No matter how many times I read John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ the second stanza strikes me as particularly beautiful because of its sensual expression and parallelism of the stanza that it follows. As we discussed Keats’ use of the five senses and contrasting opposites to emphasize key elements in his poem, I want to focus on the alternate sensuality found in the first 20 lines of the poem. Additionally, the nightingale’s presence within these lines will be exposed and examined.
Keats’ poem evokes strong romantic imagery. The first two stanzas of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ appeal to the conventional senses of touch, sight and sound. However, I would argue an alternate spiritual sense is also illustrated.
Keats, poet and barman, offers up a series of eclectic drinks to the reader:
- Hemlock: a sedative potion derived from a plant.
- Lethe waters: a river in Hades, from which all those who drank would experience complete forgetfulness.
- Hippocrene waters: another Grecian reference – a fountain dedicated to the Muses as it enhances poetic inspiration to those who would drink from it.
- Southern French Wine: wine, probably something akin to Bordeaux wines.
All of the above have mind-altering qualities in common, whether that be positive or negatively connoted to the poet’s intent. Hemlock and the waters of Lethe, both mentioned in the first stanza, are both mind-numbing agents whereas the latter two are mentioned in stanza 2 and have more enjoyable effects on consciousness. Keats describes his senses, relative to these elixirs, as: drowsy, numb, and dulled moved then to refreshing memories associated to nature and “sunburnt mirth” (14). Not one of these sensations can be affiliated to any of the five senses separately, but is more of an awareness of Keats’ state. Nonetheless, Keats’ description still fuels the readers sensual experience of the poem. Arguably, the growing positivity in the referred drinks reflect the acoustics of the poem as Keats listens to the nightingale’s song and begins to reminisce.
The nightingale surfaces in the first stanza as the “light-winged Dryad” (7) brightening the poem’s somber tone like colour bursting from shadow. As she begins to “singest of summer” (10) in Provençe, the mood of the poem shifts and transitions into a new stanza. Arguably, it is precisely the song of the nightingale the evokes such memories of Provençe, due to the lively chorus of her song sounding similarly to that of *The Farandole. My favorite line, “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim, and purple-stained mouth” (17-18) suggests to me the winking, beady eyes of a nightingale, and berries she could be eating. The following lines “leave the world unseen, and with thee fade away into the forest dim,” (19-20) impress that Keats is drunk on memories, and wishes only to fly away with the bird that reminds him so fondly of those sweeter times.
*The Farandole is an upbeat traditional chain dance of south-eastern France, namely: Provençe.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 927-929. Print.
Nightingale Song. Youtube, 2009. Web. 27 Apr 2013. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HVZVm_ReDe0>.
“The Farandole.” Sonny Watson’s Streetswing.com. Sonny Watson, n.d. Web. 26 Apr 2013. <http://www.streetswing.com/histmain/z3farndo.htm>.