Ode to a Nightingale: Synopsis and Commentary

Synopsis of Ode to a Nightingale

Portrait of Keats listening to a nightingale by Joseph SevernThe 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
Lethe: 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
Provençal song: song from Provençe, a region in the south of France. The phrase suggests both grape harvests and the songs of medieval minstrels.
warm south: the climate of the Mediterranean
Hippocrene: the spring of the Muses on Mount Helicon
Not...poesy: 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 by Titian 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.
viewless: invisible
Fays: fairies
embalmed darkness: richly scented darkness (as with the fluids used to embalm a corpse)
eglantine: sweet briar or honeysuckle
Darkling: in the dark
requiem: a church service whose purpose is to pray for the soul of someone who has recently died
clown: peasant
Ruth: 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 gleans the local fields.
magic casements: 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.
deceiving elf: 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?
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