Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale". A Close Reading With Emphasis on Light and Shade

Bachelor Thesis, 2002
41 Pages, Grade: 1st

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Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: A ‘Close Reading’ With Emphasis on ‘Light and Shade’




The inspiration for this dissertation came primarily from Christopher Ricks’ stunning comparison between Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet on Radio 4 in February 2001. This prompted me to return to Keats’ poem and see why exactly the poem proved so beguiling. After considerable research, it became apparent that critics in favour of his notion of ‘negative capability’ unfairly subjugated Keat’s poetic concept of ‘light and shade’. Hence, this dissertation’s concern of correlating Keats’ perception of ‘light and shade’ with regards to his poem Ode to a Nightingale. In order to ascertain how Keats’ concept works, it will naturally be necessary to clearly define what his own perspective and parameters were for his theory; this will be achieved via an exploration of both his poems and letters.

Once the nature of ‘light and shade’ has been established, I will then appraise its influence on Ode to a Nightingale through a ‘close reading’ of the poem. This analysis will essentially follow the poem’s arrangement from stanza one through to its conclusion in stanza eight, though obviously there will be a considerable amount of cross-referencing between the stanzas. Aside from attempting to ascertain his intentions for the poem, I will also assess the poem’s constituents to analyse Keats’ use of poetic devices such as: assonance, alliteration, anaphora, anadiplosis, sibilance and mechanisms for the balancing of both individual lines and the poem as a whole. My evaluation will also determine whether he interconnects the stanzas, and if so, what effects their interrelationship has on the poem.

Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale: A ‘Close Reading’ With Emphasis on ‘Light and Shade’.

Ode to a Nightingale explores the encounter of an experience beyond the commonplace; within this experience the poet details his emotional reaction to his encounter with the song of the nightingale.[1] The relationship between the ‘immortal Bird’ and the man ‘rooted’ within his naturalistic world provides the antithetical essence of the poem. Throughout his poetic life Keats propounded that the antipodal elements of ‘light and shade’ were essential to poetry. His first reference, to what was to become a primary concern is found in an early poem, Specimen of an Induction to a Poem:

.. .so I will rest in hope

To see wide plains, fair trees and lawny slope:

The morn, the eve, the light, the shade, the flowers[2]

Here he tentatively offers the contrasts of both ‘eve’ / ‘morn’, and ‘light’ / ‘shade’. However by 1818, as seen in a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse, Keats’ previously cautious sentiments over antithetical concerns had matured to include the poet as well as the poem. He unambiguously states that the poet should have ‘no character’ as this then allows him to:

...enjoy light and shade, [to] live in gusto, be foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated - It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as Imogen. What shock the virtuous philosopher, delights the chameleon Poet. It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one .[3]

It is also evident that at the end of his life Keats had not altered his opinion of the necessity of ‘light and shade’ in relation to both the poet and poetry. In his ultimate letter from Rome, whilst lamenting over his relationship with Fanny Brawne, he states:

I have been well, healthy, alert & c, walking with her - and now - the knowledge of contrast, feeling for light and shade, all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem are great enemies to the recovery of the stomach.[4]

Within Ode to a Nightingale the poet encompasses antithetical concepts such as ‘imagination and reality’, ‘happiness and heartache’, ‘dissatisfaction and fulfilment’, ‘reality and perception’, ‘optimism and pessimism’, ‘awareness and oblivion’, ‘waking and dreaming’, ‘fullness and emptiness’, ‘vibrancy and paleness’, ‘life and death’, and ‘freedom and restriction’.

The choice of ‘My heart’ to open the poem, ensures that the reader is fully aware within the first two words of the intense personal character of the poem. The rhetorical anaphoric use of ‘My’ in the second line naturally heightens the reader’s perception of the personal nature of the poem, allowing them unproblematic accessibility into its ‘confessional nature’.[5] He ‘aches’ with ‘the sensation of prolonged or continuous pain’ - the pain of the mortal.[6] ‘Aches’ is both compounded and balanced via the choice of ‘pains’ as the final word of first line. However, the enjambment at the end of the first line, allows for both the augmentation of the theme of pain and the expansion of the poet’s numbness by revealing that his ‘sense’ (both perception and sensation) is also both pained and dulled. His melancholic ‘numbness’ is furthered in the second line, through stating that his present feeling is analogous to the imbibing of ‘hemlock’. Hemlock can be utilized as both a ‘poison’ and medicinally as a ‘powerful sedative’; given Keats’ medical training and that the themes of both death and narcosis are present throughout the poem, it is probable that he wished to infer both definitions.[7]

Keats heightens the reader’s perception of his disposition throughout the poem via thematic repetitions. This is seen within the first line through his use of ‘pains’ and ‘aches’. This technique is replicated within the first four lines when the sense of having drunk ‘hemlock’ is subsequently compared to the effects of having ‘emptied some dull opiate to the drains’.[8] Via this repetition, Keats propounds the lack of sensation within his narcosis by ‘drains’ both mirroring and emphasising his use of ‘emptied’, thus suggesting that the opium solution within the glass has been both ‘emptied’ and ‘drained’. The repetition of the theme of ‘numbness’ is furthered in line four via his association with Lethe: the ‘river in Hades, the water of which produced, in those who drank it, forgetfulness of the past.’[9] Keats concludes the articulation of his state of narcosis, by suggesting that that his profound state of ‘drowsy numbness’ is equivalent to the result of an ‘opiate’ so powerful that it requires barely ‘one minute’ to take full effect.

The possibility of the repetitious nature of the first four lines becoming wearisome is alleviated through the buoyancy of the poem’s pace and melody. W. Jackson Bate touches upon Benjamin Bailey’s reminiscence of Keats’ ideas of ‘melody in verse’, and also by ‘inference .. .that [he was] referring to assonance’:

One of his favourite topics of discourse was the principle of melody in Verse, upon which he had his own notions, particularly in the management of open and close vowels... Keats theory was, that the vowels should be so managed as not to clash with one another so as to mar the melody, - & yet they should be interchanged like differing notes of music to prevent monotony.[10]

Keats’ notions of melody are seen to great effect within the first line of the poem, where four of the first five monosyllabic words have short vowels compelling the reader to quickly engage with the staccato rhythm, only to be slowed through the long vowels in both ‘drowsy’ and ‘pains’. Through this deceleration of the rhythm, Keats mirrors the experience of the malaise that he is enduring. The fluctuating melody within the first line is accentuated through the balance achieved via the use of assonance and long vowel sounds, which are used respectively at the beginning and end of the line in ‘aches’ and ‘pains’.[11] Keats adheres to his principle of avoiding monotony by echoing the first line’s long vowel sounds in the third line, whilst wholly omitting them from the second. The long vowel sound of the ‘O’ seen at the outset of line three in ‘Or’ is replicated in ‘opiate’ as the sixth syllable. This balance is in turn augmented through both the use of the short vowel sound of ‘O’ seen in ‘some’ and ‘to’ as the fourth and ninth syllables, and the alliterative use of ‘D’ in ‘dull’ and ‘drains’ at the middle and end of the line.[12] The line is thus balanced ‘Or emptied sòme Jull opiate tô the drains.’ Accordingly, Keats has within the first four lines of ‘Nightingale’ demonstrated both an acute awareness to the necessities of balance in relation to flow, and also constructed the thematic imagery of ‘numbness’ via the repetitious use of words that poignantly express the leeching of his vitality: ‘aches’, ‘drowsy’, ‘pains’, ‘hemlock’, ‘emptied’, ‘dull’, ‘opiate’, ‘drains’, ‘Lethe’ and ‘sunk’.

