‘Ode to a nightingale’ is, superficially praise for the nightingale’s song. But on looking deeper it is about Keats’ his search for a way to transcend this world and all the pain associated with it. He probably wrote this ode after he became ill and when he had accepted his sad fate. Keats writes this ode in the first person, which makes this ode almost confessional.
Keats first describes the immense joy that bordered on pain that he felt on hearing the nightingale’s song. This hints that he wanted the song to help him transcend this world. Keats says that his heart was aching with a ‘drowsy’, numb pain. The words ‘numbness pains’ are an oxymoron and a paradox, this hints at Keats’ confusion as well as his intoxication. He says that his senses were dulled as though he had drunk the juice of the hemlock- a poisonous plant or as if he had taken ‘opiate’ or opium or like he was submerged in the ‘Lethe’ the river of forgetfulness of the past in Greek mythology. He then says this state was brought on not by sadness or envy but happiness at the happiness of the nightingale and its song about summer. He compares it to a ‘dryad of the trees’ which is a forest sprit in Greek mythology in the form of a young maiden. He says it was in a forest that consists of beech trees and has many shadows [‘shadows numberless’] indicating that Keats is describing a night scene, after all the nightingale is nocturnal. The repetition of the ‘p’, ‘d’ and ‘m’ sounds in the first quatrain of the first stanza suggests absentmindedness, distress, oblivion, lethargy and seriousness.
In the second stanza Keats considers the possibilities of transcendence through drink and inspiration. He wants a drink of ‘vintage’ that refers to wine. He is very specific with the requirements of this wine. It must have been cooled for a long time deep beneath the ground [deep-delved earth’]. It must taste like flowers [‘flora’] and the countryside [‘country green’] [this could mean he wants it from the grapes from a specific area]. The flavor of dance and ‘Provencal’ song must also be present along with the tang of ‘sunburnt’ mirth. This is an e.g. of synaesthesia- mirth cannot be ‘sunburnt’ just like wine cannot taste like dance or flowers or the country side. The word ‘Provencal’ refers to a place in France that was known for chivalric songs, the Petrarchan sonnet was inspired by Provencal songs.
Keats wishes for a glass [‘beaker full’] of the ‘warm south’ [reference to Greece, France or Italy] which is an alcoholic drink that could help him transcend this world. He would also want to some of the liquid from the ‘Hyppocrene’ which is a sacred fountain [of inspiration] on Mt. Helicon the abode of the nine muses, yet another Greek reference proving that the title pagan poet is deserved. This line also insinuates that Keats was looking for inspiration. The word ‘blushful’ is in reference to the nine muses that reside on the mountain near the fountain. The ‘b’ sounds [alliteration] in the 17th line provide it with a flowing movement. The liquid is purple in colour which is the colour of royalty and shows that it is not merely ordinary water but the water of the gods. Keats wanted to drink this and fade away from the world ‘unseen’ leaving no trace of his existence, thus severing all ties with the world and his former life. He wants to fade away into the forest where he imagines the nightingale to be the same forest described in the first stanza.
Keats wants to go far away and be forgotten as well as forget the troubles he had while he was human. When he was susceptible to fatigue, sickness and fear of diseases like ‘palsy’ when youth is lost and the few gray hairs are shaken of youth becomes a ghost and dies it is not permanent and only thinking evokes sorrow and despair. He wants to leave the world where beauty and love are both impermanent and temporary. He assumes that the nightingale has no problems. This is not practical, even though the nightingale dose not have human problems it may have its own difficulties to face, its own diseases, we cannot say whose problems are worse.
In the next stanza Keats considers the idea of transcendence through poetry more he addresses the nightingale and says that he will ‘fly’ to it not through ‘Bacchus’ [the Greek god of wine and merry making] and his ‘pards’ or partners [he rejects the idea of transcendence through alcoholic intoxication] but on the ‘wings of poesy’- ‘poesy’ means poetry- poetry is compared to a bird [metaphor] that can fly freely in the sky. But his brain does not let him get to the point of transcendence for it is too ‘dull’ and bewilders [‘perplexes’] and impedes [‘retards’]. He imagines that he is already with the nightingale in the night sky. He personifies the moon as a queen that is sitting on her throne while the stars that ‘cluster’d’ around her are compared to fairies. But there is no light [night time] except for that which was blown [synaesthesia- light cannot be blown] from the heavens, from god. He was flying through ‘verdurous’ [green forested] ‘glooms’ [because it was night time] and ‘winding mossy ways’ [reference to the unpredictable, uncertain and twisted path of life]. The word ‘mossy’ also tell us that it was a dark place because moss generally grows in damp places away from the light.
