Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 801
“Ode to a Nightingale,” along with “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn,” all of which were written between March and September of 1819, document Keats’s ongoing struggle to reconcile himself to his own mortality. The deaths of his father (1804) and mother...
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“Ode to a Nightingale,” along with “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn,” all of which were written between March and September of 1819, document Keats’s ongoing struggle to reconcile himself to his own mortality. The deaths of his father (1804) and mother (1810), combined with the imminent death of his brother, Tom, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis, as well as the recent diagnosis of his own contraction of tuberculosis, brought the poet to consider the transient nature of human existence and to search for some form of permanence in nature or in art. The song of the nightingale, which is seen as a kind of natural poet, offers Keats such a symbol of permanence. The poem records Keats’s struggle to merge his life with the immortal song of that bird and thereby escape, at least temporarily, his own mortality.
The poem can be divided into three movements or parts. The first part, stanzas 1 to 3, describes the narrator’s anguish upon hearing the immortal song of the bird in the distance. The “full-throated ease” with which it sings completely captures the poet’s attention, causing him to forget, temporarily, his own mortality. That happiness, however, is short lived, for it quickly becomes the occasion for the poet to remember his own temporary existence.
The pain of that recognition is what generates the desire for escape through wine in the second stanza. Through wine, the poet may find some release from the pain invoked by the bird’s song. Clearly, the poet sees the wine as an agent of nature, which further suggests that he sees nature as a source of escape from his own mortality, a common notion among many Romantic poets. The poet reasons that if he can forget his impending death, he will be able to join the bird and subsequently escape what the bird has never known: “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/ Here, where men sit and hear each other groan.”
In stanza 4, which begins the second movement, the poet rejects wine and turns instead to “the viewless wings of Poesy.” Wine enables him to forget, but it dulls the senses and obstructs vision. Poetry, on the other hand, engages the imagination, enlivens the senses, and empowers the poet to transcend himself and become one with the bird. “Already with thee!” the poet announces his imaginative oneness with the bird.
Stanzas 5, 6, and 7 describe the poet’s close union with the bird. The poet “cannot see” what flowers are at his feet, but his imagination can create the scene unavailable to his eyes, including such minute and hidden details as the “Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves.” As his imagination works to re-create the bird’s world, the poet’s attention is temporarily diverted from “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human existence.
Vision gives way to sound in stanza 6, where the poet reveals that he has long been “half in love with easeful Death.” The transcendental experience of the previous stanza leads him to recall past times when he had wanted to escape his mortal condition. “To cease upon the midnight with no pain” now seems particularly inviting. Yet, as the poet notes at the end of stanza 6, were he to die, he would be surrendering to the very thing that he hopes to escape—mortality. Moreover, to die is to become deaf to the song of the bird, “To thy high requiem become a sod.” There the poet discovers the painful paradox of human existence: Life is a source of great pain and anguish, and yet, oddly enough, to escape the pain and anguish through death is to lose the very thing that makes death desirable. To die is to forfeit all access to beauty and joy.
The final turn comes in the last stanza where the spell is broken, the poet is imaginatively disengaged from the bird, and he returns to the mortal world “Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,/ Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” The poet concedes that “the fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is fam’d to do” and is left to wonder if what he has experienced was in fact a visionary moment of transcendence or only a “waking dream.” In either case, the poem ends on the ironic note that, although the poet believes that he is trapped within the mortal world of death and change, in fact, like the nightingale whose immortal song is heard by succeeding generations, the poet, through his poetry, has achieved a kind of immortality after all. The poem, like the bird’s song, will be heard by future generations, and with each hearing or reading, the spirit of John Keats will live again.