Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

by Liz on May 23, 2014 · Rare Poetry

Ode to a Nightingale

Among some of the most important poems in the English language lies Ode to a Nightingale. The poem, written by John Keats in 1819, is probably the most famous of his Great Odes, which also include Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode to Psyche, Fancy,  and  To Autumn.  The collection is published in the third and final book published during Keats’ short life at the peak of the Romantic Movement: Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems; London: Taylor and Hessey, 1820.

The largest collection of Keats’s manuscripts (poetry and letters) is held by Harvard University.  Arthur Houghton Jr., former president of Steuben Glass and a passionate rare book collector who had been chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Philharmonic, donated his large Keats collections to the Houghton Library at Harvard University.  While the Houghton Library does have a Keats Room loaded with the poet’s manuscripts, the Ode to a Nightingale manuscript is held by Cambridge University. Such manuscripts traded hands at the beginning of the 20th century for as little as $100.  Aside from the manuscripts, the rarest book of Keats’s original works remains Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems, valued around $10,000.

Throughout Keats’s masterpiece, Ode to a Nightingale, various forms of symbols and messages are prevalent, which insinuate the very relatable feeling of depression, which many readers have before and since identified with.

In the tragic and mournful poem, Keats describes a very real and raw pain, which he is experiencing, as he haphazardly attempts to deal with the loss of a very dear loved one. Throughout the poem, Keats skillfully weaves many powerful symbols and aspects of Romanticism into his work such as darkness, supernatural figures, and nature, which clearly paint a picture of the great depth of his innermost sorrows, as he strives to cope with his loss. Towards the end of the poem however, through the encouraging song of an altruistic nightingale, Keats expresses the uplifting theme that in the midst of incomprehensible sadness and pain, there is always some measure of hope to be obtained by those who are willing to accept it.

Perhaps the most prevalent symbol in the poem is the nightingale itself. Keats is initially perturbed and agitated towards the bird, as it appears amid his overwhelming sadness and grief, only to chirp a lighthearted and cheerful tune before him. As Keats desperately longs to grope onto something solid which will allow him to escape his pain such as an alcoholic beverage or a strong form of drug, the sprightly and seemingly naïve bird is the very last thing which he desires to hear, as its song only serves to remind him of how very happy the rest of the world apparently is. Keats bitterly explains his feelings on the nightingale’s joviality, shortly after he makes his untimely appearance:

“’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,–” (5-6)

Keats explains that the bird’s positive and exultant view on the world simply does not fit with the way that he is feeling, as the contented melody of the bird’s song leaves Keats feeling very much alone in his burden of sorrow. He will, however, eventually accept the bird’s offer of joy and hope, and will gratefully accept the bird’s healing remedy of song.

Another bold symbol in the poem is the black and imposing darkness of night which Keats and the nightingale are surrounded with and shrouded by in the poem, and which Keats describes:

“But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.” (38-40)

The inky and suffocating blackness of the night most certainly symbolizes the immense feeling of loss and depression, which Keats is experiencing, and the endless monotony of the darkness may serve to represent the frightening realization, which he may have come to, that there is no solution or way out of the devastating reality that his loved one is truly gone. It is interesting to note though, that among the endless darkness and misery swirling around him, the nightingale’s reverberating song cuts through the dense and smothering sadness and anguish, and instead surrounds him with the ameliorative message that hope does in fact exist. It is also vital to note that, while he is not originally receptive towards it, Keats chooses to incorporate a bird as the instrument of hope into his work, as the Romantic style, which he chose to write in, frequently and admiringly refers to elements of nature such as birds and plants as the ultimate source of hope and joy.

In the throes of Keats’s overwhelming sense of despondency, he very artistically illustrates the presence of supernatural beings and mythological figures, which is also characteristic of Romantic writing. Keats desperately yearns to escape the traumatic and horrific reality of his current life, and instead join these creatures in a world that is only filled with unending euphoric delight. As Keats’s mind is continuously fixed on the enchanting oblivion which intoxication would provide, he makes mention of the Greek mythological wine god Bacchus, and his mystical and extraordinary chariot. However, Keats soon comes to realize that bypassing his pain through alcohol will only allow him to temporarily escape from his bereavement, and will therefore not adequately soothe him:

“Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,” (31-33)

Here, through Keats’s befuddled state of mind, he realizes that the true escape from his distress and heartache is through writing his beautiful poetry, and thus expressing his intense feelings of tragic desperation through his captivating works.