The contraction at the outset of line five from ‘It is’ to ‘‘Tis’, can be seen to demonstrate Keats’ familiarity with the limitations of iambic pentameter. However, the varying metrical structures of the six odes of 1819 evolved primarily through experiments in form resulting from his rejection of constriction.[13] By early 1819, he felt that in order to articulate his poetic concerns, he had to emancipate himself from the sonnets restrictive form. Overall, it took five months to find a suitable replacement for the sonnet formula. As far back as 2nd January 1819, he expressed the ideal of having ‘one idea amplified with greater ease and more delight and freedom than in the sonnet’.[14] In early March he expressed in a letter to B. R. Haydon his disillusionment at ‘the toil of sonnetteering’.[15] This disenchantment can be seen to have continued until early May, when (after already writing Ode to Psyche) he humorously summarises his explorations of form in a letter to the George Keatses [sic]:

I have been endeavouring to develop a better sonnet stanza than we have. The legitimate does not suit the language over-well from the pouncing rhymes - the other kind appears too elegiac - and the couplet at the end of it is seldom a pleasing effect...I do not pretend to have succeeded - it will explain itself -

If by dull rhymes our english must be chained

And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet,

Fettered in spite of pained Loveliness;

Let us find out, if we must be constrain’d,

Sandals more interwoven & complete

To fit the naked foot of Poesy;

Let us inspect the Lyre & weigh the stress

Of every chord & see what may be gained

By ear industrious & attention meet,

Misers of sound & syllable no less,

Than Midas of his coinage, let us be

Jealous of dead leaves in the bay wreath Crown;

So if we may not let the Muse be free,

She will be bound with Garlands of her own.[16]

But, as Gittings remarks, not even this sonnet’s ‘experimental arrangement’ could sufficiently free Keats from both its brevity and ‘pouncing rhymes’.[17]

It is not obvious whether Keats varies the form slightly throughout the odes as a means of further experimentation, or whether he used their varying structures in an attempt to epitomize their various subjects. Nightingale, in common with most of the odes utilizes a ten-line stanza; however, unlike most of the other odes it is metrically variable.[18] The first seven, and the last two lines are written in iambic pentameter, whilst the eighth line is in trimeter. The use of trimeter to disrupt the rhythm of the poem is said by Miriam Allott ‘to accord with the lyrical movement of the birds song’.[19] Yet, this perception of the poem’s variance being representational of the bird’s song is somewhat counteracted via Nightingale’s relatively simple rhyme scheme (ABABCDECDE) remaining constant throughout the poem.[20]

Keats elucidates on the nature of the first four lines’ malaise, when in lines five and six he states:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness

These lines expound that it is not envy that has initiated Keats’ ‘numbness’; rather it is an excess of ‘happiness’ that has caused his narcosis. It is difficult to precisely discern the reasons for his ‘joyful’ state. It is possible that the sublimity of the bird’s song has allowed him to momentarily escape the toils of life that he alludes to in stanzas three and six. Alternatively, his ‘happiness’ could be the result of hearing the bird easily and ceaselessly produce its ‘poetry’.[21] Given the various themes of the poem, it should also be considered that he intended to allude to both images as a means of illuminating his ‘happiness’. Yet, Keats’ choice of language has only apparently alleviated the morbidity of the first four lines. This perceived ‘lightning’ of the stanza is achieved through both the internal rhyme of ‘not’ and ‘lot’, and the emphasis on exhilaration advanced through the choice of ‘happiness’ and the repeat of ‘happy’. However, as he is simply explaining the reasons for his ‘numbness’, the poem does in fact retain its sombre tone. The Keatsian trait of balancing the line through either assonance or alliteration is clearly seen in lines five, six and seven, where they are balanced through both the use of both ‘hard’ and ‘soff’ ‘T’’s and the internal rhyme of ‘not’ and ‘lot’:

‘Tis not_ through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees.

The choice of ‘light-winged Dryad’ both imbues the bird with mythical / magical properties, and continues the perceived theme of ‘happiness’ by contrasting the ‘light’ness’ of the wings with the ‘heavy’ and dark nature of the first four lines.[22] Vendler suggests that Keats’ ‘identification with the bird is so strong’ that the linking of the bird to the feminine, via the brief reference to ‘Dryad’, and the faintly feminine notion that ‘fancy cannot cheat so well / as she is fam’d to do’ should be ignored, and replaced by a bird that is essentially ‘sexless, no more than a wandering voice to which the poet responds’.[23] This sense of a sexless bird separates it from Coleridge’s masculine bird in his 1798 poem ‘The Nightingale’ from which Keats appears to have ‘borrowed’ numerous words or phrases.[24] Coleridge’s poem contains within the first seven lines ‘mossy’, ‘verdure’ (for verdurous) and ‘murmuring’, and has a similar light to the one that is ‘breezes blown’ in stanza four of Ode to a Nightingale:

No cloud, no relique of the sunken day

Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip

Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues.

Come, we will rest on this old mossy bridge!

You see the glimmer of the stream beneath,

But hear no murmuring: it flows silently,

O’er its soff bed of verdure.. ,[25]

Keats uses ‘melodious’ in the eighth line to fulfil two separate functions. It furthers both the apparent ‘softening’ of the second section of the first stanza through the aura of an ‘accord’ between himself and the bird; and it also serves to fuse the contrary nature of both light and darkness necessary to produce the figurative and literal numberless ‘shadows’.[26] The solitary human presence listening to the nightingale in the first section is opposed by the ‘numberless’ shadows associated with the bird. This antithetical poise, seen in the perceived ‘lighter’ second section of the first stanza still alludes to a feeling of isolation; it therefore serves to entwine the first and second sections of the first stanza. The situation of the nightingale amongst the ‘numberless shadows’ (literally beyond human capabilities to count them) also fuels the nightingale’s mythical and supernatural essence, as does the fact that the very presence of the nightingale renders the entire ‘plot’ ‘melodious’. The shadows themselves - both black and mere representations, are contrasted with the vibrant, and existent ‘beechen green’. The beechen green’s vitality and vigorousness alludes to the magical / mystical quality of the nightingale, and also proves contrary to both the dullness and ‘heart ache’ of the first section of stanza one and the ‘pale and spectre thin’ human of stanza three. Both the nightingale’s mythical properties and Keats’ terrestrial dilemma are propounded at the conclusion of stanza one when the nightingale is seen offering, both literally and symbolically, the promise of aestival in spring when she ‘singest of summer in full-throated ease’. Keats can be seen to combine equilibrium with a replication of the nightingale’s song, when he balances the last two lines of stanza one with the strategic use of both ‘S’ and ‘E’:

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

The possibility of a lightened tone of the second section of the first stanza continues to gain credence throughout the first eight lines of stanza two. In order to implement this, Keats, in the first of many rejections, discards the contentment and fulfilment found solely through the nightingale’s magical song, and seeks to augment his ‘happiness’ through drinking alcohol:

O, for a draught of vintage ! That hath been

Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth

The ‘O’ is separated from the rest of the line by a comma, and as such implicates a strong almost audible emotional reaction to his desire for instantaneous contentment. This urgency is highlighted through the use of the exclamation mark after ‘vintage’. Keats further demonstrates his desire to sate his metaphorical and literal thirst for ‘happiness’, when he emphasises that it cannot be quelled though a mere sip or taste, but only through a ‘draught of vintage’ - the ‘quantity of liquid swallowed at one ‘pull’’.[27] However, ‘Draught’ can also be perceived to be alluding to a ‘dose of liquid medicine, a potion.’[28] Given that the theme of alcohol is continued throughout the stanza, and that its intoxicating properties are easily associated with the use of ‘opiate’ and ‘hemlock’ of the first stanza, it is probable that Keats intended to use ‘draught’ to extend both thematic images.[29] The exacting necessity of the ‘draught’ to be ‘vintage’ is significant, as are his requirements of how long, and where it should be ‘cool’d’. An ordinary traditional wine would not be able to further the attributes that the nightingale has already offered. Therefore, Keats craves the magical properties of a ‘vintage’ that is capable of promoting a ‘fine excess’ of figurative elements. He achieves this by the treble use of ‘and’, which catalogues the scope of the possibilities of the wine, and thus by inference, furthers the nightingale’s attributes: Tasting of Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!’[30]

The magical properties of the wine are enhanced through vivid depiction of colour. Therefore, the poem’s focus on colour, which originates in stanza one with ‘beechen green’, becomes a primary theme within the second stanza. Throughout the poem Keats interrelates stanzas in this manner and consequently creates a seamless, entwined whole, which mirrors the ‘dreamlike’ quality of the poem. The symbolic and / or literal brightness of the colours proves opposite to the drab, dark place where the poet is figuratively and physically situated for much of the poem, consequently this expresses his longing for both the Nightingale’s poetic and immortal attributes. Keats enhances the wine by juxtaposing Roman Mythology’s ‘Flora’ - the ‘goddess of flowers’ with the ‘country green’; thereby, the many colours and shades associated with both the flowers and ‘country green’ are fused within the trope of the wine.[31] Naturally, this serves to enlarge upon the nightingale’s association with the ‘beechen green’ in the first stanza. But, rather than imbuing the ‘vintage’ with an elevated position over the possibilities of the nightingale, this expansion serves to amplify the supernatural powers of the bird. The use of colour to further the magical qualities of the wine, and thus the nightingale, is continued through the use of ‘purple stained mouth’ and the suggested red of the ‘blushful Hippocrene’. Keats has previously offered the physical sense of both ‘sight’ (‘beechen green’) and ‘hearing’ (‘melodious plot’ and ‘singest of summer’) in stanza one, and the introduction of the ‘wine’ in the second stanza allowed him to broaden the sensual latitude of the poem by adding the third sense of ‘taste’.

