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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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Can you interpret these lines from "Ode to a Nightingale"?

"Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy, / Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: / Already with thee! tender is the night, / And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, / Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays; / But here there is no light, / Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown / Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways."

Quick answer:

In these lines of "Ode to a Nightingale," the speaker is addressing the nightingale, a nocturnal bird that is well-known for its lovely song. The speaker compares his poetry to the bird’s song and the inspiration for creativity to flight. The speaker evokes the contrasts between night and day, and darkness and light. Through referring to the small amount of light from the moon and stars and the winding paths among woods, the speaker evokes the difficulties of creating poetry.

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In these lines, the speaker expresses his desire to join the nightingale and fly far away from the human world. To do this, he doesn't need to get a ride from Bacchus, the god of wine; he can fly on the wings of poetry instead, even if human consciousness might make him a tad confused and slow him down. In any case, the speaker is already with the nightingale in his imagination.

The speaker then goes on, in true Romantic fashion, to describe the beauties of nature surrounding him. "Tender is the night", that is to say, the night is gentle and still. In the sky sits the Queen of the Moon upon her throne, surrounded by her stars. They are her servants. But where the speaker's standing it's a different situation. Here, it's dark, with only a small shaft of light peeping through the lush, gloomy trees and the winding, mossy paths.

This particular extract highlights the speaker's uneasy existence caught between this world, the world of the here and now, and the world of the imagination. The speaker desperately wants to escape into the imagination for good. There, he hopes to join his creative muse, the nightingale. But he knows that he cannot and that at some point he will have to return to the ordinary, workaday world in which he, along with the rest of us, lives.

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In the lines quoted, as throughout the poem, the speaker is addressing the nightingale. This nocturnal bird is famed for the melodic quality of its song. The speaker establishes a set of associations between his own creative work, which is poetry, and that of the bird. Similarly, he identifies with the positive aspects of the nocturnal environment, finding similarities between the dim light that reaches through the gloomy, green woods and the difficulties that creative work poses.

In the first line, the speaker uses apostrophe, the literary device of direct address, in telling the bird to fly off and saying that the speaker will follow. His wings will be poetry, not wine—which could have been provided by the Greek god Bacchus. The speaker is complaining about how hard it is for his “dull brain” to think creatively. In previous lines, he had been depressed in thinking about illness, aging, and death. In these lines, he is finding that the “tender,” or young, night, which is the bird’s environment, is serving as inspiration.

Above him, the moon and stars—personified as a queen and “fays,” or fairies—shine, but that light is barely reaching the speaker’s spot on earth. He says that “no light” is reaching him, then quickly modifies this to say that no light is reaching him except for the amount that blows in from heaven. This can be taken to mean he is equating the bird with divine inspiration. The poet’s creative life is an arduous journey along winding paths through the gloomy woods.

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At the beginning of “Ode to a Nightingale” the speaker (undoubtedly Keats himself) is wishing that he had a bottle of wine because he would like to get drunk and escape from reality. The singing of the nightingale has triggered a combination of happy and morbid thoughts. He would be happy to escape the world in which people grow old and die.

Keats was afraid of death because he thought he was going to die of tuberculosis. (He died in Italy in 1821 at the age of only twenty-six.) He didn’t want to think about it. He was developing a fondness for liquor at a very early age. You will note several references to alcohol in the poem, as well as references to hemlock and something like laudanum, which is a combination of opium and alcohol. The most subtle allusion to alcohol is contained in the lines that come later in the poem:

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

He imagines a big open flower full of nectar which serves in this magical world as a sort of pub where the flies gather around to drink and converse in murmurs.

But since Keats has nothing intoxicating to drink, he decides to try to escape from reality through his imagination. Bacchus was the Greek god of grape-growing and of wine (depicted in Walt Disney's Fantasia in the section devoted to Beethoven's Sixth Symphony). Bacchus would be surrounded by his “pards,” or male and female companions, because he was a very convivial type of god. Keats will use poetry instead of wine, although his dull brain is a handicap without being stimulated by the alcohol his body keeps craving. But he manages to make it to the hiding place of the singing nightingale.

The phrase “Tender is the night” was used by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the title of his best novel. It helps to set the mood of a warm, peaceful night. The Queen Moon is simply the moon, and her starry Fays are the stars—but the poet can’t see them (in his imagination) because he is hidden in the shadows under the trees and bushes, and the only light is a dim glow which seems to be blown in with the breezes.

He has taken the reader with him into a world which is seldom seen, the world of the immortal nightingale. Keats uses his vivid imagination to depict that world. He continues to escape farther and farther from reality in imagination until he reaches two of the most beautiful lines in English literature. He says that the nightingale’s voice is "the same that ofttimes hath

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

But the word “forlorn” brings him back to reality, and his poem quickly ends.

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