Classification of Poem

Type of poem: lyric poem
Type of lyric poem: ode

Contents of Page

The Writing of "Ode to a Nightingale"
Analysis: "Ode to a Nightingale"
      Stanza I
      Stanza II
      Stanza III
      Stanza IV
      Stanza V
      Stanza VI
      Stanza VII
      Stanza VIII
      Keats Syllabus

The Writing of "Ode to a Nightingale"

      Charles Brown, a friend with whom Keats was living when he composed this poem, wrote,
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.

Analysis: "Ode to a 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.

Stanza I.
      The poet falls into a reverie while listening to an actual nightingale sing. He feels joy and pain, an ambivalent response. As you read, pick out which words express his pleasure and which ones express his pain and which words express his intense feeling and which his numbed feeling. Consider whether pleasure can be so intense that,
paradoxically, it either numbs us or causes pain.

      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

  • pure or unmixed joy,
  • the artist, with the bird's voice being self expression or the song being poetry,
  • the music (beauties) of nature
  • the ideal.
Think of the quality or qualities attributed to the nightingale in deciding on the bird's symbolic meaning.
Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza I

Stanza II.
      Wanting to escape from the pain of a joy-pain reality, the poet begins to move into a world of imagination or fantasy. He calls for wine. His purpose is clearly not to get drunk. Rather he associates wine with some quality or state he is seeking. Think about the effects alcohol has; which one or ones is the poet seeking? Since his goal is to join the bird, what quality or qualities of the bird does he want to experience? How might alcohol enable him to achieve that desire?

      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.

Stanza III.
      His awareness of the real world pulls him back from the imagined world of drink-joy. Does he still perceive the real world as a world of joy-pain? Does thinking of the human condition intensify, diminish, or have no effect on the poet's desire to escape the world?

      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?)

      Lead is a heavy metal; why is despair "leaden-eyed" (line 8)?

Stanza IV.
      The poet suddenly cries out "Away! away! for I will fly to thee." He turns to fantasy again; he rejects wine in line 2, and in line 3 he announces he is going to use "the viewless wings of Poesy" to join a fantasy bird. In choosing Poesy, is he calling on analytical or scientific reasoning, on poetry and imagination, on passion, on sensuality, or on some something else?

      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?


Stanza V.
      Because the poet cannot see in the darkness, he must rely on his other senses. What senses does he rely on? Are his experience and his sensations intense? for himself only or for the reader also?
      Even in this refuge, death is present; what words hint of death? Do these hints help to prepare for stanza VI? Was death anticipated in stanza I by the vague suggestions in the words "Lethe," "hemlock," "drowsy numbness," "poisonous," and "shadowy darkness"?
      The season is spring (the musk rose, which is a mid-May flower, has not yet bloomed). Nevertheless, Keats speaks of summer: in stanza one he introduces the nightingale singing "of summer," and in this stanza he refers to the murmur of flies "on summer eves." In the progression of the seasons, what changes occur between spring and summer? how do they differ (as, for instance, autumn brings fulfillment, harvest, and the beginning of decay which becomes death in winter)? Why might Keats leap to thoughts of the summer to come?


Stanza VI.
      In Stanza VI, the poet begins to distance himself from the nightingale, which he joined in imagination in stanzas IV and V.

      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).

      The mixed nature of reality and its transience are suggested by the contrasting phrases "fast-fading violets" and "the coming musk-rose."

      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.

Stanza VII.
      Keats moves from his awareness of his own mortality in the preceding stanza to the perception of the bird's immortality. On a literal level, his perception is wrong; this bird will die. Some readers, including very perceptive ones, see his chracterization of the bird as immortal as a flaw. Before you make this judgment, consider alternate interpretations. Interpreting the line literally may be a misreading, because the bird has clearly become a symbol for the poet.

The poet contrasts the bird's singing and immunity from death and suffering with human beings, "hungry generations." What is he saying about the human experience with "hungry"? If you think in terms of the passage of time, what is the effect of "generations"?

      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 of 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?


Stanza VIII.
      The poet repeats the word "forlorn" from the end of stanza VII; who or what is now forlorn? Is the poet identified with or separate from the nightingale?

      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 Syllabus

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"
"To Autumn"
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"
**Supplemental Reading**
      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)
Paper 1 due
**Supplemental Reading**
      Topics for Paper
      Introduction to Writing Your Paper
      Critical Essays, written by students
      Personal Response Essays,
            written by students
      Essays of Society or General Analysis,
            written by students
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