The many layers that formed the image of colour are themselves entwined with the second stanza’s major theme of abundance. As with colour, Keats begins his theme of excess in the first stanza where the ‘shadows are numberless’. In the first line of the second stanza, as mentioned above, he is longing for a ‘draught’ rather than a sip, and this excess is continued throughout the stanza. The very preparation of Keats’ ‘vintage’ is itself governed through excess. He refrains from merely stating that perhaps his wine should be cooled a while in the delved earth, but rather ‘cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth’ (my emphasis). Keats intentionally builds the thematic image of surfeit throughout the stanza: in the fifth line he changes from wishing for a ‘draught of vintage’ to longing for a ‘beaker full of the warm South’ - one of the traditional wine growing regions in France. He deems this ‘large drinking vessel’ should not only be ‘full’ of wine, but also ‘full’ of the ‘true, the blushful Hippocrene’.[32] This impression of an almost ‘bursting’ glass is itself mirrored through the assonance and alliterative use of ‘I’ and ‘B’ which saturate the line: ‘With beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. Indeed, the ‘beaker’ is so ‘full’, that when having drunk from it, it is not just the tongue or lips which will become discoloured, but it is the whole ‘mouth’ that will become ‘purple-stained.’[33] The second stanza’s primary theme of excess is entwined with similar notions of surplus in stanzas one and three. This impression of glut is emphasised particularly through the repetitive use of ‘full’. The use of ‘full- throated’ in stanza one is echoed in the second stanza via the choice of ‘beaker-full’ and ‘Full of the true’, which in turn anticipates the abundance of woe in the third stanza ‘Where to think is to be full of sorrow’.

In line nine, Keats once again changes the tone of the poem: his wish for a ‘vintage’ to imbue him with such blissful properties as ‘Flora’, the ‘sunburnt mirth’ and the poetic inspiration of the ‘Hippocrene’, is altered into a desire for an intoxication that can ‘dissolve’ his human form. This second rejection allows him to refocus the poem onto his relationship with the nightingale, for it is with the bird that he wishes to ‘fade away into the forest dim’. The choice of ‘dim’, ‘unseen’ and ‘dissolve’ allude to the poet’s increasing desire to ‘fade’.[34]

The desire to ‘fade away’ with the nightingale is promoted through both its reiteration, and conditioning through ‘far’, seen at the start of the third stanza. Though, as stated, Keats has re-established his relationship with the bird, he also acknowledges their differences. He desires bodily annihilation, hoping that the magical properties of the wine can transport his ‘soul’ away from earthly troubles, leaving him to reside with the nightingale; whereas the ‘immortal bird’ is so unbound by maladies, heartaches and unavoidable death, that it is said to have ‘never known’ them. Paradoxically, by wishing to reside with the nightingale through bodily annihilation via the magic of the wine, Keats is actually longing for the effect of narcosis that was seemingly forced upon him in the first four lines of the first stanza.

Yet, in essence, the poet knows that the distances between them, both literally and figuratively, are too great to be bridged by even the most miraculous of wines. He acknowledges the void between the nightingale’s ‘beechen green’ leaves and his earthly domain, when in line four, he places himself ‘Here’ - amid the list of earthly strife which dominates the third stanza. His disposition is mirrored by the structure of the third line: ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret’. The reduction of syllables from the three in ‘weariness’, to the two in ‘fever’, and one in ‘fret’, echoes the very fading that he is longing for in order to avoid these earthly maladies.[35] This image of Keats’ mental and physical bearing being represented via structure is furthered through the rhythmic use of ‘the’. Repetitious employment of the definite article allows Keats to both balance and punctuate the melody with a heavy, steady beat; consequently, this emphasises the depth and breadth of his tribulations: ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret’. The use of line structure to replicate his corporeal and psychological state is also furthered in line five, where he uses assonance and predominantly monosyllabic words to emphasise the length of the line and correspondingly the ‘weight’ of his troubles: ‘Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs.’[36] His advice to Shelley ‘that he load every rift with ore’ is heeded by the poet himself, when in the first five lines of the third stanza, he articulates his morbidity via an overt use of words or phrases with either pessimistic or negative connotations: ‘Fade far away’, ‘dissolve’, ‘forget’, ‘weariness’, ‘fever’, ‘fret’, ‘groan’, ‘palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs’, and ‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’. The aura of wretchedness propounded by this list of miseries is itself augmented through both the heavy accent implemented by the use of rhetorical anaphora in lines five, six, seven and nine, and the ‘cataloguing’ effect caused by the repetitive use of ‘and’ throughout the stanza.[37] Keats uses the plurality of the ‘leaden-eyed despairs’ to encompass the sad reflections that even ‘Beauty’s eyes cannot retain their lustre, and that ‘Here’ on earth, ‘new Love’ will not ‘pine at them beyond to-morrow’. It can be seen that the perception of the transience of ‘new Love’ not pining at ‘Beauty’s eyes’ for more than a day, is representative of the ephemeral nature of youth which ‘grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies’.

The start of the fourth stanza sees Keats reject the aura of ‘darkness’ of the preceding twelve lines. In mock anger he asserts ‘Away! away!’ to both death and the list of miseries that he momentarily believed could be averted through the ‘draught of vintage’. His urgency at ridding his mind of the images of the third stanza, also serves to highlight the exuberance with which the poet greets his newly found awareness: that he can fly to the nightingale via the earthly creation of ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’, rather than through the possibility of ‘being charioted by Bacchus and his pards’. By rejecting the wine, the perceived lightening of the second section of the first stanza is also negated. The effect of the exclamation mark and the repeat of ‘away!’ quickens the pace of the poem. This acceleration of the rhythm effectively[38] both amalgamates the third and fourth stanzas and mirrors Keats’ excitement at his revelation. However, by the fourth line of the fourth stanza, he is seen momentarily ‘shading’ his journey ‘upon the viewless wings of Poesy’, stating that it will now prove difficult as his ‘dull brain’ retains the ‘numbness’ of the first stanza, and as such it ‘perplexes and retards’ him.[39] Yet, typical of the mood changes (often antithetical) witnessed throughout the poem, the hindering of his ‘dull brain’ is fleeting. The exclamation mark and the start of the next line: ‘Already with thee!’ denotes that Keats’ momentary lack of creativity is over, and thus the exuberance seen in six of the first seven lines of the fourth stanza is allowed to continue. For three lines Keats is seen to alight upon the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays...

The darkness of the night and its figurative link with the ‘blackness’ of the third stanza, are diminished by the luminosity of the ‘Queen-Moon’ and her ‘starry Fays’. Consequently, the night is presented as ‘tender’ in the same way that the nightingale’s song in the first stanza rendered the whole ‘plot’ ‘melodious’. The use of the Miltonic ‘Queen-Moon’ and ‘starry Fays’ continues the theme of promoting the nightingale’s habitat as magical.[40] This focus on the magical is used to impart ‘Cluster’d’ with an accord between the ‘Moon’ and ‘her starry Fays’ that pervades to Keats’ earthly location. Nevertheless, as with all previous images, this mood of optimism proves transitory. Keats initiates his descent into the fifth and sixth stanza’s bower in line eight of the fourth stanza. His momentary belief in the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ has faded like the Moon’s light, and in lines eight to ten the darkness starts to entomb him:

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

In line eight Keats echoes the third stanza’s employment of ‘here’, to again distance himself from the nightingale. Therefore, the splendour that Keats saw in the first seven lines of the fourth stanza, where he could reside with the nightingale and its promise of ‘beechen-green’, is replaced by the ‘darkness’ of the ‘verdurous glooms’ and ‘winding mossy ways’ that are dimly lit with a glow that ‘from heaven is with the breezes blown.’ The subdued light provided by the ‘Queen-Moon’ and her ‘starry Fays’ is further weakened, by its passing ‘Through’ both ‘verdurous glooms’ and ‘winding mossy ways’ before it reaches the poet. This feeling of diminishing light assists the reader into accepting Keats’ transition from the ‘light’ and ‘hope’ of the first seven lines of the fourth stanza, into the darkness of the bower where he now ‘sinks’. Via his descent into the bower, Keats initiates another change of perspective. The light of the ‘Queen-moon’, which symbolically represented the opportunity to fly to the nightingale on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’, has faded. Accordingly, he is seen to reject the powers of ‘Poesy’ as he did the capabilities of the Bacchic wine in the second stanza.

The images of death that pervaded stanza three are reiterated and compounded by the use of ‘darkness’ throughout stanzas five and six.[41] The choice of ‘thicket’ - a ‘dense growth of shrubs, underwood, and small trees; a place where low trees grow thickly together,’ highlights the claustrophobic ambience of the bower that ultimately serves as a symbolization of his earthly tomb.[42] Keats furthers the metaphorical and literal darkness of the bower through his being unable to see the excess of flowers, roses and blossoming trees with which the arbour is filled. This extension of the ‘blackness’ that he is experiencing is promoted through him being unable to locate the source of the ‘soft incense’; the ‘death’ of the breeze which had blown the light to him, and through the choice of both ‘incense’ and ‘enbalmed’ - both items associated with funerals.[43] The double entombment of being both inside the bower and ‘enbalmed’ in incense is compounded, when he acknowledges that the violets are suffering a similar fate to himself within the poem: they are both ‘fast fading’ and, like Keats, ‘cover’d up in leaves’.

