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

Ode to a Nightingale

by John Keats

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Teaching Approaches

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Recite the Poem Aloud: Keats’s poems lend themselves well to recitation and performance. His lines are plump with juicy phrases that stimulate the ear as much as the mind. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” sound conveys sense, to borrow Robert Frost’s formulation. That is to say, Keats’s ideas are inseparable from the particular words he uses to convey them: 

  • The spirit of revelry is embodied in lines such as “O for a draught of vintage! That hath been / Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth, / Tasting of Flora and the country-green / Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!” 
  • The aches of age and loss are aptly conveyed in the staccato diction of “Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; / Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs.” 

Encourage your students to read the poem aloud, both alone and as a class. A reflection on the experience of reading the poem aloud marks an excellent starting place for a discussion of the poem. Encourage ambition students to commit the poem to memory; such memorization deepens one’s understanding of—and intimacy with—a poem. 

  • For discussion: What do you notice about the poem when reading it aloud? Are there any details you did not notice by simply reading the poem on the page? 
  • For discussion: Which phrases and lines stand out to you? Were there passages that were particularly difficult to recite? Particularly enjoyable? If so, why? 
  • For discussion: How does reciting the poem change your view of the speaker? Does the experience of recitation draw you closer to his perspective or push you further away? Explain your views with examples from the text.

Study the Poem Stanza by Stanza: “Ode to a Nightingale” is exceptionally long and dynamic for a lyric poem. As a result, it can be difficult to discuss and evaluate as a whole. One helpful approach is to divide the poem into its eight stanzas and focus on one stanza at a time. Consider dividing your class into eight groups and assigning each group a stanza. Groups will be responsible for dissecting their respective stanzas, using the following discussion questions to stimulate their conversation. When the groups are ready, open up a whole-class discussion. Go through the poem, discussing each stanza in turn. For each stanza, have the group responsible for that stanza lead the class in discussion. 

  • For discussion: Characterize the tone—or tones—of this stanza. How is that tone created and conveyed? Use specific examples from the text. 
  • For discussion: Does this stanza contain an argument? If so, what is that argument, and how does the speaker convey it? How compelling is the argument? Support your views with examples from the text. 
  • For discussion: How does this stanza fit into the broader scheme of the poem? During this stanza, where does the speaker stand, emotionally and psychologically? 

Trace Keats’s Allusions: “Ode to a Nightingale” is filled with a wide variety of allusions, most of them drawn from the world of Greek myth. Students don’t necessarily need to grasp all of the poem’s allusions to appreciate it. However, a deeper look at the allusions can unlock new readings, ideas, and possibilities. As a class, compile a list of the allusions in “Ode to a Nightingale.” Divide the class into groups, and assign each group several allusions to research in depth with either printed or online learning resources. Encourage your students to consider the following discussion questions as they work. When students are finished, initiate a whole-class discussion, and ask each group to share its findings. 

  • For discussion: What is the source of the allusion? What is the original meaning or role of the allusion? 
  • For discussion: How does Keats use the allusion in “Ode to a Nightingale”? How does the allusion develop the poem’s themes, convey the speaker’s emotions, and/or set the tone of the passage in which it is embedded? 
  • For discussion: What is the effect of allusion in poetry? How does the presence of allusion alter the experience of reading a poem? What is it like to read an allusive poem, such as “Ode to a Nightingale,” as opposed to a poem without allusion, such as Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”? 

Additional Discussion Questions:

  • John Keats was deeply influenced by the works of William Shakespeare. Readers of “Ode to a Nightingale” may find echoes of one of Shakespeare’s signature characters: Prince Hamlet from Hamlet. As a class, compare and contrast Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy from act 3, scene 1 of Hamlet with Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” Where do Prince Hamlet and Keats’s speaker overlap in their views on death? Where do they differ? 
  • In each stanza, the eighth line is noticeably shorter, containing three beats instead of the usual five. What is the effect of this shortened line? Why might Keats have shaped the stanzas in this way? 
  • Consider the ending of the poem. Where does Keats conclude the poem, thematically and emotionally? What do you make of the final question the speaker poses? Is there an obvious answer? Why might Keats have chosen such an ambiguous ending? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Keats’s Language Is Deeply Figurative: One of the most difficult obstacles posed by poetry is figurative language. Across cultures and styles, poets tend to address their subject matter subtly and indirectly, often through intermediary tools such as metaphor and allegory. These inventive and roundabout modes of expression make poetry rich, but they can also make poetry difficult to understand. Keats’s poetry is no exception. “Ode to a Nightingale” is particularly oblique, circling around its central theme for eight long stanzas with shifting metaphors and tones. 

  • What to do: As a class, discuss the sections of the poem that students find most dense or obscure. In each case, unpack the metaphor, metonym, or allusion that makes the passage difficult. Encourage students to find their own way to reword or paraphrase the passage, allowing them to discover its meaning for themselves. 
  • What to do: Remind students that figurative language is supposed to be difficult. The challenge of finding meaning in the face of fresh—and often strange—phrases is one of the joys of poetry. The process of uncovering the poem’s meaning makes that meaning stick in the mind more strongly.

The Poem Is About Death: “Ode to a Nightingale” can be an emotionally challenging text because it is centrally concerned with death. Over the course of eight stanzas, the poem’s speaker confronts the distressing fact of death, approaching it from an array of perspectives. To fully grasp the poem requires readers to acknowledge the impermanence of human life. 

  • What to do: Reserve “Ode to a Nightingale” for students who are mature enough to read and discuss it. If you suspect your students may not be emotionally equipped to tackle the poem, consider selecting a different text, such as Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or “To Autumn.” 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching "Ode to a Nightingale"

Follow the Bird: As the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale” ranges across a broad sweep of imaginative and emotional terrain, the song of the titular nightingale carries through the poem as a constant thread. The nightingale stands as a locus of meaning for the speaker. Direct your students’ attention to the nightingale. As a class, discuss the role—or perhaps roles—the bird plays in the poem. 

  • For discussion: Why is “Ode to a Nightingale” an ode to a nightingale? What is exceptional about the nightingale? Feel free to consult printed or online resources for research. 
  • For discussion: What is suggestive and meaningful about the nightingale’s name? How does the name “nightingale” tie into the poem’s themes? 
  • For discussion: What is the speaker’s view of the bird? In what ways does he idealize the bird? Why does he do this? Draw on examples from the text. 

Consider the Poem in the Context of Keats’s Life: When Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” and his other major odes in 1819, his brother Thomas had recently died of tuberculosis. Both of his parents had already died: his mother, also of tuberculosis, when he was fourteen; his father, of a horse-riding injury, when he was nine. By 1819, Keats may have already begun to show symptoms of the tuberculosis that would take his life less than two years later. As a result, death and mortality deeply occupied Keats’s mind. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats confronts the inevitability of death—both death as an all-encompassing fact of life and death as a personal experience. As a class, consider the ways in which Keats’s life and poetry were marked by death. 

  • For discussion: How might have Keats’s recurring experiences of death informed the attitudes found in “Ode to a Nightingale”? 
  • For discussion: Does one need to personally encounter death in order to meditate deeply on the topic? 

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