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John Keats (1795-1821)

Ode to a Nightingale


              1My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
              2      My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
              3Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
              4      One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
              5'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
              6      But being too happy in thine happiness,--
              7           That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
              8                In some melodious plot
              9      Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
            10           Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

            11O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
            12      Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
            13Tasting of Flora and the country green,
            14      Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
            15O for a beaker full of the warm South,
            16      Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
            17           With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
            18                And purple-stained mouth;
            19      That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
            20           And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

            21Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
            22      What thou among the leaves hast never known,
            23The weariness, the fever, and the fret
            24      Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
            25Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
            26      Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
            27           Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            28                And leaden-eyed despairs,
            29      Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
            30           Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

            31Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
            32      Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
            33But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
            34      Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
            35Already with thee! tender is the night,
            36      And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
            37           Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
            38                But here there is no light,
            39      Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
            40           Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

            41I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
            42      Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
            43But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
            44      Wherewith the seasonable month endows
            45The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
            46      White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
            47           Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
            48                And mid-May's eldest child,
            49      The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
            50           The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

            51Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
            52      I have been half in love with easeful Death,
            53Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
            54      To take into the air my quiet breath;
            55           Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
            56      To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
            57           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
            58                In such an ecstasy!
            59      Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain--
            60             To thy high requiem become a sod.

            61Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
            62      No hungry generations tread thee down;
            63The voice I hear this passing night was heard
            64      In ancient days by emperor and clown:
            65Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
            66      Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
            67           She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
            68                The same that oft-times hath
            69      Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
            70           Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

            71Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
            72      To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
            73Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
            74      As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
            75Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
            76      Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
            77           Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
            78                In the next valley-glades:
            79      Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
            80           Fled is that music:--Do I wake or sleep?

Notes

2] hemlock: a poisonous plant which produces death by paralysis.

4] Lethe: a river of the lower world from which the shades drank, and thus obtained forgetfulness of the past.

7] Dryad: a wood nymph.

9] beechen: of the beech tree.

11] draught: what can be swallowed in a single drink.

13] Flora: the goddess of flowers, here used for flowers themselves. Cf. Keats' letter to Fanny Keats ca. May 1, 1819: "O there is nothing like fine weather ... and, please heaven, a little claret-wine cool out of a cellar a mile deep -- with a few or a good many ratafia cakes -- a rocky basin to bathe in, a strawberry bed to say your prayers to Flora in" (Letters, II, 56).

14] Provenšal song. In the early Middle Ages the poets of southern France, the troubadours of Provence, were particularly famous for their love lyrics.

15] warm South: a southern wine.

16] Hippocrene: a fountain on Mount Helicon in Boeotia, sacred to the Muses.

26] Tom Keats died of consumption on Dec. 1, 1818.

32] Bacchus and his pards: the Roman god of wine, whho traditionally is shown in a conveyance drawn by leopards.

33] viewless: invisible. This phrase appears in half a dozen poems from 1765 to Mary Robinson's "The Progress of Liberty" in 1806 (II, 426).

37] Fays: fairies.

43] embalmed: full of balms, or perfumes. Lines 43-49 appear to echo Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, II.i.249-52 The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin, 2nd edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997):

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine ...

46] pastoral eglantine. Eglantine is properly the sweet-briar, though popularly applied to various varieties of the wild rose. "Pastoral" presumably because often referred to in pastoral poetry.

51] Darkling: in the dark; cf Milton, Paradise Lost, III, 38-40: "As the wakeful Bird/Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid/Tunes her nocturnal Note."

60] high requiem: a liturgical song for the repose of the dead.

67] alien corn: alien because Ruth was not an Israelite but a Moabitess, gleaning in the barley fields of Judah (Ruth 2:1-2).

