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Ode to a Nightingale Commentary

Ode To a Nightingale In Keats’ 19th century poem, Ode To a Nightingale, he comments upon the short-lived nature of human life and the concept of mortality through using a contrasting image of a nightingale. In the poem, the narrator speaks of this bird yearningly, envious of its ability to remain immortal through it’s song, and of its detachment from the human world.

It is clear that the narrator is experiencing feelings of melancholy, and he discusses a personal escape from an existence tainted by suffering, which he feels he can no longer endure. He is addressing the nightingale he hears singing somewhere in the forest and says that his “drowsy numbness” is not from envy of the nightingale’s happiness, but rather from sharing it too completely; he is overwhelmingly happy that the nightingale sings the music of summer from an unseen plot of green trees and shadows.

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The poem is clearly very biographic; the narrator undoubtedly represents Keats himself, and is in no way a surrogate persona, made apparent by the constant references to subjects very personal to the author; when speaking of the harsh realities of the mortal world, he describes it as a place “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”, making a direct reference to his young brother Tom, who at the time was dying from tuberculosis. The narrator’s suffering is Keats’ own, as is the desire to escape from it, as Keats’ was experiencing a period of the intense melancholy which accompanies watching someone you love die. Ode to a Nightingale” is written in ten-line stanzas. The regular metrical structure of the poem effectively intensifies the already dejected tone of the piece. There is irony in that while praising the song of the nightingale, the speaker’s speech patterns echo that of a lullaby. The sound devices in the poem also reinforce the speaker’s oppressed mood, which is perfectly exemplified in line 40. “Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways”.

This line is loaded with long vowel sounds, which mirrors the way a person might groan if faced with the speaker’s feelings, and is a foreshadowing of the groaning of the dying men that occurs in the next stanza. These long vowel sounds also mirror the actual song of the nightingale that he speaker is praising. Assonance also continues to play a prominent part as the piece progresses. 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.

Its overall rhyming scheme remains the same in each stanza . Each stanza in “Nightingale” is rhymed ABABCDECDE, which Keats’s most basic scheme throughout the odes. With “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats’s speaker begins a deep 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 is set comparatively against the eternal renewal of the nightingale’s fluid and beautiful music, creating a great disparity between the two conceptually and thus strengthening the imagery of both.

This notion is fortified through Keat’s gritty descriptions of dying men -“where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs (25)” and the almost mythical way of describing the nightingale- “Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird! ” (61). Upon hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker is seized by a sudden urge to flee the human world with all its harsh realities and join the bird in its dream-like existence. 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 his sadness as it is. 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 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, timeless.

As befits his celebration of music, the speaker’s language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of sight in favor 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. in “Nightingale,” he has achieved creative expression and has placed his faith in it, but that expression—the nightingale’s song—is spontaneous and invisible, almost entirely without physical manifestation.


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