|Type of poem: lyric
Type of lyric poem: ode
|The Writing of "Ode to a
Analysis: "Ode to a Nightingale"
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 our nightingale.
A major concern in "Ode to a Nightingale" is Keats's perception of the conflicted nature of human life, i.e., the interconnection or mixture of pain/joy, intensity of feeling/numbness or lack of feeling, life/death, mortal/immortal, the actual/the ideal, and separation/connection.
In this ode, Keats focuses on immediate, concrete sensations and emotions, from which the reader can draw a conclusion or abstraction. Does the experience which Keats describes change the dreamer? As reader, you must follow the dreamer's development or his lack of development from his initial response to the nightingale to his final statement about the experience.
What qualities does the poet ascribe to the nightingale? In the beginning the bird is presented as a real bird, but as the poem progresses, the bird becomes a symbol. As you read the poem, think about what the bird comes to symbolize. The bird may symbolize more than one thing. Possible meanings include
Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza I.
The description of drinking and of the world associated with wine is idealized. What is the effect of the images associating the wine with summer, country pleasure, and romantic Provence? The word "vintage" refers to a fine or prime wine; why does he use this word? (Would the effect differ if the poet-dreamer imagined drinking a rotgut wine?) Why does Keats describe the country as "green"? Would the effect be different if the countryside were brown or yellowed? The activities in line 4 follow one another naturally: dance is associated with song; together they produce pleasure ("mirth"), which is sunburnt because the country dances are held outdoors. "Sunburnt mirth" is an excellent example of synaesthesia in Keats' imagery, since Flora, the green countryside, etc. are being experienced by Keats through drinking wine in his imagination.
The image of the "beaded bubbles winking at the brim" is much admired. Does it capture the action of sparkling wine? What sounds are repeated? What is the effect of this alliteration? Do any of the sounds duplicate the bubbles breaking? Say the words and notice the action of your lips.
This image of the bubbles is concrete; in contrast, the preceding imagery in the stanza is abstract. Can you see the difference?
Does the wine resemble the
nightingale in being associated with summer, song, and happpiness?
Click for vocabulary and allusions in stanza II.
The poet uses the word "fade" in the last line of stanza II and in the first line of this stanza to tie the stanzas together and to move easily into his next thought. What is the effect of the words "fade" and "dissolve"? why "far away"?
What is the relationship of the bird to the world the poet describes? See line 2. Characterize the real world which the poet describes. By implication, what kind of world does the nightingale live in? (Is it the same as or different from the poet's?)
He contrasts this mode of experience (poetry) to the "dull brain" that "perplexes and retards" (line 4); what way of approaching life does this line reject? What kinds of activities is the brain often associated with, in contrast to the heart, which is associated with emotion?
In line 5, he
succeeds or seems to
succeed in joining the bird. The imagined world described in the
rest of the stanza is dark; what qualities are associated with this
darkness, e.g., is it frightening, safe, attractive, empty,
fulfilling, sensuous, alive?
Keats yearns to die, a state which he imagines as only joyful, as pain-free, and to merge with the bird's song. The nightingale is characterized as wholly blissful--"full-throated ease" in stanza I and "pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!" (lines 7-8).
In the last two lines, the poet no longer identifies with the bird. 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. Is there any suggestion of the bird's dying or experiencing anything but bliss? Note the contrast between the bird's singing and the poet's hearing that song; what are the emotional effects of or associations with "high requiem" and "sod"? Why does Keats now hear the bird's song as a requiem? (He heard the bird's song very differently earlier in the poem.) Might the word "still" have more than one meaning here?
Is there any irony in Keats's using the same word
to describe both the nightingale and death--the bird sings with
"full-throated ease" at the end of stanza I and death is "easeful"
(line 2 of this stanza)?
Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza VI.
The stanza begins in the poet's present (note the present tense verbs tread and hear in lines 2 and 3). Keats then makes three references to the bird's singing in the past; the first reference to emperor and clown is general and presumably in a historical past; the other two are specific, one from the Old Testament, the other from fairy tales. The past becomes more remote, ending with a non-human past and place ("faery lands"), in which no human being is present. Is Keats trying to limit the meaning of the bird's song with these images or to extend its meaning? What ideas or aspects of human life do these references represent?
The mixed nature
reality manifests itself in his imagining the nightingale's joyous
song being heard by in the past in the series of three
images. Is the reference to the emperor and clown positive or neutral?
The story of Ruth is unhappy (what words indicate her pain?). In
the third image, the "charm'd magic casements" of fairy are
"forlorn" and the seas are "perilous." "Forlorn" and "perilous"
would not ordinarily be associated with magic/enchantment. These
words hint at the pain the poet recognized in the beginning of the
poem and is trying to escape. Does bringing up the idea of pain prepare
us or help to prepare us for the final stanza?
In lines 2 and 3, the poet says that "fancy" (imagination) has cheated him, as has the "elf" (bird). What allusion in the preceding stanza does the word "elf" suggest? What delusion is the poet awakening from?
The bird has ceased to be a symbol and is again the actual bird the poet heard in stanza I. The poet, like the nightingale, has returned to the real world. The bird flies away to another spot to sing. The bird's song becomes a "plaintive anthem" and fainter. Is the change in the bird, in the poet, or in both? Is Keats's description of the bird's voice as "buried deep" a reference only to its physical distance, or does the phrase have an additional meaning? It is the last of the death images running through the poem.
With the last two lines, the poet wonders whether he has had a true insight or experience (vision) or whether he has been daydreaming. Is he questioning the validity of the experience the poem describes, or is he expressing the inability to maintain an intense, true vision? Of course, the imaginative experience is by its nature transient or brief. Is his experience a false vision, or is it a true, if transitory experience of and insight into the nature of reality?
Has the dreamer in this poem changed as a result of his visionary experience? For instance, has his life been improved in any way? has he been damaged in any way? (The effect of the dream on the dreamer is a thread that runs throgh Keats's poems. The life of the dreamer in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" has been destroyed, and there is a question about the impact of dreaming on Madeline in "The Eve of St. Agnes.) What does the tone of the ending seem to you, e.g., happy, excited, hopeful, depressed, sad, despairing, resigned, accepting?
Does Keats, in this ode, follow
the pattern of the romantic ode?
Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza VIII.
|Keats, Online overview
Lyric Poems, pp. 1-34, 51, 52
"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
"When I have fears that I may cease to be"
"Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 34-45
"The Eve of St. Agnes"
|Lyric Poems, pp. 45-62
"Ode to a Nightingale"
"Ode on a Grecian Urn"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"La Belle Dame sans Merci"
"Ode on Melancholy"
Reading Lyric Poetry
The Lyric Stanza: A Convention
Lyric Epiphanies and Speakers
The Romantic Meditative Ode
|Lyric Poems (continued)
"Ode to Psyche"
|Lyric Poems (continued)
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