Ode to a Nightingale: Language, tone and structure

Language and tone in Ode to a Nightingale


MightingaleAppropriate for a poem inspired by the sound of birdsong, there is much onomatopoeia in the poem. It is used to create a variety of moods. Notice how the harsh ‘t’ and ‘k’ of ‘heart aches’ and heavy ‘d’ and ‘p’ sounds at the beginning of the ode suggest the weightiness of Keats’ dreary mood. There is an obvious contrast with the light sounds in the second half of the opening stanza with words such as ‘light-winged Dryad’. The joy associated with the nightingale’s song is musically suggested by the repetition of the long ‘ee’ sounds of ‘beechen’, ‘green’ and ‘ease’.


Throughout Keats’ language is remarkably sensuous. For instance, in stanza 2 the poem's speaker describes wine that has been ‘Cool’d a long age’, before saying that it tastes 'of Flora and the country green'. 'Provençal song' is then mentioned and 'purple-stained mouth'. Each image appeals to a different sense: the sensation of the wine in the mouth; its taste; the sound of the song and then the sight of the stained mouth. All these relate to sensate things, to the world bounded by time and change. The final lines of the stanza strike a sharp contrast: the wine serves paradoxically not only to heighten sensory pleasure but to allow the imagination to escape from the physical world. 
The fifth stanza is notable for its appeal to the sense of smell. As his sense of sight fails him in the dusk, his sense of smell is enhanced. He imbibes the scents of the ‘embalmed darkness’ and the smells of the forest flood the poem with grass, fruit-tree, hawthorn, eglantine, violets and musk-rose. The final line moves from smell to sound and the vividly sibilant ‘murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.’


There have been critical disagreements about the tone of the poem. Some readers have found Keats decisive: he rejects the ‘deceiving elf’ of the imagination, knowing that it is inadequate. However, others have found Keats ambivalent. Even after the poet rejects the possibility of joining the bird in its immortal world as a trick of the imagination, the poem’s final question still carries the suggestion that such a transcendent experience is still possible. The tone is difficult to pin down, making some readers unsure whether the poem is escapist or one which urges us to accept the human condition with all its suffering and uncertainty.

Investigating language and tone in Ode to a Nightingale

  • How does Keats’ use of language convey the idea that the eternity promised by the nightingale is only an illusion?
  • Compare the vitality and energetic tempo of stanza 2 with the heaviness and monotony of stanza 3. 
    • How are these different effects created?
  • How does Keats’ language suggest the unhappiness of the present and the ecstatic beauty of the nightingale’s timeless song?

Structure and versification 

The ode is structured around the contrast between the poet, who is earthbound, and the bird, which is free.
A further structural contrast is between the mortal world, marked by sorrow and transience, and the world of the nightingale, which is set apart by its joy and immortality.
The binary division in the poem between despairing world and ecstatic heaven is emphasised by the starkness of language Keats uses to describe this world ‘Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’ – as opposed to the heaven associated with the bird’s song, a place full of ‘tender’ moonlight, the scent of ‘hawthorn and the pastoral eglantine’.
Ode to a Nightingale is written in eight ten-line stanzas. The first seven and last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented syllables instead of five. Its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (abab cde cde), the same basic scheme that Keats employs throughout the later odes.

Investigating structure and versification in Ode to a Nightingale

  • By what structural means does Keats contrast the two worlds of the poem: the world of the senses and that of the imagination?
  • What relationships can you find between individual stanzas and the nature and tone of the language that Keats uses?
  • Look carefully at Keats’ use of pauses and enjambement in the ode. 
    • What effects do they create?
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