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?
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.