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Literary Contexts in Poetry: John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale

Content Synopsis

In John Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," the poet/narrator, listening to a nightingale sing on a spring

evening, finds himself imaginatively transported into a green world where he loses his ordinary powers of

vision, awakens to other sensory and emotional impressions, and re-emerges with a dramatic realization of

his own mortality and the power of "music" and poetry alike.

"Ode to a Nightingale" opens with the narrator complaining that "his heart aches" with a "drowsy

numbness" as though a drug ("some dull opiate") or poison ("hemlock") were drawing him towards death
(the mythological river "Lethe" of the Greek underworld) (Keats Poems 11). His trance, we learn, has been

brought on by the song of a nightingale, which enchants the narrator because the bird seems "too happy" in

its "happiness," its effortless song full of the remembered pleasures of summer.

The narrator pauses to note that a glass of wine - "a draught of vintage" or a "beaker full of the warm

South" - might have the same effect of intoxicating him with the warmth and pleasure of summer. It might

even allow him to "drink, and leave the world unseen," and travel with the nightingale, following its song

into the forest. He longs desperately, he tells us, to "fade far away" and forget what the bird has never

known - the pains of human existence. The narrator's world is full of the sorrows of aging, illness, and early

death, and has become a place where beauty and love cannot survive.

In the fourth stanza, he wills himself to follow the bird's song into the forest. His inspiration comes not from

wine or drugs, but from the "viewless wings" of poetry, though his "dull brain" still "perplexes and retards"

as he begins his journey. His imagination takes flight as he imagines the bright moonlight above the woods

filtering only faintly through the "verdurous glooms" and "winding mossy ways" of the dense forest that is

home to the nightingale's elusive song.

In the beginning of stanza five, at the midpoint of the ode, he describes his immersion in this forest world.

When he surrenders his ability to see, he realizes that he is able to perceive the sensual world through his

imagination and through his other senses. In this world it is early summer, with some sweet-smelling

flowers fading and others just beginning to bloom; their fragrances attracting clouds of evening flies.

As he listens intently in the darkness ("darkling"), he is overcome by ecstasy so profound that he recognizes

that "now, more than ever, seems it rich to die"; to accept the relief of oblivion. In fact, he notes, he has

long "been half in love with easeful Death." The nightingale's effortless, song, he recognizes, is eternal,
while the poet himself is mortal. As years go by, some nightingale will always survive to sing, even creating

a requiem when the poet himself, another kind of "singer," has been buried in the earth. The beautiful

birdsong has been heard for untold generations by all kinds of people ("emperor and clown"); even by

characters in the Bible, in sea-stories, and in "faery lands forlorn."

The word "forlorn" breaks the nightingale's spell. As the bird's song fades, the poet's imagination dissolves

as well, grounding him in the human world where he is unable to pursue the nightingale as its flies easily

onwards, "past near meadows," "up the hill-side" and out of the poet's earshot. In the last two lines, he

seems to awaken like a sleeper from a magical dream, and asks the reader "Was it a vision, or a waking

dream?" The beautiful music is gone, and now the poet can only ask, "Do I wake or sleep?"

Symbols & Motifs

The classical Greek ode was a poem of praise in three parts - strophe, antistrophe, and epode. The

Romantic poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries transformed the ode from its Greek

origins as a praise poem accompanied by dance to a long meditative poem linking some powerful emotion

or observation to universal themes and ideas. Keats's "Nightingale" ode consists of eight ten-line stanzas of

iambic pentameter, with the eighth line of each stanza in trimeter, and a rhyme scheme of ababcdecde.

"Ode to a Nightingale" follows the classical form by articulating ideas through a sensuous experience. The

poet/narrator, listening to a bird's song, finds himself imaginatively transported into a green world where he

loses his ordinary powers of vision, awakens to other sensory and emotional impressions, and re-emerges

with a dramatic realization of his own mortality and the power of "music" and poetry alike. In "Structure and

Style in the Greater Romantic Lyric," critic M. H. Abrams argues that many Romantic lyric poems share the

same structure: a poet, unhappy with the world, transports himself into a natural setting that allows him to

reconsider and recast his distress, and emerges back into the original setting with a sense of resolution

about his problems (Abrams 201).

