Animal Poetry. Comparison between John Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale" and John Burnside’s "The Nightingale"

Term Paper, 2013

12 Pages, Grade: 1,5


In my paper, the poems Ode to a Nightingale by John Keatsand The Nightingale by John Burnside will be analysed and compared. Furthermore, I want to analyse the different roles of the nightingales in both poems.

For hundreds of years poets have often used the nightingale as a symbol because they felt inspired by its entrancing song, although it is not a very beautiful bird.The bird is a symbol of the night because it mostly sings at night. It also symbolises secret love, e.g. in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet “It was the nightingale, and not the lark.” (Act 3, scene 5). On the other hand the song of the nightingale implies lament, unhappiness and lost love. In the Romantic period the nightingale became the source of inspiration for many poets.[1]

During that era, in the year 1819, John Keats (1795 – 1821), an English poet, wrote his famous Ode to a Nightingale. He wrote this poem when he had realised that he was seriously ill. Later this illness turned out to be tuberculosis. He tried to recover in Italy but died there in February 1821.[2] Keats used the poetic form of theode, which existed already in Greek and Roman literature.[3] Characteristic of an ode is a certain length and a serious and ceremonious tone. Keats’s ode consists of eight stanzas with ten iambic pentameters each. There is a succession of a quatrain and two triplets in each stanza.The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b, c-d-e-c-d-e.In the first stanza, a kind of introduction, the speaker feels numbed or drugged (ll.1,2) but in contrast to that, there is the “melodious” (l. 8) song of a bird. Everything seems to be anancientscenerywith tree nymphs “light-winged Dryad of the trees” (l.7).The nightingale sings of summer, “happy”, in “ease” (l. 10) while the speaker feels already near death (l. 4).

In the second stanza the speaker longs for wine that makes him think of warm climates, “Provençalsongs”, dances and flowers (ll. 13 – 15) but this drink is only needed to leave the world, to be with the bird, that he addresses like a companion, as “thee”(l.20)and again an ancient scene comes into his memory:
“blushful Hippocrene” (l. 16).

In stanza three, the poet wishes to be able to leave the world full of pains, illness, painfulold age (l. 23) where young people die early “Where youth grows pale…” (l. 26), where life is full of sorrow and despair, where beauty has no chance to survive (l. 29). In using the metaphor “… leaden-eyed despairs” (l. 28) and in using the personification “… Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, …” (l. 29) the speaker emphasizes his sorrow.

In stanza four the speaker wants to escape this world on the wings of“Poesy” (l.33) without the help of wine.Again the allusion to ancient times occurs in “… Bacchus and his pards,”(l.32).On earth there is no light and he praises the night, the stars and the “Queen-Moon” (l. 36). In lines 39 and 40 are alliterationslike ”breezes blown” and “winding ways” to underline his thoughts.

In stanza five the speaker feels “… in embalmed darkness …” (l. 43) which can already hint at a feeling of death, and he does not see, only guess, the beauty that surrounds him. Againhe uses alliterations like “Fast fading violets…”(l.47) to stress the idea of transiency.

What follows next is the addressing of the nightingale as “Darkling” (l.51), as a messenger of death. But death is “easeful” (l. 52) for him, and will take him softly away, without pain while the bird is still singing “in ecstasy” (l. 58). Here the rhyme becomes impure: “die” (l. 55) and ecstasy (l. 58), which underlines how much he is shaken by the idea of death. The bird is singing his requiem and the speaker has already become a piece of grass (l. 60).

In calling the nightingale “immortal” in the next stanza, he reminds the audience of eternity as the bird has already sung in ancient times, for all kind of humans “… emperor and clown:” (l. 64) and comforted homesick and lonely humans like Ruth (l. 66). So closes the circle of life in reminding the audience of the Holy Bible (Book of Ruth, Old Testament).Then he goes beyond the limits of human reality with the help of his imagination and the alliteration “… faery lands forlorn” (l. 70) to emphasize the idea that the nightingale is a mysterious supernatural bird.

