By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of a series of odes the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) wrote, and one of the most famous. Before we offer a brief summary of Keats’s poem, it might be helpful to read ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ here in a separate tab, and follow the poem and our analysis alongside each other. John Keats reportedly took just two or three hours to write ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, which is remarkable; but then this is the poet who apparently sat down and wrote a sonnet on a grasshopper and cricket in one sitting, as part of a contest with fellow poet Leigh Hunt. Keats, when inspired, could write fast. Anyway, before we analyse the poem, here’s a short summary.
Ode to a Nightingale: summary
In summary, then: ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is about the poet’s experience of listening to the beautiful song of the nightingale. Keats has become intoxicated by the nightingale’s heartbreakingly beautiful song, and he feels as though he’d drunk the numbing poison hemlock or the similarly numbing (though less deadly) drug, opium. He is forgetting everything: it’s as though he’s heading to Lethe (‘Lethe-wards’, as in ‘towards Lethe’), the river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology.
Keats then addresses the nightingale directly, stating that he feels the way he does not because he is envious of the bird’s happy existence, but because seeing the bird so happy makes him, the poet, too happy: it’s overwhelming. Keats likens the nightingale to a Dryad – another mythological reference, as dryads were nymphs who inhabited the woods and trees, much as the nightingale sings its melodious songs among the forests.
The language of intoxication continues in the second stanza, with Keats longing to drink some wine (‘a draught of vintage’) that has been matured in the very earth and which tastes of the flowers (Flora was the goddess of flowers in Roman mythology) grown out of the earth. Hearing the nightingale sing makes Keats long to drink a beaker of wine that tastes of the South of France, with its associations with Provencal song. This takes us back to poetry, and for Keats, this wine would taste of ‘the blushful Hippocrene’: Hippocrene was a fountain on Mount Helicon sacred to the Greek Muses, so we’re once again in the realms of poetic inspiration. Keats wants to drink to forget – just as hearing the nightingale has made him forget about the troubles of this world and enter the enchanted groves of the forests. There is something transporting about both getting drunk and hearing the beautiful song of the nightingale.
The third stanza consolidates this idea, with the focus being on forgetting the realities of the world Keats inhabits – the passing of youth and growing older, and with the process of growing old, the fear of impending death – and the fact that Beauty must fade. In the fourth stanza, Keats asks the nightingale to fly away, so that he might follow it away from this world and discover somewhere more pleasant.
But now Keats abandons his earlier wine-references (‘Bacchus’ was the Roman god of wine, often accompanied by leopards or ‘pards’) and says that he will use the ‘viewless wings’ of his own poetry to follow the bird, rather than getting intoxicated on alcohol. This isn’t easy: the poet’s ‘dull’ brain doesn’t make poetic creativity easy.
But already Keats can feel he is following the nightingale: the night is beautiful, and the moon is bright in the sky (‘Queen-Moon’ suggesting Diana, the Roman goddess associated with the moon; the stars are like fairies or ‘Fays’ attending on her). But here where the nightingale flies, there’s no natural light: only heavenly light.
In the next stanza, Keats – unable to see – guesses what flowers are around him, largely driven by the scent of the spring flowers in the air. And then, in the following stanza, the sensory focus shifts from smell to hearing: ‘Darkling I listen’, Keats tells us, as he listens in this darkness to the song of the bird; he has often been half in love with the idea of death, and has written approvingly of the idea of dying in his verse. And now, as he listens to the nightingale, it seems fitting to slip into death while the nightingale provides the poet’s ‘requiem’ or funeral song as he returns to the earth (‘become a sod’).
However, the ‘immortal bird’ of the nightingale was not made to die, and both high-born and low-born people in ancient times heard the nightingale’s song. Keats then refers to the Old Testament story of Ruth, who chose to remain with her mother-in-law after she was widowed, rather than returning to her own people (the Moabites): this is why she was ‘amid the alien corn’.
We then leave the world of mythology and religion for the world of full-blown fairyland, as Keats imagines the song of the nightingale accompanying the opening of magic windows that open out onto the sea.
In the final stanza, Keats picks up on the last word of the penultimate stanza – ‘forlorn’ – and so we return to the beginning of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, with Keats’s ‘heart [which] aches’, just as the word ‘forlorn’ recalls Keats to himself, and to reality. The nightingale’s song recedes, and the poet is left wondering whether it was all a dream. In summary, did he really leave behind the real world for an enchanted world with the nightingale?
Ode to a Nightingale: analysis
It’s worth recalling that there is a longstanding tradition whereby the song of the nightingale is likened to the ‘song’ of the poet: in this sense, then, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ can be analysed as an encounter between two ‘singers’ or ‘poets’, one from the world of nature and one from the world of human society. This is partly, of course, what makes ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ clearly a Romantic poem: it is the individual coming into contact with the natural world, and finding kinship with it.
Yet it is not quite so simple as all that. For running throughout ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a desire to leave behind the real world, even the world of nature as it is, for a world of ‘fancy’ or ‘fairy’. The poem is not Wordsworth’s encounter with the daffodils, where the poet is inspired and buoyed by nature alone; the nightingale’s power is in transforming the poet’s mental state altogether, like a drug or a strong wine, and taking him away from the rather humdrum world that surrounds him.
The nightingale is a ‘deceiving elf’: unearthly and also distorting the reality or truth of the world around us. In this respect, the nightingale – often gendered as female – is not so different from the deceiving fairy-like creature who seduces the knight-at-arms in Keats’s great ballad-poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’.
Right from the beginning of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the song of the nightingale is altering Keats’s perception of the world around him: he feels as though he is under the influence of chemical stimulants, and anybody who knows the story of Socrates doesn’t need to be told about why it’s a bad idea to drink hemlock. The fact that the nightingale’s song induces a feeling of exquisite happiness in the poet cannot be separated from the fact that there is also something druglike – indeed, toxic – about its influence. And like an addictive drug (opium, for instance, the one Keats mentions) the nightingale’s song is seductive enough to prove deadly, inspiring longings for suicide in the poet.
And indeed, the contrast between mortality and immortality, between the real world and the enchanted world the nightingale’s song seems to open a window onto (like one of those magic casements Keats refers to), is a key one for the poem.
In the end, Keats leaves behind the references to intoxication – which have been gradually getting weaker, from deadly hemlock to addictive opium to the safer ‘poison’ of alcohol, wine – and replaces them with ‘poesy’: i.e. poetry. Poetry is a better way of leaving behind the troubles of the real world and joining the nightingale in its flight, because human imagination is as boundless as the flight of the bird (although Keats, in self-effacing mode, is quick to acknowledge the limitations of his own ‘dull brain’).
For ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, John Keats devised a new stanza form: a ten-line form that falls between the nine-line Spenserian stanza he’d used in ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’ (and which Shelley adapted for his ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection, Near Naples’) and the longer sonnet, whose ‘pouncing rhymes’ Keats disliked. The rhyme scheme for ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ababcdecde is Keats enjoying the best of both worlds, almost offering a truncated mash-up or cut-and-shut of the Shakespearean sonnet (that abab opening quatrain and the sestet which often concludes a Petrarchan sonnet, cdecde).
In a sense, then, what we get in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a series of mini-sonnets or curtailed sonnets, woven together into a longer meditation or ode.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.