#10 “Ode to a Nightingale” (John Keats)

For John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” I will provide a weblog glossary to the unfamiliar language of the poem. Once that’s in place, the magnificent Ode itself is a pretty straightforward poem, full of the tensions between Death and Beauty that characterize so much of Keats’s work.

  • Nightingale: “A secretive bird” with a proverbially beautiful song; associated with nighttime, of course, and thick vegetation. “Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree,” says Juliet to Romeo, trying to persuade him to stay awhile longer, “Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.”
  • hemlock: POISON! as this website says. When the Athenians got tired of Socrates, he exited this life by knocking back some hemlock.
  • Lethe: A river in Greek legend. Once you drink of Lethe, your memory is gone forever. Kind of like the garbage-pail punches I drank as an undergraduate, but with a more systemic effect, i.e. instead of just forgetting one weekend in October 1978, you’d forget everything.
  • Dryad: Another regular character from Greek mythology. Dryads are forest spirits, leafy, secretive like the bird Keats compares them to. Sort of nubile and sort of vegetable at the same time.
  • Flora: A Roman vegetation goddess; as her name might suggest, connected with flowers. She gave her name to a whole branch of living things, of course.
  • Provençal: Associated with Provence, in the Southeast of France. A country not unlike Texas in its climate, in other words an awful lot unlike rainy, cloudy, chilly, miserable England.
  • Hippocrene: The fountain of the Muses, and one can imagine that the Muses serve something more potent than Diet Dr Pepper.
  • Bacchus and his pards: Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, and here he is pictured in a sketch by Delacroix, his chariot packed with wine jugs and drawn by two leopards. Actually these look to me more like saber-tooth tigers, but Delacroix had a lot of imagination. “Pard” is an earlier English abbreviation for “leopard,” as in Shakespeare’s soldier “Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard.” Though why 17th-century English people needed an abbreviation for “leopard” is beyond me.
  • White hawthorn: Prickly, showy, fragrant hedge plant common in England.
  • eglantine: A variety of rose, also called sweetbrier. Prickly too, with a lovely open blossom.
  • musk-rose: A huge number of rose varieties are called “musk-roses,” and Keats uses the phrase more for its sound and its suggestion of scent than for any visual cue.
  • clown: No, not Bozo. Keats means the word in its original sense, that of a none-too-refined country man.
  • Ruth: In the book of Ruth, the title character, a young widow, says to her mother-in-law Naomi: “Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after [him] in whose sight I shall find grace.” (Rth 2:2). (And by “corn,” she means “barley.”) This patient gleaning got Ruth a husband, but she had to leave home and hie herself into a strange country to get him. If you have been to a Christian wedding in this country, you have probably heard Ruth’s words: “whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people [shall be] my people, and thy God my God” (Rth 1:16). Of course, what they usually don’t point out at weddings is that she said this not to her husband but to her mother-in-law.
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13 responses to “#10 “Ode to a Nightingale” (John Keats)

  1. Wow! What an affect listening to a bird can have on a poet. It’s amazing! This poem helps me realize what great art form poetry is. As well as, what a great Poet John Keats was. I think it takes tremendous talent to write a poem like this one.
    Keats hears the song of a nightingale and begins daydreaming. Throughout the poem he describes the mixture of emotions and thoughts he comes across while daydreaming. Both his emotions and thoughts seem to flip flop throughout the entire poem from sadness/happiness, immense sensation/numbness, life/death, mortal/immortal. Much flip-flopping is also going on in the poem between reality and imagination.
    At the beginning of the poem the nightingale is a real bird then later it becomes a symbol of himself, then even later the bird symbolizes immortality. It seems as if Keats is very confused about his feelings toward death. At first he seems ok with dying because he is content at that very moment while he is listening to the Nightingale sing it’s beautiful song. Soon after he realizes that dying isn’t so great after all. He becomes sad while thinking that even if he dies the bird will still exist. In this case I don’t believe he is being literal because the bird that he is listening to at that moment could die before he does. I think he’s trying to say that after he dies life for the rest of the world will still continue on as normal.

