Ode to a Nightingale Introduction
by John Keats

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So you’re going to teach John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, this classic poem has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots—deeply figurative language, a direct confrontation with death—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying “Ode to a Nightingale” will give them unique insight into the form of the ode, the styles and concerns of John Keats, and important themes surrounding death, oblivion, and beauty. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1819
  • Recommended Grade Levels: 11 and up 
  • Approximate Word Count: 600
  • Author: John Keats
  • Country of Origin: England
  • Genre: Lyric Poetry
  • Literary Period: English Romanticism
  • Conflict: Person vs. Death, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person
  • Setting: Hampstead Heath, London, England
  • Structure or Dominant Literary Devices: English Ode, Iambic Pentameter
  • Tone: Anguished, Effusive, Imaginative

Structure of the Text

The Keatsian Ode: An ode is a lyric poem that offers a sustained meditation on a particular subject. The ode originated in ancient Greece and Rome, where it was notably practiced by such poets as Pindar (522–443 BCE) and Horace (65–8 BCE). English poets began to experiment with the form of the ode during the Renaissance, but the English ode came to fruition two centuries later in John Keats’s hands. Just as Shakespeare gave the English sonnet its definitive shape, so did Keats define the English ode.

The Keatsian Ode, as it is often called, consists of ten-line stanzas with an ABABCDECDE rhyme scheme, which largely consist of iambic pentameter. Keats’s odes typically contain five stanzas, as in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but some contain as few as three. At eight stanzas, “Ode to a Nightingale” is Keats’s longest ode. Keatsian odes contain a sonnet-like musicality. Indeed, each stanza is the equivalent of a Petrarchan sonnet—but with one opening quatrain, rather than two. However, whereas a fourteen-line sonnet is marked by great concision and intensity, an ode can unfold patiently, developing its themes over the course of 30, 50, or 80 lines. Whereas a sonnet contains a single turn, or volta, an ode can contain numerous turns of theme and tone.

Significant Allusions

Greco-Roman Allusions: Since the Renaissance, the two most potent sources of allusion for English poets have been the Bible and Greco-Roman mythology. From the start, John Keats leaned toward the latter camp, drawing his allusions chiefly from Greek lore. For instance, Keats’s earliest known poems include “Ode to Apollo” and “Hymn to Apollo.” Across his writings, his allusions range from the best-known gods and heroes to obscurer figures and locales, such as the “blushful Hippocrene” that appears in the second stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale.”

It is likely that the vibrant world of Greek myth appealed to Keats’s imaginative and sensuous sensibility. As in many of his poems, “Ode to a Nightingale” is so densely laced with Greek allusions—Lethe, Flora, Dryads, and Bacchus, to name a few—that the world of Greek myth comes to give the poem its background and texture, in addition to providing a shorthand for layered meanings. By contrast, the penitential and moral concerns that mark the biblical myths never struck quite as powerful a chord for Keats, although the episode of Ruth and her “sad heart” appears briefly in “Ode to a Nightingale.”

Texts that Go Well with “Ode to a Nightingale”

“Because I could not stop for Death,” by Emily Dickinson, is a ballad that was first published in 1890 and most likely composed in 1863. Like Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Dickinson employs metaphor and personification to address the most difficult of subjects. Whereas Keats tends towards...

(The entire section is 1,184 words.)