A superficial reading of the fifth stanza can render it wholly ‘dark’. However, Keats does to some extent, oppose the ‘darkness’ of the bower with the ‘light’ of a possible release from his encasement. The hint of ‘light’ provided through the ‘breezes blown’ moonlight of stanza four, is replicated through the ‘coming musk- rose’ which is ‘full’ of the ‘dewy wine’ of anticipation that far outweighs the fleeting promise of Bacchus’ ‘vintage’ seen in stanza two. The use of ‘full’ in the ninth line of the fifth stanza highlights Keats’ exploitation of reiteration within Ode to a Nightingale. Its repetitive use links the first, second, third and fifth stanzas via the theme of plentitude. The dewy wine of the musk-rose can be seen to be the fulfilment of his wish in the second stanza for magical wine. This fulfilment through nature, also links the fifth stanza to the first, when the ‘coming musk-rose’ is seen to be representative of the nightingale which also offered the promise of a ‘summer’ in spring.[44] Yet, these chinks of light that pervade his bower are always tempered with underlying notions of ‘darkness’. This is seen when the musk-rose’s promise of a ‘summer’ in spring is moderated through the images of death that are encompassed within the choice of ‘the murmurous haunt of flies’.[45] Keats is once again seen ‘loading every rift’: the obvious connotations of death seen in his use of ‘haunt’ are furthered by the choice of ‘flies’ that are ominously and onomatopoeically ‘murmurous’ - hovering over the emerging ‘musk rose’, promoting a sense of death and carrion before the rose has even bloomed.[46] The choice of ‘flies’ serves two other functions, the first is to help promote the poem’s theme of excess: the ‘murmurous flies’ conclude the stanza’s surfeit of ‘grass’, ‘thicket’, ‘fruit-tree’, ‘white hawthorn’, ‘eglantine’ ‘violets’ and ‘musk-rose’. The second purpose, as Vendler notes, is to provide the ‘link to Keats’ admission of a tryst with ‘Death’, seen in the next stanza.’[47] Keats echoes the association of ‘Death’ via his choice of ‘flies’, when he subjugates the brightness of ‘summer’ by conditioning the season with the darkness suggested by ‘eves’. However, as is typical with Ode to a Nightingale, the ‘flies’ can also be perceived as a presentation of ‘natural realism’, as such, their murmuring is another source of music; if this view is accepted, then the darkness of the bower is imperceptibly lightened. Keats’ couching of the bower in darkness is increased by stating that he ‘cannot see what flowers are at my feet’ at the outset of the fifth stanza, then subsequently offering plants, shrubs and trees with strong connotations of colour. ‘White’ (hawthorn) and ‘violets’ are obviously colours in their own right, but the ‘musk-rose’ and the ‘eglantine’ are respectively noted for their white and delicate pink petals. The excess of the flowers, shrubs and trees echo his employment of colours of stanza two: that is to say that they remain as unseen as the colours of stanza two became redundant, due to Keats’ rejection of the wine with which they were associated.

By starting with ‘Darkling’ (‘in the dark’) at the outset of the sixth stanza, Keats continues the theme of ambiguity.[48] ‘Darkling’ heightens the reader’s perception that both the poet and the nightingale are located within the literal darkness of the night; however, it can be seen to function metaphorically, in expressing the paradox of the ‘darkness’ that the nightingale’s beautiful song has brought to Keats. Furthermore, via a typical example of Keatsian word play - ‘Darkling’ closely resembles, in both spelling and pronunciation, ‘darling’, consequently he may be perceived to be denoting his affection for the bird. It should also be considered that he is ‘listening in the dark’, that is to say that he is uncertain of any emotion or sense. This naturally corresponds to Keats’ feeling of ‘numbness’ that pervades the whole poem.

Though the theme of ‘Death’ (in its many guises) operates through most of the poem, it is used as the primary theme of the sixth stanza. ‘Death’ is presented both ambiguously and in a non-linear manner; this confusion echoes Keats’ thought process, as he explores the liberating possibilities and / or consequences of death. He initially appears to demonstrate the attraction of ‘Death’ through the double use of ‘many’ and its counterpart of ‘more’ seen at the outset of the stanza:

Darkling I listen; and for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Called him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever it seems rich to die

The combination seen in the first two lines of ‘listen’, ‘Death’ and ‘mused rhyme’, arguably fuse to produce the primary focus of the poem: the frisson that can be achieved through the writing of poetry. If this is accepted, the wish ‘to cease upon the midnight’ in line six can be perceived as being sexually charged. Explicitly, Keats is correlating the threshold of ‘midnight’ to the moment of sexual climax. Vendler asserts that the erotic desire for death is furthered via the use of the ‘characteristic erotic adjectives’ of ‘soft’ and ‘rich’ in lines three and five.[49]

Keats’ dilemma over whether to accept ‘Death’ as an ultimately positive or negative concept forms the sixth stanza’s secondary theme. This ambivalence is propounded via the ambiguity of Keats’ wish in the fourth line to ‘To take into the air my quiet breath’. Once again, the line’s indistinctness reflects the poet’s own uncertainty. Perhaps, he is offering a traditional Christian belief in the spirit rising after death: the troubled breath of life is consequently stilled and ‘quiet’. Equally, it could again be a conscious / subconscious reference to the death of his brother Tom whose breathing when near death, would have been ragged and difficult, and as such Keats is desiring to fade whilst relatively healthy and listening to the beautiful song of the nightingale. It is also plausible that it may be an allusion to Keats’ wish to still his own poetic voice whist listening to the nightingale. Ultimately, the poet can be seen to be yearning to stay alive, and yet paradoxically, become nearer to the nightingale: he wishes to rise upwards (to take into the air), and that he would listen to its song in a silent rapture where even his breathing is quiet. The ambiguity is echoed through the ambivalence witnessed in the sixth line: ‘To cease upon the midnight with no pain’. Keats’ coveting of a painless ‘Death’, can be variously taken to represent a wish to avoid one or both of the following: the heartache of the first stanza, and the catalogue of human miseries detailed in stanza three.

As discussed above, Keats links the sixth stanza to much of the rest of the poem through the thematic image of ‘Death’. However, he also connects six stanzas via the sense of hearing.[50] The choice of ‘listen’ is utilized primarily in the second line of the sixth stanza to allow the reader to move effortlessly from the sound of the ‘murmurous’ ‘flies’ heard at the end of the fifth stanza, back to the song of the nightingale. The bird produces a song so enrapturing that he momentarily wishes:

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad In such an ecstasy!

In the first stanza the nightingale’s melodies invoke heartache and narcosis. Whereas, by the sixth stanza Keats has so empowered it, that he is disposed to die whilst listening to its song. The choice of ‘ecstasy’ in line eight to describe the bird’s song, both furthers the elevated perception of the nightingale’s potential, and reminds the reader of the sexual undercurrent that runs throughout the stanza, and arguably the entire poem. Additionally, ‘ecstasy’ can also be deemed to represent Keats’ current circumstance: that he no longer needs to be transported by either ‘Poesy’ or ‘wine’ to be near to the nightingale - it is more than enough to retain the solitary sense of hearing and listen to its song.

The cessation of bodily and mental pain would obviously be a consequence of an ‘easeful Death’. But, it can also be perceived that Keats is expressing a desire that his death ‘upon the midnight’ would also result in his ‘spirit’ being united with the nightingales, as she pours ‘forth’ her own ‘soul’. The ambivalence of ‘pouring’ not only articulates the freedom and generosity of the nightingale in releasing its own soul, but also serves to link the nightingale to the temporary freedom of the trope of the ‘vintage’ in stanza two. Through this correlation of the nightingale and the disregarded trope of the magical wine, Keats can be seen to be covertly undermining the nightingale’s seemingly increased powers before overtly doing so in the final stanza. This theme of negating the bird’s prowess within the poem is ironically juxtaposed throughout stanzas six and seven via the contrary elevation of the bird’s powers. He is seen to reiterate the analytical process of the sixth stanza’s ‘examination’ of death, and correspondingly continues to allow the reader an access into the ‘confessional nature’ of his poem. The uncertainty over the nightingale’s powers, is mirrored throughout stanza six, where it becomes apparent that Keats is never fully convinced of being ‘released’ from moral pain and anguish by dying. This is seen when he subtly undermines the stanza’s overall impression of a wholehearted desiring of ‘Death’ through the use of ‘half in line two: ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’.[51] Keats also destabilizes the second line’s seeming acceptance of ‘Death’ by balancing the line through the double uses of ‘ha’ and ‘ea’. This usage naturally inhibits the reader from placing any stress upon the word ‘Death’: I have been half in love with easeful Death.’ Rejection of a definite wish for death is furthered in the fifth line when it only ‘seems... rich to die’, and when in the last two lines of the stanza six where he states:

Still would’st thou sing, and I have ears in vain - To thy high requiem become a sod.

