Ode to a Nightingale

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-wingéd 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-delvéd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal 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-stainèd 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 embalmèd 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 musèd 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?

Footnotes

  1. The nightingale’s identity remains fluid and liminal. The bird occupies the blurred line between life and death, sleep and wakefulness. After having sought to escape the world through various means, the speaker is left in a state of bewilderment. The poem veers back and forth between reality and fantasy before ending somewhere in between.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Keats uses an intriguing spatial metaphor here. The notion of the nightingale in flight rising above the earthly “tread” of generations serves to indicate its timelessness. The rest of the stanza illustrates a series of appearances by the nightingale in different historical and mythological settings. Thus the nightingale’s song becomes yet another vehicle for the speaker to escape his worldly suffering.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Keats reimagines the nightingale’s song as a requiem—a funeral song—for the speaker. The reference to “a sod”—which refers to both an unfavorable person as well as a plot of earth—is a self-effacing means for the speaker to imagine being dead.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. A pattern is emerging. As the poem progresses, the speaker seeks new ways to escape the sorrows of the world: first, through drink and pleasure; next, through poesy; now, through “easeful Death.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Keats brings the nightingale into the poem with this clever trio of words. Notice the rich recycling of sounds in “Darkling I listen”—in particular the short *i*, *l*, and *n* sounds. The careful attention to the sounds of the words shows, rather than simply tells, how the speaker listens.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. Keats uses consonance to give the line a sound that suits the imagery it describes. In particular, Keats repeatedly employs *th*, *t*, and the liquid consonants—that is, *r* and *l*—to thicken and interconnect the words. These dense sounds take on the sonic equivalent of grasses, thickets, and groves of trees.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. The speaker, ever searching for the mythic, personifies the moon and stars as “the Queen-Moon” and “all her starry Fays” (“fay” being an outdated word for “fairy”). Once again, the speaker struggles with the dissonance between his idealism and the realities of the world. In the next line, it becomes clear that the mythic meanings assigned to the heavens have become emptied: “But here there is no light.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. The speaker now identifies as a poet, having found an escape from the world’s suffering “on the viewless wings of Poesy” rather than in pleasure. It is important that Keats uses the word “Poesy”—the craft of writing poems—rather than “poetry.” Poesy can be lofty, “viewless,” and ignore the world as it is. Poetry in its truest form cannot. The irony is that, while the speaker entertains the notion of escape through poesy, the poem itself does not turn its gaze from the world.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In this stanza, Keats ruminates on the tragedies of mortality, a theme he explores deeply in his [Ode on a Grecian Urn] (https://www.owleyes.org/text/ode-grecian-urn). In that ode, Keats offers scenes painted on an urn. The ode’s central scene depicts a “fair youth” chasing his beloved. The passion of the chase, the fairness of the youth, and the beauty of the beloved are all frozen for eternity. In this third stanza of “Ode to a Nightingale,” the speaker faces the transient reality of youth and love. Once again, realism tempers idealism.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Keats takes a unique approach to meter in this line. The last five syllables of the line are stressed monosyllabic words. Because these words begin—and, in several cases, end—with consonant sounds, the pace of the poem necessarily slows down. Keats uses this poetic technique to convey the process of aging. This is the section of the poem in which the speaker’s fantasy of inebriation is sobered by the realities of the world, mortality included.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Here the poem’s tone and subject matter take a turn. The speaker reveals the source of his desire to “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget.” The reality of worldly suffering pierces the fantasy of pleasure and oblivion. This tension between idealism and realism is perhaps the poem’s central theme.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. In this line, Keats uses assonance and consonance to create a chain of cascading sounds that runs from word to word. The *n* and *c* consonant sounds in ‘dance’ can be heard again in the second syllable of ‘Provencal,’ whose final syllable pairs nicely with the next word: ‘song.’ ‘Song,’ in turn, creates a slanted rim rhyme with ‘sun,’ and so on. Keats weaves this dense tapestry of vowel and consonant sounds in order to convey the sense of Dionysian abandon at the heart of the second stanza.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. As is the case with many of Keats’s odes, the poem has stanzas comprised of ten lines each. Each stanza takes the rhyme scheme of ABABCDECDE. Most of the lines follow a clean iambic pentameter, but the eighth line of each stanza has only three beats. This alteration in meter creates a sense of suspense just before the final couplet, which allows for a forceful finish to the stanza.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Keats laces many of his poems with classical imagery and allusion. From the Dryad—a kind of nymph—to the goddess Flora and the Hippocrene, Keats draws upon figures and places from Greek lore to give the poem a timeless, mythic quality.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The River Lethe is one of the four rivers of the Greek underworld. It is the river of oblivion, whose waters souls must drink so as to forget their past lives. In the first several stanzas, Keats’s speaker entertains the appeal of pleasure and forgetfulness before moving towards an engagement with the pain of life and death.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. According to Keats’s friend Charles Armitage Brown, Keats wrote “Ode to a Nightingale” in a single day in the spring of 1819. As Keats sat in the garden of Wentworth Place, his lodging in London, he noticed a nightingale’s nest in the upper boughs of a plum tree. The poem is one of the five well-known odes he wrote in 1819.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. The alliteration of "S" sounds suggests the notes of a singing bird. Shakespeare uses "S" sounds to suggest a singing lark in his Sonnet 29: *Haply I think on thee, and then my state,* *Like to the lark at break of day arising* *From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate*  

