“Ode to a Nightingale” is one of a sequence of six lyric odes written by John Keats between March and September 1819. Keats was 24 years old when he wrote his odes in Hampstead, where he was living with a friend. The odes are considered by many to be his best works, since Keats died about a year later of Tuberculosis. In Ode to a Nightingale, Keats uses the nightingale’s song to escape from the reality of his body, and transport his soul into a world of dreams, allowing him to reflect not only on his own existence but also on the transience of human life. When Keats first hears the song of the nightingale, he tries to define the feelings it causes him to experience. As his “heart aches” for he is “too happy” of discovering the happiness of the creature as it sings in “full throated ease”. It is being “too happy in thine happiness”, Keats explains to his muse the nightingale, which causes him such confusion in his feelings. The song of the nightingale is the cause of this “numbness” that pains his senses, “as though of hemlock [he] had drunk”. These feelings of pain, and paradoxical ecstasy, make for the confusion of the reader who is taken over by a slight “drowsy” state while Keats himself feels his senses blurred. These ideas of paradoxical happiness can be related to Romanticism, as this movement Keats was part of, tried to emphasize intuition and feeling over rationalism, which Keats is obviously doing as he hears the beautiful song of the nightingale. The potential effect of alcohol and drugs on Keats’ perception is emphasized throughout the ode, not as a reason to his state of mind or his feelings but as an alternate possibility for Keats to join the nightingale in its ideal world, where feelings are true and the real world is left behind. While Keats mentions wine and the “warm south” the act of drinking is repeated a few times in the first stanza, like the apostrophe to a “draught of vintage” and the phrase that summarizes it all: “That I might drink and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim” (Keats) This is the true reason why Keats even considers drinking alcohol, “full of the blushful hippocrene”, the fountain of the muses, which could allow him to leave the state he is in and “fade away” with the nightingale. The song of the nightingale has an unexpected effect on Keats. As “numbness pains his senses” he cannot feel anymore and only focuses on the nightingale’s song. Even though his “heart aches”, Keats feels “no pain” and is transported out of his body, flying over his own consciousness. “The “I” who speaks […] is Keats himself, not a surrogate persona” (Lancashire, 3). Truly in this ode it is Keats’ voice we hear, this poem being considered the most personal of Keats’ odes (as well as the longest) by many critics of his time. There is a biographical side to the ode, as Keats exposes what is most important to him and what triggers such an experience to happen to him. This is also why Keats imagination plays an important role in this ode. By comparing a close friend of Keats’ comments to the ode itself, we come to interesting conclusions: “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 the plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, […] this was his 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem which has been the delight of every one.” (Brown, “on how Keats wrote the ode”) In this passage, Charles Brown explains to us how Keats came to write his ode, and shockingly it is not at all what is described in the poem. While Keats talks in the ode of “summer”, we know he wrote it during the spring, and while he was sitting under a plum tree, it is a beech tree that Keats is alluding to when he says “Of beechen green”. This is what supports the idea that Keats imagination was a big part of the writing of the ode, and as much as we would like to believe he wrote it really feeling numb and being transported into that ideal world he just made us start to believe in, we find out when we look at the perfect eight stanza ode with rhyming schemes respecting Shakespearian sonnets and petrarchan sonnets. The imagination that allows him to perceive the “faery lands forlorn” is the one that disappoints him after this escapade into his ideals, that “deceiving elf” who let him down and made his return into the real world even harder. The website Bartleby.com says in its introduction to an anthology of Keats’ poems that Keats is known especially for his “sensuous descriptions of the beauty of nature” which we cannot argue against after having read “Ode to a Nightingale” but it also adds that “his poetry also [resonates] with deep philosophic questions”. Agreeing with this statement is necessary to truly understand Keats’ poetry, and taking this ode as an example, it is clear that it tries to convey a certain ideal and raises questions about the transient state men live in and how the consciousness of such a state is what tears men apart. When Keats wrote the ode, he was already about 20 years old, and had seen his father die in an accident when he was 7, and his mother die of tuberculosis a few years later. Keats makes all sorts of allusions in this poem to the miseries of life, like “the weariness, the fever, and the fret”. He also emphasizes mortality, by alluding to the recent death of his brother: “youth grows pale, spectre-thin, and dies”. Though through this poem, what Keats is trying to convey is that “knowledge and reflection bring unhappiness” (PFS, 232), while ignorance is bliss, showing his attempt to escape from this state of consciousness and join the “immortal bird”. Throughout the ode, “vision represents conscious, reflective thought” (PFS, 232); this is why the nightingale is heard but never seen. When Keats talks about his envy to “fade away with the nightingale, it is in “the forest dim”, where there will be no light. “But here there is no light… I cannot see” finally says Keats, symbolizing his entrance in a world where there is no place for self consciousness, and as long as he hears the melodious song of the nightingale, he can let his feelings take over, experiencing the true state he desires, a purely romantic state. But maybe the most important point Keats is making in this ode, is the power of poesy, saying that the “viewless wings of poesy” will transport him to the nightingale spiritually, rejecting the human ways of escaping the real world, which is represented by “Bacchus and his pards”, the God of wine in roman mythology. So as poetry allows him this experience of being one with the nightingale’s song, Keats now desires the transient state he once dreaded and only wants to be reunited with nature, as it is the only true means to a real spiritual flight towards the nightingale, and towards his ideal. “Ode to a Nightingale” is therefore both a very personal poem by Keats, but also one that holds very important Romantic ideas about the role of experience and reflection in life, but also the blissful state of ignorance that draws men to nature and simplicity. Keats admits that alcohol is a way to enter this state of ecstasy, but says that nothing can do it better than poesy, even if the “deceiving elf” might make the return to reality much harder.

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Agathe

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