Keats’ Hardships Reflected in his Poetry

The passage that I found extremely intriguing within John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” poem was lines 51-70. These two stanzas, in my opinion, are extremely representative of Keats’ actual life. It seems to me as though he is expressing a lot of the pain and sadness that he feels every day within reality. He also goes on in the second of these two stanzas to compare his own dreary life with that of a nightingale. He points out the fact that the bird  lives in a very pain-free manner, while he suffers day after day. A nightingale enjoys every minute of every day, while Keats only sees darkness and misery.

It is important to first of all point out that “Ode to a Nightingale” was written in the year 1819. At this time, John Keats had just returned from a long walking tour and had fallen quite ill with tuberculosis (902). This same disease had already killed other members of his family several years earlier; is it any wonder, based upon these facts, that Keats predicted his own demise in previous works of his before he ever even became sick (901-902)? One such passage in “Ode to a Nightingale” that particularly demonstrates the intense pain Keats feels is, “Darkling I listen; and, for many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death” (51-52). Keats shows his readers here that he does not treasure anything in his life anymore. For him, there is nothing left to live for. Death has come to act as a friend to Keats, rather than as a feared enemy as it does to others, and he eagerly anticipates the day when he can embrace it.

John Keats then goes on to compare his own pain with that of the nightingale’s when he says:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy! (55-58)

He is discussing here how death is a gift to him, but a nightingale “wast not born for death” (61) because it does not know the meaning of pain. It simply sings out its feelings for all to hear, and everything the bird has to say is of the happiness and purity of its life. Keats, on the other hand, does not have much to ‘sing’ about that would bring joy to himself and those around him. In fact, in the seventh stanza he describes the ‘song’ that he hears within his life as, “the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn” (65-67). In some ways, it appears as though Keats believes that the nightingale’s song is wasted on him, because he has “ears in vain” (59).

Overall, it appears that “Ode to a Nightingale” reflects the stark contrast between the life of a bird and that of John Keats’. He seems unable to understand the nightingale’s everlasting joy, just as the bird seems unable to comprehend the misery and darkness that invades Keats’ life daily. The author of this poem clearly does not see any hope, and uses the symbol of a nightingale to demonstrate to his readers how lost and alone he feels at this point in his life. However, it is interesting to ask ourselves whether Keats is jealous of the bird, or if he actually pities its joyful lifestyle. Has he come to accept and welcome misery as his fate, or does he yearn for a glimmer of hope in his life?

Works Cited:

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.

“John Keats.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 901-903. Print.


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6 Responses to Keats’ Hardships Reflected in his Poetry

  1. Ali Bayne says:

    You say that “He points out the fact that the bird lives in a very pain-free manner, while he suffers day after day. A nightingale enjoys every minute of every day, while Keats only sees darkness and misery.” Because he talks about how a bird isn’t born for death as a human is, is this a case of admiring the bird’s blissful ignorance of death and suffering? The bird does not fear death because she doesn’t know what it is. She will live a happy life until her last moments, which is what I think Keats is quite jealous of. It is because of this that I disagree with you when you say that “Keats shows his readers here that he does not treasure anything in his life anymore.” He still technically ‘treasures’ that there is beauty left in the world, that the nightingale can live without being haunted by death. He treasures nature and how it seems to ease his pain (physically and emotionally) even if it is through longing. It is in this way that he is able to use his imagination as something of an escape from the awful things he has experienced throughout his life. I think that he does yearn for the ignorance, but he still has somewhat of an appreciation that he is able to express his complex thoughts at least better than the average non-poet. Perhaps the idea is that he treasures his ability to rationalize and accept being ‘in love with death’, and not fear it? Is that why he uses the word ‘love’ instead of being ‘just friends’ with death? Or does that just mean that he longs for death that much more? In that case, why wouldn’t he just kill himself? There must be something positive that he treasures that is keeping him alive… everyone lives for something.

    • jcdegner says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback! I definitely see where you are coming from with your ideas. I was trying to discuss in my blog the fact that Keats cannot comprehend the nightingale’s happiness, and, as a result, it is somewhat wasted on him. In this way, I do not think that he can truly treasure the bird, because he does not understand its lifestyle or joyful motivations. Is he really envious of the nightingale, or does he wish for death to find him quickly?

  2. teresastapor says:

    Great thought provoking post! I definitely agree with your argument that Keats has written this poem with his life experiences in mind. I cannot say he had an easy life from the get go and it definitely shows in Ode to a Nightingale that his wanting death to find him. I have noticed the repetition of death and the choice of words he makes. It is all very macabre, dark to the point of disturbing. For example, “the weariness, the fever, and the fret/ here, where the men sit and hear each other groan” sends chills up my spin (23-24 pg 928). He knows death is on his front door and to a point is scare to “hear [men] groan” in pain. Just the image would scare most people. I also think the way he writes the poem, with the vivid descriptive words he picks; the reader can sense he has not had an easy life. He saw his mother died of the same illness and saw her suffer. Now it is his turn and he wishing for a quick painless death. “Do I wake or sleep?” (929)

  3. Athena G. Csuti says:

    I agree with Ali in the sense that Keats must have had something to live for, otherwise why even bother writing the poem? Or observing and envying the nightingale? I think the key line in this poem is “half in love with death”. There is a lot of meaning in this line, beyond just the obvious infatuation with death. Within that line the most important word is half. Being only half in love with death kind of goes along with that old saying, one foot in the grave. His life seemed to be lived with one foot in the grave. He was depressingly aware of his own mortality and humanity; he was miserable about it yet fascinated with it. So in his poetry he romanticizes two opposing ideas: the idea of a blissfully ignorant life such as with the nightingale who was not made for death, and the richness of an easy death. But there is a futility in being jealous of a bird or to die instantaneously just by wishing it, neither are achievable. These things to me do not read as death wishes but rather his own attempt to face and overcome the concept of his own mortality. Of course he knew the nightingale was meant to die, as all living things always have. And what is so rich about death? If there is a richness there he is not alive to experience it. I think in this poem he is indulging his misery, his fear, the what-ifs. Death was so close to him that he was half in love with it, but it is also clear he still had a deep appreciation for the living world.

  4. carlyferguson1 says:

    I definitely agree with everything written in your post! This is an interesting debate based off of the ideas that “Keats shows his readers here that he does not treasure anything in his life anymore”. With so many references to the bird’s happiness, hemlock (poison), red wine, and wanting to fade away, i cant help but compare this to a person dealing with a depressing, dark time in their life. Although a person is able to treasure and see happiness ( in this case the bird and nature), it only makes his situation worse.

    It was stated above that Keats must have had a reason to write this, or why live ? The mention of the quote “half in love with death” intrigued me to do external research to find meanings. It was interesting that the first article that came up was “Half in love with easeful death: the meaning of chronic suicidality in borderline personality disorder” from a medical website.

    This could be off topic but does an article such as this change ones view on how they see Keats in this poem?

    • jcdegner says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. I think that’s a really interesting point that you raise! The original definition of “half in love with easeful death” really seems to coordinate with what I mentioned in my post. It does not appear as though Keats sees the nightingale as a symbol of hope, but rather as a dismal reminder of what is not in his life. He does not appear to see it as something that he wants to live for.

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