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Ode to a Nightingale -- John Keats

It's been some time since we did a 'famous' poem...
(Poem #316) 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-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 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-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?
-- John Keats
We haven't had much Keats on the Minstrels - only two poems prior to
this, as a matter of fact. Which is surprising, given his stature -
long-time readers of the Minstrels will know that I don't care much for
the Romantics, but I do like Keats. A great deal.

'Nightingale' is possibly Keats' best-loved work (though personally I
prefer 'On First Looking into Chapman's Homer', which I think is about
as close to perfection as a poem can get) - I know several people (Hi
Mom!) who consider it among their favourite few poems of all time. And
it's no surprise, really - rarely have words been crafted to such
sublime effect; rarely have sound and meaning and feeling come together
in such perfect balance; rarely have phrases sounded so _right_, so
perfect that you get the feeling that they've always existed, and all
the poet did was to pluck them out of the ether, fully formed.

In a way, that's what Keats is all about. Not for him the metaphysics of
Shelley, the lushness of Byron, the down-to-earth genius of Wordsworth,
or the flights of fancy of Coleridge: Keats is, in the truest sense of
the word, a minstrel of the emotions. Perhaps more than any other writer
before or since [1], he had the ability to distil in its purest form
that quality called 'poetry' in his verse. He doesn't use ornate or
flowery language; his rhymes and rhythms are often less than perfect;
his themes can be ordinary. And yet his words are just magical - sheer


[1] always excepting Shakespeare

PS. The science-fictionally inclined among you are heartily encouraged
to read Dan Simmon's Nebula-winning novel 'Hyperion', which (as the
title suggests) is about (among many other things) John Keats.

PPS. Alert readers will have noticed some repetition of ideas from my
previous commentaries on Keats. Forgive me.

40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Davericho said...

hi i am trying to locate the poem by horace from which keats took the first
four lines of nightingale. do you have it?
dave richo

Swallowfive said...

Dear Thomas,
Have you done any comparisons between certain Odes? In particular Ode on a
Grecian Urn and Ode to a Nightingale. I you have please could you tell me how
you did it cos I'm getting myself confused. If not, please could you recommend a
site that offers such essays. Thanks very much.

Katy said...

I'm writing a research paper on Ode to a Nightingale and can't pick a specific topic on which to write....HELP!!!!

Jean BT said...

What a delightful website this is!

As for Keats's "Nightingale"; however familiar, it continues to delight. A
superbly balanced exploration of wonder, natural beauty, pleasure and

My only puzzle concerns the "beaded bubbles winking at the brim". He seems
to be drinking red wine, but few reds have bubbles even now, and there would
have been fewer then. My English teacher at school said this a reference to
his tuberculosis, that we should see the bubbles as the foaming blood from
his sick lungs coming back to taint the glass.
While I acknowledge that he died of consumption, such an interpretation has
always struck me as too somber at this point in the poem, even as a
sub-conscious association.
I wonder whether published reviews of Keats touch on this point.

Bob Farrer

Margaret S Konikkara said...

Keats wrote this wen he was almost delirious.

he had just lost to his brother to the sickness that was fast over powering him

and his girl friend fanny had just broken up with him.

the longing for the cool wine and the greenness is there for both physical and psychological. tho he says he doesn't envy the bird i think at some level he does want to b as care free and fly away from his problems.


Anonymous said...

The first two lines are spoken by the character Soldeed (played by Graham Crowden) as he dies in the Dr. Who story The Horns of Nimon (dec 79 - jan 80)
The Nimon are bull headed men why live in the centre of a labyrinth ... sound familiar.

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