The Nightingale Poet

John Keats

14 October 1795 – 23 February 1821

English

Poet

 

John Keats was an English Romantic poet and one of the main figures of the second generation of Romantics alongside Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

John was born on 14 October 1795 in London, the son of Thomas Keats, a hostler at the Swan and Hoop Inn, and Frances Jennings. Thomas died in 1804 when John was only 8 years old. Frances left her children with their maternal grandmother, Alice Jennings, in Edmonton. Frances died in 1810 leaving her children in the custody of Alice.

Having lost both his parents at such an early age John found solace in his academic life at the Enfield Academy and later at Guy’s Hospital, London. Although he was a licensed apothecary John chose to focus on his writing. He never married but he was said to be deeply in love with Fanny Brawne. John lived most of his adult life in London.

John’s interest in classical literature began while he was a student at the Enfield Academy. Sadly, his poetry was never well received in his lifetime but by the end of the 19th century he had become one of the most highly regarded English poets.

Throughout his adult life John struggled to stay out of debt and live independently. It is thought that for this reason he never proposed to Fanny. It is through his lifelong friend, Cowden Clarke, son of the master of Enfield Academy, John was introduced to the poets Leigh Hunt, Percy Bysshe Shelley and possibly Lord Byron.

Towards the end of his life John was suffering from tuberculosis and as his doctors felt he wouldn’t survive another English winter he had moved to Rome, Italy. John died in Rome on 23 February 1821. He was buried at the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.

Today John Keats’s poetry is cited for its sensual imagery, as is typical of the Romantic movement. He is still one of the most popular and academically acclaimed English poets.

 

Form

As is common in poetic odes ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is written with a ten-lined stanza structure. It is, however, unlike many odes metrically variable each stanza having seven lines composed of iambic pentameter, the eighth line in trimeter, and returning to pentameter for the closing two lines. Unusually for Keats’ odes the rhyme scheme ABABCDECDE remains consistent throughout the poem without any variation in the closing sextet of the stanza.

 

Themes

The narrative within ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of Keats’ deepest explorations into creativity, expression and mortality. The transience of the mortal existence and the depreciation of mind and body that comes with age is set against the eternal and fluid nature of the nightingale’s song. The narrator’s desire is to disconnect from the mortal reality to a deeper connection with the nightingale. Initially the use of intoxication to achieve a bird like state is considered but upon meditation it is rejected in favour of poetry.

Within the narrative poetic inspiration is viewed as a never-ending state of rapture matching that of the music created by the nightingale in its song. It is in this state that the narrator can join with the bird in the darkness of the forest and he is able to embrace the idea of mortality and of dying. Death while captured by the nightingale’s song would be painless and without failure or disappointment.

As the poem comes to an end so does the narrator’s meditation. On coming back to reality, he recognizes it as an imaginary getaway from the inevitable and the unavoidable. The poem closes with the narrator wondering if his journey was in fact meditation or a dream such was the intensity of the experience.

 

Ode to a Nightingale 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?

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