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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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Introduction

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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 breathless expansion, however, Dickinson tends towards cool concision. Dickinson’s portrayal of Death as a gentleman in a carriage is unforgettable, as are the poem’s mysterious final lines: “Since then — ‘tis Centuries — and yet / Feels shorter than the Day / I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity —” 

“Bright Star” is one of the final poems John Keats ever wrote and is considered his last sonnet. He most likely wrote it during his voyage to Italy in the winter of 1820, just months before his death. The poem takes the North Star as its central image. The poem’s speaker expresses his desire for the same steadfastness as the unmoving star. In its expression of the smallness and fragility of human life, this poem is a fitting piece to pair with “Ode to a Nightingale.” 

“Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” (1804) by William Wordsworth, is one of the signature poems of English Romanticism and stands alongside “Ode to a Nightingale” as a landmark ode. Whereas Keats nominally addresses his poem to a bird, Wordsworth inconspicuously sets his sights on more metaphysical matters. Wordsworth recalls the golden times of childhood, “when meadow, grove, and stream, / The earth, and every common sight, / To me did seem / Apparelled in celestial light.” The ode both praises the enchanted experience of childhood and grieves the inevitable fall from that paradise. Like Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wordsworth’s ode explores human limitations, addressing the facts of suffering and mortality. Ultimately, Wordsworth’s speaker finds solace and redemption in the treasure trove of memory. 

“The Nightingale,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was first published in Lyrical Ballads in 1798. This light-hearted, discursive poem offers a new frame through which to understand the nightingale. In the opening lines, Coleridge draws on a quote by John Milton to establish the consensus opinion of nightingales: “‘Most musical, most melancholy bird!’” Coleridge then refutes Milton’s claim: “A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought! / In nature there is nothing melancholy.” For readers of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Coleridge’s poem can be enjoyed as a whimsical companion piece by another of the central Romantic poets. 

“To Autumn,” by John Keats, is one of the six beloved odes Keats composed in 1819. After composing the first five in the spring of that year, Keats produced “To Autumn” in late September. After descending to the depths of existential inquiry plumbed in “Ode to a Nightingale,” readers may find that “To Autumn” serves as a calming balm to the soul. In some of the richest, most sensuous language Keats ever put on the page, he evokes the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!” This generous ode is a love letter to the unsung season of ample harvests and “stubble-plains with rosy hue.”

“When I Have Fears,” by John Keats, is an 1818 sonnet that explores the same thematic territory as “Ode to a Nightingale.” Both poems confront death, but they diverge in many ways. “When I Have Fears” is a sonnet and thus arrives at its conclusive note quickly, whereas “Nightingale” meanders and lands on an ambiguous note. “When I Have Fears” is indelible for its final shedding of idealism:

Then on the shore 
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think 
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink. 

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History of the Text