“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
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...
(The entire section is 1,611 words.)