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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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The Poem

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“Ode to a Nightingale” is a poem in eight numbered stanzas; as the title suggests, it takes the form of a direct address to a nightingale. The speaker, evidently the poet John Keats himself, hears a nightingale singing. This beautiful but melancholy sound, which has inspired legends since the time of ancient Greece, fills him with complex and conflicting emotions. It makes him happy because he can empathize with the bird’s zest for living and procreating at the height of the spring season; at the same time, it makes him sad because he is alone and has been preoccupied with morbid thoughts.

In stanza 2, Keats wishes he had a whole “beaker full” of wine so that he could get intoxicated and lose consciousness. He describes the red wine in loving detail, then goes on to specify the mortal woes from which he would like to escape—primarily those associated with old age, sickness, and death. “Where youth grows pale and spectre-thin and dies” refers to his brother Tom, who had recently died of tuberculosis, the disease which was to claim Keats’s own life in less than three years.

Since Keats has no wine, in stanza 4 he decides to escape by creating poetry. He makes his poem engrossing by seeming to take the reader along with him in the process of creating it. He will become a wild bird in his imagination and share in the nightingale’s view of the world. This notion represents the essence of the Romantic spirit: the attempt to achieve what is known to be impossible.

Nightingales are rather small, retiring birds that live in forests, thickets, and hedgerows. Consequently, in stanza 5 Keats imagines the nightingale’s world as being dark and mysterious but at that time of year full of the scents of blossoming plants. This is the high point of the poem, but he is unable to sustain his illusion. Thoughts of death intrude. In stanza 6, he confesses sometimes to “have been half in love with easeful Death.” He feels comforted by his experience of sharing in the nightingale’s immortal consciousness, however; he realizes that life goes on, and his own death is a small matter in the overall scheme of things. The idea of death even seems “rich.” In line 1 of the seventh stanza, Keats addresses the nightingale as “immortal Bird” and traces the nightingale’s song through historical and magical settings.

Then his near-religious experience comes to an end. He is inexorably drawn back into the world of reality, with all its mortal concerns. The bird’s plaintive song fades into the distance, and the poet is left wondering about the validity and nature of his experience.

Forms and Devices

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This entire poem is based on a single poetic conceit that is so matter-of-factly taken for granted that it is easy to overlook: The poem tacitly assumes that the bird to whom Keats is addressing his ode is immortal—that in fact only one nightingale exists and has ever existed. It looks exactly the same and sounds exactly the same as birds of that species have looked and sounded for countless centuries. Furthermore, the nightingale is immortal because it has no conception of death. Only human beings suffer from the fear of death and the feeling of futility with which death taints all human endeavor. Finally, the bird can be considered immortal because of the familiar Greek legend that the nightingale is the metamorphized soul of the ravished princess Philomela.

The bird that Keats hears singing can be only a few years old at most, yet the subtle assumption of its immortality is perfectly natural because the nightingale looks the same and sounds the same as its ancestors, which were heard “in ancient days by emperor and clown” and even further back by Ruth, whose story is told in the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Keats was an ardent admirer of William Shakespeare, and the naturalness of the poetic conceit in “Ode to a Nightingale” shows that Keats appreciated and understood the essence of Shakespeare’s greatness, which lay in his use of simple, natural imagery—rather than imagery employed by some of his better-educated contemporaries that was pretentious, bookish, and artificial.

Keats’s outstanding poetic gift was his ability to evoke vivid images in the mind of his reader. “Ode to a Nightingale” is full of such vivid images, the most famous of which is his “magic casements, opening on the foam/ Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” Because of the spell that Keats has created up to this point, the sensitive reader is given a glimpse of those bright, blue, foam-crested seas through those magic casements—but only a glimpse of that magical world is ever allowed to any mortal, and then both Keats and his reader must return to reality, with its troubles, fears, and disappointments.

Another example of Keats’s inspired imagery is contained in the lines, “The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,/ The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.” With one stroke, Keats creates a large half-open flower glowing with soft interior lighting like a comfortable pub where the flies like to gather with their elbows on the tables to sip wine and talk about whatever flies might talk about on long summer eves.

Other striking images in “Ode to a Nightingale” are the beaker “full of the warm South” that has “beaded bubbles winking at the brim,” the syncopated effect of “fast fading violets covered up in leaves,” and poor Ruth standing in tears in a land so alien and unsympathetic that even the very grain in the fields looks strange and unappetizing.

Keats soon discovered that his forte lay in his vivid visual imagination, and his greatest poems are so crowded with visual imagery that they seem like beautiful murals.

Ode to a Nightingale

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One of Keats’s six great odes, this poem is a lyric meditation narrated by a poet who is tempted to forsake the real world of human suffering for the ideal world of art. As he listens to a bird’s song, the speaker becomes more and more enraptured by it, and increasingly disgruntled with the mortal world of pain and death.

The poet begins by describing his current listless mental state, contrasting it with the beautiful and carefree song of the nightingale. He wishes for freedom from earthly cares and longs for the fairyland of art, represented in the poem by the nightingale. Life on earth is too full of sorrow, despair, and disappointment, and the only escape from it is through poetry.

Death, says the poet, has long been a temptation for him, and the bird’s song temporarily strengthens his death wish. He admits that the quiet of the grave seems preferable to life on earth. But just as he is about to abandon himself to the nightingale’s song, the poet realizes that in death he would be unable to hear the bird’s song.

The ode’s concern with death is often attributed to the death of Keats’s brother in 1818, but the poem, like so many of this great Romantic poet’s works, is really an affirmation of human life. The poem was written in 1819, a year that witnessed the composition of some of Keats’s greatest poems (among them five more odes and “THE EVE OF ST. AGNES”). He died less than two years later at the age of 25.


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Barnard, John, ed. John Keats: The Complete Poems. 3d ed. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. This comprehensive collection of Keats’s poetry includes an excellent short commentary to “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. A superb critical biography of Keats, despite its age. Bate is accurate with biographical details, subtle in his analyses of Keats’s psychology and how it influenced his poetry, and always reliable when discussing the style and themes of the poems.

Christensen, Allan C. The Challenge of Keats: Bicentenary Essays, 1795-1995. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Contributors to this volume reexamine some of the criticisms and exaltations of Keats to find a new analysis of his achievements. Delivers an appraisal of the historical and cultural contexts of Keats’s work and a detailed discussion of the influences and relationships among Keats and other poets.

Cox, Jeffrey N., ed. Keats’s Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 2009. In addition to notes on “Ode to a Nightingale,” this edition of Keats’s poetry and letters contains critical essays on his work. A good place to start for students new to Keats.

Motion, Andrew. Keats. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. A biography that emphasizes Keats’s politics as well as his poetry and personality. Highlighting the “tough” side of Keats’s character, Motion clarifies the image of Keats as little more than a sickly dreamer.

O’Flinn, Paul. How to Study Romantic Poetry. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001. A useful study guide for introductory students that includes overviews and outlines for Keats as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake.

Wolfson, Susan J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Leading scholars discuss Keats’s work in several contexts, covering topics such as Keats’s life in London’s intellectual, aesthetic, and literary cultures, and the relationship of his poetry to the visual arts. A comprehensive collection from a respected and trusted source.

_______. John Keats. New York: Longman, 2007. Gives a sense of the poet’s thinking by interspersing poems, letters, and publications of reviews and contemporary works. The material is positioned alongside the author’s poems in order of composition or appearance in print. Helpful in making clear his poetic style.

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