Ode to a Nightingale
“Ode to a Nightingale” is an outstanding meditative ode penned by the renowned English Romantic poet John Keats. The poem explores themes of mortality and transience, contrasting the permanence of the world of art with the impermanence of human life.
He wrote the poem in 1819, while visiting his friend Charles Brown, who later wrote about the morning of its composition: “In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of the nightingale.”
1. The nightingale is the wood-nymph, the “light winged Dryad of the trees”.
2. The song of Provence in Southern France famous for best quality wine and medieval singers.
3. The musk-rose flower.
4. The poet would be dead and turned to clay by then; his ears would be incapable to receive the nightingale’s song and his heart would be indifferent to its sweetness.
5. Keats wonders whether it was a vision or a waking dream as he is back into the sad world of reality from the enchanting world of the nightingale. The poet is perplexed and bewildered by the sudden transition.
1. The nightingale’s song produces in the poet a drowsy sensation at once painful and blissful. The intensity of his happiness at listening to the nightingale evokes in him a feeling that can only be described as a sweet sorrow. As the poem begins, we find the poet in an indifferent state, numbed and drowsy. However, the nightingale’s song wakes him out of his stupor and suddenly the poet is filled with happiness. He is so thrilled that he claims that he is “too happy in thine happiness”. The contradictory nature of his experience – at one painful and blissful – suggests that he is in the world of art. He feels bittersweet happiness at the thought of the nightingale's carefree life.
2. The poet believes that the human world is full of sorrows and hence he wishes to forget the trials and tribulations of this world and reach the enchanting and immortal world of the nightingale. The reference to the illness and death of his own brother Tom Keats is obvious. Further, the poet himself is afflicted by tuberculosis and is living in the shadow of death. The entire stanza in fact narrates the sorrows of the human world. The poet explains to the nightingale why he wishes to escape from his world. Man’s life on this earth is transient and fleeting. Nothing, not even Beauty or Love, is permanent. (The veiled reference is clearly to his beloved Fanny Brawne and his unfulfilled love for her.)The poet looks around and sees only scenes of ruin, death and destruction. Mankind is heir to “weariness, fever and fret”. The elderly are afflicted by paralysis and are bed-ridden. Even the youth are not spared; they turn “pale and spectre-thin”.
3. In the sixth stanza of the poem, John Keats expresses both a disgust with life and a desire to escape into the world of death. He recalls that he had been half in love with easeful death all his life. In many of his poems,he had fondly addressed and invited Death to take his life. The ecstasy of the moment makes Keats crave for death. Even as the poet listens to the enchanting song of the nightingale, he feels that this is the right moment for him to bid goodbye to this world of sorrows. The moment referred to is the enchanting hour when the poet blissfully listens to the song of the nightingale. It is rich to die since this moment ensures that the poet will have a happy, easeful death. He has never experienced such pure happiness before; he fears that such a moment will not come again. So he feels it enriching to die in this state of complete happiness.
4. By a brilliant stroke of imaginative genius, John Keats transmutes the song of the nightingale into the very essence of music. The bird attains immortality as its song becomes immortal. Further, this very poem “Ode to a Nightingale” guarantees immortality to the bird as the bird will be remembered whenever and wherever this poem is remembered. In the seventh stanza, the speaker emphatically declares to the nightingale that it is immortal, that it was not “born for death.” He says that the voice he hears has always been heard in the past, by ancient emperors and clowns, thereby ensuring that the nightingale is beyond Time. This voice was heard by homesick Ruth; he suggests that this very song looms large in religious texts. Again, this song has dominated myths and fairy-tales; it has often charmed magic windows that open on “the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
5. The entire poem “Ode to a Nightingale” can be seen as a meditation on the contrast between the permanence of art and the transience of human life. The nightingale and its song represent the world of art and its eternal beauty. The bird here represents a universal and eternal voice: the voice of Nature, of imaginative sympathy, and therefore of ideal romantic poetry. It resolves and mediates between all differences: it speaks to high and low (emperor and clown); it comforts the human home-sickness of Ruth and frees her from bitter isolation; and equally it opens the casements of the remote and magical. It is timeless, mythical and universal. As a poet of beauty, Keats considers art as the embodiment of everlasting beauty. So, to Keats art represents a permanent beauty which contrasts with the transience and sorrows of human life. Human youth and life itself are quite transient. Human beings grow up, flower up into blossoming youths and then fade and die. This is the nature of all human passions. Here beauty fades, love pines, sorrow and despair seize men and to think is to be full of sorrow. Happiness in the earth is fleeting and temporary.
Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura
Provide your Feedback/Suggestion/Requests for notes to firstname.lastname@example.org