Close Reading of Ode to a Nightingale

John Keats captured by heart with the dark beauty this poem is laden with. I want to make it a song, put it on a record player and slow dance to it, glass of red wine in hand. The language is so sleepy and sorrowful. But… he doesn’t mention a nightingale anywhere in the poem. Weird! Where is it? Is the nightingale in the subtext? Is it representative of something else? I couldn’t read the introduction so I’ll have to figure it out myself!

According to this fast and extremely reliable research about the symbolism of the nightingale, in Western literature they usually either represent the literal voice of nature (because of their loud distinctive song) or “creativity, the muse, or nature’s purity.” That’s interesting to me because at the very end of the first stanza, Keats says, “   In some melodious plot, Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease.” This is immediately after his lament of his state of mind and how it resembles that of a man drunk or high and really sad. Sure, he’s talking about a nightingale, but is he really talking about the bird? 

Much to consider. 

The next stanza is entirely about the narrator’s love of wine. The whole thing. And, further, his lack thereof. I’m worried for the health of this narrator. And the rest of it talks about fading away into either blackout drunken stupor or death. How does this nightingale play in? Well here’s the plot twist.

The narrator- Keats- is the nightingale. 

We’ve been discussing how romantic literature excuses the actions of an “innocent soul who feels too much” so long as they’re a martyr too pure for this world, and they’re talented in turning their sadness into long and beautiful meditations of nature and beauty and all that. The title is “Ode to a Nightingale”, but he talks about himself the whole time. He is playing himself as the trope of the innocent creative type, and, further, a voice of creativity, a muse, a poet singing sorrows into the night before fading away. 

Another reading might conclude that the nightingale is a pure form of happiness which inspires the poet but is unachievable except for when he’s Under The Influence. He references the bird again in stanza 7: “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! No hungry generations tread thee down,” as well as the last stanza: “ Forlorn! the very word is like a bell, To toll me back from thee to my sole self!” After we learn of someone called Ruth, it seems that he’s using substances to get away from the sorrow, flies with the “nightingale”, but inevitably remembers the tragedy and falls away from the bird’s pure and poetic being.  

2 thoughts on “Close Reading of Ode to a Nightingale

  1. Heya!
    I found your reading of “Nightingale” super interesting because I got to the same conclusion as you but read the stanzas a bit differently!
    I took the first stanza to be describing his state of mind when he stumbles upon the part of the forest where the bird is singing. Then, in the second stanza, he seems to be saying that he would like to get away from the human world where (3rd stanza) all of these bad things happen to people. Then, by the fourth stanza, he’s talking about how he wants to go to where the bird goes not by getting drunk but by imagining it/writing about it. (Our books have a footnote that explains that Bacchus is the god of wine, so when he says “not charioted by Bacchus and his pards / but on the viewless wings of Poesy,” he’s saying that he’ll get there via the poetic imagination rather than by drinking.) In stanza 5 he’s saying that he can’t see his surroundings, but he can smell the summer trees and flowers around him.
    In stanza 6, he’s saying that if there were ever to be a time to die, it would be in that peaceful scene. He writes, “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, / to cease upon the midnight with no pain, / while thou art pouring fourth thy soul abroad / in such ecstasy! / Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain– / to thy high requiem become a sod.” Here, I think he’s saying that if he were to die while listening to such a happy song, he would have ears in vain and the bird’s song would “become a sod” which according to the OED was used during that time to describe something “unnatural.” In stanza 7, I think he was furthering that statement about the singing becoming sod because he’s saying the bird wasn’t meant for death, so its song shouldn’t be the last thing he hears. He’s talking about how the Nightingale as a species has been singing to humans for centuries. Ruth (another footnote in my book) was a biblical character who was widowed and went to work during wheat/barley harvesting season. I agree that the end seems to signify the failure of his imagination to follow the bird beyond the next valley!
    He definitely could’ve used some therapy!


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