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Ode to a Nightingale

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English Literature

Did you know that Keats’ famous poem, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, isn’t just richly symbolic but was inspired by a real nightingale that sang to the poet one morning? Let’s explore the historical, biographic, and literary context behind this famous poem before taking an in-depth look at its structure and form.

Published in

1819

Written by

John Keats

Form/style

Ode

Meter

Iambic pentameter, iambic trimeter

Rhyme scheme

ABAB CDE CDE

Poetic devices

Classical and biblical allusions, metaphor, personification, and rhetoric

Frequently noted imagery

The countryside, flowers, death, sickness

Tone

A mixed tone of exaltation and despair

Key themes

Life and death, joy and sorrow, immortality and mortality, reality and dreams

Meaning

An exploration of the duality of human experience

John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale

The biographical, historical, and literary contexts are all important for our understanding of the poem.

Biographical context

In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours (Charles Brown, quoted in Keats, Narrative and Audience by Andrew Bennet).

John Keats’ friend Charles Brown, with whom he was living at the time, reported that this Ode was inspired by the song of a real nightingale. At the time of writing, Keats was grieving deeply for his late brother Thomas. The birdsong helped lift his mood.

Ode to a Nightingale was written less than a year after his beloved brother’s death. This latest in a long line of familial bereavements, having already lost both parents, one sibling in babyhood, and his grandmother, hit John Keats hard. When the poet wrote of human sickness, suffering, and death, he did so from his own bitter personal experience.

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies (‘Ode to a Nightingale’, 1819).

Consider this line in the context of Thomas Keats illness and death from tuberculosis. Common symptoms of this then deadly infection include a deathly pallor, weakness, fatigue, and lack of appetite.

Historical context

This poem should also be considered in light of its historical context. ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) speaks of human suffering, and in this time period, suffering abounded.

Suffering and social injustices during Keats’ lifetime (17951821)

‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) deals with the theme of human suffering and misery. During Keats’ short lifetime, there was widespread suffering and many injustices in the United Kingdom, such as limited suffrage and abject poverty.1

  • The fear of inspiration from the recent French Revolution led to the temporary suspension of Habeas Corpus. People could be held in prison indefinitely without trial if it was thought they posed a threat to the King and government.

  • With the stability of the monarchy in question, there were trials for treason that led to imprisonments and executions. This affected the freedom of expression and the literary sphere as many writers, publishers, and poets were imprisoned.

  • Loom-weavers were plunged into poverty after new machines replaced their jobs. They formed a group, known as the Luddites, and broke the new machinery in protest.

  • During this time period, class systems were firmly entrenched, and there was a great divide between the rich and the poor.

  • Only approximately 3% had the right to vote, leaving the vast majority of British subjects politically voiceless.

How do you think these events may have informed Keats’ presentation of the human experience in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’?

Literary context

Keats belongs to the second generation of Romantic poets alongside Lord Byron and P. B. Shelley.

Romanticism is a literary movement that peaked during the period of 1785 to 1832. Romantic literature is linked by related poetic, social, and philosophical concepts and imagery. This literary movement is known for its focus on truth, nature, and the passionate expression of emotion.2

Characteristics of Romanticism in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’

A focus on rural life and the common man.

In the line Tasting of Flora and the country green, A Dance, and Provençal song, the speaker presents an idealised depiction of rural life. It conjures up imagery of happy country folk dancing, verdant hillsides, and fertile land.

Expression of the imagination.

In the final stanza, the poet questions the reality of his joyful experience listening to the nightingale’s song: Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

The passionate expression of emotion.

This poem conveys deep, contrasting emotions. In the lines My heart aches and leaden-eyed despairs’, the poet expresses great sorrow. In the lines sunburnt mirth! and such an ecstasy!’, the poet expresses great joy.

Ode to a NightingaleAnalysis

The poem

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

Coold a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,

And purple-stained mouth;

That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,

And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

What thou among the leaves hast never known,

The weariness, the fever, and the fret

Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

And leaden-eyed despairs,

Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Clusterd around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

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

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets coverd up in leaves;

And mid-Mays eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time

I have been half in love with easeful Death,

Calld him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,

To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

In such an ecstasy!

Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

To thy high requiem become a sod.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

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

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmd magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famd to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

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

Ode to a NightingaleSummary

The speaker praises the nightingale and its song and imagines the life of the nightingale as it flies into the forest. The speaker claims that the nightingale is pure and untouched by human suffering and misfortunes and expresses how the speaker wished he could fly away with the nightingale to escape the misery of their life. The nightingale, the speaker claims, is immortal, and its songs have been unchanged since biblical times. Compared to the immortal nightingale, human life seems very short. The speaker accepts death but claims that the nightingales song is wasted on him as his life would end soon.

Finally, the speaker bids farewell to the nightingale, claiming that even their imagination is not strong enough to trick them into thinking that they could fly away with it. As the nightingale flies away, the speaker wonders whether they truly ever heard the nightingales song or whether it was all just a dream.

Poetic devices

Here, we will be considering the title, form, structure, rhyme scheme, and other language devices and techniques of the poem.

Title

The title, Ode to a Nightingale, is simple and effective. It informs the reader of both the poem’s form and its subject.

Form

An ode is a lyric poem that usually praises a person, animal, object, or occasion. It may also praise universal themes. It expresses a great depth of feeling towards and an appreciation for the subject.2

Structure

This poem consists of eight stanzas, all of which are ten lines each, sharing a consistent rhyme scheme. The dominant meter throughout the poem is iambic pentameter. However, the eighth line of each stanza is written in iambic trimeter.

An iambic foot consists of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. For example: dismay, prepare. When an iambic foot is repeated five times, it is called iambic pentameter. When it is repeated three times, it is called iambic trimeter.

The dominant consistency of the iambic pentameter adds a song-like quality to the poem, enhancing the feeling of exaltation and transcendentalism the speaker feels upon encountering the nightingales song. The break in the meter at line eight adds a variation to the melody of the poem, which aims to reflect that of the nightingales song.

Rhyme scheme

This poem follows a highly regular rhyme scheme, ABAB CDE CDE. The stability of its structure draws a stark contrast to the erratic nature of the poetic voice, as it flits from luscious descriptions of the landscape to praising the songbird, exploring themes such as the misery and joy of the human experience, and ultimately questioning reality.

The term poetic voice, also known as the speaker, refers to a sense of identity expressed through language choices. This creates a distinct persona with its own beliefs and values.3

Language devices and techniques

Keats uses imagery that reminds the reader of illness and death. This further reinforces a sense of human mortality. In contrast, he also employs natural imagery that recalls the timeless beauty and joy to be found walking in the countryside and listening to birdsong.

  • Natural imagery:winding mossy ways, deep-delved earth, and Flora and the country green.
  • Flowers:musk-rose, flowers at my feet, soft incense hangs upon the boughs, and Fast fading violets.
  • Death:easeful Death, spectre-thin, and rich to die.
  • Sickness:drowsy numbness, the fever, pale, and groan.

Keats also uses classical and biblical allusions in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819). These allusions express the timeless nature of not just the nightingale’s song, which the speaker explicitly recognises as enjoyed by humans since the dawn of time, but of the human experiences of joy and sorrow, which live on through future generations.

  • ‘Light-winged Dryad of the trees. Keats describes the nightingale as a dryad, a tree nymph from Greek mythology.
  • ‘Blushful Hippocrene. Here, Keats expresses his longing for a drink of wine through an allusion to Hippocrene. Also, from Greek mythology, Hippocrene was a sacred spring found on Mt Helicon, said to bring poetic inspiration to those who drank it.
  • Bacchus and his pards. This classical allusion refers to an ancient Greek God associated with fertility, drinking, and debauchery.
  • ‘The sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home. The woman Keats refers to was a biblical figure, a Moab woman who married into the Israelite community.

The meaning of Ode to a Nightingale

The purposeful juxtaposition of worry and carefree idyll, mortality and immortality, life and death, conveys the poem’s true meaning: an exploration of the duality of human experience.