  2. I get the feeling that the speaker’s a sad and lonely person who just wants to die (or feels like he does); but at the same time wants to live because of life’s beauties. This poem has a sad tone to it and also has a “day-dreaming” effect on the reader. I love the way the speaker describes the Nightingale, Bacchus and his pards, and other terms unknown to a modern reader. In the second stanza, at the last five lines, where he says, “Full of he true….And with thee fade away…”, I felt that he meant he wanted to drink to death; he doesn’t want to be noticed as he dies or before he dies. Hence the sentence, “leave the world unseen.” Also, he said in the sixth stanza that “he has been half in love with easful Death,” which to me means that he would love and prefer a peaceful death–an easy and pain-free one. Looking at both the second and sixth stanza, I think that it is safe to conclude that the author wants to die from his sleep; meaning that he wants a death in which he would go to sleep and never wake up. Hence the “day-dreamy” descriptions he includes in this poem. From the last stanza, I think that the speaker feels everything he’s been seeing or describing are all in a dream; but he doesn’t know if he should get up because he doesn’t know if it’s real or not.

  3. John Keats is my favorite poet. The beauty of the poem for me is in the words and the way Keats presents them. The way he assembles them to me is what poetry should be. Although the subject of the poem is a solemn one it can be overlooked by the beauty of the language. Yes, people die, everything dies and yet we all go on. That is the paradox of it all. Flowers bloom and wither. Birds are hatched and are shot down. People are born and expire. We all die, how sad, but we continue to live and progress. How inspiring! Death can be a lovely thing when we look upon our victories and our successes. We will not have died in vain if we remember that we loved and that we took an active part in life. To have spent life enjoying the beauty of is a life well spent. Keats reminds us that we are just small players in the play that nature has provided.

  4. This poem was actually pretty interesting to me. In my opinion, it’s talking about how art and artists are trying to escape reality. The artist in the poem tries to take a temporary escape with the alcohol. The speaker explains how poetry and art are better than other temporary fixes. They sustain the soul.

  5. kursteilnehmur

    This is one of my favorite poems of all time. I enjoy much of Keats’s work, but this in my opinion is the pinnacle of his poetry. The poem is constructed with great care, and many allusions to other works. The poem is very difficult to understand for someone who is not very well read. This creates a sort of secret that Keats is sharing with only the ones who truly understand all of the allusions within the poem. The beauty of the poem is brought out with the flowing diction and rhyme. One of the best parts is the fifth stanza where he speaks “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 hawthorne…” It is difficult to point out one part of the poem to be greater than all the others because it cannot be fully understood without the other parts of the poem. Nevertheless it is still my favorite part. The tensions between death and beauty that the professor spoke of can cause one to take a side within the poem. One tends to advocate either death or life in a sense. The paradox here is that there can be no life without death. There can be no distinction between beauty and that which is revolting. Keats has definitely created a masterpiece that has become entwined with the rose of beauty, and yet holds hands with death as if he were some old friend from long ago. I enjoy this poem every time I read its verse. The poem itself is so superlative that it seems daunting in a way. People who read this poem are always caught up in a little aspect of the poem like “what does the bird mean?” or “Bacchus and his pards are the key to this poem.” I tend to see this poem for the overall picture that it presents. The poem is one of sadness, mortality, beauty, and everything in nature that will last through the ages. The examples of nature like the nightingale’s song, the sweet smell of the White hawthorne will carry people on through the despairing parts of their lives.

  6. I found this poem quite interesting. The first thing I noticed was the form of the poem, it could possibly resemble musical notes or a rhythm. I found the poem to be quite depressing at first then realized it may have been a battle in his head for his life, knowing one is going to die but still wanting to stay alive. Imagine the thoughts that would go through your head if you knew you were close to death. Keats in this poem is thinking that maybe he wants to die… but maybe live because he realizes the beauty in the world. I believe this would be indeed a very emotional time just as his poem shows. Again another poem about death that makes me wonder what my end will be.

  7. “Ode to a Nightingale” is truly one of the most beautiful poems we have read so far in this semester. Although it was a little bit confusing to me at first because the language is highly complex, re-reading it and using the glossary provided on the blog helped me understand its true meaning. Clearly, the poem is about death! However, the speaker is perplexed about whether he is content or discontent about dying. He is describing the singing of the bird and it seems as though the idea that the bird will continue to sing even after he is gone makes him feel sorrowful. Although he might be sad about the coming of death, he is not confused that it is a reality. He is aware that death is a part of life and will be around as long as life exists. “The voice I hear this passing night was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown:”… points out the longevity of death itself.

