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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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Trace the evolution of thought in "Ode to a Nightingale".

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In "Ode to a Nightingale," John Keats' thoughts evolve from a personal sense of pain and longing for escape to a broader reflection on human suffering and mortality. Initially numbed by sorrow, Keats envies the nightingale's seeming immortality and its detachment from human grief. He wishes to transcend his worldly concerns through the intoxication of wine or the lofty realms of poetry, imagining a union with the bird in the beauty of nature. This desire shifts towards a poignant awareness of life's transience and his own mortality, culminating in a contemplative return to reality, questioning the nature of his visionary experience with the nightingale.

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The first thought in Keats' melancholy "Ode to a Nightingale" is "drowsy numbness" that pains the speaker's senses. Keats is assumed to be speaking for himself in this Ode. He is so metaphorically painfully numbed that he feels he is metaphorically sinking to the Greek mythological river of Hades that gives forgetfulness, the River Lethe. He tells us that his pain is not caused by envy of "thy happy lot" but rather in "being too happy in thine happiness," which refers to the Nightingale. In other words, too happy to feel the happiness exuding from the "light-winged Dryad of the trees," of course the object of the Ode, the Nightingale, whom Keats equates with an immortal deity of the woods, a Dryad.

The second stanza, has Keats crying out for a "full beaker" of wine cooled in the earth and tasting of flowers and plants, of dance, laughter and of song from the southern regions of France ("Flora..., Dance, Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth"). This is an allusion to revelries in worship of the Classical Greek and Roman god Bacchus (aka Dionysus). He then equates the wine as full of the Mount Helicon Hippocrene bubbling spring waters sacred to the Muses and the source of poetic inspiration. His desire is to drink the Hippocrene brew of inspiration in order to metaphorically leave the world's thoughts and fly with the Nightingale to the rich interior of the forest.

He desires this to be able to forget what the immortal deity of the Nightingale has never known: fever, fret, groans, palsy shakes, sad grey [sic] hairs, paling youth that is deadly thin, death. He says that in this life, to think is to be filled with the sorrows and despairs, of beauty and love that both end too quickly, "tomorrow." In the next stanza, Keats decides to brave it and fly on the wings of Poesy (poetry), without the aid of Bacchus's rites and the Muse's Hippocrene waters, as the companion of the Nightingale even though he won't be able to think aright nor perceive what the Nightingale perceives.

Next Keats reveals that many a night while listening to the deity Nightingale, he woos Death that he might die with the song of the Nightingale in the air. Keats then plays on the conceit of the immortality of the deity Nightingale, "not born for death," immortal from countless ages that even gave glimpses of "faery lands forlorn." And the word "forlorn" brings the poet's thoughts from soaring with the Nightingale back to his own body that he has revealed is pain wracked. Keats ends with the description of "fancy" (inspired imagination) as a "deceiving elf" and, as the Nightingale's "anthem fades," he is left to wonder if his excursion with the immortal Nightingale was vision or dream...while awake or asleep.

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Trace the evolution of thought in John Keats' poem "Ode to Nightingale."

With regard to John Keats' poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," and the author's evolution of thought, he begins the poem by stating that he feels as if he is under the influence of a drug: hemlock or an opiate that has served to make him drowsy. In this state, he speaks to the beauty of the nightingale's song.

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees, 
In some melodious plot 
Of beechen green and shadows numberless, 
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

In stanza two, Keats wishes for a brew of nature:

O, for a draught of vintage!...
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, 
And purple-stained mouth; 
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, 
And with thee fade away into the forest dim...

...may refer to a pure and wonderful wine that would allow Keats to leave his world behind to join the nightingale, wherever she is.

In the next stanza, the focus of Keats' words turns to the life of humans: the world of sickness, groans and pain. (This would have been a personal response to Keats' own terminal illness, tuberculosis.)

The weariness, the fever, and the fret 
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan...
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies...

The next stanza returns Keats' attention to the bird: he will not join it through liquor, but through poesy (poetry) where they can approach the skies, illuminated by the moon and stars.

In the following stanza, Keats cannot see, but he sense the products of nature that surround him, praising nature:

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild...
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; 
And mid-May's eldest child, 
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine...

Stanza seven speaks to the immortal nature of the bird, that has been heard for countless generations, heard by emperors, as well as Ruth, the Biblical character who found herself also alone, as Keats feels at that moment.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard 
In ancient days by emperor and clown: 
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, 
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The last stanza brings Keats back to the reality of his situation:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell 
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!...
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades... 
and now 'tis buried deep 
In the next valley-glades...

And as Keats leaves the world of the nightingale, he is saddened to come back to his existence of illness and approaching death, he asks:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? 
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

The evolution of Keats' thoughts:

  • the poem begins with the dream-like quality Keats experiences perceiving the nightingale.
  • Keats wishes to join the bird somehow, while leaving the trials of his own world behind.
  • Keats' thoughts turn to death and illness.
  • His attention shifts again, as Keats decides to use poetry to capture the essence of the bird and join her.
  • Then Keats praises nature, even that which he cannot see.
  • He notes that the nightingale has been around throughout time.
  • Finally, Keats knows he must leave the world of the bird, and return to his own place, and so he says his farewells to the bird who has brought him such joy and diversion.

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