Keats has realised, as Hamlet had done before him, that within death lies the uncertainty of death:

.to die, to sleep - No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled of this mortal coil,

Must give us pause.[52]

His dilemma is that in ‘Death’ he may not be able (even in a dream) to hear the wonderful sound of the nightingale pouring forth her soul. In death he may simply ‘become a sod’.[53]

Throughout Ode to a Nightingale Keats elevates the bird and interlinks the stanzas through the use of ‘thou’ and its objective ‘thee’. This elevation, via association with the homily, is furthered in stanza six through the song of the nightingale being compared to a ‘ high requiem’. A standard requiem is ‘a special mass said or sung for the repose of the souls of the dead’.[54] Therefore, through the choice of ‘high’ Keats suggests that the nightingale’s song over his dead body (or sod) would be superior to that of the Church service. The choice of ‘high’ naturally also serves to designate the nightingale’s elevated position in the sky. Keats can be seen variously promoting the bird’s song as a metaphor for the process of writing poetry. Primarily, the bird is elevated by proving true to his poetical concept of ‘light and shade’: it produces melodies that represent the sadness of a ‘plaintive anthem’, the happiness of the promise of a ‘summer’ in spring and elements of the divine in its ‘high requiem’. The nightingale’s ability to produce superior music / poetry is supplemented by the ‘flies’ that only murmur, the humans that ‘groan’, and Keats’ very breath which is rendered ‘quiet’ in stanza six. This reiteration on the theme of music / sound also serves to link the stanzas.

Keats continues to entwine the stanzas, and expand on the thematic images of both ‘death’, and the magical / mythical properties of the bird, when he begins the seventh stanza by stating:

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down

The (perceived) elevation of the nightingale’s magical/mystical properties is increased through both the overt use of ‘immortal’, and the potent negation of the nightingale’s ‘death’ through the choice of ‘not’. The exclamation mark at the end of the first line of the seventh stanza is employed to signify his seemingly replenished belief of the nightingale as an immortal entity.[55] This belief is ironically juxtaposed with Keats’ increased awareness of his own mortality. The use of the polar opposites of ‘emperor and clown’ demonstrate that both ‘Death’ and the ‘hungry generations’ that represent it have no regard for station or rank, and that correspondingly, he himself is a part of this cycle.[56] The nightingale’s magical / mythical status is also seemingly advanced through the pluralization of both ‘casements’ and ‘seas’. This development is augmented through the poet’s choice of ‘oft’, which denotes the frequency that the nightingale has sung to effect such matters as the ‘magic casements’ or sad heart of ‘Ruth’. Keats uses the Old Testament reference to Ruth to fulfil several themes:

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

She serves through her historical connections with the Old Testament: to amplify the passing generations, continue the poem’s theme of the homily and symbolically represent ‘light’ within ‘darkness’, as Ruth was ultimately bestowed great happiness.[57]

The recurrent integrating of the stanzas is continued through his choice of ‘tread thee down’, which via the wine making process, echoes the theme of the second stanza’s ‘vintage’. This amalgamation of the stanzas can also be seen in lines five and six when the birds ‘ ... self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth’ is representative of the ethereal ‘light’ that is blown via the ‘breeze’ in stanza four. Throughout the seventh stanza, Keats continues to promote the nightingale as relational to the frisson achieved via the production of poetry. Specifically, the nightingale is the Keatsian embodiment of poetry as a ‘life form’, one that is correspondingly and significantly immune from the ‘hungry generations’ of mankind that ‘tread [Keats] down.’ The ‘hunger’ of the ‘generations’ and the necessity of ingestion to satisfy the craving, is antithetical to the poetry that the nightingale produces from stanza one onwards with ‘full-throated ease’. Equally, the choice of ‘passing night’ in the third line can be seen as a use of repetition, that allows Keats to continue the undercurrent of the sixth stanza, where he was becoming aware of the ephemeral powers of the ‘immortal Bird.’ This transience can be seen to be highlighted when Keats links himself to the ‘self-same song’ that ‘Perhaps.Ruth’ heard. Keats’ choice of ‘Perhaps’, though it can be seen to lessen the effect of Keats’ likeness to ‘Ruth’ through the adverbs connotations of uncertainty, is more probably used to show the doubt that he was beginning to feel over both the bird’s powers and its ‘immortality’. The similarities between ‘Ruth’ and the poet are supplemented, when both his heartache and the unfamiliarity of the bower are echoed through his usage of Ruth, who is said to have ‘stood in tears amid the alien com’ with a ‘sad heart’.

The conception of the continued resurgence in the nightingale’s powers can be seen to be ultimately portrayed in the last three lines of the seventh stanza, where the ‘voice’ that both Ruth and Keats hear, is said to be:

The same that oft-times hath Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

‘Magic’ readily emphasizes the thematic image of the bird’s magical / mythical attributes. However, ‘magic’ may also serve to highlight the miraculous possibilities of the ‘vintage’ and ‘Poesy’, which have been rejected as failing to offer genuine deliverance from his heartache and lassitude. Thereby, by inference, Keats is once again seen to be undermining the magical / mythical properties of the bird.

The Keatsian trait of plurality is seen in the last line of stanza seven: ‘Of perilous seas, in faery land forlorn’. ‘Faery’ not only interlinks the stanzas through its allusion to the ‘starry Fays’ of stanza four, but also promotes the magical aspect of the nightingale through the possession of having a ‘voice’ that can exist within such fabled scenes. Yet, these elements of the bird’s status are to a great extent negated via their juxtaposition with ‘forlorn’. The careful choice of ‘forlorn’ as the last line of the seventh stanza, permits Keats to suggest that for all of the nightingale’s influences and seemingly limitless potential, he is still encumbered with a ‘heart’ [that] ‘aches’. An effect of his acknowledgement, is the initiation of the ultimate rejection of the nightingale, which is fully articulated in the last stanza. Keats’ poetic dexterity within the first line of the seventh stanza can be seen to be representational of the equilibrium and purpose seen to a great extent throughout the whole poem. The staccato effect of the short vowels seen in the choice of ‘Thou wast not born for’ is restrained through the slight, but significant, slowing of the melody through ‘death,’ which is itself further slowed via the long vowel sound found in ‘immortal’. This deceleration of pace forces the reader to focus on the antithetical balance of ‘death’ and ‘immortal’; their effective isolation prompts the reader to consider the nightingale’s stance / power within the poem. Keats’ desire to maintain balance throughout the poem is also perceived in line three when he employs the homophone of ‘hear’ and ‘heard’ to stabilize the line. In line five, balance is achieved through the use of the letter ‘P’, which starts the word that both opens and finishes the line, and through the treble use of ‘S’ in ‘self-same song’ in the middle of the line: ‘Perhaps the self-same song that found a path’. This use of sibilance initiates a three-line sequence of alliteration. In line six the focus on the ‘S’ of ‘sad’ and ‘sick’ balances the line through its heavy punctuation of the melody either side of the focal point of the line - ‘Ruth’. Thus, the reader is prompted to read the line ‘Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home’; this emphasis perceptibly augments the wretchedness of her plight seen in the next line when ‘She stood in tears amid the alien corn’. The use of ‘S’ to balance and punctuate, is used ultimately at the start of the seventh line, when it is replaced (primarily) through the assonance of ‘A’ and ‘E’. This assonance is itself interspersed with an alliterative use of ‘F’ in ‘foam / Of.. .faery lands forlorn’, and ‘C’ in ‘magic casements’. Keats even manages to balance the double use of ‘C’ in ‘magic casements’ with a triple use of ‘O’ in ‘opening on the foam’.

