John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” begins with no introduction: The poet describes himself in a profound state of mental torment, as if drugged into a sleep state, engrossed in an unseen nightingale’s song. The setting is unspecified, but readers can imagine the poet in a garden or perhaps in the woods, during springtime, when nightingales nest. The poet addresses the bird directly, a poetic device known as apostrophe, stating his admiration for the nightingale’s happiness. At this point the nightingale suggests to the reader that it embodies, at minimum, two symbolic meanings: The bird’s song suggests that the bird represents art, while the poet’s description of the bird as being like a Greek wood nymph suggests that the bird symbolizes nature.
In stanza two, the poet yearns for an imaginative identification with the bird, perhaps assisted by wine, by which he can escape the ordinary world and disappear into the happier world represented by the nightingale. In stanza three, the bird’s world is contrasted to all the pain—such as aging, disease, and despair—that defines human experience. In line 26, Keats could be alluding to the death of his brother Tom in 1818.
In the fourth stanza, the poet rejects the escape that alcohol can provide, preferring the flight of poetry. Overall, through his desire for symbolic union with the bird, stanzas two through four outline the poet’s desire to escape the human condition. The language of this stanza seems to suggest a change in the poet’s mood, as he reflects on the nightingale’s song. By the end of stanza four, the poet is aware of being separate from the nightingale.
In the fifth stanza, the poet experiences a failure of his senses and seems to be caught up in a an area of nature that is “lower” than that represented by the nightingale. Stanza six introduces the thought of death; the poet longs for death as a means of escape. By the final two lines of the stanza, however, the poet admits that death would mean the end of singing and, thus, the end of art and nature. In stanza seven, the poet becomes less enchanted with the bird. In some sense immortal (variously interpreted by critics), the bird represents a flight from reality, which Keats rejects.
A logical development between stanzas is hard to demonstrate, though some readers have seen such a development. The poem has been read as a sequence of dreamlike or trancelike images, from which the poet “awakens” in the final stanza—an epilogue to the poem. In the end, the experience of the bird has been a deception, and its music vanishes.
“Ode to a Nightingale,” along with “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode on Melancholy,” and “To Autumn,” all of which were written between March and September of 1819, document Keats’s ongoing struggle to reconcile himself to his own mortality. The deaths of his father (1804) and mother (1810), combined with the imminent death of his brother, Tom, who was in the last stages of tuberculosis, as well as the recent diagnosis of his own contraction of tuberculosis, brought the poet to consider the transient nature of human existence and to search for some form of permanence in nature or in art. The song of the nightingale, which is seen as a kind of natural poet, offers Keats such a symbol of permanence. The poem records Keats’s struggle to merge his life with the immortal song of that bird and thereby escape, at least temporarily, his own mortality.
The poem can be divided into three movements or parts. The first part, stanzas 1 to 3, describes the narrator’s anguish upon hearing the immortal song of the bird in the distance. The “full-throated ease” with which it sings completely captures the poet’s attention, causing him to forget, temporarily, his own mortality. That happiness, however, is short lived, for it quickly becomes the occasion for the poet to remember his own temporary existence.
The pain of that recognition is what...
(The entire section is 1,248 words.)