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ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE
As one reads this poem of John Keats, the overwhelming feeling is the envy the poet feels toward the nightingale and his song. He compared the carefree life of the bird to the pain, suffering and mortality of men. He continually referred to Greek gods and mythology when speaking of the nightingale as somehow the Bird possessed magical powers.
The speaker opened with the explanation “my heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” as he listened to the song of the nightingale. He compared his feelings to those of a person that had drunk “hemlock” or an “opiate” so that their senses had become dull, or as if drinking from “Lethe-wards,” a river of the lower world, which produced forgetfulness of past life. Keats compared the bird to that of a “Dryad,” or a female spirit, which was assigned a certain tree to watch over and whose life was so closely connected to the tree that if it were to die so would the Dryad. Or perhaps in some mysterious way the nightingale’s song were “some melodious plot” to enchant his listener. He explained the reason for his envy as being “happy in thy happiness” or because the bird sang so beautifully with “full throated ease.”
Keats longs for the effects of liquor “draught of vintage” with the taste of the country “flora and country green” which when consumed brings “dance, song and mirth.” He compares the song of the bird with the song of his poetry when he wishes to be “full of the true?Hippocrene” which was a mythical fountain on Mount Helicon that inspired poetically. He reflected on the belief that unlike his poetry, the nightingale’s song would be remembered for eternity, because the Bird’s tune would go unchanged, while his words would fade with time, so he wished “that I might drink and leave the world unseen.”
Wishing to drink and disappear, to “fade away into the forest dim, fade far away” or rather to “dissolve and ?forget” we see how desired to escape from life and the problems that all men must cope with. He related how he felt about his life “weariness, the fever and the fret” and the fact that all men “sit and hear each other groan.” Some of his lamenting came from his despair about aging, how “youth grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies; where but to think is to be full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs.” In comparison to himself the nightingale seemed to have a life of ease, sitting among the trees without a care, simply singing.
He told the nightingale to fly away “for I will fly to thee,” yet rather than be carried off by “Bacchus and his pard” the Roman god of wine and intoxication, he wished to be carried off by “wings of Poesy.” This Poesy refers to Keats poetry and he realized that he would not be able to compose while intoxicated, so he described this condition as “the dull brain [that] perplexes and retards.”
Yet while he is with the nightingale and her sweet song “already with thee! tender is the night” he imagined the “Queen-Moon ?on her throne, cluster’d around by all her starry Fays” or fairies; for it is said that only during a full moon may one witness fairy dances. This alludes to the magical condition he believes the nightingale possesses and how she is able to lead him to this world of lore. At this time there is very little light to identify his surroundings, so his senses were awakened as he recognized the “soft incense hang[ing] upon the boughs” and detected the scents of the “fruit tree wild, hawthorn, violets, the musk-rose full of sweet wine” and listened to the “murmurous haunt of flies.”
As he sat in the dark listening, he contemplated his death and related how he is “half in love with easeful Death” having written many times about him or “call’d him?.in many a mused rhyme.” At this time Keats thinks it is a good time to die and do away with whatever pain he may experience, as he said “seems it rich to die to cease upon midnight with no pain” in comparison to the nightingale which is “pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy!” However he is quick to change this desire when he contemplated the fact that the nightingale would continue to sing, even if it be a sad song “thy high requiem” while he would be unable to hear the music. He would in effect “have ears in vain.”
He admired the nightingale as an “immortal Bird,” that can not be saddened by anything occurring around him “no hungry generations tread thee down.” The song of the bird would continue unchanged for eternity, therefore he reflected on the past and all the people that had listened to the same song of the nightingale “the voice I hear?was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown.” No distinction between the rich or the poor, the wise or the foolish; for the same song was sung for all to enjoy. Continuing, he makes reference to Ruth of the Bible “the sad heart of Ruth” and how she resided in an alien land and may have listened to the nightingale while she longed for home.
At this point Keats no longer viewed the bird’s song as one of joy but rather as one of sorrow or “forlorn” and he is drawn back into himself losing his preoccupation with the nightingale. He bids the bird good-bye “adieu!” speaking of it as a “deceiving elf.” Perhaps he feels he was deceived by the song into believing it was one of happiness yet now he realizes the truth, that it is really a “plaintive anthem.” As the nightingale flies away “past the near meadows, over the still stream?.[and becomes] buried deep in the next valley-glades,” he wonders if this was just a “vision, or a waking dream?.do I wake or sleep?”
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