Analysis of Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

 

John Keats (1795-1821), was born in Moorgate, London and was the son of a stable worker and had three siblings. His father died in an accident in 1804 and his mother died of Tuberculosis in 1810. In 1818 Keats he was becoming ill with tuberculosis. His younger brother too died of Tuberculosis upon his hands. In 1819 he wrote a series of great odes of which one was the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The other four odes were Ode to Psyche, Ode to autumn, Ode on a Grecian Urn and Ode on Melancholy. During this time his illness steadily worsened. He died in Rome and is buried in a Protestant cemetery in the city. Keats’s writing took place only during the last five years of his life but he is considered to be one of the greatest English poets.

The poem depicts on a speaker standing in an imaginary forest, listening to a beautiful song of the nightingale bird. This provokes a deep and meandering meditation by the speaker on time, death, beauty, nature, and human suffering. At times, the speaker finds comfort in the nightingale's song and at one point even believes that poetry will bring the speaker metaphorically closer to the nightingale. By the end of the poem, the speaker is isolated as the nightingale flies away, and the speaker is unsure of whether the whole experience has been a dream.

 

Overview

Title: The nightingale is a symbol of beauty, immortality, and freedom from the world's troubles. Nightingales are known for singing in the nighttime, hence the name.

Form:  it is an ‘Ode’ (a poetic form with several features: it is lengthy, deals with serious subject matter, employs an elevated diction and style, and has an elaborate stanzaic structure.)

Rhyme scheme: ABABCDECDE

Theme: the passion for escape, the yearning to find happiness and meaning through poetry, the notion that human joy and suffering are inextricably linked, awareness of sickness and mortality.

Narration: second person, a poet addresses a nightingale and the speaker seems to be under physical and psychological pain, looking forward to escape from the world and embrace the death.

 

Deep-end Analysis

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

 

Vocabulary:

hemlock: a poisonous plant         beechen: a beautiful tree             opiate: a drug

 

Techniques:

simile: my heart aches… as though of hemlock I had drunk

allusion: Lathe-Wards (Greek Mythology - The river flows through underworld which souls of dead drank, so they forget their lives on Earth) Dryad (a female tree spirit)

metaphor: light-winged Dryad (The nightingale) the drains (may be the mouth)

alliteration: /d/ and consonance: /m/, /n/, /s/, and /l/ in first four lines depict the drowsy nature of the speaker.

personification: thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

visual imagery: beechen green, shadows numberless

enjambment: run on line; a recurrent technique seen throughout the poem

 

The speaker obviously suffers from physical and psychological pains. He feels like he is poisoned or drunk with some kind of drug. His miserable situation is compared with the Nightingale’s happiness and he is happy about the ecstasy of the bird singing in a picturesque natural setting. It seems to be paradoxical that the speaker feels pain while he says he is happy. Can happiness bring pain and drowsiness?

 

O, for a draught of vintage! That hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

 

Vocabulary:

draught of vintage: a type of beer made of grapes

Provencal: region in France known for its wine

mirth: emotion followed by humor accompanied by laughter

 

Techniques:

allusion: Hippocrene (Greek Mythology- a fountain which give poetic inspiration after drinking) Flora (goddess of flowers and fertility)

alliteration: beaded bubbles winking at the brim (action of sparkling wine is highlighted)

oxymoron: blushful Hippocrene (a fountain is not blushful, might suggest about his reddened face and mental state after consuming wine)

synesthesia: (combination of different senses in one phrase) Sunburnt mirth – emotion associated with the natural setting; the happiness received by wine, outdoor dance in a sunny weather is a blend of emotions.

metaphor: a beaker full of the warm South (having wine in warm Southern region)

visual imagery: country green, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim, / And purple-stained mouth;

 

The speaker wants to be intoxicated by wine or beer and join the happiness of the bird in the forest. The description of drinking and of the world associated with wine is idealized. He compares the quality of happiness gain through quality wine, outdoor dance and song with the zest that he would get by entering the fantasy world of the nightingale. His necessity to leave the world without any notice indicates that his present state of life is not a happy one.  

 

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where plasy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

 

Vocabulary:

plasy: medical term related to growth                                  laden: grey colored heavy metal

pine: to long or yearn so much that causes suffering        lustrous: shinning/ lustful

 

Techniques

alliteration: the fever and the fret

anaphora: where (reason out the cause of human sufferings due to change and death)

metaphor: laden-eyed (burdened with life)

visual imagery: laden eyed, lustrous eyes

personification: Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes/ Love pine at them (beauty is subjected to change/ desire is insatiable, when one desire ends, new desires plunge causing life a misarable one)

 

Poet claims that he wants to be hidden in the fantasy world of the Nightingale quite forgetting the human world which is a dwelling to sorrow. He claims that the world where the bird lives in has no such sufferings. He may speak of the bird at a symbolical level considering the bird as a symbol of pure happiness. The speaker realizes the transient and impermanent nature of human world which is immersed in sorrow, despair and unhappiness.   

