John Keats (1795-1821) composed this poem one morning in early May 1819, when he was still mourning the death of his brother Tom. The world of nature features prominently in Romantic verse, because the poets believed in its healing, restorative qualities and its ability to help people transcend their restricted circumstances. Here Keats reflects upon a nightingale’s spontaneous, exuberant singing. Its ecstatic outpouring is alluring, offering relief from stress, pain and suffering. The power of the imagination can facilitate temporary escape from problems; ultimately, however, the speaker accepts the limitations of mortality. Pleasures are fleeting; change and decay are inevitable.
This poem should also be considered in light of its historical context. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ speaks of human suffering, and in this time period, suffering abounded. Ode to a Nightingale’ deals with the theme of human suffering and misery. During Keats’ short lifetime, there was widespread suffering and many injustices in the United Kingdom, such as limited suffrage and abject poverty. The fear of inspiration from the recent French Revolution led to the temporary suspension of Habeas Corpus.
The nightingale described experiences a type of death but does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect. The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. In the poem, Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a “sod” over which the nightingale sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by an effort of the imagination. The presence of weather is noticeable in the poem, as spring came early in 1819, bringing nightingales all over the heath.
In Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird is presented as an immortal icon. The speaker admires the happiness that the nightingale possesses: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness’. The nightingale embodies an excess of joy which is incomparable to the speaker’s. The superlative ‘too’ portrays the extremity of the nightingale’s immortality, invoking an excess of emotion onto the speaker. The overbalance of pleasure from a natural object links to the themes encompassing the Sublime.
Whilst the nightingale is an immortal entity, it is also a bird of darkness. The dark imagery in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ resembles the death-wish of the speaker; there is ‘no light’ (l. 38) except from where the breeze causes the trees to part. The stanza is full of absences and presences caused from the transcendence from reality to the ideal, reflecting the glimpses of life and death :
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
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Keats’ bird is invisible in the shadowy forest of ‘embalmed darkness’, resembling the death-wishes connected to the transcendent thoughts of the speaker. The dark imagery plunges the speaker into confusion; he ‘cannot see’, blinded by the powers of his imagination. Furthermore, he addresses the nightingale as ‘Darkling’ to emphasise his loneliness in a dark world. Although the nightingale is immortal in the ideal world, Keats is suggesting that when combined with the real world, the bird brings deathly connotations because of its black colour. He views death as a welcomed prospect; ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’. Death to Keats seems partly desirable because of the mortality of the world he lives in. The presence of the nightingale in reality makes him see death as an escape to release him from his troubles. The dark symbolism of the nightingale draws a close association between life and death, which blurs the boundaries between the two.
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Keats’s “easeful death” in “Ode to a Nightingale” is joyful. The submission to the enchanting world of the nightingale shows Keats holding his breath softly at a moment of deep joy. He presents the image of death as beautiful and therefore joyful: “seems it rich to die” and then “to cease upon the midnight with no pain.” Death immortalizes the moment of beauty, the moment of joy. Keats gains richness of death in his romantic experience with the nightingale. The poet amazingly captures two visions of death, two realities, rather a double-consciousness of death in his poem: the first one belongs to the fancy, the beautiful and joyful setting of the eternal world. Imagination indeed allows Keats to join the immortal bird in the eternal world. However, the second one shows another reality of death or rather tragic death. In Keats’s real world death is neither rich nor easy, it is rather sorrowful and slow, related to weariness, fever, thinness, paleness and generally to disease.
Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contrasts the immortality of the bird with the reality of mankind to remind us of the permanent sorrow in the world, emphasising the human desire to escape it. The speaker wishes to ‘fade far away’ from the death and decay of the real world :
‘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’
The verb ‘dissolve’ stresses Keats’ desire to disappear from the destructive world around him. The added emphasis of ‘dissolve’ in parenthesis separates the word away from the rest of the stanza; resembling Keats distancing himself from the decay of reality. Furthermore, the imagery of the miserable men visualises a world of grief and suffering that is not apparent in the nightingale’s world. The sensory ‘groan[s]’ interfere with the beauty of the nightingale’s song that ‘Singest of summer’ (l. 10). This contrast grounds Keats in the realms of reality and stops him from transcending. The regular rise and fall of the iambic pentameter syllables arguably represent the sound of a heartbeat; further keeping Keats connected to the physical body whilst transcending to an idealised state. This suggests that the mortality of the world cannot be escaped even if mankind wishes to be free. With regards to Keats’ poetry, Bernice Slote summarises that ‘because of the particular poetic quality of his life, Keats’ poems are nearly always viewed autobiographically’. Contextually therefore, it is likely that Keats is referring to the death and sickness occurring in his life at the time he wrote the ode. His family’s misfortunes and impending struggle with tuberculosis enabled Keats to envision a world surrounded by life’s suffering and decay.