by A. T. Miller
Study of John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale"
| Awareness is a heavy burden for men and women who know sorrow, who have experienced death, and realize that they too must die. The persona in John Keats' Ode to a Nightingale is distinctly aware of the pain in everyday life, and wishes for an existence suspended in some artistic rendering, separated from mortality and suspended in poetic bliss. The atmosphere in this poem is thick with imagery of what is happiest in the world, not only what exists oblivious to its surroundings, but can sing in apparent joy despite the agony around it, like the nightingale. This persona pines jealously for the state in which this bird lives, immortal in its ignorance. Later, the persona tells why he lingers beneath the tree in the darkness, why he is envious of ignorance, and the death he hopes to cure him of his sorrow. A thing more of his imagination, a symbol for his constant, painful revelation, has visited him then the songbird itself. It is that bittersweet transaction, his sadness exchanged for the seduction of cognizance-deprivation, which snaps him back into the less poetic reality.
The persona's longing apostrophe to the nightingale is a plea for something to sing and be overjoyed about. The stanza is the lowest step of a rising ladder of action, beginning from a dark depth to add drama to the climbing tension. The persona wants to add the days of summer of which the nightingale sings so brightly to his cold, sad list of memories. He does not blame the bird for being happy--though his suggestion of a melodious plot may suggest more than a place it visits--nor wish to steal that bliss for himself. He wants to have happy memories as well, so that he too may "Singest of summer in full-throated ease." (10). The nightingale sings of a time and place that are full of summer amenities, a place that contrasts with the lethargic, profoundly sorrowful creature that he has become, whose regretful life has led to the ebb of selective amnesia.
There must be moments in places hidden to the eyes of humanity where happiness exists in its purest form, and in stanza two such a time and place takes its first literary breath. The nightingale carries knowledge of this refuge and sings of it, though the persona lacks an exact translation. It is in the imaginative power of this place, "O for a beaker full of the warm South, / Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene," (15-16) that the persona believes he would be able to forget all about his day-to-day suffering. The bounty of this fictional place is equal to and opposite of the state of his life. He wants the nightingale to take him away from his problems and deposit him in this place were he can forget and be forgotten by the world as if he had never existed.
Life is not at all like the happy place of which the nightingale sings, and the persona explores that contrast thoroughly in stanza three. His life is full of tragedy, sorrow and death, where he cannot escape. He sees humans dying so painfully, slowly, though our lives are so short, "Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs," that not even our own thoughts can redeem us, and our dreams betray us. Even love is only a transitory reprieve, but that too fades so rapidly, and then we are nothing but muscle and bone. Beauty is the measure of this temporary state of being, we are young and then old, we glow for a moment, then shrivel and die.
This persona is defiant in stanza four, for he has a way to cheat death, but it is a paltry -consolation for the upsetting dramatic shift the poem takes from here forward. The nightingale is a co-conspirator in his plot to become immortal. He will not steal extra life, "But on the viewless wings of Poesy," (33) but with his poetry a part of himself will carry on to be sung by the nightingale. This is the turn from imaginative reflection, of sad memories and the want of better ones, to the baleful realization of a somber reality. "But here there is no light," (38) he says, his mind returning to the beech grove and the night. He sits below the branches listening to a simple animal, remembering that any power this creature has, has been gained from his own imagination.
In the darkness, the persona of stanza five is just a man, a part of the trees and bushes around him smelling the fragrance of flowers blooming amongst those that have died. There is life in the sweet scent of the forest, but death blankets it like a shroud of fallen leaves. The forest mourns, "The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves." (50) for the life that rises only to fall into decay. The smell may seem pleasant for a time, but it will stink soon enough. This is not a fictitious element the persona has created, but the truth of his existence, the symbol of the cycle of life and death that validates his sorrow.
Listening to the nightingale's song of secret joy tears at the persona's heart, revealing in stanza six what he really wants out of life in contrast to the first half of the poem's more imaginary goal of a heavenly refuge on earth. To know that there is such happiness in the world and not have it, "To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad / In such an ecstasy!" (56-58) is to suffer the pain twice. The first suffering is rife in the events of daily life. The second suffering comes from our awareness of that pain and imagining that there is a place without it, yet not being able to go there. If this persona was dead, he believes he would no longer have to suffer, and that would be a greater bliss than the nightingale's song.
The song of the nightingale is more than a few notes sweetly uttered for the amusement of this persona, and he declares this in stanza seven. The song is one of endless joy, a romantic notion that happiness exists even in the deepest despair, and that it is beyond our petty agony. It is a song that sheds off darkness, "Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam / of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn." (69-70) much as Christians view Christ banishing sin for our salvation. Imagination has the power to separate man from sorrow, and though all humans may have the power to wield it to some degree, it is timeless, belonging to no one specifically.
Upon reflection of the entire poem, the nightingale's song in the conclusion is particularly regretful; humans cannot share the bird's joy and ignorance forever, and ironically, humans cannot share it at all. The world created by the mind, a world where we may put our faith but we never truly believe, grows dim as the real world sets in, takes control, and banishes reflection and private musing. There is something lost, "Adieu! Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades" (75) a mysterious place of endless pleasure that never truly was, but is as real as our world and has more meaning. In reality, summer days are just moments in time, as are winter days, or spring, or fall with nothing very special or glamorous about them. The real world is where we feel sorrow keenly and for great lengths of time, and happiness briefly or not at all. The nightingale seems part of the fantasy because its song is a reminder of the lack of joy in life, it being removed from pain and yet singing before us is a sharp counter to our bitterness.
The Ode to a Nightingale is a powerful contrast between what is real and what is imaginary in life, what is sorrow and joy, and longing to end the pursuit of harmony. In our imagination, happiness becomes a place where it is always summer, where the source of the drink that flows by the banks of this Utopia is divine in origin and infinitely inspiring. In real life, happiness is only imagination, or so fleeting as to reside on the wings of a nightingale sitting for a moment, and then is gone forever. In the mind, sorrow is romantic, seductive, inviting one to its bosom. Death is a lover wrapping her arms gently about the shoulders, her perfume intoxicating as her final kiss brushes the lips. Experience, on the other hand, is cold, harsh, and demeaning. Sickness consumes mortality, flesh sinking to bone and thinning to leather, the corpse drying while we watch, powerless to stop it. Reality is not the ideal, but it is undeniably ours in which to exist. The persona would rather live in the faux world, but until death brings him home, he is a permanent tenant in our own.