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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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History of the Text

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Romanticism in England: Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement that arose in Europe in the late 18th century. It began in Germany in the hands of poets and scholars such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805). These German thinkers sought a fresh perspective that could counter the Enlightenment, the movement that had dominated European intellectual life in the 18th century.

  • The Enlightenment favored a rational and empirical view of the world. Indeed, the Enlightenment arrived hand in hand in with the Scientific Revolution. The birth of the modern sciences gave rise to an attitude that humanity’s best path forward is the pursuit of ever-more-precise models of the universe.

The Romantics were repelled by the Enlightenment’s mechanistic view of things, as well as the religious and superstitious doctrines that preceded the Enlightenment. Thus, the Romantics learned to derive meaning from the experiences and feelings of the individual. As a result, it became a movement of poets, painters, and composers.

  • Romanticism came to England in the 1790s, due to the efforts of William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). These two English poets were deeply influenced by the German Romantics and introduced Romanticism to the English literary world with the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

The Life and Poetry of John Keats: John Keats (1795–1821) lived a remarkably short and remarkably creative life. He was born in London to working-class parents. Keats’s father died when he was nine years old, and his mother left the family shortly thereafter.

  • These early abandonments left Keats and his brothers, George and Thomas, responsible for themselves. As a result, he decided to train as an apothecary, hoping to secure a stable profession. The onset of tuberculosis in Thomas deepened Keats’s need for dependable income. However, his literary ambitions complicated his desire for stability. Since his childhood, Keats had been a passionate reader of the classics.
  • In his late adolescence, he began to write a great deal of poetry, much of it infused with the classical images and themes that had enraptured him as a boy. The first accomplished poem Keats wrote, the 1816 sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” directly reflects his classical readings. In the following year, Keats decided to devote himself to his poetry. He ended his medical training and rented a room in Hampstead Heath in northern London. In Hampstead, he composed and studied poetry with single-minded intensity. Though his first great effort—the epic poem Endymion—proved somewhat lackluster, he soon found his stride in a series of powerful sonnets and odes.
  • In the spring of 1819, Keats wrote the five odes for which is arguably best known: “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to Psyche.” Keats published “Ode to a Nightingale” in the July 1819 issue of Annals of the Fine Arts. All of the odes were collected in Keats’s 1820 volume Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems. This volume brought a change in Keats’s critical reception. Whereas Endymion had been broadly panned, Keats’s volume of lyric poetry was met with a number of favorable reviews. However, Keats’s poetry never received a great deal of renown or attention during his lifetime.
  • Keats’s productive period in 1819 and 1820 was ultimately a high-water mark. Keats had contracted tuberculosis, mostly likely from Thomas, and in 1820 his health began to decline rapidly. Late in that year, his friend Joseph Severn traveled with him to Italy in the hopes that the dry climate would soothe his illness. Keats died in Rome in February 1821. He is buried in a Protestant cemetery there. His gravestone reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

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