John Keats" Ode to a Nightingale"

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John Keats" Ode to a Nightingale"

Post by Archer on Tue Jan 18, 2011 2:57 am

Like most of the other odes, "Ode to a Nightingale" is written in ten-line stanzas. However, unlike most of the other poems, it is metrically variable--though not so much as "Ode to Psyche." The first seven and last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented syllables instead of five. "Nightingale" also differs from the other odes in that its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (every other ode varies the order of rhyme in the final three or four lines except "To Psyche," which has the loosest structure of all the odes). Each stanza in "Nightingale" is rhymed ABABCDECDE, Keats's most basic scheme throughout the odes.

With "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats's speaker begins his fullest and deepest exploration of the themes of creative expression and the mortality of human life. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy of old age ("where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies") is set against the eternal renewal of the nightingale's fluid music ("Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!"). The speaker reprises the "drowsy numbness" he experienced in "Ode on Indolence," but where in "Indolence" that numbness was a sign of disconnection from experience, in "Nightingale" it is a sign of too full a connection: "being too happy in thine happiness," as the speaker tells the nightingale. Hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker longs to flee the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird's state through alcohol--in the second stanza, he longs for a "draught of vintage" to transport him out of himself. But after his meditation in the third stanza on the transience of life, he rejects the idea of being "charioted by Bacchus and his pards" (Bacchus was the Roman god of wine and was supposed to have been carried by a chariot pulled by leopards) and chooses instead to embrace, for the first time since he refused to follow the figures in "Indolence," "the viewless wings of Poesy."

The rapture of poetic inspiration matches the endless creative rapture of the nightingale's music and lets the speaker, in stanzas five through seven, imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The ecstatic music even encourages the speaker to embrace the idea of dying, of painlessly succumbing to death while enraptured by the nightingale's music and never experiencing any further pain or disappointment. But when his meditation causes him to utter the word "forlorn," he comes back to himself, recognizing his fancy for what it is--an imagined escape from the inescapable ("Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf"). As the nightingale flies away, the intensity of the speaker's experience has left him shaken, unable to remember whether he is awake or asleep.

In "Indolence," the speaker rejected all artistic effort. In "Psyche," he was willing to embrace the creative imagination, but only for its own internal pleasures. But in the nightingale's song, he finds a form of outward expression that translates the work of the imagination into the outside world, and this is the discovery that compels him to embrace Poesy's "viewless wings" at last. The "art" of the nightingale is endlessly changeable and renewable; it is music without record, existing only in a perpetual present. As befits his celebration of music, the speaker's language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of sight in favour of the other senses. He can imagine the light of the moon, "But here there is no light"; he knows he is surrounded by flowers, but he "cannot see what flowers" are at his feet. This suppression will find its match in "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which is in many ways a companion poem to "Ode to a Nightingale." In the later poem, the speaker will finally confront a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time; in "Nightingale," he has achieved creative expression and has placed his faith in it, but that expression--the nightingale's song--is spontaneous and without physical manifestation.

In this meditation on poetic experience, the poet attempts to conceptualise a reconciliation of beauty and permanence through the symbol of the nightingale The poet begins by explaining the nature and cause of the sadness he is experiencing, a sadness translated into a physical ache and a drowsy numbness. He feels as he might if he had taken some poison or sedating drug. This feeling is in fact the result of a deep awareness of the happiness of the nightingale he hears singing. His resulting pleasure is so intense it has become painful. He longs for some intoxicant that will let him achieve union with the nightingale, take him out of the world, and allow him to forget human suffering and despair and the transience of all experience. Wine, however, is rejected in favour of the poetic imagination. He enters some twilight region of the mind. While he can see nothing, the other senses feed his imagination, constructing within his mind what cannot be seen in fact. This prompts him to contemplate leaving the world altogether. He realises, however, that the ultimate form of forgetfulness, of escape from the troubles of life, would be death. Death at such a moment, listening to the nightingale pouring forth its soul in ecstasy, would be the supreme ending. And yet death is rejected. As the poet realises, the bird would sing on, and he would be unable to hear it. While all humans must die, the nightingale is, in some sense, immortal. The poet, thinking back to the classical world of the Roman emperors and to the Old Testament world of Ruth, considers how its song has been heard for so many centuries. Keats takes us even further back, into a fairy world, a landscape both magical and yet forlorn. With this word `forlorn', the spell is broken: the poet returns to the self, to the present. Fancy, he claims, has failed him once more. He again becomes aware of the landscape around him and the bird's song begins to fade, leaving him wondering whether his experience was a vision or a waking dream.

