ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE [Full Text & Notes]
by John Keats
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
“Ode to a nightingale” (John Keats)
1. Briefly summarize the content of each stanza in your own words.
My heart aches, and I feel numb,
My senses are dulled like I have drunk a poison
Or taken some opiates
One minute has passed, and I have forgotten my memories:
I am not envious of your happy lot, (he is speaking to the nightingale in the title here)
I am happy as well because you are happy.
Light, wood nymph of the trees,
singing a melodious tune,
In the forest of green trees and shadows,
Singing of summer with ease, not holding back.
O, I would love to have a drink of wine that has been
Cooled for a long time in deep dark earth, (the earth is a wine cellar here)
That tastes like the goddess flowers, green earth,
Dancing, Provencal and happiness. (Provencal is a place in Southern France)
Oh, for a pitcher of the warm South’s essence,
I would love to drink from the Hippocrene, (Hippocrene is a spring on Mt. Helicon which brought on poetic inspiration if drank)
With big bubbles winking at the brim
Which stains my mouth purple (like red wine).
I want to drink this magical wine,
And fade away with you (the nightingale) into the forest.
I want to fade far away and forget,
Which you in the forest has never known (possibly work, economic struggle, societal issues).
The weariness, the fever and the worry,
Cause men to sit around and groan to each other,
Where palsy shakes the last few grey hairs from a man’s head
And youth grows pale, thin and dies,
Where to think leads to sorrow (through worry and depressing thoughts)
Which causes your eyes to grow heavy,
Where beauty fades away,
And love can’t see beyond that beauty beyond tomorrow.
Away! I need to get away and find you!
Not charioted by Bacchus (the God of wine who rode in a chariot drawn by leopards)
But on the invisible wings of poetry,
Even though the dull brain slows me down:
Already with you! (The nightingale again) It is a tender night
And the Queen Moon is on her throne,
Clustered all around her are the stars;
But here there is no light,
There is only a small amount of breeze
Through the darkness and mossy forest (There is no light because the forest blocks it out).
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet
Nor what is making that fantastic scent in the trees,
Here in the darkness I can only guess each sweet thing,
Depending on what month it is,
The grass, the thickets and the wild fruit trees;
White hawthorn and eglantine (eglantine is a type of rose, also called sweet briar)
Fast fading violets covered in the breeze,
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The musk-rose, which smells intoxicating like wine,
And the sounds of flies in the summer evening.
I have listed in the dark many-a-time,
I have been in love with an easeful death (the darkness he is in relates do death, and this ‘death’ is easy)
And whispered many sweet nothings into Death’s ear,
And told him to take the air from my lungs;
In this world (of the forest/nightingale), it seems like it would be rich to die,
To ease into death with no pain at midnight,
While you are singing your beautiful song,
In such ecstasy!
You would still sing after I died as if nothing had happened even though I cannot hear you –
It would be a beautiful song but you would sing it to an intimate object.
You were not born for death immortal bird!
No younger generations hold you down,
The voice I have heard today
Was also heard in ancient days by emperors and clowns alike (the nightingale’s voice has been around forever, not the nightingale itself)
Perhaps the same song has found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, who was sick for home (Ruth was a biblical figure who worked in the fields of Judea)
Who cried in the fields of corn when she heard the song;
The same song that often times has
Charmed magic casements making them open
To perilous seas and forlorn lands.
Forlorn! That word brings me back like an alarm/bell
And pulls me back into my usual self,
Goodbye! My imagination cannot cheat so well
As I would have liked, deceiving elf! (His imagination didn’t work as well to enter the nightingale’s world as he hoped)
Goodbye, goodbye! Your song fades,
Past the near meadows and over the still stream
Up the hill-side; now it is buried deep
In the next valley (The bird has flown away to the next valley)
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
The music is gone, do I wake or do I sleep? (Was the bird’s reality the speakers own, or was he dreaming he was in the bird’s reality?)
2. Describe the stanza form of this poem in terms of rhyming, line length, and rhyme scheme.
The poem is written in eight, ten-line stanzas. The meter varies throughout the stanza, as the first seven lines and last two (1-7, 9, 10) are written in iambic pentameter, with the eight line in each stanza is written in iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza and goes ABABCDECDE.
3. How is the nightingale’s symbolic significance widened in the seventh stanza?
The nightingale is a symbol of immortality and freedom from the troubles of the world. The scope of the nightingale’s symbolic importance widens in the seventh stanza as that is where the immortality comes into play: we learn in the third line that it is not the bird itself that is immortal, but the song of the bird. There have been nightingales for centuries, and there have been people all across time, from emperors to clowns who have heard the bird sing. Even the biblical Ruth has heard the legendary bird’s song.
4. At the end of the seventh stanza, the “fairylands” are described as “forlorn.” What response does this word arouse in the last stanza?
Forlorn, which means pitifully sad or lonely snaps the speaker back into the real world – or at least his real world – of work, troubles, and society much like an alarm clock would wake one up for work in the morning. The speaker is sad that he is snapped back into reality, wishing his imagination would be better and would let him stay in the world of the nightingale, or at least be able to follow the nightingale which is flying away, taking its song with it.
5. How may this ode be read as a poem in which the self has an adventure, an adventure of the imagination? Do you find this reading more satisfying than a purely intellectual interpretation in terms of its “message”? Why or why not?
The poem could be read in a way that would mean the self has an adventure in its imagination as it would speak to finding the nightingale on purely imaginative terms rather than actually listening to one, something Keats actually ponders in the end of the poem – was it just his imagination, or was he really listening to a nightingale? I find both readings, the imaginative reading as well as the intellectual reading of the poem similar in terms of being satisfied, due to the similarities between the two. Now it may be hard to see the resemblance between the imagination of being around the bird and actually being around bird, but the mind is a powerful thing. In both instances, Keats’ speaker is using the bird’s song as a means of escape from his life that he seems not to enjoy, and there are certain times where the imagination can be just as vivid as reality. In each case, the imaginative adventure or real adventure amounts to the same thing: an escape from “reality” (society, work, sickness, troubles etc.) that one has to come back to at some point.