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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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Critical Evaluation

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John Keats, a widely admired poet of the English romantic period, composed his “Ode to a Nightingale” in eight stanzas (sections), each containing ten lines of rhymed iambic pentameter, with the exception of the eighth line of each stanza, which is short. Also, Keats invented his own rhyme scheme for the ode.

“Ode to a Nightingale” has become, along with Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820), one of the most famous poems in the English language. Readers are moved by his word-pictures, his evocation of the senses, and his subtle use of poetic language.

Notably, “Ode to a Nightingale” was composed in a single morning. Two facets of the poem are its original stanza form, masterfully adapted by Keats from earlier models, and its focus on a central symbol, the nightingale, whose interpretation remains elusive and thus poetically interesting. Whether the bird symbolizes the ideal type of music, art, or nature, the poet still suggests both its appeal to humanity and its contrast with human reality, a contrast between a cold immortality and the fading away that is human mortality.

The ode’s ambiguous language creates room for scholarly debate and explication. Debated by many critics is the difficult line “Already with thee!” in stanza four, which in one interpretation signals that the poet has entered a trance. However, this slippery language also contributes to the poem’s universal appeal, as readers have discovered many ideas and rich emotional power in its lines and images. The ode’s movement from sleep or trance through dream to final awakening gives it a dramatic quality, indicated also by the internal discussion between the poet’s thoughts and the nightingale’s song, a discussion mediated by imagination, called fancy in line 73.

“Ode to a Nightingale” continues Keats’s concerns and themes from his earlier poetry. It embodies his own perspective on the obsession of other Romantic poets with subjectivity and the nature of self-consciousness, and on the mind’s independence from ordinary (often painful) reality through the power of imagination. How far Keats recommends a rejection of the escape offered by wine, by “easeful Death,” by art, or by imaginative identification with wild nature, has been debated by critics.

Keats’s use of the word “forlorn” in stanza eight and the phrase “deceiving elf” to describe the bird suggests his changed view of the bird, a change inspired by poetic meditation. “The fancy cannot cheat so well/ As she is famed to do” claims imagination (fancy) as a creator of illusion. A comparison of the beauty of art or of nature with painful human life makes that life less endurable; thus, in stanza eight, the poet withdraws from his reflection on the nightingale, suggesting loss. If one follows such an interpretation, then “Ode to a Nightingale” shows Keats moving beyond the enthusiastic celebration of imagination’s power and value that is found in other Romantic poets.

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