A worked example

The opening of Ode to a Nightingale

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
     But being too happy in thine happiness,—
        That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
            In some melodious plot
     Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
        Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
     Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
     Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
     Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
        With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
            And purple-stained mouth;
     That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
        And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
     What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
     Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
     Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
        Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
            And leaden-eyed despairs,
     Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,      
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

In the poem’s first stanza Keats describes his desire to escape the physical world and the apparently contradictory feelings of painful happiness he experiences when contemplating the beauty of the nightingale’s song.

The stanza is divided into two opposing halves: the opening lines dwell on a drug-induced stupor but are replaced by the richness of language associated with growth and fertility. This sharp contrast emphasises the distance between the world-weary speaker and the bird with its joyous song. Keats’ language opposes the negative verbs 'aches' and 'pains' (l.1) and adjectives 'drowsy' (l.1) and 'dull' (l.3) against the positive connotations of 'light-winged' (l.7), 'melodious' (l.8), 'beechen green' (l.9), 'summer' and 'full-throated' (l.10). The change of direction is marked by the caesura at the end of line 5 and by the emphatic position of the conjunction 'But' at the beginning of line 6.

The sounds of words are also crucial to their meaning in this opening stanza. The sibilants and long, lazy syllables of the opening line (e.g. 'drowsy numbness pains') recreate the soporific, anaesthetising effect of taking drugs. By contrast, the movement of the bird is suggested by the short syllables and the ‘d’ and ‘t’ sounds which trip off the tongue (‘That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees’). The stanza celebrates the ‘melodious’ nightingale by itself incorporating musical textures into its design.

The movement of the second stanza is back towards worldly things such as the 'draught of vintage' with its 'beaded bubbles winking at the brim'. The long syllable of draught recreates the sensory pleasure of drinking long and deep. The wine’s bubbles are vividly animated. They ‘wink’ cheekily, as if aware of the slightly illicit pleasure they bring. They are round and shine like beads, and the ‘b’ alliteration allows the reader to hear their delicate, almost imperceptible popping as they meet the cup’s edge.

The language of delight in nature is developed through classical references to 'Flora' (l.13), the goddess of flowers and to Hippocrene, the fountain on Mount Helicon in Greece sacred to the Muses. These and the richness of the Mediterranean references to Provençal and the warm south intensify the poet’s yearning for escape. This sense of longing is further created by the repetition of the interjection 'O' (ll. 11 and 15) to which Keats adds the rich long vowel sounds ('Cooled', 'deep', 'Flora', 'green', etc.). Moreover, the mood is further conveyed through the assonance of 'sunburnt mirth' as well as 'fade away'.

The second stanza ends with a dash rather than a full stop. By running this final sentence into the third stanza - and by repeating 'fade .. away' - Keats emphasises the contrast between the idyllic world of the nightingale's song and the rather more painful world of waking reality. The poet may be happy at this moment but this happiness is set against a world of suffering. Keats' language mirrors this change of direction and becomes negative. There are frequent references to illness ('fever', 'weariness', 'fret', 'palsy') and to death. All things die and are subject to change. Beauty fades and loves does not last. The descriptive words reflect this change of mood: 'sad', 'pale', 'spectre-thin', 'leaden-eyed'. The mood becomes sorrowful. The nightingale sits 'among the leaves': on the one hand it represents a sort of perfection; on the other its perfection cannot be fully grasped by an imperfect humanity.

Once again the music of Keats' verse is an essential part of its meaning. Line 3 of stanza 3 is filled up by the three painful abstract nouns of 'weariness', 'fever' and 'fret', the long vowel sound of 'weariness' suggesting the weight of tedium it encompasses, and the alliteration of 'fever' and 'fret' suggesting the anguished sighs they engender. Similar concern for sound can be seen in a line such as 'Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs' in which eight words are monosyllabic, making one move with the slow pace of advanced age and forcing the reader to contemplate the sad sparseness of the hairs.

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