Summary and Analysis of Ode to a Nightingale- John Keats (1795-1821)

Updated June 16, 2022

John Keats was a prominent figure among the Romantic poets like P.B. Shelley, Lord Byron etc. He is one of the most accomplished Romantic poets for his wide variety of poetry ranging from sonnets, Spenserian romance to Miltonic epic. John Keats died at the age of 25 but in a burst of poetic energy he produced some of his most beautiful poems in the English literature.

The “Ode to a Nightingale” is also one such great poem of Keats and has indeed ‘made himself remember’. He is often referred to as the ‘Escapist’ or ‘Purest Romantic’ for his style and subject matter. In his poems, he describes the time, death, nature, beauty and human suffering.

John Keats is also acknowledged for perfecting the ‘Ode’ poetry through his five great ode poems. His representative poems include ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Ode to Autumn” and of course “Ode to a Nightingale”. It is written in 8 long stanzas with 10 lines. Keats wrote this poem after he was struck by the sound of the Nightingale.

Short Summary of Ode to a Nightingale

“Ode to a Nightingale” was written in 1819. It was written in 8 long stanzas with 10 lines. John Keats wrote this poem when an ecstatic sound of Nightingale struck his ears. When he heard this poem he had many feelings like- drunk from the poisonous hemlock plant, fallen into the waters of Lethe (the river in the ancient Greek mythological underworld that makes you forget everything).

He, however, addresses the bird (Nightingale) as a mythical tree spirit (Dryad). In the later part of the poem, he longs to escape this world along with the Nightingale. He points out that as the bird is ignorant of the woes and suffering of the world, he also wants to live his life carefree. Basically, you can say that the ecstatic sound of the nightingale has made him to go away from the woes and suffering.

Further, the poet says that he doesn’t need to get ride from Bachhus (the god of wine), he will fly on the wings of poetry. It means he will achieve the bliss by writing this poem. In the next moment he finds himself in the place, where a small amount of light making its way through the lush and gloomy trees, moss has covered the paths.

Moreover, Keats uses the senses heavily in his poem- he says that he neither can see the flowers around him, nor he can tell what fragrant plants hang from the trees. But he is surrounded by the darkness. He also describes about the various plants in the forest.

Going on further, the poet says that the darkness reminds him of the death. Even, he says that it is the right to die, to end the pain of human suffering while listening the nightingale blissful sound. So, the poet pleas Nightingale to pour out the ecstatic song from your soul.

He addresses the bird as an immortal Nightingale. The poet mentions that the song I hear is the same one that heard many- many years ago in the time of emperors and court jesters. At last Keats says that the word “forlorn” is like a bell to him, it calls back to his ‘sole self’ (reality). And he ultimately wonders whether he actually overheard the nightingale’s song or whether it had been a dream.

 Analysis of the Poem Ode to The Nightingale

“Ode to a Nightingale” was composed in the spring of 1819 when Keats was living in a house in Hampstead, near London, with his friend Charles Brown. Written in iambic pentameter, the Ode begins on a very depressing note but by the time it ends, the poet presents the wonderful elevation that can be brought about by the song of nightingale. In this elevation, the poet finds himself transcending all the narrow barriers of this world.

The Ode portrays the misery of the poet’s heart in the very beginning. He has a heart ache and the drowsiness has made his senses dull. It appears that he has taken some highly intoxicating drink made from Henlock roots or opium. The moment this drowsiness numbs him completely, he forgets his past.

He compares his forgetfulness to the drinking of the water of River Lethe. He asserts that all these have been caused by the song of the nightingale. In the second stanza, the poet is excited after listening to the song o the nightingale. He now calls for a drink, a dance and a song.

In the third, the poet wants to dissolve into the world of permanent bliss i.e. the world of a nightingale. He wants to forget the misery of the world. He finds this world full of groaning, paralysis, premature ageing of youth, sorrow, despair, lightness and loveliness. Here

He refers to the premature death of his brother Tom. In this way, the poet introduces the autobiographical note in the poem. The poet realizes that his escape to the world of nightingale on the chariot of “Bacchus” will be momentary. Hence, he decides to go into the world of permanent joy on the viewless wings of poesy:

Away! Away! For I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards
But on the viewless wings of poesy.

In fact, the poet finds himself already with the Nightingale in the fourth stanza. He forgets the misery of the world.

Happy Moments to The Suspense of End

The fifth and the sixth stanzas present the utopian concept of Nightingale’s world where everything is beautiful and sweet. The poet says there  is darkness around him but in this ‘embalmed darkness’, he can guess each flower around him. The singing of the nightingale has made him so happy that even thinks of dying at this moment:

The seventh stanza immortalizes the nightingale and its song. Keats says that the same tuneful song was heard by great and small in the olden times. The same melodic song was heard by Ruth and the same pleasant song is being heard by the poet. John Keats knows that the future generation will also hear the same song.

In fact the same song had charmed magic casements in ‘fairy lands forlorn’. The last word ‘forlorn’ of the stanza brings the poet back to himself. In the last stanza, the illusion is broken. The poet comes to realize that he cannot conquer his reality. He bids farewell to the nightingale. The poem ends on a note of suspense- will it come or will it never come through?

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music- Do I wake or sleep?

The Ode in Conclusion

The poem is remarkable for presenting a contrast between the world of reality and the world of imagination. It amply presents romantic pictures and a romantic view of life. The use of metaphors, similes, alliteration, music and allusions is praiseworthy. On the whole, the poem (Ode to a Nightingale) is a wonderful projection of the poet’s romantic imagination.

Reads Beyond an Ode to Nightingale Under Literature Listing

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