    — William Delaney
  18. Keats draws the reader into his imaginary setting by appealing to most of the five senses. For example: *Sight*: The moon and stars, the magic casements *Sound*: The nightingale, the church-bell *Taste*: The desired and desirable beaker full of the warm south *Smell*: The grass, the thicket, the fruit-tree, the white hawthorn, the eglantine, the musk-rose *Feeling*: The feeling of flying, of being hidden in the bushes, of being transported far away, of fading, even of dying a painless death    

    — William Delaney
  19. This seems almost like a newly coined word. It is a verb made out of a noun. The word in this instance would be pronounced as having only three syllables, as *chair-yah-tid*. It is appropriate because Keats is referring to an ancient Roman god, and all the ancient gods probably traveled by chariots, which were speedy vehicles driven by charioteers. Keats needs a speedy means of transportation, since he says that he "will fly" to join the singing bird. Shelley also uses chariot as a verb in his "Ode to the West Wind," which, coincidentally, was written in 1819, the same year as Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale." Shelley addresses the West Wind as: O thou,Who chariotest to their dark wintry bedThe winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,

    — William Delaney
  20. This idea inspired the whole poem. It is based on a poetic conceit that the nightingale Keats is listening to is immortal because it looks exactly the same and sings exactly the same song as all nightingales since the species has existed. 

    — William Delaney
  21. These two brilliant lines have been called "touchstone lines." They are the essence of poetry and the worth of other verse can be judged by comparing them with these by Keats. He has gone as far out in his imagination as it is possible for a poet to go. He has taken us into another dimension, so to speak, and we can see the foam of perilous seas through the magic windows. The fairy lands are forlorn, apparently, because no one cares or dares to visit them anymore. Now he has to come back to reality--and we with him. 

    — William Delaney
  22. Keats was preoccupied with thoughts of death. He was afflicted with the "family disease" of consumption (tuberculosis) and was dead in Italy at age twenty-five, less than two years after he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale" in 1819. Other poems in which Keats alludes to his feelings about his impending death include "Bright Star" and "When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be."

    — William Delaney
  23. In accordance with the rhyme scheme, the word "sod" is intended as a near rhyme to "abroad" at the end of the seventh line.

    — William Delaney
  24. Part of the effect of this poem is due to the fact that Keats appeals to all five of the reader's senses. Here, as in the opening stanza, Keats appeals to the sense of taste. 

