ing on how Keats presentssome of the ideas he was struggling with at the time.
A major point in “Ode to a Nightingale” is Keats’s perception of theconflicted nature of human life, i.e., the interconnection or mixture ofpain/joy, life/death, mortal/immortal, the actual/the ideal, and theinextricable link between the real and the unreal. In the ode, Keatsfocuses on immediate sensations and emotions that the reader can draw aconclusion from or a notion. Throughout the ode he is trying to workthrough his ideas and feelings about pleasure and pain, and the linkbetween the real and the unreal.The opening of the poem is very heavy and negative; ‘my heartaches’, with ‘numbness pains my sense’ making the reader think that it mustbe a very heavy pain to be felt when a person is numb.
He feels as if hemight have “of hemlock drunk” or “emptied some dull opiate to the drains”;this resembles the qualities of the Lethe, the Underworld river that thedead drank from in order to forget all that they had done or said whileliving. The feeling is in fact the result of a deep awareness of thehappiness of the nightingale he hears singing; his resulting pleasure is sointense it has become painful. He feels joy and pain, a response of twominds – he is happy, but he is too happy, which is then what is causing himthe pain. The ode reads as if Keats is jealous, but he is not, he isexamining the ironic link between happiness and sorrow; can pleasure be sointense that it numbs us or causes us pain? At the beginning of the ode,the bird is presented to us as a real bird, but as the poem progresses, thebird becomes a symbol for the beauties of nature and the ideal world. In the opening of the poem, a sense of sluggish weightiness issuggested by the heavy, almost thudding, alliterative sounds produced bythe repetition of ‘d’ (“drowsy”, “drunk”, “dull”, “drains”), ‘m’ (“My”,”numb”, “hemlock”, “minute”), and ‘p’ (“pains,” emptied”, “opiate”,”past”).
If we compare this to the effects created in the second half ofthe stanza by the light assonantal – “trees”, “beechen green” – andsibilant sounds – “shadows”, “singest”, “summer” – the reader can see thatthe nightingale, in comparison to the poet, is a much freer spirit.Wanting to escape from the pain of a joy-pain reality, Keats beginsto move into a world of imagination or fantasy. He then says he wants to beintoxicated, clearly not wanting to get drunk, but he is associating thewine with a quality, or a state of mind which he is seeking. He wishes todrink to escape the real world, to ‘leave the world unseen’ and enter theideal world through fantasy; he wants to be full of warmth and beauty; hewants to be free like the nightingale.
He wishes to forget the negativity,aging, and the suffering of the world. “Youth grows pale”; could be seen ashim referring to his brother dying of tuberculosis a few years earlier, and”beauty cannot keep” meaning everything beautiful dies. He personifiesbeauty here, with “her lustrous eyes” making beauty human, and so it willfade and die as all humans do eventually. The description of drinking andof the world associated with wine is idealized. The word “vintage” refersto a fine or prime wine; and it is used because if he was drinking a cheapwine, it would not have as pleasant an effect on him. Positive imagery isused much more as the feeling in the second stanza becomes a lot lighter,happier and freer. The activities in line 4 follow one another naturally:like a dance, and dance is associated with song; together they producepleasure (“mirth”), which is ‘sunburnt’ because the country dances are heldoutdoors.
Keats repeatedly combines different senses in one image; heattributes the traits of one sense to another, a practice calledsynaesthesia. “Sunburnt mirth” is an excellent example of synaesthesia inKeats’ imagery, since Flora, the green countryside, etc. are beingexperienced by Keats through drinking wine in his imagination.The image of the “beaded bubbles winking at the brim” is much admiredfor its onomatopoeic effect; it captures the action of sparkling wine andthe alliteration duplicates the sound of bubbles bursting. This image ofthe bubbles is actual; in contrast, the previous imagery in the stanza isabstract.
