About the author:
I’m Julie, and I’m a fourth semester Literature student. This essay was written for my first real poetry course– before this time, I wasn’t really sure how to, or why I should, analyze poetry, but my professor Luke Reid’s love and enthusiasm for poetry rubbed off on me, and here we are. Of all the poems we read for this class, John Keats’ “Ode to the Nightingale” is one which I still think about to this day, and the topic of this essay. Keats’ imagery and form are ones to admire and analyze.
John Keats’ Solace in Death
By Julie Jacques
For Poetry & Prosody, with Prof. Luke Reid
In his poem, “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats defines two versions of death. The lesser is a mortal one, where “youth grows pale and spectre thin,” and the other is linked to the eternal, naturalistic world of Poetry where a “light winged Dryad” prevails (26, 7). Keats’ individual experience with the death-sentence of tuberculosis forces him to stare his mortality in the face, propelling him to attempt to procure a new possibility—the potential for an “easeful Death” (51). He frames this as an unattainable “vision,” but the poem’s unwavering form tells another story (79). His longing for ultimate poetic inspiration is punctuated with perfect rhyme and meter; his experience with an “embal[ming] darkness” only emphasizes his senses other than sight, giving him the ability to describe “mid-May’s eldest child” (43, 48). Keats’ descriptions of this other world are not the ephemeral “Poesy” he illustrates (33). Nothing can be—it is a fleeting song—but he uses them to find comfort in his own upcoming end. He has created this second, naturalistic, and idealistic form of Death, which is inherently tied to the ethereal “anthem,” so that his own death is not so demoralizing (85).
Keats created the nightingale in order to come to terms with his own painful decline. He uses naturalistic imagery to manifest the idea of a new Death, where one can simply merge with nature, or as he puts it, addressing his winged creature, “with thee fade away into the forest dim” (20). The address in this passage is important—Keats is telling the reader that this “easeful Death” is not possible without the help of this “immortal Bird,” who is the harbinger of divine poetic inspiration (52, 61). The Bird has “never known” man’s physical burdens (22). Arguably, this means that the Bird is not an enlightened being, but simply represents being. The Bird isn’t burdened by the physical problems mortality brings, and more importantly, the Bird has no capacity for thought. This, of course, is a blessing, for Keats has announced to his reader that “to think is to be full of sorrow” (27). It is in fact much better to be like the Bird, who can “[pour forth its] soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!” (28). The use of the word “ecstasy” in this line only further demonstrates the Bird as representative of being. While sometimes used as a word to convey happiness beyond regular bounds, it is also used to refer to out of body experiences, where consciousness slips from its corporeal cage and allows for a blissful existence, untroubled by physical limitation. The latter is the definition Keats weaves into our idea of the Nightingale, who not only defies human boundaries of mortality but also those of corporeality. The world of the Nightingale defies everything Keats knows. For example, it does not respect the limits of human senses, like sight. Although Keats is in the Nightingale’s lightless world in the fifth stanza, he has no trouble describing the “white hawthorn” and “pastoral eglantine” that surround him (46). As well as escaping this physicality, the Nightingale transcends temporality—it sings a song heard “in ancient days” (64). The Nightingale is a union of the ideas of ecstasy (or being) and Death, and Keats even seems to equate them to one another—the Death the Nightingale represents is ecstasy. This incorporeal version of death, brought upon by the Nightingale’s ethereal song, is Keats’ way of coping with his own looming death. He has invented it to fool himself into thinking that it is “rich to die”; that his death will not be tied to his withering body, that he will escape his painful tuberculosis and simply “cease upon the midnight” (55, 56).
Keats knows that this invention will not save him from a pain-filled death—he says “Adieu” to the Bird’s song in the eighth and final stanza (73). The “plaintive anthem fades” and Keats is left wondering if it was “a vision, or a waking dream?” (75, 79). The word that ruins Keats’ vision is “forlorn”; it acts as a “bell/ to toll [him] back … to [his] sole self!” (71, 72). As soon as he is reminded of his own hopelessness, Keats snaps out of the Bird’s spell, returning to what he considers his “sole self,” an ache that the reader was privy to in the first few lines of the poem. Keats uses the word “sole,” further hammering his own loneliness with a reminder that his self is singular, unique. No one accompanies him on his journey to death, it seems to say. This poem has served to build himself a sense of companionship, a Nightingale whose song helps him “quite forget” the pain and despair of his normal world (21). But as the music flees in the last stanza, Keats must remember who he is. He can no longer immerse himself in the Bird’s imaginary song in order to dismiss his mortality. The word “forlorn,” which not only means to be abandoned, like the “faery lands” of the poem, but also to be sad, or lonely, reminds him that he cannot be “too happy in [the Bird’s] happiness.” A word reminding him of his sadness, and in fact his loneliness disrupts his immersion in the Bird’s song, banishing it, and leaving him truly without any companion, real or imaginary, unable to reject the aching heart with which he opens the poem. But why would Keats dream up a heavenly world if he is forced to vacate when reminded of his sorrow? He has created Poetry—the ideal form of poetry. It provides Keats with something to strive for and keeps him writing poetry so that he can someday “fly … on the viewless wings of Poesy” (31-33). In the end, it is unachievable, as ideals are, and he must leave it and return to reality. Nonetheless, Poetry allows Keats to dream of an “easeful death” (52).
“Ode to a Nightingale” is Keats’ way of coming to terms with his own death, which he does by changing the meaning of death entirely. He creates an emblem, the powerful Nightingale, which represents being, and uses environmental symbolism to allow for comparison between his poetry and a more divine Poetry, which grants him something to strive for, and allows him to turn his own death from a painful, sad one, to a pleasing, easeful one.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The New Penguin Book of English Verse, edited by Paul Keegan, Penguin Books, 2000, pp.640-642.