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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats
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What are the romantic characteristics in his poem "Ode to a Nightingale?"  

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The characteristics most often associated with the Romantic movement are a focus on intense emotion, the experience of the individual, and a glorification of nature. As soon as the poem begins, the speaker mentions that his "heart aches" and he wishes to feel somewhat numb; however, he spots a nightingale,...

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The characteristics most often associated with the Romantic movement are a focus on intense emotion, the experience of the individual, and a glorification of nature. As soon as the poem begins, the speaker mentions that his "heart aches" and he wishes to feel somewhat numb; however, he spots a nightingale, a "light-winged Dryad of the trees." He wishes that he could drink the same nectar the nightingale drinks and, with it, "fade away into the forest dim." The speaker certainly glorifies the nightingale as well as the night in general, referring to the "Queen-Moon" and "her starry Fays." He praises the nightingale, suggesting that its song is immortal and has been heard by both the high and the low.

In the end, the speaker considers "lands forlorn" that may have been sweetened by the nightingale's song, and this word, forlorn, calls him back to himself and his own pain. He laments that imagination, or "fancy," cannot distract him for longer. The nightingale's song is gone now, and he cannot figure out if it was a dream or reality.

Here, then, we see an intensity of emotion when the narrator speaks of his overwhelming sadness. But this sadness is tempered by his imagination, which gives him some respite for a while as he contemplates the nightingale—a respite which is precisely what he'd hoped for early on in the poem. In his imagination, he conceives of the bird as a mystical nature spirit, glorifying nature in its entirety in the process.

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One of the characteristics of Romanticism is a focus on the importance of nature. We certainly find this in "Ode to a Nightingale," as is seen in these lines:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

The narrator's senses are fully engaged with nature, and he longs to know it more intimately. The descriptors convey a sense of peace and longing for the various forms nature takes as it envelops him.

Romantic literature also conveys an importance of one's imagination, and the narrator also displays this characteristic. He longs for a "draught of vintage" that might allow him to escape from reality and instead "leave the world unseen, / And...fade away into the forest dim." The speaker isn't focused on his reality but instead on what could be possible. He wishes to "fade...away" and "forget" the realities of life that lead to aging and illness and instead exist in a world where it is impossible to distinguish the waking world from the sleeping one.

The examination of emotions is also central to Romantic poetry. In this poem, the speaker gives voice to his inner fears. These same fears were central to Keats himself, who often spoke about his fear of dying young—which he unfortunately realized was his actual destiny. Keats longs to hold on to the beauties of youth in this poem. He doesn't want to succumb to "palsy" and "sorrow" which he sees in the faces of older men around him. Like the nightingale, he wants the song of his poetry to be heard for generations, transcending his own life. In a way, Keats longs for immortality through his emotional voice in this poem.

Although it was impossible for him to know these dreams would come to fruition, it is comforting to the reader to realize that Keats's dreams were realized and that it is therefore possible for people to have an impact that reaches beyond their physical time spent on Earth. That response hearkens to the roots of Romantic poetry, as well.

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One of the most prominent features in Romantic poetry is the use of the creative imagination. In the Romantic movement, there was a large emphasis on the individual and contemplation of nature. Keats began composing "Ode to a Nightingale" in the spring of 1819, sitting under a plum tree while listening to a nightingale. The Romantic motif expressed in this poem is the self/individual seeking a connection to nature through imaginings, dreams, and visions. 

In the first two stanzas, the speaker imagines and wishes for a drug or alcohol. He wants to be released from the burden of human worries, to forget them ("Lethe - wards") so that he might be as free as the nigtingale: able to "Singest of summer in full-throated ease." To the speaker, the nightingale is literally and figuratively "in tune" with nature, seemingly without a care in the world. 

Meanwhile, the speaker is consumed with care. In the third stanza, Keats makes a reference to his brother, Tom, who died the previous year. 

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

The speaker switches from a desire to be drunk on forgetfulness to being inspired by the poetic ("Poesy") imagination. Here is the connection between poetic imagination in connection with nature, a common Romantic motif. In the last two stanzas, the speaker notes that the nightingale "was not born for death." He comes out of his poetic/imaginative revery, its spell ("fancy") is broken at the end of the poem. The speaker conflates (combines) this idea of the seemingly immortal nightingale ("not born for death") with the power of his poetic imagination, poetry itself. This is if to say that imagination, or creation in all its senses, has the potential to be like the immortal song of the nightingale. The song itself, like a poem, stands outside of time, as if the singer/speaker has no concern for mortality and therefore is in tune with nature singing with complete ease. This has been the speaker's goal in the poem. 

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