It is vital to note that Keats comes extremely close to death through suicide, due to his acute and unrepressed desperation and lugubriosity. Keats has become entrapped in a grief so powerful, that he is barely able to reason or contemplate the worth of his life clearly or cohesively and only sees death as a sweet and painless departure from the marred and desolate world that he is caught in, which is now cruelly stripped of any form of joy:

“Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,” (51-56)

This illogical pattern of thinking is unfortunately very common, as individuals everywhere are subject to various forms of loss and grief, and have likely weighed the approach of suicide in their minds, as a way to blot out the atrocity of their current situation. It is due to Keats’s familiarity with the all too common feeling of depression and, at times, appealing notion of suicide, that Keats is an extremely relatable poet to individuals even today, as the feelings which he expresses in his work are still closely matched to our own.

One other aspect of Romanticism in the poem is Keats’s obvious delight in the natural beauty of the earth, which he is better able to appreciate during happier times. Poets during Keats’s time embraced the style of Romantic writing, partly due to its characteristic exultant praise of nature and the loveliness, which it emits. Though Keats could certainly be counted as one who enjoyed and appreciated the splendor of the natural world, in the midst of his utter distress and bereavement, the only form of nature, which he is able to see and recognize, is the disturbing and perplexing nightingale, who seems determined to perch near Keats and gladly sing its joyful melody. Keats explains that, though he is aware that various plants and flowers also surround him, in his burdensome grief, he simply cannot see them:

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit- tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;” (41-47)

It is evident through Keats’s vivid description of the delicate forms of nature which he supposes are amongst him, that he truly harbors great respect and reverence for earth’s natural intricacies. He does however, admit that he is blinded of these things, due to his heavy heart and tear blurred eyes, which feel as though they will never be comforted.

Though Keats is quite considerably steeped in pain, agony, anguish and distress over the loss of his beloved brother, he does eventually come to accept and embrace the nightingale’s healing message of hope. Keats at long last realizes that though he suffers from very real and valid depression in his grief, he is not the only individual to ever experience the all-consuming misery which deep sadness inevitably induces. Further, rather than look to the nightingale as a constant annoyance and vexation, Keats concedes that it is the Nightingale which has patiently led each of these troubled individuals before him away from their sorrows, and brought them to higher ground:

“The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;” (63-67)

By looking beyond himself in the midst of his turbulent and chaotic melancholy, Keats is able to appreciate the fact that depression is a human emotion felt by all, and it is the sweet tempered and generous nightingale who is responsible for much of its healing and recovery. He recognizes that through the ages, it has been the nightingale who has continuously aided these troubled individuals out of their pain, and he is now able to gratefully receive the assistance, which the nightingale is willing to give.

As Keats slowly comes out of his depression, he is unsure as to whether or not the nightingale was in fact, a figment of his imagination:

“Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?” (79-80)

While he is unsure as to the nightingale’s precise authenticity, Keats has, in a way, escaped through the harmonizing dream world which he so desperately longed to escape to. Though Keats cannot be sure whether the nightingale was simply an imagined figure in his numbed and hazy brain, the message that hope is a reality which will never be discounted as something which has been simply imagined is made true, as Keats at last chooses to open his heart to the alleviating and rejuvenating promise of a future filled with hope and joy.

Throughout Keats’s pain drenched poem, the reader feels very much at one with Keats, as he unsparingly portrays an emotion, which every individual on earth has felt from one time or another in the convoluted course of life. While Keats does fall extremely low in his despair and utter feelings of hopelessness and abandon, his uplifting theme that hope is just as accurate a reality as depression, and is an accessible reality to those who are willing to reach for it is made brazenly true, as he ultimately chooses to join the nightingale in exhilarating and strengthening flight.


About the author

Partner, rare book dealer. Sekkes Consultants.

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