In first line of stanza eight Keats employs the anadiplosis of ‘Forlorn’ to effect awareness in the reader that his present ‘mindset’ in the eighth stanza is analogous with that of the first stanza.[58] Consequently, the assumed power of the nightingale’s song / poetry to remove him from ‘trials and tribulations of life’ is, as the power of the ‘vintage’ and ‘Poesy’ was beforehand, wholly rejected. It is the recognition of feeling ‘abandoned and forsaken’ that starts to ‘toll’ him back to an earthly reality.[59] The shock of the actual moment of this realization is further articulated through the use of the exclamation mark after ‘Forlorn’. Yet, this mood of melancholy is tempered through Keats’ offering a ‘lighter’ note to this ‘darkness’, when he playfully offers that the traditional ‘ding / dong’ sound of a bell can also be represented onomatopoeically by ‘For / lorn’

The choice of ‘toll’ is significant. Not only does it express the solemnness of Keats’ mood through its association with the Church bell - particularly the knell sounded at funerals, but it is also used to express the figurative cost of his realization that the nightingale does not offer a solution or salvation in any respect, except perhaps, the pleasure of hearing an echo of one’s own sadness in the plaintiveness of it’s song.[60] ‘Sole’ both emphasizes his rejection of all manner of external catharsis via the implications of solitude, and suggests that he has returned to his absolute essence - his ‘soul’. Keats also utilizes ‘sole’ to form an internal rhyme with ‘toll’, this serves to both balance the line and to echo the onomatopoeic usage of ‘Forlorn’ seen in the first line mimicking the sound of a tolling bell. The inextricable linking of ‘toll’ and ‘sole’ and ‘Forlorn’, clearly show that Keats has dismissed the poetic essence of the nightingale and accepted the cost of this rejection, before the bird starts to fly away and ‘fade’. Given that Keats has already renounced the nightingale’s powers, the flight that starts in line three should be judged as more literal than metaphorical. The nightingale’s flight starts with the opening word of the third line: ‘Adieu!’. It is impossible to know Keats’ exact intentions for ‘Adieu!’, but it is more than likely that his intention, given the rest of the poem, is that it should have plurality of meaning. Therefore, ‘Adieu!’ is exploited to both express his ‘kind wishes at the parting of [a] friend,’ and figuratively as an ‘expression of regret at the ...departure’ of the nightingale and its connotations of poetry and illumination.[61] The poet is both slightly melancholic and wiser, he now knows that the ‘fancy’ of the nightingale, like the promise of ‘Bacchus’ and ‘Poesy’, ‘cannot cheat [him] so well / As she is fam’d to do.’ Yet ultimately, his tone is wry and mischievous rather than bitter, terming her as no more than a ‘deceiving elf.’[62] The repetition of the previous word seen in ‘Adieu! Adieu!’ echoes the use of ‘Away! away!’ in stanza four, however, the tone is significantly different. Keats uses ‘Away! away!’ as a method of reproaching himself for wanting to leave the world and its troubles through the ‘vintage’; whilst ‘Adieu! Adieu!’ sees the poet anxious to thank and acknowledge the nightingale for the brief respite from the earthly troubles of ‘the weariness, the fever, and the fret’.[63] Keats has crucially realised that the two worlds of the mythical / immortal bird and the mortal are incompatible. He has appreciated that not even the nightingale (and by inference the ‘wine’ and ‘Poesy’) can stop the earthly generations from treading the previous one down, and they must therefore remain, both literally and figuratively, in separate spheres.

The assonant use of ‘A’ in the fifth line serves to balance the line and create a relatively strict iambic pentameter, it also emphasises the bird’s slowness of withdrawal through the short separated anxious vowel sound in ‘Adieu! Adieu’ being replaced by the wistful long vowel sounds in ‘thy plaintive anthem fades. ’ The flight of the bird is graphically detailed. It travels from being near Keats in his bower, to just ‘past the near meadows’ - then ‘over the still stream’ - further away ‘up the hillside’ - until it is ‘now ... buried deep / In the next valley-glades’. The specific use of ‘now’ helps to finalise the separation between the poet and the nightingale that was initiated thorough ‘sole self in line two. The ‘darkness’ of the poem is fully articulated in stanza eight, when Keats is seen to be ‘buried deep’ in an ‘enbalmed darkness’, the ‘Fast fading violets are cover’d up in leaves’, and the nightingale is ‘buried deep / In the next valley glades’. This choice of ‘buried’ also serves to unambiguously strip the bird of its immortality and mythical connotations. Keats ‘now’ sees the bird as no more than ‘flesh and blood’, and as such, despite its ability to compose endless poetry effortlessly, the hungry generations will also ‘tread [it] down’.

The bird’s flight over the ‘still stream’ is significant. The OED definition of a stream is ‘A course of water flowing continuously along a bed on the earth.’ Therefore, the oxymoronic use of the ‘still stream’ is pertinent, as it suggests that the nightingale’s withdrawal has for Keats created something of a sublime moment.[64] This momentary obliteration of his consciousness leads into both the last two lines, and consequently the entire poem’s aura of uncertainty as to whether every detail of the poem is real or imaginary:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?

He mirrors his incertitude through the permutations of ‘vision’, ‘waking dream’, ‘wake’ and ‘sleeping’.[65] This uncertainty of Keats wondering whether the whole poem was experienced while conscious or not, reverberates back to the first stanza’s references to ‘hemlock’, ‘Lethe’ and the ‘dull[ing] opiate’, and thus propounds the poem’s cyclical nature. The perpetual nature of the poem is furthered via the choice of ‘Vision’ in line nine, which allows Keats to link the stanzas via the theme of religious imagery with which the nightingale has been imbued throughout the poem. The use of ‘fled’ to denote haste in the last stanza of Ode to a Nightingale is employed similarly in another of Keats’ poems of near date: The Eve of St. Agnes, where the ‘lovers fled away into the storm’.[66] The inversion of the normal syntactical order from ‘the music has fled’ to ‘fled is that music’, and the fact that it starts a new line / sentence, forces the reader to stress the actual word ‘Fled’. Yet, this initial impression of moving quickly is at variance with the rest of the poem. Though Keats’ poetic acumen allows him to quicken and slow the pace of the rhythm to suit the ambience of the poem, the overall character of the poem is one of ‘ease’ and ‘indolence’. This is witnessed through: the dreamlike qualities of Keats’ narcosis, the torpor associated with the glut of wine, the light in stanza four, the immobility suggested through the catalogue of earthly maladies, the overt and covert allusions to ‘death’ and the actual references to ‘fade’ seen in stanzas two, three and eight. Consequently, this speed of departure appears to prove antagonistic to both the nightingale slowly winding its way ‘Past the near meadows, over the still stream / Up the hill-side; and now is buried deep / In the next valley-glades’, and the poem’s ultimate conclusion, where Keats is clearly befuddled, not knowing whether he is awake or asleep. That is unless he uses ‘fled’ to denote that it is the absence of sound that has suddenly roused him from his torpor to a slightly elevated state of lucidity, where he is certain only of the fact that the music has gone. Accordingly, he is confused and knows not whether he is asleep or awake, or having a ‘vision, or a waking dream’. This state is analogous to the state of narcosis witnessed in the first stanza; therefore, the poem can be seen to read as cyclical. The circular ‘dreamlike’ effect is heightened through both the constant interweaving of the stanzas, and the frequent references, whether figurative or literal, to such themes as narcosis, magic, myth, the Bible, life, illness, morbidity and mortality.[67]


Ode to a Nightingale details Keats rumination on the nature of poetry, life, death, and immortality. The apparent freedom and immortality of the bird is contrasted against the poet’s initial feelings of incarceration and hopelessness. Keats’ melancholic disposition appears to be the accumulative effects of a life full of misery, maladies and despair, succeeded only by the inevitably of death. Therefore, the effect of the nightingale’s song, which figuratively offers the embodiment and creation of poetry, is seen to present an antithetical promise of light within Keats’ darkness. The nightingale’s mythical / magical position is promoted throughout most of the poem. It is variously linked with the ‘light-winged Dryad’, permitted to render a whole ‘plot’ ‘melodious’, and elevated via its correlation with ‘faery lands’, ‘magic casements’, ‘emperors’, ‘clowns’ and ‘Ruth’. Numerous substitutes for the nightingale’s representation of both inspiration and hope are first offered, then dismissed, before the nightingale and its powers are eventually rejected in the last stanza when Keats acknowledges to himself that the ‘immortal Bird’ is in reality no more than a ‘deceiving elf.

Keats uses many poetic and rhetorical devices throughout the poem. He exploits the order of both long and short vowels to alter the melody of a line in order to propound his choice of lexis, and many individual lines seen throughout Ode to a Nightingale are carefully stabilized and poised via Keats’ careful use of homonymy, sibilance, assonance, and alliteration. This astute promotion of equilibrium is furthered through Keats’ utilization of the antithetical balance of ‘light and shade’. Keats indulges in a process whereby his sensations are given ‘free reign’, in doing so, he avoids ‘Consequitive reasoning’ and as a corollary, he is able to make a progression from a cyclical poem by variously exploring both the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’ as and when his sensations dictate. This is perhaps most pertinently seen where Keats, rather than following a linear path, intersperses the poem’s many notions of death and pessimism with contrary suggestions of promise. Though there are numerous allusions to death throughout the poem, it is most overtly referenced in stanzas three, five and six. This flirtation with death climaxes when the poet, in his symbolic tomb, wistfully states that he is ‘half in love with easeful Death’. However, Keats assertion, though heightened via the adjectives of ‘soft’ and ‘rich’, is fleeting.

