person with eyes closed, dreaming, while a nightingale sings a song

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats
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Trace the evolution of thought in John Keats' poem "Ode to Nightingale."

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With regard to John Keats' poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," and the author's evolution of thought, he begins the poem by stating that he feels as if he is under the influence of a drug: hemlock or an opiate that has served to make him drowsy. In this state, he speaks to the beauty of the nightingale's song.

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, 
In some melodious plot 
Of beechen green and shadows numberless, 
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

In stanza two, Keats wishes for a brew of nature:

O, for a draught of vintage!...
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
And purple-stained mouth; 
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
And with thee fade away into the forest dim...

...may refer to a pure and wonderful wine that would allow Keats to leave his world behind to join the nightingale, wherever she is.

In the next stanza, the focus of Keats' words turns to the life of humans: the world of sickness, groans and pain. (This would have been a personal response to Keats' own terminal illness, tuberculosis.)

The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan...
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies...

The next stanza returns Keats' attention to the bird: he will not join it through liquor, but through poesy (poetry) where they can approach the skies, illuminated by the moon and stars.

In the following stanza, Keats cannot see, but he sense the products of nature that surround him, praising nature:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild...
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; 
And mid-May's eldest child, 
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine...

Stanza seven speaks to the immortal nature of the bird, that has been heard for countless generations, heard by emperors, as well as Ruth, the Biblical character who found herself also alone, as Keats feels at that moment.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The last stanza brings Keats back to the reality of his situation:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell 
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!...
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades... 
and now 'tis buried deep 
In the next valley-glades...

And as Keats leaves the world of the nightingale, he is saddened to come back to his existence of illness and approaching death, he asks:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? 
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

The evolution of Keats' thoughts:

  • the poem begins with the dream-like quality Keats experiences perceiving the nightingale.
  • Keats wishes to join the bird somehow, while leaving the trials of his own world behind.
  • Keats' thoughts turn to death and illness.
  • His attention shifts again, as Keats decides to use poetry to capture the essence of the bird and join her.
  • Then Keats praises nature, even that which he cannot see.
  • He notes that the nightingale has been around throughout time.
  • Finally, Keats knows he must leave the world of the bird, and return to his own place, and so he says his farewells to the bird who has brought him such joy and diversion.
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