Themes and Meanings
In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats is really only talking about the beauty of nature and how painful it is to think of dying and having to leave it. These are thoughts with which every reader can identify. What makes Keats a great poet is that the feelings he expresses are common to all humanity. This feature, found in all of his greatest poetry, is called universality, and it is generally regarded as the distinguishing feature of all great art. An aspiring writer can learn from Keats that the secret of creating important work is to deal with basic human emotions.
Keats was going through considerable mental anguish when he wrote this poem. His brother Tom had just died of tuberculosis. He himself had premonitions of his own death from the same disease, which turned out to be true. He was in love with young Fanny Brawne but found it impossible to marry her because he had rejected the career in medicine for which he had been trained; he was finding it impossible to make a living as a writer. Like many present-day poets, he was tortured by the fact that he had chosen an impractical vocation; yet, it was the vocation for which he believed he was born, and it was the only thing he wanted to do.
The ode has a piquant, bittersweet flavor, not unlike the flavor of a good red wine, because it deliberately blends thoughts of beauty and decay, joy and suffering, love and death. Keats had rejected the teachings of the established church, as can be seen in his posthumously published sonnet entitled “Written in Disgust of Vulgar Superstition,” in which he describes Christian church dogma as a “black spell.” This left him in the position of having to find his own answers to questions that the church had automatically answered for centuries. Keats thought that all religions consisted of stories made up by imaginative individuals to mask the real truth about life. Borrowing from Greek mythology and other sources, he tried to create new stories; however, as a modern man with a modern scientific education, he knew that his stories were inventions, whereas the poets and prophets of the past really believed in the gods about which they talked; they were not using them as mere poetic metaphors. This is why Keats cannot stay with his nightingale. The elusive bird might even be seen as a metaphor for the alienated condition of modern man.