    — William Delaney
  25. Keats was obviously acquiring a fondness for wine. He also reveals this in a poem titled "Fill For Me a Brimming Bowl," which begins with the following lines: > Fill for me a brimming bowl > And in it let me drown my soul: > But put therein some drug, designed > To Banish Women from my mind: > For I want not the stream inspiring > That fills the mind with--fond desiring, > But I want as deep a draught > As e'er from Lethe's wave was quaff'd . . .

    — William Delaney
  26. Naturally Keats wants the beaker to be filled all the way to the brim. Why not? Since it is an imaginary beaker of wine, he might as well fill it all the way to the top with the best imaginary Hippocrene.

    — William Delaney
  27. Nightingales typically nest on or near the ground in dense vegetation. This explains why the poet imagines the setting as being quite dim even though the sky may be full of moonlight and starlight. He cannot see what flowers are at his feet but has to guess which ones they are by their various scents. 

    — William Delaney
  28. These words strongly suggest that this is hardly the first time that Keats has thought about death in a favorable light. 

    — William Delaney
  29. This one line is a striking departure from the dominant meter. The line seems intentionally syncopated. It has a sort of caesura in the exact middle between "Fast fading violets" and "covered up in leaves."

    — William Delaney
  30. Here the poet is comparing the musk-rose to a pub where all the flies gather in the evening to drink the dewy wine and converse with one another. His ode is full of references to liquor and drugs. He is obviously tormented by the thoughts of his impending death which haunt him and from which he tries to escape by whatever means possible. 

    — William Delaney
  31. Keats wants no less than a whole beaker of wine, probably a full quart. He would like to drink himself into oblivion--but unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he doesn't have any liquor available. So he decides to try to escape from reality by using his imagination, to fly on the invisible wings of Poesy. If he had had the beaker of wine, his famous ode would never had been written.

    — William Delaney
  32. Numerous bubbles usually cluster at the surface in a glass of wine and the tiny bubbles keep popping, which Keats describes as "winking," while the cluster keeps moving and reforming. This is a beautiful line of poetry. It displays Keats' special talent for close observation and vivid description. He was especially sensitive to the beauty in nature. But his perception of beauty made him sad because he felt doomed to die young, as he in fact did, and leave all that beauty behind him.

    — William Delaney
  33. This suggests that Keats, like William Wordsworth, was in the habit of creating poems or parts of poems in his mind without writing them down--or writing them at a later time. The word "mused" seems to imply that Keats liked to play with words for "a*muse*ment" and searching for inspiration. 

    — William Delaney
  34. This last stanza is full of suggestions of ringing bells, beginning with the word "Forlorn" which reminds the poet of a church bell with its sombre double-ring as each side hits the clapper when the bell itself swings from side to side. Then in the second line of the final stanza there is a rhyming between the words "toll" and "sole" which is again intended to suggest a bell ringing twice as it swings from side to side. The words "Adieu! adieu!" also suggest the sound of bells with their double ringing because they are two-syllable words and are spoken twice in succession. Perhaps the "Adieu! adieu!" is intended to seem like a fainter ringing as the bird's "plaintive anthem fades" into the distance. 

    — William Delaney
  35. F. Scott Fitzgerald used these words for the title of his best novel, *Tender is the Night *(1934). Keats' influence can be seen in Fitzgerald's often poetic prose.

    — William Delaney
  36. The narrator is referring to a poisonous drink made from the hemlock, a shrub similar to a spruce, that was used in ancient Greece to carry out death sentences; Socrates committed suicide by drinking hemlock.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  37. In Greek mythology, "Hippocrene" is the name of a fountain on Mt. Helicon, sacred to the Muse; when drunk, the water was supposed to evoke poetic inspiration.

    — Owl Eyes Reader
  38. In the Old Testament, Ruth is a widow who travels to a foreign land with her widowed mother-in-law. Eventually, Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David.

    — Owl Eyes Reader