His awareness of the real world pulls him back from the imaginedworld of drunken joy. He still perceives the real world as a world of joyand pain (the two being linked). Keats thinking of the human circumstanceintensifies Keats’ desire to escape the real world. Keats uses the word”fade” in the last line of the second stanza and in the first line of thethird stanza to tie the stanzas together and to then be able to move easilyinto his next thought. By implication, the nightingale lives in a worldmuch different to Keats’ own; the nightingale’s world is full of beauty andtherefore will last forever, whilst Keats’ own world will not, it will oneday die and fade away. AKeats suddenly cries out “Away! away! for I will fly to thee.
” He thenturns to fantasy again; he rejects the idea of drinking wine in line 2, andin line 3 he announces he is going to use “the viewless wings of Poesy” tojoin the nightingale. He explains that it might be difficult to get there,but in fact he is already there with the nightingale in the fantasy worldin his mind. He contrasts the experience through poetry to the “dull brain”that “perplexes and retards” (line 4); the mind is often related to work,while the heart is usually related to emotion. In line 5, he seems tosucceed in joining the nightingale.
The imagined world described in therest of the stanza is dark; “there is no light”, associating the light andthe dark to Plato’s’ Cave; the theory of the harsh light being the realworld, and the soft darkness is the ideal world.ABecause Keats cannot seein the darkness, he relies on his other senses, taking us through them inthe next stanza. Not being able to see makes the experience more intense,and the language intensifies with it, and the tone of the poem changes.Even in the dark refuge, death is present; “embalmed” meaning both amethod of burial and a sweet smell. Even in the ideal world there are stillnegative points. The hints of death bring the tone of the ode down again,to prepare us for his ‘coming out’ of his ‘trance’ in the last stanza. Itcould be said that death was almost anticipated (in a sort of propheticirony) by the vague suggestions in the words “Lethe,” “hemlock,” “drowsynumbness,” “poisonous,” and “shadowy darkness”In the sixth stanza, Keats starts to distance himself from thenightingale, which he joined in imagination in the earlier parts of theode.
Keats says he yearns to die, a state which he imagines as only joyful,as pain-free, and a state in which he can truly merge with the bird’s song.The nightingale is set apart as wholly blissful–“full-throated ease” inthe first stanza and “pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!”(lines 7-8). In the last two lines of this stanza, the poet no longeridentifies with the bird. He realizes what death means for him; death isnot release from pain; rather it means non-existence, the inability to feelthe bird’s ecstasy. Keats realizes that it is the song that will last, notthe bird, because if the nightingale were to fly away, the song would leavewith it.Keats moves from his awareness of his own mortality in the precedingstanza to the perception of the bird’s immortality. On a literal level, hisperception is wrong; this bird will die.
On another level, he is suggestingthat the nightingale is a symbol of the continuity of nature. A”Forlorn” and “perilous” would not ordinarily be associated withmagic/enchantment. These words hint at the pain the poet recognized in thebeginning of the poem and that which he is trying to escape.The poet repeats the word “forlorn” from the end of the seventhstanza; Keats is now forlorn, as thinking of the world has brought him backinto the real world. He describes the word forlorn as a bell, and each wordfrom “the very” to “sole self” has one syllable, and when read sounds verymuch like the tolling of a bell.
In lines 2 and 3 or this stanza, the poetsays that “fancy” (his imagination) has cheated him, as has the “elf” (thenightingale). The bird has ceased to be a symbol and is again the actualbird the poet heard in the first stanza. Keats, like the nightingale, hasreturned to the real world. The bird’s song becomes a “plaintive anthem”and gets fainter as it flies away, which is Keats examining the idea ofpermanence through art, and art being beauty. If the bird flies away, thesong will leave too. The song ‘dying’ is the last of the death imagesrunning through the poem.With the last two lines of the ode, Keats wonders whether he has hada true experience or whether he has been daydreaming.
He is bothquestioning the validity of the experience, and expressing his inability tomaintain a true vision for a long time. This is another time where heexamines the permanence of things in art and the imagination. Is hisexperience a false vision, or is it a true experience of insight into thenature of reality?