 

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! Tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

 

Vocabulary:

Poesy: poetry                                           haply: by accident                          Fays: fairies

verdurous: fresh green colour                perplexes: make complicated      retards: cause to move slowly

 

Techniques:

allusion: Bacchus (Greek Mythology-  god of wine) pards (the leopards that draw the chariot of Bacchus)

personification: Queen-Moon is on her throne

metaphor: dull brain (brain vs heart, brain represent more analytical and scientific thinking while heart represent emotions: for poetry, one needs imagination and creativity but the brain makes things complicated and slow for the poet to fly into the world of imagination.)

assonance: viewless wings

visual imagery: the queen-moon is on her throne/ cluster’d around by all her starry fays, verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways

symbol: light (light symbolizes wisdom and knowledge, here there is no light might imply the emptiness of the life of the poet and the nature has the light he is looking for)

 

The speaker realizes that intoxication with wine would not help him to leave his ill-state of mind. Therefore, he seeks to enter imaginative world through poetry; he sees his analytical thinking slows him down. However, he seems to be successful; by looking at the latter part of the stanza  we can see his ideas are brimming with poetic essence. He enters the world of the bird and sees faint light he had been looking for is with the nature. (but darkness is also there: but here there is no light,)

 

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

 

Vocabulary:

embalmed: add fragrance            endows: give property to someone as a gift

hawthorn: shrub                             eglantine/ musk-rose: a kind of a rose

 

Techniques:

personification: Mid-May’s eldest child (roses) this also implies the change of seasons.

word pun: embalmed (give fragrance and preserved body)

visual imagery: the number of flowers in the fantastical forest.

olfactory imagery: embalmed darkness

auditory imagery: murmuros haunt of flies

 

In the fantasy forest, he uses his senses to feel the beauty of nature as it is dark. Though the happiness is there, death lurks in and haunts his life: the use of words like ‘embalmed darkness’, ‘fast fading’ and change of seasons foreshadow the coming stanza about death. Though he describes about spring which is full of flowers, he hints about the change of season at the end, suggesting the impermanence of everything.

 

Darkling I listen; and for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain

To thy high requiem become a sod.

 

Vocabulary:

mused: meditative                          requiem: music composed to a dead person

 

Techniques:

paradox: rich to die/ easeful death (is death a comfortable one, poet might feel that death is better than his sufferings)

assonance: cease upon the midnight with no pain/ pouring forth thy soul abroad

metaphor: pouring forth thy soul abroad (continuous singing of the nightingale) high requiem become a sod (the song become useless as the speaker is dead)

personification: death is introduced as a male character- him

 

The poet yearns to die, a state which he imagines as only joyful, as pain free, and to merge with the bird’s song. He realizes what death means for him; death is not release from pain; rather it means non-existence, the inability to feel the bird’s ecstasy. In this phase of the poem, the speaker begins to distance from the nightingale. Ironically the poet uses the word ease to describe both death and the bird. Does that mean both help him to escape from his sufferings?

 

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

 

Vocabulary:

casements: a window cloth                        faery: fairy

perilous: dangerous                                      forlorn: left behind, lonely

 

Techniques:

hyperbole: immortal bird (the bird is not immortal however, poet seems to have taken nightingale as a symbol and its voice is static and immortal)

generalization: emperor and clown (people of all walk and status)

metaphor: hungry generation (new generation takes the place of the older generation)

apostrophe: Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

allusion: Ruth (Ruth was a Moabite who married Israelite[Hebrew] man who had moved to escape famine; the man and his brother had died on the way. She remained to live with her mother-in-law though she is a stranger there.  After the tragedy, she has been sad amid of corn, working, when she might have heard the nightingale. Probably in the same fields, Boaz saw Ruth, fell in love with her and married her – so she had had a happy ending to her sad story!)

juxtaposition: bird is immortal and humans are mortal

visual imagery: Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam/ Of perilous seas

alliteration: faery lands of forlorn

 

Poet understands his mortality and the nature of human beings who die giving their space to the next ‘hungry generations.’ He views the song of the Nightingale is something unchanged and passed through many a generation; hence he attributes bird an ‘immortal bird.’ The bird’s joyous song has been heard by in the past in the series of three images: emperors and clowns, Ruth and fairies in fairy lands where no human exists.

 

Forlorn !the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu ! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu ! adieu ! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music : Do I wake or sleep?

 

Vocabulary:

elf: (folklore) a fairy that is somewhat mischievous            glades: grassy open/ a cleared space in a forest

Adieu: bidding good bye.

 

Techniques:

simile: word like a bell

metaphor: deceiving elf (the bird, his fantasy to escape into the world of nightingale which is not realistic) plaintive anthem (bird’s happy song)

repetition: adieu! (Does he wants to forget the song of the bird?)

assonance: buried deep

rhetorical question: Do I wake or sleep? (speaker’s confusion what is real and what is not)

 

The poet realizes his isolation in the human world. He disillusioned from his fantasy of escaping his suffering through his world of imagination. He considers the bird as a ‘deceiving elf’ and considers the bird as an ordinary bird who flies away to the next valley with its song. His visionary experience has improved his vision of life. However, the speaker is in a state of delirium whether he was day dreaming or he has truly had a journey to the world of Nightingale.

The poet’s voyage of imagination with mixed feelings reveals his attempts to find a way to leave from his worldly sufferings. This might be related to poet’s own life as he and his brother was suffering from Tuberculosis, which killed them both at the end. His power of imaginations seems to give him vision to understand the nature of life upgrading his perception of life.

Many find this poem a bit hard as it is full of illusive devices and a bit lengthy. Hope you get the meaning of the poem unwrapped. Leave a comment to join the discussion about the poem. Share the post if you find it useful to others.

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