Commentary by Ian Lancashire
(2002/9/9)

Between the first three words of "Ode to a Nightingale," "My heart aches," and its last, "sleep," John Keats describes a brief personal escape from an existence whose suffering he can no longer endure. The "I" who speaks eight times in this perfect eight-stanza lyric is Keats himself, not a surrogate persona. Ambiguity, irony, and even implication have no place here, but biography does. Keats' letters show that he certainly believed the poet possessed "negative capability," the self-nullifying power to enter other things and speak as and for them. "Ode to a Nightingale" depicts one such experience. True enough, Keats leaves his "sole self" (72) to join with the nightingale in verse that briefly realizes, in human language, the ageless beauty of its unintelligible song. Yet it is Keats who does so, in May 1819, not the living reader, not some character in a dramatic monologue manipulated by a poet who stays outside his created world. During his training as a medical practitioner, Keats saw drugs like opium (3) and wine (11) deaden the pain of feverishly ill men, the aged shaking from palsy, and the consumptive young (23-26). His own brother Tom, dying of consumption at this time, lingers on in "Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies" (26).

Keats' friend Charles Brown recollected, 17 years later, how Keats wrote this ode.

In the spring of 1818 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. 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 the 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. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem which has been the delight of every one.

The only surviving draft of the ode, in Keats' handwriting, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It appears on two half-sheets and has "an uncancelled rejected beginning ... and the first thirty lines written continuously without stanza divisions" (Stillinger 651). Perhaps this manuscript, which Keats gave to his friend J. H. Reynolds, represents a later stage of the poem than what Brown saw on four or five "scraps." Whatever the textual history may be (and we are unlikely to know much more), Brown recalls the earliest stage of composition. Keats took "his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under the plum-tree" near Brown's house and sat under it "for two or three hours," taking pleasure in the song of a nightingale that "had built her nest" there. Afterwards, Keats returned to the house with some "scraps" on which he had been writing the ode.

Keats did not record these few hours in "Ode to a Nightingale." In the poem, the bird sings "in some melodious plot / Of beechen green" (8-9), not in a plum-tree. The time is "night" or "midnight" (35, 56), not a morning after breakfast. The season is summer (10, 50), not spring. Keats' imagination transmutes what he experiences under the plum-tree. He acknowledges, for this reason, flying up to the bird "on the viewless wings of Poesy" (33) and only returning to himself when his "fancy" fails, its spell broken by a word, "forlorn" (71-74). The morning in his chair under the plum-tree stimulated the experience described by the poem, in what we now call lucid (or wide-awake) dreaming. At poem's end, Keats recognizes this when he asks, "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / ... Do I wake or sleep?" (79-80). He has had a disorienting, transcendental experience. One moment, sightless in a pitch-black midnight, high among the leaves of a forest of trees, he was listening to the nightingale's "ecstasy"; and then suddenly he was back alone, if Brown remembers truly, under a plum-tree one morning near his house.

In retrospect, after the event, Keats describes his experience as a somatoform (bodily) dissociation, an out-of-body experience, or what parapsychologists term an OBE. Others might call it a "near-death" experience. During a critical illness, such as a heart attack, the self may appear to rise out of the dying body and to rush down a tunnel towards a light, only returning to the body when its trauma ceases. Both out-of-body and near-death experiences, available to a very large percentage of the population, are widely documented by those who had them and by other observers. A typical OBE begins when sensory input is disrupted, sometimes by drugs. The mind then feels itself float upwards out of the body to a height that has been termed "bird's-eye" or tree-high. Often the ascent may seem like travelling through a tunnel towards a bright light. Experiencing itself being divided into two, or having a dissociated double, the self may feel itself near death. Afterwards, when the mind returns to the body, the person recalls his experience, not as a dream during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, but as vivid or wide-awake dreaming.