Juxtaposition is where people, concepts, or objects are put together to show either a contrast or an interesting new relationship between the two.4

The symbolism in Ode to a Nightingale

A symbol in literature can be an object, animal, or person, which has attributes that represent certain ideas and concepts.2

The nightingale is the key symbol in Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), representing a wide range of concepts such as joy and life.

The nightingale can be seen as symbolic of the immortality of music and art through its song: The voice I hear this passing night was heard In ancient days by emperor and clown.

What else might the Nightingale symbolise? Can you find evidence to support your claims?

Ode to a Nightingale’ Themes

Important themes in the poem include death and mortality; nature, beauty, and art; and consciousness, loneliness, and isolation.

Death and mortality

Given the biographical context of the poem, the reader is aware of John Keats complicated relationship with death. He had recently lost his brother to tuberculosis and felt as if he were slowly withering away. In the poem, the speaker mulls on the immortality of the nightingales song while being aware of their own limited existence. The speaker claims that the nightingales song has remained unchanged over the centuries while generations of men have lived and perished. The final stanza, with the speakers bewilderment as to whether they are awake or dreaming, also reflects their preoccupation with death and the passage of time.

Nature, beauty, and art

As an ode, the poem pays homage to the nightingale but also appreciates the beauty of nature, which is characteristic of Romantic poetry. The speaker believes that the perfection of nature, and its beauty, is manifested in the bird, which is not man-made and, therefore, is pure and uncorrupted. One could argue for instances in the poem where the speaker is enthralled by the nightingales beauty and laments at their own inferior imagination, which can never quite match the true beauty of nature.

Consciousness, loneliness, and isolation

The speaker, craving a drowsy numbness, is exhausted by their own consciousness and wishes to escape human suffering. They feel alone in their suffering and take comfort in the nightingales song. The speaker accepts humanity in the sense that they may be able to perceive and appreciate the natural beauty around them but, in general, find human life too overwhelming and isolating. Finally, they question their sense of awareness as they wonder whether their encounter with the nightingale was a dream.

Ode to a Nightingale - Key takeaways

  • The subject of this ode is the nightingale, which is symbolic of concepts such as immortality, art, and carefree joy.

  • The rhyme scheme is highly regular.

  • Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) was inspired by the song of a real nightingale that sung to Keats in his friend’s garden.

  • Keats’ personal sufferings informed the writing of this poem.

  • This is an example of Romantic poetry.

References

1 Morris Dickstein, Keats and Politics’, Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 2 (1986).

2 Peter Childs and Robert Fowler, The Routledge Dictionary of Literary Terms (2006).

3 Cambridge Dictionary (Cambridge University Press, 2022).

4 Oxford Learners Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2022).

Ode to a Nightingale

The main idea of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is to explore the highs and lows of the human condition.

The nightingale can be interpreted as symbolising a range of concepts and art forms, such as music, poetry, joy, immortality, life, and freedom.

John Keats wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

‘Ode a Nightingale’ was written in July 1819, the poet’s ‘Great Year’ of productivity.

Nature is presented in an idealistic way in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, as a green haven from the misery of human existence.

Final Ode to a Nightingale Quiz

Question

'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) was inspired by a real singing nightingale.

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Answer

True.

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Question

The poem contains allusions to which ancient mythology?

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Answer

Greek.

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Question

How many stanzas does 'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) have?

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Answer

8.

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Question

Which of these is NOT a thematic pair in the poem?

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Answer

Winter and summer.

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Question

Which of the following can be found in the poem.

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Answer

Imagery of flowers.

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Question

Which biblical figure is mentioned in the poem?

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Answer

Ruth.

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Question

The poet wrote this poem shortly after the death of which family member?

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Answer

His brother Thomas.

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Question

What rhyme scheme does this poem use?

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Answer

ABAB CDE CDE.

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Question

'Ode to a Nightingale' (1819) is an example of Romantic poetry.

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Answer

True.

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Question

How does Keats present the human experience?

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Answer

A complex mixture of joy and suffering.

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Question

Which of the following are the key symbols of the poem?

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Answer

The nightingale and its song.

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Question

This poem was written during what is known as Keats 'Great Year.'

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Answer

True.

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Question

This poem contains rhyming couplets.

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Answer

False.

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