The first word of the last stanza begins with the last word of the seventh stanza “Forlorn” (ll. 70, 71). It calls the speaker back to reality. He becomes his “sole self!” (l. 72) and calls the nightingale a “… deceiving elf” (l. 74) so his fancy has cheated him. The speaker bids adieu three times (ll. 73, 75) to his nightingale and the solemn song of the bird (“anthem”, l. 75) becomes fainter and fainter and is no longer heard (l. 76). In the end there is a rhetorical question whether the speaker is awake or asleep, whether the song of the nightingale was a dream or reality (ll. 79, 80).

In the year 2011, John Burnside (*1955), a contemporary Scottish writer, published Black Cat Bone. For this collection, which contains the poem The Nightingale, he was awarded the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize.[4]

Burnside begins his poem by citing the first stanza of Walter von der Vogelweide'spoem Unter der Linden, which was written about1200.[5] The medievalminnesong deals with the topic of secret love and makes the nightingale sing.The first stanza consists of nine lines in which a woman looks back with pleasure on a meeting with a man. She uses adjectives like "lovely" and "beautiful" and seems to be in love.

That is emphasised by the melodious utterance "Tandaradei". Furthermore, she describes the place where she had once met her lover. It was "under the linden tree on the heath", where they made love on the grass which is made clearby the broken grass and flowers. But this can also be a symbol of broken relationship and of past feelings. The meeting is described in detail. It is in front of a forest, in a valley, and a "nightingale" is the silent observer and companion of the love scene. Burnside uses the first stanza as a description of the time when the two lovers fell in love. Nature and love are connected in Vogelweide's poem and The Nightingale is the title of Burnside’s poem.

Burnside’s poem consists of eleven couplets. There are mostly five iambic feet (ll. 1, 2, 7, 8, 15 – 20),sometimes there are three/two iambic feet alternating(3/4, 5/6, 13/14, 21/22). The lines 9 to 12 are an exception: line 9 consists only of two short words (one or three syllables), line 10 consists of three iambic feet, line 11 is a mixture of trochees and iambs, line 12 consists of four iambs. The irregularity of these lines makes the importance of this passage outstanding.

The poem is written in free verse without any rhyme. Basically, the whole poem is only one long sentence consisting of run-on lines.The main clause is “there is something here that chooses to remain” (l. 2) and continuous with an infinitive construction “to sing, … “ (l. 5) “…,songs” (l. 13) and ends with the subordinate clause “where once we made our bed.” (l.22). In between there are more subordinate clauses (ll. 8,15), appositions and inserted thoughts, which are put betweencomma(ll.12,15,17).One inserted thought is written between dashes “– neither echo nor lament –” (l. 16).

Without Vogelweide’s first stanza, Burnside’s part of his poem seems to be one long thought. It begins with the words “bridegroom” and “Well-Beloved” (l. 1) and ends with “bed” (l. 22), which conveys the idea of a love poem. But in the focus of the text is an age-old tree – Vogelweide’s “Lindenbaum” (l. 6). The central idea of the poem is the eternal circle of life, death, love, loss and hopelessness. The tree lasts eternally, it has developed “galls” (l. 9) and “knots” (l. 10) over the years. The age-old stem seems to contain the origin of life “sap-stained” (l. 13) and “keratin” (l. 10), which is the basis of bones and which symbolises both life and death, the element of “fire”, the origin of civilisation, and the beginning of human life, the original needs of men, “hunger” and “lust” (l. 11), the ylem(“matter”, l. 12).

At the end of the poem the song of a bird is heard, but it is not named as a specialbird, it is only “a night bird” (l. 20) with the indefinite article. The word nightingale appears only in the title and in Vogelweide’s first stanza. As a metaphor of eternity and transience the tree seems to be more important than the bird. The “unheard” songs (l. 21) of the bird may symbolise relationships that have failed and the “knots” of the tree symbolise the wounds that have healed but have left scars that never disappear. These are wounds and scars of love and life.