The nightingale is an ordinary-looking robin-sized bird, remarkable largely because of its varied, melodious

song, and because the nightingale, unlike most birds, sings in the evening. The poet compares and

contrasts himself with the nightingale, whose effortless song and flight make the production of art seem

easy, but which remain forever elusive and out-of-reach. The immortality of the bird, he suggests, contrasts

sharply with his own impending death, and yet the poem itself is testimony to Keats's enduring legacy as a

creator of poetic "music."

Keats draws on classical sources to describe the intoxicants that have the potential to transport him;

"Hemlock" is the poison drunk by Socrates; wine is the distillation of the classical goddess "Flora," of the
traditions of southern France, and of "Hippocrene," a mythical fountain that spouted the waters of poetic

inspiration. These ancient sources of relief, warmth, color, and flavor are tempting, but Keats finds the

music of the nightingale even more compelling.

"Ode on a Nightingale" is notable for its use of synaesthesia, the combining of two or more physical

sensations. Phrases like "sunburnt mirth" and "tender is the night!" encourage readers to surrender their

ordinary vision to an overwhelming combination of sensation that Keats implies is the threshold of

inspiration and insight. When, at the center of the poem, he exclaims "I cannot see. . .what soft incense

hangs upon the boughs," the reader breathes and listens more deeply along with the poet himself, entering

the trance of the nightingale's song that is captured by the poem.

Keats uses a condensed, evocative series of images to sketch out the nightingale's eternal audience: the
Biblical Ruth, famous for her loyalty to her mother-in-law, is pictured feeling "homesick" "amid the alien

corn" of a strange country. She provides a vivid contrast for the "magic casements" of "faery" lands that

exist only in the imagination.

Historical Context

Keats wrote "Ode to a Nightingale" in the spring of 1819, when an early spell of warm weather brought

flocks of birds to Hampstead Heath, a hilly area of north London where Keats was staying with his friend

Charles Armitage Brown. Brown reports that a nightingale had built its nest near his home, and Keats felt a

"tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took
his chair from the breakfast table to the grass plot under a
plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came
into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his
hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On
inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained
his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale" (qtd. in
Bate 134).

Like the novelist Jane Austen, Keats lived during the period of the Napoleonic Wars but did not address

that conflict in his art. Instead, Keats, like Austen, focused on issues that flowed directly from his personal

experience, such as the perception of beauty, the mystery and injustice of illness and early death, and the

meaning of emotional experience. Though the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Britain and massive

social changes, including social unrest, poverty, and urban congestion were commanding the attention of

such contemporary poets such as William Blake, many of the Romantics, including Keats, Coleridge,
Wordsworth, and Shelley, were more concerned with the influence of nature, history, and classical ideas

than with current events.

Societal Context

Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, a career as a poet was viewed as the province only of very

wealthy, well-educated men who could afford expensive classical educations and were not required to work

for a living. The English Romantic poets were some of the first exceptions to this tradition. Though George

Gordon was a hereditary peer with the title of Lord Byron and heir to an ancestral home and fortune, most

of the other Romantics struggled financially to support themselves as poets.

Keats's life was dogged by poverty, illness, and bad luck. His father owned a livery stable that rented
horses and conveyances and stabled the horses of wealthier people. Keats's parents cared as well as they

could for their four children, but Keats's father was killed in a riding accident and his mother died of

tuberculosis when the children were still very young. After their parents' deaths, the four surviving Keats

children grew close in an effort to survive the whims and misfortunes of their various guardians. They also

struggled with a family history of tuberculosis; the highly infectious, often slow-developing, and usually fatal

illness that killed millions of people throughout the nineteenth century. Keats's brother Tom likely

contracted tuberculosis from their mother, and, a few years later, Keats himself was infected while caring

for Tom.

Keats, like most young men of his social class, assumed that he would have to earn a living and was

apprenticed to a physician and apothecary, performing such tasks as bandaging wounds and dispensing

drugs. Yet because of the measured success of his early poems, and a strong intimation of his own

mortality, Keats abandoned his medical career to become a full-time poet. Living for most of his life in and

around London, and traveling to Europe and the outer reaches of Britain, Keats was able to meet and

secure the support of many leading literary figures of his day including Leigh Hunt and Percy Shelley.

