. 

Pastoral poetry establishes connections and Keats ensures that he identifies the bird, specifically a nightingale which ensures that the reader connects with nature and shares in the imperfect world he inhabits whilst being able to escape to the idealized world of the nightingale. Therefore, although a real nightingale is the main focus at the beginning, it becomes a symbol for Keats by the end, representing the consistency which is lacking in his own life and confirming the pastoral ideal when real life fails. 

Read the study guide:
Ode to a Nightingale

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