The symbols in the poem can have a double meaning, a sinister and a hopeful aspect e.g.“…asummer’s lease of green gone back beneath the frost …”

(ll.18 –19): it is cold, but there is green under the frost, which means that there is also hope. A“night bird sings” (l. 20), but it is unheard (l. 21) which symbolises that there is beauty in the world but nobody recognises it, “… fire and sap-stained…”(ll. 12, 13) can mean that fire is destructive on the one hand but on the other hand a blessing for civilisation.

The sentence structure conveys a kind of breathlessness, an eruption of natural forces or even an explosion(“as breath spills out…” , ll.15,16). Some lines mirror the power of the elements,especially in the middle stanzas with their extraordinary meter.In stanza five we find monosyllabic words (“galls”,“knots”). Inlines 9, 10 and 12, Burnside usesplosive consonants “knots”, “bodies”, “galls” and “keratin”, “quicken out of matter”, these words emphasise the importance of the statement. He additionally usesassonances like “sap-stained, songs” (l. 13). In the end, Burnside returns to Vogelweide’s lines “dâ unser zweier bettewas” in writing “where once we made our bed” (l. 22). So he underlines the continuity and the everlasting universal theme of humanity.

While Keats’s ode is a very long and personal description of the effect of the song of the nightingale on the poet, as he wishes to fade away with the bird and forget his illness. In contrast,Burnside’s poem is a relatively short poetic image of life and death, symbolised by an age-old tree that reminds him of his love.

In Keats’s ode, the atmosphere is sad and melancholic, rather “quiet” (l. 54) and the poem deals with the wish to escape from reality, because reality only offers pain and sorrow. For Keats, the nightingale is not only the symbol of eternity and transiency at the same time but also a companion. That is why he sees the nightingale as a male companion for his way into imagination and fancy and addresses him with “thou” (l. 7) and “thee” (l. 31). For Burnside, the tree where once – in Vogelweide’s stanza – the nightingale had sung is in his focus. The bird itself is not named as a nightingale, only as a night bird in the end (l. 20). It does not play a prominent role. The tree is the symbol of the everlasting circle of life and death.

In Keats’s ode, the nightingale does not sing for lovers. Love is only mentioned once and cannot last forever (l. 30).

In Burnside’s poem love is more physical and is more a human need (“hunger and the thousand forms of lust”, l. 11) and “bed” is the last word of the poem, which underlines that it was more an erotic adventure than romantic love.

As Burnside’s poem is driven forward with breathlessness, in Keats’s poem the speaker is in a daydream and does not know where he is while he is yearning forquietness and wants to escape with the nightingale. The nightingale in Burnside’s poem is not the soft creature that makes humans wish to die with. It is “unheard” (l. 21). As Burnside is engaged in ecology[6], this “unheard song” might be a warning against the destruction of nature represented by the tree in the poem.

Both poets are concerned with nature and the mystery of life, eternal human problems like injuries and pain. In Burnside’s poem the tree is wounded and shows knots and galls and in Keats’s ode the soul of the speaker is injured and wants to escape from the real world into another world.Eternity and transiency play an important role in both poems “… centuries of thorn…” (Burnside: l. 3), “of flesh surpassed” (Burnside: l. 6) and “ Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” (Keats: l. 21).


[1] "John Keats." In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (02.02.2013).

[2] Werlich: 102

[3] Werlich: 104

[4] "John Burnside." In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (02.02.2013).

[5] "Walther von der Vogelweide". In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (02.02.2013).

[6] "John Burnside." In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. (02.02.2013).

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Animal Poetry. Comparison between John Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale" and John Burnside’s "The Nightingale"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Proseminar ”Animal Poetry“
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animal, poetry, comparison, john, keats’s, nightingale, burnside’s
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Judith Leitermann (Author), 2013, Animal Poetry. Comparison between John Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale" and John Burnside’s "The Nightingale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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