In the fifth stanza Keats is confused in the utter darkness. He uses the words ’embalmed darkness’ that refer to death; this is the first reference to death that we see. He cannot see the flowers at his feet or their fragrance, this is another example of synaesthesia and it conveys the confusion that Keats feels as well as provides continuity with the rest of the poem. He has to guess ‘each sweet’ or each fruit which the seasonal month ‘endows’ the various plants with. He then lists the trees and mentions the violets in praise of the end of the season, spring. The words ‘fast fading violets’ Keats displays the impermanence of nature, this impermanence is present in life as well. In the rest of the stanza Keats goes on to convey the atmosphere of this place that he cannot see but feels very strongly. The musk rose is referred to as ‘mid-May’s eldest child’. May is thus personified. He says that the flies hang about the musk roses to feast on the dew which is compared to wine. Wine is also mentioned in the second stanza, this is used as a link as well as for continuity.
Keats begins the sixth stanza by directly addressing the nightingale. He calls it a ‘darkling’, referring to its nocturnal nature. He tells the nightingale that he has been listening to its song and has thought of death many times. He is now ‘half in love with easeful death’ this may be due to the nightingale’s song; traditionally this bird is associated with pain and suffering in love. It is also associated with poetry and poetic sensation. Although by hearing the nightingales exquisite song Keats has come to accept and even welcome death as a path to transcend this life. He has referred fondly to death in many of his poems [‘mused rhyme’]. He also requests death to claim him. His ‘breath’ is not only his life but could also mean his soul.
He feels that [‘now more than ever seems it rich to die’] there is no better time than the present to die because the sweet song of the nightingale would guide him and he would be able to die without pain and in peace. The word ‘midnight’ also refers to the nocturnal nature of the bird and hints that Keats wants to die without leaving any traces of his life so as to ‘fade away’ [3rd stanza] and cut all ties to this world, to transcend. Keats praises the nightingale’s ability to convey its emotions [‘thy soul abroad’] even without words. He refers to it as ‘ecstasy’. He wants to hear the song while he dies and even after he is dead [‘ears in vain’]; this hints that he believes that the nightingale is immortal. He refers to the nightingale’s song as a ‘requiem’ or a funeral hymn [elegy] and wishes to hear it when he is in his grave [‘sod’]. Keats uses lots of ‘m’ sounds to give these lines a soft quality. He talks about death with a melodious and lyrical tone.
The next stanza is again commenced with a direct address to the nightingale. Keats says that it is a bird of such a high degree that death cannot overcome it. The greatness of the nightingale’s song could not and will not be diminished [‘tread thee down’] by any generation. He says that the nightingale’s song has been heard through time over various generations and classes like ’emperor and clown’. This is a reference to the many stories involving [Chinese] emperor and nightingales. Keats refers to the biblical character of ‘Ruth’ who may have heard the immortal song and found comfort when she stood in an unfamiliar cornfield in an unknown place and felt homesick [‘she stood in tears amid the alien corn’]. Keats also says that the nightingale’s song was present even in magical stories [‘magic casements’], fairy tales [‘faery lands’], adventure stories and other areas of literature. He thus refers from different sources to prove his point. The word ‘forlorn’ is present in this as well as the next stanza; this provides continuity and repetition that provides rhythm.
Keats uses a simile that compares the word ‘forlorn’ to a ‘bell’ [probably a funeral bell] whose sound pulls his soul back to his body, his sorrow will not let him transcend. He is sad that the world of fantasy not backed by reality [‘fancy’] is not more convincing that it can hold him [‘can not cheat so well’]. It does not live up to its reputation [‘as she is fam’d to do’]. The word ‘she’ implies that ‘fancy’ is personified as a woman famous for her deceiving quality. ‘Adieu’ is repeated in the 3rd as well as the 5th line providing a link as well as rhythm. ‘Adieu’ which means goodbye is
Keats farewell to the nightingale as its song slowly dies down [‘fades’]. We can actually imagine the song withdrawing over the various landforms [‘past the near meadows, over the still stream; up the hillside’] until it can not be heard. With the disappearance of the song Keats questions if the entire experience, that moved him so much was real or merely a dream.
The nightingale could symbolize death, pure art, creativity, song, literature or anything that could help him transcend this world. It could symbolize the unachievable or transcendence itself. The nature imagery raw, it is not cultivated like in his other poetry.