Though born into a modest household, he received an excellent education and worked hard at all he

undertook, including his brief medical career and his continuing self-directed education. In his short lifetime,

Keats secured the modest patronage of several middle-class friends and intellectuals who encouraged him,

sometimes supported him financially, and even nursed him through his last illness. Yet Keats also suffered

dramatically from the class prejudice that led leading reviewers to condemn him as a lower-class "Cockney"

because his parents had been members of the working class. This impulse continued through the next

century; as late as 1915, the great Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats, in a didactic meditation about

romanticism, denigrated Keats as 'poor, ailing, and ignorant," "the coarse-bred son of a livery-stable

keeper"(Yeats 148). A series of harsh reviews inflected with the venom of class privilege discouraged the
already-fragile Keats, and Shelley himself argued that a stinging review of Keats's last volume of poetry

contributed to the poet's early death.

Religious Context

The Enlightenment gave rise to much questioning of the centrality of traditional religious belief in the lives

of individuals. Enlightenment philosophy, with its insistence on the primacy of human reason and the

importance of empirical proof, gave rise to questions about the existence of God and the social hierarchies

that had long been affirmed by Christianity. Though Keats occasionally made references, especially in his

letters, to spiritual experiences, his poetry contains few references to traditional Christianity. Instead he

asserted, in a variety of contexts, that the perception of beauty and the creation of art are in effect

important spiritual practices. In an 1817 letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, Keats rejected both traditional
religious belief and rationalism. He asserts that he is "certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's

affections and the truth of the Imagination. . . . What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth -

whether it existed before or not -." Later in the letter, he continued: "I have never yet been able to perceive

how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning" (Letters 274).

Keats believed that emotion and imagination, rather than faith or reason, were the keys to spiritual

experience. Emotionalist philosophers such as Adam Smith and Lord Shaftesbury suggested that emotional

responses were as trustworthy as moral judgments, providing an analogy between the physical senses and

the moral or ethical sense. They sought to redefine "passion" as "sympathy," or what we would now call

"compassion" - the ability to put oneself in the shoes of another person and understand how that person

feels. Keats's articulation of "negative capability" as the ability to immerse oneself fully in a situation

without judgment or "any irritable reaching after fact and reason" is an aesthetic echo of this philosophical


Many eighteenth- and early-nineteenth writers also believed passionately in the idea of the sublime, an

aesthetic that celebrates incomparable greatness that reaches beyond calculation or imitation. Samuel Holt

Monk argued that "No single definition of the term would serve in any single decade for all writers . . .but

the word naturally expressed high admiration, and usually implied a strong emotional effect" (Monk 233).

For Keats, as for Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, nature itself was the source of sublimity. The writer's

task was to transform his or her impressions of nature through the skilled use of metaphor and to create an

overwhelming emotional response to this "sublimity" in the reader.

Scientific & Technological Context

Keats, trained in the practice of medicine, was technically a man of science. Yet science as we know it was

in its infancy in the early nineteenth century. Germ theory was in its infancy; physicians assumed that illness

could be relieved through bleeding, and amputations and tooth-extractions were still routinely performed by

butchers and barbers. Food-, air-, and animal-borne diseases like cholera, typhus, and tuberculosis were

rampant and unchecked, and the newly conceived practice of vaccination generated tremendous resistance

even in those few places where it was available. Keats's home, the city of London, was polluted, crowded,

and infected with disease; William Blake's poem "London" describes the plight of citizens who try to survive

in iron-age conditions.

The Industrial Revolution transformed the nineteenth century, bringing tumultuous scientific change and

debate. As engines, machines, factories, and gadgets began to replace human labor, the Industrial
Revolution began to flourish in England, the United States, and Europe. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's

"Frankenstein," one of the first novels to engage with the challenges posed by scientific reason, was

published in 1818. Rationally conceived machines and scientific analyses displaced centuries-old traditions

and practices. Everywhere, from the cafes of Paris to the pubs of Britain, men and women debated the

utility of reason and the miracle of faith. Though he was successful as a medical student and knowledgeable

about such concepts as Newton's discoveries about the nature of light, Keats argued that scientific

explanations destroyed humans' ability to appreciate and understand the natural world.

