Floating on the “wings of Poesy” to an “easeful Death”: A Close Reading on John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

When reading John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale” I was instantly reminded of Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark”.  However, Shelley’s depiction of the bird (when he compares him to his poetry) is an optimistic and awe-inspired view while Keat’s ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ is a more morbid and defeated view (in simpler terms).  In stanza three Keat’s talks about a world that the nightingale is ignorant of: a world with “weariness, the fever, and the fret”, “where palsy shakes a few sad last gray hairs”, and “youth grows pale; spectre-thin, and dies” (lines 23 – 26.928). In the sixteenth stanza in Shelley’s ‘Sky-Lark’, Shelley provokes a similar theme of the “ignorance of pain” from the bird but as the poem continues Shelley proclaims that even if we were exempt from our feelings of “hate and pride and fear; if we were things born not to shed a tear” our joy would still not come near to the skylark’s (92 – 95.836).  To Shelley, the sky-lark becomes a symbol of a humble art form that has never been meddled with and Shelley wishes to strive for these qualities so that he can create “harmonious madness” (103.836).  Keats wants to escape the world by dissolving into the blissful ignorance of the nightingale:

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known.

The theme of imagination and death are constantly interchanged as one theme through the nightingale.  This is seen in stanzas four, six, seven, and eight.  Keats begins by proclaiming that he wants to “fly to thee…on viewless wings of Poesy [imagination]” (31 – 33.928).  These lines are followed by, “though the dull brain perplexes and retards”, which sounds like Keats is talking about the decaying of his mind as he dives into the realm of imagination with the nightingale.  This is reflected back in the sixth stanza, when Keats describes his love for Death and how he [death] has been his muse for so long.  In this stanza in particular, the nightingale and Death become a gateway that leads Keats into imagination because as he listens to the bird sing, he realizes that “now more than ever [it] seems rich to die” and as he dies the nightingale would bring his soul into “such an ecstasy” where death and imagination are one and the nightingale sings (51 – 60. 929).  This is also reflected in the next (seventh) stanza when the nightingale is referred to as “immortal Bird” (61.929).  Again, the idea of imagination and the nightingale being one is played with in the last stanza (eight) when Keats is bidding the bird goodbye:

Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf (73 – 74.929).

‘Fancy’ refers again to imagination and the noun ‘she’ is used to describe imagination but also the nightingale is described as a female (927).  In the last line of the poem when Keats asks the question: “Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?”, he is not only questioning if he imagined the nightingale’s song but he is also questioning his own abilities of spontaneously creating art.  When he describes the nightingale as “buried deep” Keats is relating this to his own thoughts and visions that are now buried deeply in his mind and that he may or may not be able to reach with time.

Works cited:

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. To a Sky-lark. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ninth Edition: The Romantic Period. Volume D. Comp. Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger. 1820. 834-836. Print.

Keats, John. Ode to a Nightingale.  Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ninth Edition: The Romantic Period. Volume D. Comp. Deidre Shauna Lynch and Jack Stillinger. 1819. 927-929. Print.

This entry was posted in 2: Close Reading, {G3}. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Floating on the “wings of Poesy” to an “easeful Death”: A Close Reading on John Keat’s “Ode to a Nightingale”

  1. Ali Bayne says:

    I really liked how you compared the two poems by the inclination to lean either towards optimism or morbidness. I think this relates back to the classic romantic theme of the rejuvenation of nature. On one hand, Shelly is optimistic, admiring the free and lively nature of the bird. He describes it, “… Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun,” (834) in that the bird’s perceived happiness is beyond human conception (unbodied) because the bird is most likely ignorant of the fact that she will die. Or, perhaps she is aware and just doesn’t really care that much because her race will live on in the paradise that is nature. This helps connect the theme of ‘imagination and death’ that you talked about, to Keats. As Shelly might focus on the rejuvenation of the bird, Keats seems to focus on the entire ‘wearing out’ process that affects an individual (bird or human), and not his race. He seems to want to believe as Shelly does, saying how he wants to ‘fly to thee’ in order to escape the unfortunate reality of death that seems to haunt his words throughout the poem.

    You also say that “When he describes the nightingale as “buried deep” Keats is relating this to his own thoughts and visions that are now buried deeply in his mind and that he may or may not be able to reach with time”, and I totally agree. To relate it to my thoughts above, I think that Keats is almost trying to fight a war inside his head between acceptance of death and panic over not being able to express his thoughts before his ‘dull brain perplexes and retards’. It really is quite a depressing thing to think about, but based on perspective it can either drive you crazy, or drive you to live every day to the fullest. Which poem is more meaningful? Or, which do you think is easier applied to modern times?

Leave a Reply