Ode to a Nightingale: Synopsis and Commentary
Synopsis of Ode to a Nightingale
The speaker of the poem begins by stating that he feels as if he has drunk something poisonous that has drugged his senses. He ascribes this sensation to listening to the song of the nightingale and to subsequently being intoxicated by the bird’s happiness.
The speaker wishes for oblivion, to escape from the cares of being human ‘where but to think is to be full of sorrow’. He tells the nightingale to fly away and he will join it, carried aloft on the wings of his own imagination.
The speaker then asserts that he would be content to die there and then, whilst listening to the nightingale’s song, although he admits that, were he to do so, he would no longer be able to hear the beautiful sounds made by the bird.
He reflects that this song is not subject to the rules governing human ‘art’, which mean that human artists have to follow in a tradition established by their predecessors and in which each new generation seeks to outdo the last.
Instead, the bird’s song is eternal, heard just as equally now as it ever has been by both ‘emperor and clown’. However, the speaker is brought back to his senses and, at the poem’s conclusion, is no longer sure whether he has experienced a vision or a ‘waking dream’.
Commentary on Ode to a Nightingale
Charles Brown, with whom Keats was living in Hampstead, wrote:
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass plot under a plum tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.
The Ode begins not with a vision but with a dull, unexplained pain, a vague ‘ache’ of emptiness and ‘drowsy numbness’. Having witnessed the death of his brother Tom from tuberculosis a few months previously, Keats was now succumbing to the same illness, so would be familiar with the effect – and consequence – of ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret’ which had already caused him ‘leaden-eyed despairs’.
hemlock: a poisonous plant
: the river which runs through Hades
, the home of the dead, in classical mythology. The waters of Lethe induce forgetfulness in anyone who drinks them.
Dryad: a wood nymph
Flora: the goddess of flowers
: song from Provençe, a region in the south of France. The phrase suggests both grape harvests and the songs of medieval
warm south: the climate of the Mediterranean
: Not wine (of which Bacchus
is the classical god) but poetry shall give him release from the cares of this world. Keats had in mind the famous picture of Bacchus (in his leopard driven chariot) and Ariadne
in the National Gallery. Ariadne was a nymph
beloved of Bacchus, who gave her a crown of seven stars which, after her death, was made into a constellation.
embalmed darkness: richly scented darkness (as with the fluids used to embalm a corpse)
eglantine: sweet briar or honeysuckle
Darkling: in the dark
: a church service whose purpose is to pray
for the soul
of someone who has recently died
: In the Old Testament
book of Ruth
the protagonist is a newly widowed woman forced into exile with her mother-in-law by famine. In order for them to eat, she glean
s the local fields.
: an archaic
term for windows. Keats is perhaps inspired by a painting by Claude called The Enchanted Castle
, about which he had written to his friend Reynolds: 'The windows [look] as if latch'd by Fays and Elves.'
forlorn: lost, abandoned or neglected
bell .. toll: slow, solemn notes sounded from a bell rung at a funeral
the fancy cannot cheat so well: Imagination cannot pretend that the nightingale is immortal.
: i.e. the imagination, here personified
as a mischievous spirit
plaintive anthem: a sad-sounding song. An anthem is a piece of music sung by a church choir as part of a service.
Investigating commentary on Ode to a Nightingale
- Why do you think Keats chose the nightingale’s song as the basis of meditation in this poem?
- Why should the fact that the nightingale’s song is pure sound, without the meaning of words attached, be an important feature of Keats’ poem?
- What impact do the nature and range of cultural references (see the glossed notes) have on you?
- What do they tell us about Keats?
God of the Underworld (Roman name, Pluto); a Greek word for the world of the dead, where they await final judgement.
Belonging to the Middle Ages.
The Muses were goddesses who were believed to give inspiration to all types of creative artists.
A mountain in Boeotia where the Muses loved to spend time.
Roman god of wine. (Greek name, Dionysus.)
Daughter of King Minos of Crete, helped Theseus slay the Minotaur.
Noted Italian painter of the sixteen century.
In classical mythology, a feminine spirit of the fields; in pastoral poetry a synonym for a young woman
Communication, either aloud or in the heart, with God.
The spirit which gives life to a human being; the part which lives on after death; a person's inner being (personality, intellect, emotions and will) which distinguishes them from animals.
A 'testament' is a covenant or binding agreement and is a term used in the Bible of God's relationship with his people). The sacred writings of Judaism (the Hebrew Bible). These also form the first part of the Christian Bible.
To gather what is left behind after the main harvesting process.
Meaning no longer in current usage; often used of obsolete words or phrases.
Represented or imagined as a person.
Set in the time of the judges, a story of the faith of a Moabite girl and her sacrificial love for her Jewish mother-in-law. Descended from Ruth is King David, the ancestor of Christ the Messiah.
Big ideas: Women in the Bible