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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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What is the importance of the dream-state in "Ode to a Nightingale"?

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The dream-like state into which the speaker enters is very important because it allows him to meditate over the significance of the nightingale's song to him and what it means. The speaker becomes intoxicated with the song of the nightingale and the many different images that it provokes in his mind. This causes him to wish for poetic inspiration that he might fly away from the suffering and transformations that time inflicts on people:

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies...

The poet imagines that practising his art would be able to free him from his torment and that even death would be a release that would be desired if the bird could sing to him as he dies. As the nightingale's song dies down, the speaker returns to consciousness, and contemplates whether his visions were just a dream or reality.

In all of this it is important to realise how the nightingale, through many different historical periods, transcends time and place and symbolises eternity. Therefore, symbolically we can say that the nightingale dwells in some sort of eternal realm, whereas the speaker lives in a world where decay and time hold dominion. It is only by leaving that realm, however temporarily, that the speaker is thus able to comment critically upon it.

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