The nightingale has traditionally been associated with love. The influential myth of Philomela, turned into a nightingale after being raped and tortured, stresses melancholy and suffering in association with love. It has also been associated with poetry. Keats no doubt knew Coleridge's two poems `To the Nightingale' (1796) and `The Nightingale: "A Conversation Poem"', and, according to his letters, only days before writing this ode he had talked with the older poet on such subjects as nightingales, poetry and poetical sensation.

Why did Keats choose the nightingale's song as the basis of meditation in this poem? Is he drawing upon its traditional associations or not? Such critics as Helen Vendler believe that in the choice of music Keats finds a symbol of pure beauty, non-representational, without any reference to ideas, to moral or social values. The nightingale's song is vocal, but without verbal content, and can serve as a pure expressive beauty. Others have argued that it represents the music of nature, which can be contrasted with human art, verbal or musical.

The poem is basically structured around the contrast between the poet, who is earthbound, and the bird, which is free. A related opposition is that between the mortal world, full of sorrow and marked by transience, and the world of the nightingale, marked by joy and immortality. One of the points that has troubled many critics is this claim of immortality for the nightingale: 'Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!' (line 61). The nightingale is, after all, a natural creature. It has been suggested that Keats is referring not to the individual bird, but to the species. This solution has been strongly criticised, however, as humanity, the `hungry generations' (line 62), could also be credited with such immortality as a species. An alternative suggestion is that the nightingale addressed in stanza 7 is purely symbolic; is this solution more convincing? If so, what does the nightingale symbolise? A further interpretation might be that, since the nightingale sings only at night and was traditionally thought of, therefore, as invisible, it, through its `disembodied' song, transcends the material world (so in that sense is immortal); and here Keats is talking of `embalmed darkness', an atmosphere of death.

Another problematic point is Keats's final question on the status of his experience: `Was it a vision, or a waking dream?' (line 79). Some critics have decidedly affirmed that the poem is about the inadequacy of the imagination, a rejection of the `deceiving elf' (line 79). Others see more ambivalence in Keats's attitude. After the possibility of joining the bird in its immortal world has been rejected as a trick of the fancy, they would argue, Keats still suggests through his final question that such vision or transcendent experience is possible, or, at least, still something for which he longs. Is this, ultimately, an escapist poem, or is Keats emphasising the need to accept the human condition, with all the suffering that is associated with it? Compare the ode, in this respect, with the `Ode on Melancholy'.

Language is effectively used to create mood. In the opening of the poem, for example, a sense of sluggish weightiness is suggested by the heavy thudding alliterative `d', `p', and `m' when Keats describes his own dull ache. Compare this with the effects created in the second half of the stanza by the light assonantal sounds in such words as `light' and `Dryad' and the sensuous assonantal sounds of 'beechen', `green' and `ease' when Keats turns to the joy of the nightingale. Compare the vitality and the jubilant tempo of stanza 2 with the dull heaviness and monotony in stanza 3. How are these different effects created? Consider, for a start, the use of repetition, with devices like parallelism and anaphora. There is a dense concentration of sense impressions in this ode, and a frequent use of synaesthesia. In stanza 1, for example, the `plot' where the bird sings is itself `melodious' and the song contains `summer': the visual evokes the aural and the aural the visual. In stanza 2, Keats conveys the taste of wine with reference to colour, action, song and sensation. When Keats says, in stanza 5, `I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, / Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs', the suggestion that the incense could be seen emphasises the density and headiness of the perfume: it is so strong it seems visible, tangible. This is often said to be the most personal of the odes. Perhaps it would be better to say that from the abrupt opening of :"My heart aches' onwards, it creates the impression of being the most subjective. Leaving aside the claim by many critics that it is personal in an autobiographical way, how is this impression of subjectivity achieved? It is the processes and movement of the poet's mind that are the central focus of `Ode to a Nightingale', and the personal `I' is very much in evidence. In this respect compare the poem with the `Ode on a Grecian Urn'.

Lethe-wards (Greek myth) Lethe is one of the rivers of Hades; the dead are obliged to drink from it in order that they may forget everything said and done when alive
Dryad a tree nymph
Hippocrene (Greek myth) the fountain of the Muses on Mount Helicon and therefore associated with poetic inspiration; here the term is used to suggest red wine as another source of inspiration
Bacchus and his pards (Roman myth) the god of wine; the pards are the leopards which draw his chariot
Fays fairies
Darkling in the dark
Synaesthesia: A sensation that usually only affects one sense is used to trigger a response in another.
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