Ode to a Nightingale Summary,Analysis,Explanation
1. Occasion, Date, etc. The following is the account given by Charles Brown about the origin of this ode.
“In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continued 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 that he had some scraps of paper in his hands and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books.
N.B. Those scraps of paper formed the original manuscripts of Ode to a Nightingale. The residence of Charles Brown was at Wentworth Place, Hampsted, and Keats stayed with him for a certain period. The ‘scraps of paper’ that Brown perceived into the hands of Keats contained the initial manuscript of the Ode which was given a final shape afterwards by Keats with the help of Brown.
N.B. The poem is an address to a nightingale–a bird. It is to be remembered in this connection that the great contemporaries of Keats have also written odes to birds. Among such odes are Wordsworth’s ‘To A Skylark’ and ‘To a Cuckoo, and Shelley’s. ‘TO A Skylark. As an author of bird-poems, Keats, however, is no inferior to his great contemporaries. Mr. Weekes has rightly, suggested : “Tastes differ : but Keats has nothing to fear from the comparison“. .
2. An Analytical Summary
I. As the poet listens to the nightingale’s song, his heart is full of aching pain and his senses are dulled, owing to the very happy participation in the happiness of the bird. The pain is the outcome of an excessive joy of the poet to think that the bird should be so happy to sing in full-throated ease in such a care-free, over-happy manner.(St. 1)
II. The poet longs for losing himself into the happy spirit of the bird. He wishes to leave the world unseen and fade away into the dim forest of the bird. At first, he proposes to do so with the help of a cup of wine that has been cooled a long time in the deep-delved earth, and is rich with all associations of songs and dances of Provence, its country of origin. By means of this, he expects to leave behind him all the woes of the human world—the weaniness, the fever and the fret of the world where men sit only to hear one another groans. Here youth grows pale all too soon and beauty fades in no time. But on a second thought, he finds wine not potent enough to transport him to his ideal region. Poetry alone shall transport him. Within a moment, he finds himself in his imagination by the side of the bird, listening to the bird’s song in the woodland. (Sts. 2-4)
III. Under the spell of his fancy, the poet describes the romantic woodland into which he has flown on the viewless wings of his poetry. In the darkness of the place, he cannot see the flowers, leaves, or creepers, but can guess each of them, by their peculiar fragrance,–the hawthorn, the eglantine, the violet and the mask-rose. 18:57
IV. This beautiful romantic scene overwhelms the poet. He thinks of his many associations with death as he listens to the song. In his joy he remembers how often the thought of death has seemed to sooth him, and thinks that that would be more welcome now than ever. The nightingale will not cease singing. The poet will die, but the bird will sing on incessantly.
The poet contrasts the transitoriness of individual life with the permanences of the beauty of the bird’s song. The bird is not meant to die. The voice that the poet hears now was heard in ancient times by emperors and clowns, by Ruth of the Biblical story, as also by some beautiful damsel of the fairy tale, kept imprisoned in some medieval castle. The song of the bird as a thing of joy has no end. (Sts. 6-7
V. The illusion suddenly breaks. The poet comes back to his hard, daily consciousness and regrets that imagination has not the power to beguile him for ever. (St. 8)
There is a logical unity of design all through the poem. The following is a brief analysis of the Ode
Stanza 1. Keats listens to the song of the nightingale and feels an aching sensation at its beauty and joy.
Stanza 2. The poet longs for an escape to the realm of the nightingale’s beauty by the aid of a cup of wine, prepared and enjoyed in a romantic way. Stanza 3. Keats contemplates on the woes of the mortal world and seeks to
escape from the same by flying to the forest of the nightingale.
Stanza 4. The poet takes the help of poetry and finds himself transported to the romantic woodland of the bird.
Stanza 5. The poet perceives in his imagination all the beauty of early summer in the lovely forest valley.
Stanza 6. The charm of the nightingale’s melody and the romance of the whole environment make the poet long for death.
Stanza 7. The poet contrasts the mortal world with the immortality of the nightingale’s beauty as manifested in its song.
Stanza 8. The poet is suddenly reminded of his own lonely lot and his imaginative flight is at once rudely shocked. The song of the nightingale fades far away. The poet is called back to the sordid reality of his work a-day world.
4. Critical Appreciation
This poem is a remarkable specimen of the poetic art-one of the most perfect in English literature. In the first place, the great beauty of the ode lies in its rich and concentrated diction and consummate skill in workmanship.
It is replete with “the rounded felicity of the expression”. Every phrase, used in the poem, is packed with tense emotion, rich suggestion, and delicate sensuousness which are made organic with the imagination of the poet. The telling epithets and the picturesque compound words call up a world of ideas and show almost a Shakespearean felicity of expression. Pictures after pictures pass in a dazzling succession. Every line is a beautiful picture, complete in itself and highly suggestive. All these pictures, which are isolated in their own way, are organically woven together into a whole texture, with a great architectural skill and an artistic symmetry.
The most outstanding feature of the poem lies in its exquisite sequence of the poetic mood. The quick transition from one mood to another and the contrast implied there are perfectly natural and spontaneous. Starting with a mood of despondent contemplation of life, in which beauty perishes and passion cloys, the poet’s imagination soars very high “on the viewless wings of poesy”, with an eager desire, as aroused by the music of the nightingale’s song, to find a visionary refuge in the magic of romance in the spiritual world of beauty and perfect existence. The ecstacy of the mood is of such a high pitch that the poet feels inclined to die being ‘half in love with easeful Death’. From this exalted mood of a romantic trance, there is the final shifting to the mood of disillusionment, and the poet is, again, thrown back upon the stern realities of the matter-of-fact world.
Next is perceived the delicate expression to the spirit of old romance and the romantic emotion of the poet himelf. The atmosphere of the poem is deeply imbued with a spirit of romance and animated with an intensity of passion and emotion. But in expressing all these, the poet has shown a wonderful self-restraint and a balance of mind. He imagines the song of the nightingale as something permanent and imperishable in the sense that this song of the bird has ever been loved and admired in all ages by all men of all classes and will always be loved and admired in the future. It is an eternal matter of joy.
Another beautiful feature of this poem is its rich human interest. It is redolent with the imaginative beauty of gay romance, but there is an undercurrent of poignant personal melancholy running through it. No one can miss the poet’s deep sense of pity for not only for himself but also for humanity. The poet is no longer a mere ideal aesthete, holding idle converse with beauty, detatched from real life, but one fully conscious of the deep pathos of the human existence.
Lastly, the exquisite metrical structure of the poem has greatly contributed to its beauty. There are ten iambic lines in each stanza. The charm of the verse depends partly on the inevitable, yet unmonotonous, recurrence of the rhymes, and partly on the effect of the shortened eighth line in producing a momentary pause that heightens the force of the full music of the last two lines. The lines are in iambic pentameter, while the eighth line is in iambic trimeter. The variation accounts for the easy rhythm and the sweet melody of the verse.
Along with Keats’s characteristic love for beauty, the poem bears out his love for Hellenism. His references to Bacchus and his pards and the blushful Hippocrene testify to this.
As an ode, the poem is subjective by nature and speaks much of the poet’s unfortunate and lonely life, his brother’s death of consumption, his own ill-fated love with Fanny Browne and his own melancholy nature.
This melanoholy temper of the poet makes the tone of the poet at once sad and sweet. The ode reflects on the deep agony and unfulfilled yearning of human existence. The poet seems to look before and after and to pine for what is not”Was it a vision, or a waking dream.”
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