Do not all charms fly

At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine -
Unweave a rainbow. . . .

"Lamia" (Keats Poems 12)

Biographical Context

John Keats was born 31 October 1795 in Moorfields, London, the oldest of four children of Frances

Jennings Keats and Thomas Keats, who owned and ran a livery stable. Thomas Keats was killed in a

horse-riding accident when John Keats was eight. Frances Jennings Keats struggled to support her young

family and married a fortune-hunter; the marriage did not work out, and she died of tuberculosis when
Keats was only fourteen. The children were then sent to live with grandparents, but more financial

disasters ensued; lack of money was a continuous theme. Adversity drew Keats close to his two brothers,

George and Tom, and his sister Fanny. After their grandparents' deaths, the children were placed into the

care of a guardian, Richard Abbey, but the relationship was often an unhappy one. Later in life, the Keats

children claimed that their guardian often abstemiously withheld sums of money from them, and during this

period all four developed a lifelong fear of poverty.

In spite of these obstacles, Keats received an excellent education in Enfield, north of London, where he

became well acquainted with ancient and contemporary literature and began a translation of Virgil's

"Aeneid." In 1810, assuming that he would have to earn a living, Keats was apprenticed to Thomas

Hammond, an apothecarysurgeon. Keats completed his apprenticeship successfully and in 1815, he

became a student at Guy's Hospital, London; in March 1816 he was licensed by the Society of Apothecaries.

In 1814, however, he had begun writing poetry, and had met the editor of "The Examiner," Leigh Hunt, who

introduced him to other young Romantic poets, including Shelley. By 1816, Keats had decided to abandon

the profession of medicine to work full-time on his poetry.

Keats's first volume of poetry, published in 1817, received a few good reviews, but also attracted harsh

attack by the influential magazine "Blackwood's," which condemned him as "ignorant and unsettled," a

"pretender" poet, a member along with his controversial mentor of a "Cockney School" of English poetry. (A

"Cockney" is a working-class resident of central London.) Nonetheless, Keats persevered with his writing

career. Seeking a healthier environment, he moved with brothers Tom and George from their shabby

apartments in central London to the suburb of Hampstead. On a trip to southeastern England, Keats met

Benjamin Bailey and Joseph Severn, who were to number among his most devoted friends and sponsors

during his short lifetime. At Bailey's lodgings in Oxford, Keats made progress on his long poem "Endymion,"

which was published in late spring of 1818.

Keats's energies during the last two years of his life were remarkable, considering the tumultuous events

of this period in his life. In 1818, George Keats married and emigrated to the United States, while Tom

Keats began showing the early signs of tuberculosis. John Keats continued to travel and write during this

period, but began spending more and more time caring for his sick brother. Though Keats was a skilled

and devoted nurse, Tom died in December 1818. The grief-stricken Keats moved into a friend's house in

Hampstead, where he fell deeply in love with his next-door neighbor, a young woman named Fanny

Brawne. At the same time, he began to experience the early symptoms of the disease that had killed his

brother and mother.

The year 1819 is often termed Keats's annus mirabilis or "miracle year" because he accomplished so much

in spite of grief, ill health and financial problems. He completed many of his greatest poems, including "The

Eve of St Agnes," "La Belle Dame sans Merci," and his famous Odes. Letters written to friends and family

during this period and a brief run as a theatre critic for "The Champion" allowed him to articulate his

opinions about art, religion, and philosophy. His second anthology of poems appeared in 1820 and received

more encouraging reviews than had his first efforts.

However, Keats was now seriously ill with the tuberculosis that would shortly end his life. In the late

summer of 1820, Keats's doctors ordered him to move to a warmer, drier climate. Keats chose Italy, and

in November 1820 he traveled first to Naples, declined Shelley's invitation to join him in Pisa, then finally

settled in Rome. With his old friend Joseph Severn, Keats found lodgings near the Spanish Steps in Rome,
and in the hospitable climate of Italy, seemed for a few weeks to rally. Within a month, however, Keats

had become bedridden. In spite of Severn's ministrations, Keats died in February 1821, holding his friend's

hand. He was only twenty-six. For his epitaph, he chose a single line: "Here lies one whose name was writ

in water."