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 < Theme 9. Melancholy (ii) >

< John Keats >

Ode to a Nightingale
poem, commentary, analysis, exegesis


Lamia, Isabella etc (1820, 25)
composed Spring 1819 (24)

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 thy happiness, 
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees, 
In some melodious plot 
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, 
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

Hemlock : any of several poisonous herbs of the carrot family.   Lethe : the River of Oblivion, one of the rivers of the lower regions whose water had the power to make those who drank forget their previous existence.   Dryad : wood nymph, from Greek dryas, tree.

O for a draught of vintage, that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sun-burnt 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-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Flora : the goddess of flowers and the Spring, whose festival was celebrated at the end of April with much debauchery.   Provencal : pertaining to Provence, a region of South Eastern France, known for its troubadours.   Hippocrene : literally the ‘horse’s fountain’, a spring on Mount Helicon, the waters of which possessed the power of poetic inspiration.

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 tomorrow. 

Them : her lustrous eyes, ie new love will last just one day.

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, 
Clustered around by all her starry fays
But here there is no light, 
Save what from heav'n is with the breezes blown 
Through verd'rous glooms and winding mossy ways.

Bacchus : god of wine, son of Semele, orchestrator of riots and debauchery.   Pards : leopards were usually shown pulling the chariot of Bacchus.   Fays : fairies.

I cannot see what flow'rs are at my feet, 
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet 
Wherewith the seasonable month endows 
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 
White hawthorn, and the past'ral eglantine; 
Fast-fading violets covered up in leaves; 
And mid-May's eldest child, 
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 
The murm'rous haunt of flies on summer eves. 

Darkling I listen; and for many a time 
I have been half in love with easeful Death, 
Called him soft names in many a musèd 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.

Darkling : in the dark or a creature that lives in the dark ie the nightingale.   Sod : become a sod : ie be dead, part of the earth.

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, op'ning on the foam 
Of per'lous 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 famed 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?

 

Commentary, analysis, criticism, exegesis


The finish of this poem is exceptional, and it is tempting to gloss over its faults with a simple appreciation of the overall effect, which is so entrancingly beautiful. But faults there are, in particular, faults of sense. The overall context is unproblematical: the poet hears the song of the nightingale, which sends him into a poetic rhapsody. But we are soon brought up against the first jarring of sense. The poet addresses the nightingale: 'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, / But being too happy in thy happiness / That thou .... singest of summer': the subject of these comments seems to change midway through the stanza, from the poet to the nightingale. The poet can envy the nightingale, and it makes sense to say that he does not in fact envy the nightingale, but that he is simply too happy in the nightingale's happiness. But it is then implied that it is the fact that the nightingale is too happy in its happiness that makes it sing of the summer. On the other hand, the nightingale cannot envy itself for being happy.

The second and third stanzas are clear enough in asking for a glass of wine so that the poet can join the nightingale far from the cares of the world (which is evoked as a terrible place in which there exists only the groaning old, the pale and spectre-thin young, and where even beauty cannot keep the attention of its devotees for more than a day)

The fourth stanza is clear in refusing the requested glass of wine, and claiming for the poet the ability to join the nightingale 'on the viewless wings of poetry'. But we are led directly into a contradiction: the wings are viewless, so the moon and its stars which are evoked cannot be seen. Instead we have light which is blown from heaven on the breezes, through 'verd'rous glooms and winding mossy ways'. It's possible to speculate that this is the light of poetic inspiration, but, if it does not illuminate anything, what is it's use, and how do we know that it arrives through verdrous glooms and winding mossy ways?

The fifth stanza is replete with beautiful imagery relating to the month of May, and it is repeated that we cannot see anything.

We are still in the dark at the beginning of the sixth stanza, but our attention is quickly taken away from the darkness by a series of thoughts about death.

The seventh stanza takes us on an excursion into the history and immortality of the bird: the emperor and the clown, Ruth in a strange country, and songs heard from the casements of ships.

In the final stanza, the poet returns to himself: 'my sole self', and asks himself whether he has been dreaming, as the bird flies off into the distance.



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