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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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"She Stood In Tears Amid The Alien Corn"

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Context: Keats wrote this melancholy poem when his short life was nearing its end. Savoring the "pleasurable pain" of his bitter-sweet final days on earth, the poet is temporarily uplifted by the healthily happy song of the mysterious nightingale. Keats wants to join the bird and fly away from this real world, "Where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies." The song of the nightingale represents the world of unattainable beauty, health, and peace which all humans (especially poets) desire. Keats shuns wine, and vows to reach the nightingale by flying "on the viewless wings of Poesy." The bird's song suggests images of bright, healthy summer flowers. The dying poet admits that he has often "been half in love with easeful Death." Since he cannot live long, he feels that it would be "rich to die" painlessly while listening to the nightingale's ecstatic song. But the thought of death causes Keats to feel self-pity, for he painfully realizes that the bird's melody (in contrast to the poet) lives forever. This jolting realization brings Keats back to painful reality, but not before he has evoked the mystical power of the bird's song in a stanza which many critics have called "the essence of romanticism":

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 same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

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