What is the theme of the poem "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats?

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One could argue that the main theme of "Ode to a Nightingale " is the way in which the joys of nature and the exercise of the imagination can only ever offer a partial glimpse of eternity. Both nature and the imagination find their concrete expression in the figure...

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One could argue that the main theme of "Ode to a Nightingale" is the way in which the joys of nature and the exercise of the imagination can only ever offer a partial glimpse of eternity. Both nature and the imagination find their concrete expression in the figure of the nightingale, a creature that lives in this world but whose gorgeous melody transcends this world to hint at something timeless and enduring.

In the nightingale, the speaker sees the chance of respite from the pain and the endless heart-wrenching realities of life. But as he ruefully reflects, such respite can only ever be temporary. No matter how many draughts of vintage he drinks or how often he listens to the golden tones of the nightingale, he will at some point always find himself deposited back in the world of the here and now, the world of pain and suffering.

To his great sorrow, the speaker realizes that the only way he can possibly escape this vale of tears once and for all is through "easeful Death". The song of the nightingale may be beautiful, and it may provide a tantalizing glimpse of eternity, but it is still very much of this world, just like the speaker himself. That being so, there is a limit as to what the little bird can bring to the forlorn speaker as he decides how best to face up to the inevitability of his own death.

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There are several themes running through "Ode to a Nightingale," but one is a longing to escape from the trials of life.

Indeed, the speaker (who, based on life experiences, could be Keats speaking as himself) begins the first line with this sentiment: "My heart aches." As he moves into the second stanza, he longs for wine to dull his senses and his sense of sadness. With his "purple-stained mouth" he wishes to "fade away" into the dim forest.

In the third stanza, the speaker notes some of the difficulties that surround him. People are tired and sick, and they sit around listening to each others' complaints. Youth fades into old age and then into death. And in between, there is much sorrow and despair.

The speaker reflects on the idea of death:

I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
In some ways, dying seems much easier than living for the speaker. He presents the concept in fairly Romantic ideals, a way to cease all his pain. He feels his own mortality in comparison to the bird he watches, whose song has been heard for many generations and perhaps even by Ruth in Biblical times.
The speaker ends with a question: "Do I wake or sleep?" which can be a literal interpretation to this dream-like state he professes to exist in while he contemplates these heavy ideas. It could also symbolize a consideration of whether he should live or die, much like Hamlet's question: "To be or not to be?"
Life seems filled with difficulty, and the speaker longs to rise above the pain and suffering somehow.
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The main theme of "Ode to a Nightingale" is negative capability and its power to aid the speaker in his transcendence of mortal pain and grief. 

Negative capability was a term coined by Keats himself. It refers to how a poet can disregard (or negate) how they think and feel, thus being able to write entirely from their subject's perspective. For instance, in "Ode to a Nightingale," the speaker goes along with the poem's titular bird as if he is the nightingale itself. The especially vivid and striking descriptions of the forest and night in stanzas four through six exemplify how the speaker is negating himself in favor of being one with the nightingale--stanza four even starts the speaker's journey as he exclaims, "Away! away! for I will fly to thee."

However, before the speaker takes us to his feathered subject, he speaks of how harsh this world is. He proclaims that he wishes he could get drunk to forget his ills and then "with thee [the nightingale] fade away." In stanza three he goes into further detail about how awful human existence and mortal pain are:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Yet, while the speaker is looking at the world through the Nightingale's eyes, he is content with the dark forest and sweet smells of flowers and foliage. He is able to forget mortal pain because nightingales do not know the pain of humankind. The nightingale "wast not born for death," and therefore it must not suffer through heartache, disease, and aging as humans do. The speaker feels so free of grief and detached from reality that, when the bird flays away and its song fades, the speaker must ask himself:

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

Envisioning himself as a bird that was incapable of sorrow negated the speaker's personal anguish to the point where he was not sure weather his respite from agony was actually real or just a dream.

Thus, there are several themes within this poem, but escape from reality (and the associated pain of life) through the power of one's imagination is most definitely the most predominant theme.

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