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...
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