In stanza five, Keats heeds his own advice to Shelley and ‘loads every rift with ore’, though deprived of sight in his bower, the reader is given the impression of the arbour being filled with ‘murmurous flies’ amid a surfeit of colours, flowers, trees and shrubs. The poet uses the word ‘full’ five times throughout the poem to both emphasize this sense of glut and to help form the crucial theme of repetition. He employs this theme of reiteration to produce his finest artifice within the poem: the interweaving of the stanzas. The overall ambience of Ode to a Nightingale is one of lassitude; consequently, Keats links all the stanzas via this theme. The ‘numbness’ that Keats feels in the first stanza is furthered in the second through the trope of the magical ‘wine’, with which Keats hopes to ‘fade and ‘dissolve’. This is subsequently advanced through the loss of the sense of sight in stanza four, the catalogue of maladies in the third stanza, and the allusions to death in stanzas five, six and seven. However, it is most pertinently used in the last two lines of the poem, when Keats uses the image of ‘numbness’ to link the last two lines of stanza eight to the first line of the first stanza via the correlation between ‘sleep’ and ‘drowsy numbness’. This naturally promotes a cyclical dreamlike effect, which when augmented by the poem’s frequent employment of ambivalence and ambiguity, combines to arrest the notion (that could be formed in stanza eight) that Keats is reconciled to death being and an integral part of life.

The breadth allowed by the diametrically opposed, all encompassing elements of ‘light and shade’ allows Keats to explore: ‘imagination and reality’, ‘happiness and heartache’, ‘dissatisfaction and fulfilment’, ‘reality and perception’, ‘awareness and oblivion’, ‘freedom and restriction’, and ‘life and death’. They also permit him constantly interlink the stanzas and subsequently fulfil his intention of gaining a form of resolution from a ‘continuous’ poem. Specifically, the reader is aware that whilst Keats is relatively content to face life alone, without aid or props, the cyclicality of the poem enforces the notion that he is aware that this contentment is probably transient.

It would have been interesting to carry this study further, and consider how the effects of ‘light and shade’, and indeed Keats’ other poetic devices, would operate within the other five odes that are traditionally accepted as forming a sequence with Ode to a Nightingale.


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[1] The Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger (London: Heinemann, 1978), p. 369 - 372. All quotes throughout this dissertation that are not referenced are from this 1820 version of Ode to a Nightingale. Though Keats never expressed that it is he who is the human within the poem, for the sake of brevity, this essay will assume that Keats is the lyrical ‘I’ of the poem.

[2] John Keats: The Major Works, edited by Elizabeth Cook, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.19, lines 65 - 67. The poem is circa March 1816. OED, CD-ROM Version 2.0, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). The OED states that ‘Light and shade’ has been used either literally or figuratively since C. 1386. Perhaps most pertinently for Keats the concept appears in Paradise Lost: Book V: 643. See, John Milton: Paradise Lost - A Norton Critical Edition, second edition, edited by Scott Elledge (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993), p. 130.

[3] The Letters of John Keats, Volume I, 1814-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.386 - 387. These antithetical elements that make up Keats’ concept of ‘light and shade’ are elsewhere referred to in his letters as ‘disinterestedness’. Keats propounded that ‘disinterestedness’ allowed the poet to perceive the object via his ‘sensations’ rather than through the ‘Consequitive reasoning’ that Keats believed personages such as Coleridge applied to poetry. This then allows the full ‘greeting’ of the ‘imagination’ and its object to be grasped so vividly, that only those associations and qualities that are strictly relevant to the central conception remains. In achieving a state of ‘disinterestedness’, the poet without impunity can accept that there is no ‘harm’ whatsoever in relishing ‘the dark side of things’ anymore than acquiring a ‘taste for the bright one[s]’. Though ‘disinterestedness’ and ‘light and shade’ are the same entity, this dissertation, will refer only to the latter. See: The Letters of John Keats, Volume II, 1814-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958), pp.54 - 108, and: Letters Vol. I, pp. 386 - 387, 191 - 194.

[4] Letters Vol. II, p.360.

[5] Helen Vendler, The Odes of John Keats (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988), p.83.

[6] OED, ‘aches’.

[7] OED, ‘hemlock’. Cook notes that ‘When Keats passed the exams he sat in the Apothecaries’ Hall in 1816 he became one of a new generation of the qualified apothecaries, the forerunners of the modern general practitioner.’ The Major Works, p. xxi.

[8] Keats’ medical training again would have lent him first hand knowledge of the effects of opium. It is however, perhaps also worth noting that after a cricket match where he received a black eye, he was administered to by his friend Charles Brown, who leeched his swollen eye and perhaps administered some opium as Keats awoke the next day ‘in a temper supremely indolent and extremely careless’. This lethargic manner is extremely indicative of the drug, though it should also be considered that his ‘indolence’ could also be the result of concussion. See: Letters Vol. II, p.78. On the subject of drugs, it is interesting to note that Janice C. Sinson suggests that Keats recent re-reading of Burton’s influenced Ode to a Nightingale. It is a persuasive argument, she states that Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy relates that ‘wine’ - one of the major themes used throughout Nightingale, was seen by the ancient Greeks as a cure for depression. She also states that Burton ‘deals with an alternative cure for melancholy - the Opiates, such as ‘poppy [as opium], ... violets, roses’, all of which appear in Ode to a Nightingale. Janice C. Sinson, John Keats and The Anatomy of Melancholy (Taunton: Barnicotts Ltd., 1971), p. 22.

[9] OED, ‘Lethe’.

[10] Walter Jackson Bate, John Keats (London: Chatto & Windus, 1979), pp. 414 - 417. ‘Open’ and ‘close’ vowels are what are regarded as traditionally ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowels’.

[11] Bate, pp. 414 - 415. ‘The elaborate assonance in Keats’ poetry from Hyperion on, and especially from Hyperion through the odes, is one of the most intriguing things in the history of English versification. ’ Bate also elucidates on how and why he believes that Keats evolved his superb style of assonance on p. 417.

[12] For an interesting insight into the various balance mechanisms that ‘Shakespeare used so prodigally’ and Keats attempted to emulate, see Bate, pp. 299 - 300.

[13] Opinions vary as to whether the odes from a sequence or not. Vendler is adamant that the odes form a definite progression; she lists the order of the odes as specifically: Indolence, Psyche, Nightingale, Grecian Urn, Melancholy, and To Autumn. Andrew Motion states that ‘the poems form a sequence which does not quite deserve the name’. See: Andrew Motion, Keats (London: Faber & Faber, 1997), p.386. Sinson, p.21, states that ‘to treat the odes as a group of related poems is patently wrong although metrically they have some affinity’. Robert Gittings, in what may still be considered the definitive biography of Keats states in his book John Keats (London: Pelican Books, 1971), p. 455, ‘that the odes of Indolence, Melancholy, Nightingale, and Grecian Urn - may be said to make and ode-sequence with a great deal more unity than many sonnet-sequences normally contain’. Yet, he rejects that the other two odes can be said to be part of Vendler’s typically accepted sequence. As this dissertation is specifically about Ode to a Nightingale it is something of a moot point as to whether the odes form a sequence or not. However, for the sake of both clarity and brevity, I shall refer throughout this essay to the six odes mentioned above as collectively ‘the odes’.

[14] Letters Vol. II, p.26. It would also have proved difficult, if not impossible, to affect and fully explore the antithetical arguments experienced in the ‘nightingale’ within a 14-line framework.

[15] Letters Vol. II, p. 43,

[16] Letters Vol. II, p. 108. Rollins notes that Keats only wrote three more sonnets after this one.

[17] Gittings, p. 454.

[18] Psyche was the first and most ‘supple’ of all the odes with a frequently changing meter. The succeeding odes follow a more rigid format. Perhaps after rejecting the rigours and constraints of the sonnet form, Keats then found too much freedom in Psyche.

[19] John Keats, edited by Miriam Allott (Essex: Longman House Ltd., 1976), p.29.

[20] Collins Albatross Book of Verse, edited by Louis Untermeyer (London, Collins, 1977), p. 650. ‘The magnificent odes of Keats and Shelley are, in reality, extended and sustained lyrics. The term [odes] has been broadened; strophe and antistrophe have disappeared; the length and stanza - pattern is unpredictable. Today the ode may be recognised by its form at all, but rather by its tone: an intense, richly elaborated and often profound apostrophe.’

[21] Mike Russell of the Sussex Wildlife Trust has noted that one nightingale (a male) sang for twenty- three and half-hours in one day. See Country Living, April edition 2002, edited by S. Smith (London: National Magazine Company, 2002), p.24.

[22] OED, Dryad: ‘Greek and Latin Mythology. A nymph supposed to inhabit trees; a wood nymph’. Paradise Lost, p. 208. Keats’ use of ‘Dryad’ is possibly an intertextual reference Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book IX: 386 - 387 ‘like a wood-nymph light, Oread or Dryad’.