"Ode to a Nightingale" opens when Keats acknowledges feeling "a drowsy numbness" that he associates with having taken drugs like hemlock or opium, or with drinking from the classical river, Lethe, which makes humanity forget what it was like to have lived. Keats then wishes to drink deeply of red wine so that he could "fade away" (20-21), leaving the suffering world for the nightingale's joyful song. What transports him, however, is the imagination. Despite the physical brain, which "perplexes and retards" (34), his mind enables him to "fly" up to the nightingale in the trees. He imagines the moon's bright light blown through "winding mossy ways" (40) but arrives in utter darkness, lacking sight and smell. He imagines himself desiring death, "Now more than ever seems it rich to die" (55), and experiencing it, becoming "a sod" (60). Imagination ends the experience it initiated. At the word "forlorn," Keats comes "back" to his "sole self," that is, the self left alone by its flying double. He becomes conscious of what he has experienced as, perhaps, "a waking dream" (79). Many facets of an OBE are here: drug-associated sensory deprivation, a flight upwards of a double mind through dark "ways" illuminated by a great light, the moon, a bird's-eye perspective among the tree-tops, a near-death experience, the descent of a double to its abandoned self, and a sense of having had a vivid dream.

Keats did not write "Ode to a Nightingale" as testimony about an "out-of-body experience"; it would not be recognized or named for more than a century. On the other hand, neither does Keats appear to invent this dissociative event or to copy it from other poets. Anyone can meditate, one fine, warm morning, about escaping from the harsh world of humanity into the countryside and its healing natural beauty. Samuel T. Coleridge did so in his lyric, "The Lime-tree Bower my Prison":

... Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
'Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.

Some readers believe that Keats drew from Coleridge here, but despite "lift[ing] the soul," opiate Coleridge remained fully possessed, in sunlight, of himself and his senses. Keats' last six lines owe much more to Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper." Wordsworth described the valley maiden singing, in a strange language as "No Nightingale did ever chaunt" (9), such "plaintive numbers" (18; cf. Keats' "plaintive anthem") that, once the speaker had climbed the hill, remained in his mind as "music ... / Long after it was heard no more" (31-32). As the reaper's song "could have no ending" (26), so the voice of Keats' nightingale was "immortal," heard in "ancient days" and Biblical history as in contemporary England. Both poets cluster "plaintive," unheard "music," "hill-side," and "valley" in the context of a nightingale's song, strong evidence for influence, but Wordsworth does not allude to any dissociative experience.

Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" springs from a poet's personal life-changing, mind-wrenching experience of a timeless paradise, a world "with no pain" (56). Only someone who has spent days tending the terminally ill can understand with what depth Keats longs for this respite. In the event's aftermath, he recreates the experience "on the viewless wings of Poesy" (33), using all his craft's resources, but with little sensory recall. The "tender" night (35) and "embalmed darkness" (43) disable his sight and leave him guessing at fragrances. Simple words like "song," "voice," "anthem," and "music" only hint at the nightingale's soul-pouring "ecstasy" (58). He imitates it with astonishingly resonant lines like "Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" (40), and "The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" (50). For the rest, Keats must describe the bird-song "of summer" (10) by depicting what he knows, its hearers over the centuries. To recreate the nightingale's song, we must listen in the context of human suffering. Only by being in two worlds at once, the self below, its double above, can we know the song's essential beauty. Why else did the song that "found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth ... sick for home," leave her standing "in tears amid the alien corn" (65-67)? She was not, like Keats at the start, "too happy in thine happiness" (6). Quintessentially, we know the nightingale's song truly only when we are aware that we cannot keep it for long. It is, at heart, "plaintive" (75), that is, sorrowful.

For this reason, Keats echoes Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" in the last stanza. Although their ways to beauty are different, their experiences are one.

Bibliography


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Annals of the Fine Arts (July 1819). Republished in John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 4830 E20AB Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
First publication date: 1820
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire, J. R. MacGillivray
RP edition: 3RP 2.649.
Recent editing: 4:2001/12/28*1:2002/9/9*1:2002/11/21

Composition date: 1819
Composition date note: Spring of 1819
Form: English Ode
Rhyme: ababcdecde


Other poems by John Keats