Ode to a Nightingale: Imagery, symbolism and themes

Imagery and symbolism in Ode to a Nightingale

Poem illustration by W J NeatbyCommunication

The nightingale (and particularly its song) is the poem’s central image and symbol. The music it produces becomes a symbol of pure beauty. It is not restricted by any translatable ‘meaning’ as words are. It is direct communication from the world of nature to that of human beings, the response of each hearer being unique and equally valid. 
The bird’s song is therefore unlike the products of the human imagination: art, poetry, music and sculpture need to be interpreted and may need education to be appreciated. The bird’s song derives its power and directness from the fact that it is pure, non-representational and needs no ‘interpretation’ to be understood and to inspire. 
Since the nightingale sings chiefly at night, it may appear invisible or disembodied. In this way it can be seen as transcending the transitory human world, thus making it appear ‘immortal’.
From ancient times the nightingale has been symbolic of love. In Greek mythology Philomel (‘lover of song’) was a beautiful girl who, after she had been raped and had her tongue cut out by her attacker, was turned into a nightingale by the gods.


The poem also contains images associated with death, such as ‘hemlock’, ‘Lethe’, ‘embalmed’, ‘darkness’, ‘requiem’, tolling bell, ‘plaintive anthem’ etc. When associated with ‘palsy’, ‘fret’ and ‘despairs’, death is a negative presence that quenches the human spirit. But death also has positive associations: it is ‘easeful’, a ‘rich’ experience which releases the poet into a pain-free eternity.
All living things are, of course, subject to death. This is why the nightingale can only be considered ‘immortal’ as a symbol. Individual birds die, but the species continues. However, a ‘symbol’ lacks the warmth of an actual living creature – hence Keats’ ambivalence towards it.

Investigating imagery and symbolism in Ode to a Nightingale

  • In what ways is the bird’s song different from the products of the human imagination?
  • Why are there so many images of death in the poem?
  • Considering that a bird has a brief life, why does it become for Keats a symbol of eternal beauty?
  • What are the limitations of the beauty which the bird’s song represents?

Themes in Ode to a Nightingale

The power of the imagination

This is not a poem about how a bird’s joyful singing inspires and revitalises the poet. Instead what follows is a troubled meditation on the power of human imagination to encounter joy within the world and for it to transform the soul (what Keats refers to elsewhere as part of the ‘vale of soul-making’). 
There is a fundamental paradox in the poem. On the one hand the nightingale’s song is seen as offering relief from the day-to-day pains of living – ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’; on the other hand the ‘immortality’ of the bird and the eternal nature of its song makes Keats painfully aware of human transience and the fragility of his own life.


The poet imagines escaping from humanity’s tragic existence, ‘Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’, first through an ecstasy of intoxication, drinking ‘a beaker full of the warm South’, and then ‘on the viewless wings of Poesy’, that is, through imagination itself. In the central section of the poem, the mind’s attempt both to transcend life and remain aware of itself leads to its becoming lost. Keats describes an ‘embalmed darkness’ of transitory sensations under the canopy of the tree surrounding him that suggest not escape but rather death. 

The snare of immortality

These thoughts of mortality, however, are in sharp contrast to what the nightingale itself symbolises: immortality. In ‘ancient days’ it belonged to a world of enchantment. It is the same song that:
      oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’     
In other words, its enticement is dangerous. The word ‘forlorn’ is a turning-point for the poet. Keats uses the word in two main senses: ‘long ago’ and ‘sad’. The beauty of an imagined ‘long ago’ seems to evaporate. As so often in Keats the contemplation of beauty leads to a painful awareness that perfection cannot last. The human imagination allows us to transcend the mind’s transitory sensations. 

Can beauty be transfixed?

The artist can create beauty and is able to awaken in his audience a desire to experience beauty as something eternal. However, this is just an illusion: human life is subject to time and change. Keats knows that art has its limitations. If it redeems experience at all, it is not because it is eternal and unchanging but rather because it offers beauty of a more rational kind: that is, it offers us a more profound comprehension of ourselves rather than allowing us to escape from the constraints of daily life.

Investigating themes in Ode to a Nightingale

  • Do you agree that there is a fundamental paradox in the poem? 
    • If so, what is it?
    • How does it relate to other Keats’ poems you have read?
  • In what ways is this a poem about the co-existence and interdependence of pleasure and pain?
  • What does this poem have to say about the joys and limitations of the art produced by the human imagination?
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