[23] Vendler, p. 82.

[24] Samual Taylor Coleridge, in The Portable Coleridge, edited by I.A. Richards (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 144 - 148. The bird is specifically referred to as ‘him’ in line 85.

[25] The Portable Coleridge, ‘The Nightingale’, 1798, lines 1-7.

[26] The numberless ‘shadows’ are representations of the poem’s constant antithetical allusions to ‘light and shade’.

[27] OED, ‘draught’.

[28] OED, ‘draught’.

[29] Keats’ use of word play and puns was often complicated and extended into his private life. See Letters, Vol. II, p. 360 and Letters Vol. I, p.156 for examples.

[30] Letters, Vol. I, p. 238. Keats describes some of his poetic maxims to his friend John Taylor in a letter dated 27th Feb. 1818, most interesting, in relation to Ode to a Nightingale is his 1st principle: ‘I think that Poetry should surprise by a fine excess...’

[31] OED, ‘Flora’.

[32] OED, ‘beaker’. OED, ‘Hippocrene’. Hippocrene is the ‘name of a fountain on Mount Helicon, sacred to the Muses; hence used allusively in reference to poetic or literary inspiration. ’

[33] Though somewhat tenuous, ‘sunburnt’ (stanza two, line four) can also be perceived as excess.

[34] Aside from the obvious sense that Keats wishes a form of dissolution, it should also be considered that Keats could have been alluding to a now obsolete etymology of ‘dissolve’. Specifically: ‘to release from life; die, to depart’. This would naturally link the third stanza to the more overt references to his own death seen in stanzas five and six. See OED, ‘dissolve’.

[35] The weariness, the fever, and the fret’ is very likely an allusion to the anxieties and physical pain endured by his brother Tom during his illness and subsequent death through TB. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states that ‘Post pulmonary tuberculosis occurs mainly within young adults but can occur at any age. The onset of the disease is usually insidious, with a lack of energy, weight loss, and persistent cough. These symptoms do not subside, and the general health of the patient deteriorates. Eventually, the cough increases, there is much sweating, the patient may have chest pain and pleurisy, and there may be blood in the sputum, an alarming symptom.’ Infection is likely from drinking milk infected with tubercle bacillus, or by the respiratory route directly from another infected person. It is highly unlikely that Keats had any idea that he was to suffer from TB. Though he was an apothecary and a medical student, no one was really sure how or what caused its onslaught. It was not until 1882 when Robert Koch identified the tubercle bacillus to be the cause of tuberculosis. While on a walking holiday in Scotland, before Tom’s death, Keats complained of a sore throat, which he never fully ‘shook off. This was likely, though not conclusively the onset of his TB (see: Letters Vol. I, p. 351). He never mentioned the possibility of himself having TB. Even on April 21st 1820, when clearly seriously ill from TB, he was happy for the doctor to diagnose (even though Keats had haemorrhaged), that it was his nerves that were the problem rather than the lungs (see: Letters II, p. 287). Encyclopaedia Britannica, CD-ROM Multimedia Version (London, 1998). For more information on TB, see: American Lung Association Fact Sheet—Tuberculosis and HIV.

[36] Keats medical knowledge is seen through his description of ‘palsy’. The disease characteristically inhibits the nervous system, impairing or suspending muscular action or sensation, ‘especially of voluntary motion, and in some forms, by involuntary tremors of the limbs.’ See: OED, ‘palsy’.

[37] The Cambridge Companion to Keats, edited by Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. xxi. Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of poetic lines or sentences.

[38] ‘Pards’ is an abbreviated form of leopards, which were used to pull Bacchus’ chariot.

[39] Letters, Vol. I, pp. 238 - 239.Even this momentary lapse of creativity would have frustrated Keats. He preferred poetry to flow easily: ‘.if Poetry does not come as easily as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all. ’

[40] Vendler, p. 90. Vendler states that Keats’ references to the ‘Moon and her starry Fays, [were] remembered form Milton’s Nativity Ode.’

[41] Vendler, p.87. Vendler also notes that the ‘principal trope’ in Ode to a Nightingale is that of ‘reiteration’.

[42] OED, ‘thicket’.

[43] OED, ‘embalm’ and incense’.

[44] http;// Within the poem, the ‘musk-rose’ offers a long lasting image of summer as its blooms during the midsummer through to the autumn.

[45] Vendler, p. 92. Vendler notes that the promise of the ‘musk-rose’ is also balanced via the ‘fast fading violets’.

[46] Vendler, p. 94. Vendler also notes the ‘carrion-presences’. The use of ‘Murmurous’ as the second word of the last line of the fifth stanza, can be seen to be utilized as a ‘field rhyme’ with ‘verdurous’ of the corresponding position in the fourth stanza. This naturally serves as another linking of the stanzas.

[47] Vendler, p. 92.

[48] OED, ‘darkling’.

[49] Vendler, p. 85.

[50] Hearing is clearly witnessed in all stanzas except stanza four: Stanza (1), ‘Singest of summer’, (2), ‘Provencal song’, (3), ‘hear each other groan’, (5), ‘The murmurous haunt of flies’, (6), ‘Darkling I listen’, (7), ‘the voice I hear this passing night was heard’, (8), ‘thy plaintive anthem fades’.

[51] John Keats: Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard - A Facsimile Edition, edited by Jack Stillinger (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. xiv. Vendler notes that the personification of ‘Death’ in the poem has a strong ‘Shakespearean influence’.

[52] The Arden Edition of the Works of William Shakespeare: Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1990), pp.278 - 279. Act 3: Scene l.lines 60 - 68.

[53] OED, ‘sod’. A literal definition of a sod is ‘a piece of earth together with the grass growing on it’. However, I feel that Keats’ intentions were for the ‘sod’ to be either representative of a lifeless piece of earth or the ‘deadness’ of the earth under the sod.

[54] OED, ‘requiem’.

[55] Vendler, p.94. Vendler notes that ‘In the nightingale’s song there are only notes, there is no tale of death; since the nightingale, for the purpose of the ode, is its song, it is exempt from death or the consciousness of death, and goes on singing unconscious of the obliterations of time’.

[56] OED, ‘clown’. ‘ A countryman, rustic or peasant’.

[57] ‘Ruth’ is from the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. Keats uses her allegorically: she is seen to weep, and she has, due to the death of her husband been forced onto another land - but nowhere within the book is she specifically ‘sick for home’, neither is she seen to stand ‘in tears amid the alien corn’. It is probable therefore, that Keats is using her to echo both his own feelings and displaced location: the ‘alien corn’ is thus representational of his bower, and both Keats and Ruth can be said to share a melancholic disposition.

[58] Ian Lancashire, Glossary of Poetic Terms. http// Anadiplosis is literally in Greek: ‘double back’. In poetry it is used to effectively highlight a word or notion through close repetition. ‘A repetition of the last word in a line or segment at the start of the next line or segment’.

[59] OED, ‘forlorn’.

[60] OED, ‘toll’.

[61] OED, ‘adieu’.

[62] Though there are many different etymologies for elf, the treble use of ‘adieu’ renders its usage as playful rather than acerbic.

[63] Poetry Manuscripts at Harvard, p. xviii. Vendler elucidates upon Keats’ frequent use of the word ‘Adieu! ’ which appears in ‘each of the spring odes [and] begins to shine ... with a premonitory light, not only in Isabella and Lamia but even more interestedly in an overlooked little poem, Shed no Tears, in which a fairy bird anticipates (or echoes) the Keatsian nightingale.’ The Major Works, p. 285. Shed no Tears below, features the second of two stanzas from line 10 onwards. Over head-look over head ‘Mong the blossoms white and red­Look up, look up -1 flutter now On this flush pomgranate bow- See me ‘tis this silvery bill Ever cures the goo man’s ill- Shed no tear-o shed no tear The flower will bloom another year Adieu-Adieu-I fly adieu I vanish in the heaven’s blue- Adieu Adieu-

[64] OED, ‘sublime’. ‘Of things in nature and art: Affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness or grandeur’. Literally for Keats the sublimity of the nightingale’s withdrawal caused time to momentarily stand still. Consequently, the moving stream was stilled.

[65] OED, ‘waking-dream’. ‘.. .literally a similar involuntary vision to sleep, but occurring whilst awake’.

[66] The Major Works, pp. 252 - 264.

[67] Specifically, these are seen within the poem as: lethargy, ‘opium’, ‘hemlock’, magic wine, ‘Lethe’, ‘Dryad’, ‘Fays’, ‘faery lands’, the ‘Queen moon’, an ‘elf, ‘charmed magic casements’, ‘Poesy’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Immortal’, ‘leaden eyed despairs’, spectre thin youth, ‘enbalmed darkness’, ‘fast fading violets’, and ‘Death’.

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Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale". A Close Reading With Emphasis on Light and Shade
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