John Keats, selected poems Contents
- Bright Star! Would I were steadfast as thou
- The Eve of St Agnes
- ‘Hush, hush! tread softly! hush, hush, my dear!’
- Isabella: or The Pot of Basil
- La Belle Dame Sans Merci
- Lines to Fanny (‘What can I do to drive away’)
- O Solitude, if I must with thee dwell
- Ode on a Grecian Urn
- Ode on Indolence
- Ode to a Nightingale
- Ode to Autumn
- Ode to Melancholy
- Ode to Psyche
- On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
- On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
- On the Sea
- Sleep and Poetry
- Time’s sea hath been five years at its slow ebb
- To Ailsa Rock
- To Leigh Hunt
- To Mrs Reynolds’s Cat
- To My Brothers
- To Sleep
- When I have fears that I may cease to be
A worked example
The opening of Ode to a Nightingale
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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