Embracing Duality in ‘Ode To a Nightingale’


Listening to the Nightingale
Listening to the Nightingale

The close reading that I demonstrate here of lines 21-40 from John Keats’ Ode To a Nightingale, began with my interest in the extent to which the knowledge of a writer’s background should influence the reading of a text. Although this is not the central point I intend to make, it was the general sense of Keats as an author that inspired my interest in this particular passage. The introduction for Keats provided in the Norton Anthology states that the “presentation of all experience as a tangle of inseparable opposites” is characteristic of Keats (903). It explains that “he is aware both of the attraction of an imaginative dream world without ‘disagreeables’ and the remorseless pressure of the actual” (903). Once I read through the poem, I found lines 21-40 to be a striking embodiment of the duality of experience, particularly as Keats’ communicates it through his use of repetition and metaphor.



‘Here,’ ‘Where’, ‘There’:

The repetition of ‘where’ at the start of each line in 25-29, was brought up in class in reference to Keats creating a list in the way that Wordsworth and Coleridge did in their poems. While I do agree that Keats is formulating a list of horrid experiences, I will suggest that there is a further significance to the repetition that is signalled by the use of ‘here’ in line 24. The immediate shift in his use that wherever ‘here’ is for Keats, it is precisely the place where all those bad things happen. He writes:

            What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret,

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan. (22-24)

Keats indicates that the nightingale has not experienced the unfortunate things that occur in the place he refers to before the shift and repetition. The emphasis on ‘here’ from the repetition creates distance between his reality and the nightingale ideal, as it indicates that he is referring to a place that is separate, if not remarkably different, from there.

The image Keats creates in lines 35-37 of the evening sky establishes a sense of serenity

Imagining the Ideal
Imagining the Ideal

in the ‘tender’ night. Unlike the common associations of night with terror or uncertainty, for Keats, the tender night is developed as the idealistic place opposed by darkness. He follows the graceful imagery of the sky with the statement, “But here there is no light,” in which ‘here’ signifies again that he is referring to a reality instead of an ideal (38). He writes that it is dark, “Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/ Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways” (39-40). Keats’ association of the moonlight with heaven, and the fact that it does not readily shine through also displays opposition, as he creates distance between a heavenly ideal and ‘here.’

In both circumstances where he used ‘here’ to specify a particular place, Keats uses it in order to signal an unnatural state in opposition to the idealistic idea.


Metaphor and Meaning

Keats also creates distance between his experience and the nightingale’s experience through the use of metaphor. Throughout the poem, Keats uses drunkenness to symbolize freedom through imagination, and wine to symbolize inspiration. Being drunk is often associated with a diminished sense of reason and self-restraint; with forgetting, even if only for a moment, the grief of life; and with no consideration for consequences, leaving one completely free. Thus, Keats uses this metaphor to indicate his desire for his imagination to resemble that freedom. Keats writes that he will get to the ideal place, “not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,/ But on the viewless wings of Poesy” (32-33). Here, Keats indicates his desire to be inspired so that he may fly to a place free of the pains of reality.

In contrast however, he also writes “the dull brain perplexes and retards” (34). In this line, Keats reveals his understanding that despite the impressive capabilities of the imagination, he is aware of its limitations. He appreciates that the idealistic, imaginary world is attainable only to a certain degree, because he ultimately belongs to the realm of reality as a human being.



Keats embraces the Romantic notion of the sacredness of nature, and the rejuvenating power that it may have over the mind, However, his poem is eerie in that is creates a vast distance between what he believes is here and not here.

This passage exemplifies the characteristic presentation of opposition that was so uniquely accomplished by Keats. He acknowledges the necessary duality of experience that some are good and others are bad. More significantly, despite his desire to transcend the hostility and conflict created by the oppositions, and regardless of the degree to which he manages to do so, by virtue of his ‘dull brain’ (his humanness), he accepts that he cannot.

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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2 Responses to Embracing Duality in ‘Ode To a Nightingale’

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    Good blog post April! I like this idea of distance that you discussed. There is a sense of temporality to Keats’ work, but particularly in this poem, Keats seemed trapped by his own humanity. His emphasis of distance only serves to emphasize his own sense of suffering on this worlds when compared to the carefree nature of the nightingale. Perhaps that is why he is so keen to welcome death as a friend. It is the true sense way to escape.

    Once I started to think about escapism though, it reminded me of why I read. For me, poetry and fiction is a way to escape the world. So I think this sense of distance between two worlds, the “drunken” fictional world and the real world, is present in almost every piece of fiction and poetry. Writers know they create an imaginary world for us to escape to and they embrace this fact.

    • april says:

      Thanks Stephanie! I think that a great number of people relate to the things that Keats talks about in this poem. I also think that those of us who love to read, take comfort in literature largely because of that escape it offers.
      I do admit however, that I can also sympathize with what Keats says in the last stanza. The moment he points to the imagination as being deceptive is, I think, the bitter reality of the imagination. I like this idea particularly because Keats reminds us that regardless of where we turn to in our imagination, the escape that we seek there does not, and can not, take us away from reality.

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