How is John Keats's poem "Ode to a Nightingale" similar but different from Emily Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light?"

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analiesev eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Between “There’s a certain Slant of light” and “Ode to a Nightingale” the similarity is mainly that both poets have used a thing from nature as the subject (Keats’s nightingale and Dickinson’s light) and juxtaposed their subjects against the human condition. The speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale” is in awe of the nightingale because of its happiness, its song, and its freedom from suffering “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” (23) that people must experience. The speaker feels that the nightingale’s song is so beautiful that it almost makes him want to die. For this speaker the chance to fly away to join the nightingale would help him escape from earthly woes. In “There’s a certain Slant of light” the speaker talks about a light that comes in the wintertime and fills people with “Heavenly Hurt” (5) and despair. The speaker refers to this hurt as an “imperial affliction / Sent us of the air” (11-12). When it is present, the light keeps the shadows at bay, but when it leaves, everything is as gloomy and cold as death. In both poems there is acknowledgment that nature is not obligated to obey the laws of human existence; the nightingale is not part of our suffering society, and the light oppresses us rather than being controlled by us.

There are also significant differences between the poems. The tone of “Ode to a Nightingale” is a combination of being worried and praising; the speaker compliments the bird’s enchanting song but admits that he has thought of death and of the perils that people suffer. He wants to transcend them and escape with the bird. But in “There is a certain Slant of light” the speaker does not seem to mention any hope for such an escape. This gives it a somewhat more depressing tone. The speaker is oppressed by this light and does not seem to see it as potentially bringing salvation like Keats’s speaker hopes about the nightingale.

Structurally the poems are rather different as well. “Ode to a Nightingale” consists of eight stanzas with ten lines in each stanza. Its rhyme scheme is ABABCDECDE in the first stanza, and the same pattern is followed in the rest of the stanzas, although with different rhyming sounds than the initial A, B, C, D, and E that are used in the first stanza. “There is a certain Slant of light” consists of four stanzas with only four lines in each stanza. In these stanzas only the second and fourth lines rhyme with one another (line 2 with 4, line 6 with 8, line 10 with 12, and line 14 with 16). While neither poem has a fixed number of metric feet per line, and the types of feet in both poems vary between iambic, dactylic, and anapestic, the frequency and order in which the types of feet are used are different in each poem.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," the speaker finds solace in nature, while in Emily Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light," the speaker finds light in the natural world oppressive. While both poems deal with natural phenomena and their ability to inspire thought, the speaker in Keats's poem finds delight in nature, while Dickinson's speaker writes only of the despair that the natural world provokes in her.

In Keats's poem, the speaker yearns for the blissful ignorance of the nightingale, and he envies "What thou among the leaves hast never known." The bird has never known the worry and weariness of being human, and the poet yearns for the immortality of the nightingale, who was also heard "in ancient days." 

Unlike the speaker in Keats's poem, the speaker in Dickinson's poem finds the natural world, including the slant of light on winter afternoons, depressing. Rather than providing release, this sight only produces "Heavenly Hurt." While the light leaves no visible damage, it results in "internal difference," or confusion about the outside world.

Like Dickinson's narrator, the narrator of Keats's poem also finds introspection depressing. He says, "to think is to be full of sorrow." Both poems express a despondency and sense of despair, but only Keats's poem describes a momentary escape from depression and despondency through an escape to nature. 

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Ode to a Nightingale

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