Like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats is often identified as a romantic poet. One of the most distinctive aspects about romantic poetry is, of course, its treatment of nature. In the works of the romantic poets, nature is sanctuary, guide, truth, perfection, imagination, and more. However, Keats, who was a generation younger than the high romantics, has some very distinctive ways of using nature in his poems. I’d like to explore a few of these uniquely Keatsian methodologies as they play out in "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819), one of Keats’ three great romantic odes.
To begin with, Keats’s sensibility in “Ode to a Nightingale” is remarkably devoid of ego. The real experience of listening to a nightingale's song triggers in the poet a longing to dissolve into nature. This longing is not merely sensual, but goes much deeper: the poet wishes to merge his self with the larger consciousness of nature so he can experience everything. Unlike Wordsworth and Coleridge, he does not seek to learn from nature or ascribe a morality to it. For Keats, nature represents a state of freedom from the self:
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim (stanza 2)
One way in which Keats creates this sense of complete identification with nature is through the use of synesthesia—or metaphors and descriptions that simultaneously appeal to two or more senses. The synergistic exchanges between sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell produce an effect which is both hallucinatory and vivid. The use of synesthesia illustrates how through “fading” away in nature, the poet becomes more alive to nature’s infinite possibilities rather than sink into oblivion. Thus, through losing the self, the poetic consciousness gains a much wider perspective, as we can see in the following examples from the poem:
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 these lines from stanza 1, the “beechen green” sight of the trees is also a “melodious plot” of sound. In stanza 4, the world of nature into which the poet speeds along on the “wings of poesy” is thus described:
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
Here, the sense of sight (“light”) combines with the sense of touch felt as motion (“breezes blown”). The poet is describing the light let in through the gaps in moving leaves on a tree. Further, in stanza 6, “soft incense” from flowers and fruit “hangs upon the boughs.” Thus, the startling image of a scent (smell) weighing down (touch) the branches.
Finally, despite the longing for union with nature, the poet is surprisingly realistic about the limitations of human existence. Toward the end of the poem, he returns to his “sole self,” the singing nightingale having flown to the next glade. From the symbol of immortality in the preceding stanzas, the “deceiving elf” (or nightingale) has returned to being the living bird. “Fancy” or imagination is relegated to the level of cheating. The bird, symbolizing fancy, cannot trick the poet into believing there is a way out of the life he lives.
The poet’s tone in the end is that of admission—he does not have any answers or lessons to offer from his intense encounter with the nightingale:
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
Though the poet’s final movement into realism may seem startling, the poem actually foreshadows it from the very beginning. In the opening lines to the ode, the nightingale’s song immerses the poet into a joy that is almost agonizing:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk
Such intensity of feeling cannot be sustained for a prolonged while. Thus, the only way for the poet to assume the vast consciousness of nature is through poetry and the act of writing itself.