    On the other hand, the speaker is pointing out the beauties of nature as he parts with the world. The singing of the bird, the grass, the fruit-trees, the flowers, are all things that he enjoys and this is where his confusion about death comes in. The speaker is literally confused about whether he is sad or happy about having to die. Nature will continue to flourish even when he leaves the “…world unseen…” but what will happen to him and his feelings when he is gone? Where do those feelings of satisfaction go? Should he be happy or sad that he is dying? Will he be able to enjoy those same gifts of nature when he is gone? It’s not like we get a choice about death, it is inevitable, but what happens once we pass? Maybe there are poems that have been written with a potential to answer some of those questions…

  8. I thought this was a great poem. The words in the poem are meaningful and beautiful. In the beginning the poem is sad but it has a meaning for being sad. Towards the end of the poem it gives you a understanding that one day we have to all die. We may not want to but we all have an appointment with death. I believe that we are all put on earth for a purpose and it is up to us to find that purpose and use it. I believe this is what the author is trying to express to us, is the true meaning of life and death. I thought it was a very meaningful and interesting poem.

  9. John Keats in so many ways looks at life like a song. Especially in this poem where you feel that he is looking at the world as a song. His language and wording make this particular piece a very rhythmic and fun to read. I believe that Keats can honestly listen to the song of the bird and see the leaves in the trees moving in cadence to that song. This poem makes me long for the lingering days of summer and spring. I long to sit under a tree and listen to the song of the birds.

  10. I look at this and when I read it fast I seem to be able to relate to it, however when I try and take my time to analyze it I get lost in the “poetic jargon”. I think what Keats is writing about is our human nature to bury our sorrow into vices that we shouldn’t. Or perhaps “self-medication” in some instances is not only necessary to alleviate distress but to maintain a sense of happiness. Though this happiness is superficial and temporary it is what is necessary for us to remain as sane human beings. It seems the annoyance being expressed by Keats is the person whom is masking their unhappiness and masking their mask. By an over exuberance of compensation leading to a more apparent expression of their true feelings. In short the harder one tries to hide or cover up something the more obvious it becomes. What is funny about this is that we still do it, and people still accept it.

  11. In this poem I get the feeling that the speaker is a lonely person, and the sound of the nightingale, being a beautiful one makes him in way question his own existence. I think the speaker is realizing that he will one day have to leave this world and the beautiful things it has to offer. I get the feeling that the speaker does and doesn’t want to die for this same reason. The poem mentions one growing old and death. Clearly, the speaker is aware of this and it seems as though he wishes to go in a peaceful uninterrupted way. I feel like he wants to die, and when he does so, forget the sadness that ever followed him around by drinking from the river of Lethe. Maybe him being sad is the reason for his want of death.

  12. “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats is a strong poem all the way through, and one of my favorite’s by Mr. Keats. Death is something inevitable, and many poems are written about it and reasonably so. The rhyme as well as the use of words, is what makes this work of art unique. Even though I am not a big fan of poems that are somewhat complicated by tricky language, this poem is pretty straightforward. I think his use of such powerful things to describe nature is a tribute to what the poem is truly about. All the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, are what make life so wonderful. Our senses are our connection with our environment, and this poem does a great job of showing how important that is. When I heard this poem, it made me think about how this poem really makes you want to “stop and smell the roses.”

  13. decarlocoleman

    I really enjoyed Ode to a Nightingale, this poem is a lyric narrated by a speaker who is tempted to forsake the real world of human suffering for the ideal world of art. As the speaker listens to a bird’s song, the speaker becomes more and more enraptured by it, and becomes increasingly disgruntled with the mortal world of pain and death.The poet begins by describing his current listless mental state, contrasting it with the beautiful and the most carefree song of the nightingale. He wishes for freedom from earthly cares and longs for the fairyland of art, represented in this poem by the nightingale. Life on earth is full of sorrow and disappointment. Death, says the poet, has long been a temptation for him, and the bird’s song temporarily strengthens his death wish.

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