What is a stanza-by-stanza explanation of "Ode to a Nightingale"?

In "Ode to a Nightingale," the speaker is captivated by the song of a nightingale. He longs to be part of the nightingale's magical world and to escape from the worries of human existence. The nightingale's song has been heard for centuries, and the speaker reflects on this timelessness as he considers his own death.

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Stanza 1: The speaker opens by establishing his own mood. He feels that an "opiate" has dulled his senses, and he is left feeling numb and drowsy. The speaker addresses the nightingale of the title, telling it that he isn't envious of its joy but instead shares those sentiments for...

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Stanza 1: The speaker opens by establishing his own mood. He feels that an "opiate" has dulled his senses, and he is left feeling numb and drowsy. The speaker addresses the nightingale of the title, telling it that he isn't envious of its joy but instead shares those sentiments for the bird. The "full-throated" song of the nightingale makes the world more beautiful because of its melodies.

Stanza 2: The speaker longs for a good "vintage," or wine, that has been cooled in the earth. He describes the way the bubbles of the wine "wink," or burst, at the brim of the glass and the way the wine stains his mouth purple. He longs to drink enough to "fade away" with the nightingale into the forest, leaving his own world behind.

Stanza 3: The speaker longs to forget those worldly concerns the nightingale has never been concerned with. His own world is full of weary people, sick people, and stressed people. People complain to each other endlessly about their troubles. The beauty of youth fades and dies, and human thoughts are "full of sorrow."

Stanza 4: Though he longs to "fly to" the nightingale, he doesn't really think wine will take him there. He begins to consider that poetry may be able to accomplish this feat. Suddenly, he is "already with" the bird, and the images of night are tender. The home of the nightingale is dark, and "there is no light" underneath the canopy of trees.

Stanza 5: The darkness surrounds the speaker so completely that he can't tell which flowers surround him. The smells of various flora compel him to appreciate this world: violets, hawthorn, eglantine.

Stanza 6: The speaker reflects that there have been times when death has seemed the easier option and that he has been "half in love" with the idea. He notes that it seems "rich to die" and that he would prefer to die at midnight "with no pain" and with the nightingale singing "in ecstasy" at that moment when he "ceases" to exist. He also realizes that just after the moment of his death, the bird would continue to sing.

Stanza 7: The nightingale is immortal because the song it sings has been sung in exactly the same tones since the "ancient days." Perhaps Ruth heard these same notes as she stood heartbroken "amid... alien corn" in the Old Testament.

Stanza 8: The use of the word "forlorn" causes the speaker to return to reality, no longer in the magical and imaginative world of the nightingale. He tells the bird goodbye as he listens to its song fade away over the meadows, stream, hills, and valleys. He is left confused, wondering which is the real world—the dream world of the nightingale or this world which appears to be reality. Which is the dream and which is reality? The speaker is no longer certain.

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This ode by John Keats is based upon the single conceit that the little nightingale that the poet addresses is immortal:

  1. 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.
  2. It assumes that the nightingale is immortal since, unlike humans who fear death, it cannot conceive of death.
  3. It assumes that the bird is immortal because the nightingale stands for the ravished princess Philomela's metamorphized soul.
  • Stanza I

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." 

  • Stanza II

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.

  • Stanza III

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.

  • Stanza IV

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.

  • Stanza V

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.

  • Stanza VI

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!

  • Stanza VII

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...

  • Stanza VIII

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.

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