This ode by John Keats is based upon the single conceit that the little nightingale that the poet addresses is immortal:
- It assumes that the bird is the only one that has ever existed because it looks and acts the same as birds of this species have for centuries.
- It assumes that the nightingale is immortal since, unlike humans who fear death, it cannot conceive of death.
- It assumes that the bird is immortal because the nightingale stands for the ravished princess Philomela's metamorphized soul.
As a Romantic poet, Keats validated emotional expression as an aesthetic source of experience. In this stanza, then, he expresses his unhappiness, saying it is not envy of the bird's lighthearted song of "summer in full-throated ease."
In his melancholy, the poet wishes that he could drink "a beaker full from the fountain of the Muses on Mt. Helicon," where waters of inspiration flowed. With the nightingale, he could disappear into the forest away from his trials in life. Here, the poet revels in the idea of the glorified past, both classical and medieval.
In the continuation of his wish to "fade away," the poet wishes to leave the cares and anxieties of his life:
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
and leaden-eyed despairs
for the beauty and wonder to the next, where Beauty and new Love know nothing of this sorrow.
The poet tells the nightingale to fly away because he will come on the "wings of Poesy"; that is, with his imagination, the poet will connect both to this world and that of poetic fancy. In line 35, the poet is suddenly transported,
Already with thee! tender is the night....
But here there is no light
but the nightingale lives in darkness. Because the imagery here is connotative of night, the poet may be sleeping.
Hovering between the real world and the world of the spirit, the poet touches what he cannot see and describes all with colorful imagery:
Fast fading violets covered up in leaves:
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy white,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
In this stanza, Keats expresses his obsession with death and envisions his soul with that of the nightingale, but if he dies they will part.
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art ouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
The poet realizes that the nightingale is not meant for death; his voice is immortal as the voice of the bird has been the same for ages and is ubiquitous:
This voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown...
This musing of the poet is but transitory, and he must return to the real world,
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
While the little nightingale's song has elevated his spirit, the poet wonders if he is awake or dreaming,
...the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do....
The poet has had a transcendent experience, connecting with Nature in the creation of his art, but he is left disappointed as he feels a certain disillusionment in the limits of the imagination. "Ode to a Nightingale" is a beautifully personal lyric by the Romantic poet, John Keats, who loved the classical world, and all that is an expression of the aesthetic.