Ode to a Nightingale

Ode to a Nightingale

Introductory Background

Click for Full Image via http://englishhistory.net/keats/manuscripts.html

Keats’s friend Charles Brown, whom he was living with in Hampstead, England at the time, wrote that:

“Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in [the nightingale’s] 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” when he had composed the poem on a few scraps of paper [6].

Though the accuracy of Brown’s account has been contested, the condition of the original manuscripts shows that Keats likely wrote this ode in a single sitting in May 1819, and began to run out of paper in the process, struggling to squeeze this lengthy work onto the front and back sides of only two sheets of paper. When this one of five “great odes” was composed and published in July 1819, it originally bore the title “Ode to the Nightingale,” as shown in the image of Keats’s handwriting above. This title was later altered to replace “the” with “a” [2].

In addition to being inspired by the actual song of the nightingale, on December 1, 1818, Keats’ brother Thomas died of tuberculosis [1]. It is a significant event in the life of Keats, and therefore relevant to the use of references to the disease in the poem as well as the theme of death, as this poem was written just six months after his passing. In the third stanza, Keats writes,

“The weariness, the fever, and the fret/. . . /Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,/Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (ll. 23-26)

The reference to youth dying is clearly in relation to Thomas and his premature death, with the preceding lines describing his illness. Tuberculosis was a devastating affliction at this time period, affecting people across the globe.

With regards to the Romantic period, Keats applies the common themes of nature, a higher power, and the supernatural. The superficial scope of the poem is the nightingale, which represents both nature and death. This bird flies around, and lands in a tree, forever singing its sad song, and connecting the reader as well as Keats to the ideas of immortality. Keats also compares the nightingale to a “Dryad of the trees” (l. 7), and makes further references to the Greek god Bacchus (l. 32), connecting his poem to the supernatural and mythological worlds. (See also annotated words underneath the poem for further insight into these terms.)


via http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/nighting.html
via http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/nighting.html

To see the ode in Keats’ Handwriting:

Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock1 I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe2-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 5
But being too happy in thine happiness, –
That thou, light-winged Dryad3 of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, 

Tasting of Flora4 and the country green,
Dance, and Provençal song5, and sunburnt mirth! 

O for a beaker full of the warm South, 15
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene6,
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: 20

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 palsy7 shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, 25
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. 30

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus8 and his pards9,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: 

Already with thee! tender is the night, 35
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays10;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 40

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; 45
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 50

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death, 

Call’d 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, 55
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. 60

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 65
Through the sad heart of Ruth11, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 70

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 fam’d to do, deceiving elf. 

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 75
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? 80

Annotated Words with Meanings (Italicized in text with super-scripts)

1. Hemlock – Poisonous herb/sedative, it was used in Ancient Greece on prisoners, most famously Socrates.


2. Lethe – One of five rivers in Hades, also called Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness); drinking its waters causes forgetfulness

River Lethe Illustration
River Lethe Illustration

3. Dryad – Tree nymph in Greek mythology (female spirit associated with a particular place)


4. Flora – Roman goddess of flowers and spring; Greek equivalent is Chloris. The reference in this poem shows how Romantics were consumed with the idea of the sublime and supernatural coexisting in all aspects of their lives.

Goddess Flora
Goddess Flora

5. Provençal Song – Song from Provence, France; renowned for troubadours

Cezanne's Mt. Provence
Cezanne’s Mt. Provence

6. Hippocrene – Fountain on Mt. Helicon formed by the hooves of Pegasus (the winged horse in Greek mythology, is why it literally means “Horse’s Fountain”) and sacred to the Muses. Its waters supposedly brought poetic inspiration.


7. Weariness, fever, palsy – effects of being infected with Tuberculosis, a common disease during Keats’ lifetime that affected him personally with the death of his brother six months prior to penning this poem.

Tuberculosis Effects
Tuberculosis Effects

8. Bacchus – Roman god of wine equivalent to Greek Dionysus. A vastly multifaceted god with many epithets (descriptive titles), he was known as the Liberator for inspiring frenzy (bakkheia), madness, and ecstasy, thereby releasing the soul from the body. Bacchus is also where the term
bacchanalia derives. He was supposed to bring an end to care and worries. Also the patron of theater and agriculture and often portrayed with bull horns, in a leopard skin, or with wild animals. Bacchus has a deep history rooted in many myths with many connections to other gods and figures. By referencing Bacchus, Keats is illustrating that his departure from Earth will not be a celebration or frenzy, but instead will use poetry.

Dionysus (Bacchus)
Dionysus (Bacchus)

9. Pards – Term for leopards that pulled Bacchus’ chariot.

Bacchus Riding a 'Pard'
Bacchus Riding a ‘Pard’

10. Fays – Another word for fairies, a major contributor to the supernatural elements of the Romantic time period and a common inclusion in writing of this time.

Fays Dancing
Fays Dancing

11. Ruth – Refers to Ruth of the Book of Ruth (a short book in both Jewish and Christian scripture), who was the Moabite (from Moab, which is modern-day Jordan) great-grandmother of David, supposedly one of Jesus Christ’s ancestors.

Ruth the Moabite
Ruth the Moabite


“Ode to a Nightingale” is arranged into eight different stanzas, each of ten lines. As far as odes go, this work by Keats, “while Horatian in its uniform stanzaic form, reproduces the architectural format of the meditative soliloquy, or, it may be, intimate colloquy with a silent auditor.” [5] That is to say, Keats uses the same meter and rhyme scheme throughout each of the eight stanzas; instead of solely praising the subject (in this case the nightingale), however, as was common in many odes, Keats has an internal monologue with himself as well, meditating the role the nightingale plays, as a symbol of immortality through its song. This is seen throughout the ode, as apostrophe, the practice of evoking something, begins several of the stanzas. One such example can be seen in line eleven with “O, for a draught of vintage!” as well as several other lines. Keats also appears to be asking himself several questions regarding his meditations in the final two lines, most notably, “Do I wake or sleep?” in line eighty.

The meter used in each line of every stanza is written in iambic pentameter, except for the eighth line of each stanza, which is written in iambic trimeter. [3] This rhyme scheme is original to Keats, and is aptly called the Keatsian Ode verse. The rhyme scheme follows ABABCDECDE, and so on, throughout each of the stanzas. Each additional stanza after the first follows the same rhyme scheme, however different rhyming words are used. [4]

Themes and Analysis

  • Death – This theme is evident throughout the poem, even without knowing the background information about Keats’s brother passing away. The poem opens immediately with a somber tone and with references to the lethal hemlock, contributing to the overtones of death. The second stanza mentions the “world unseen,” or life after death while third stanza also speaks of “fading away.” It is impossible to read this poem and not pick up on the general notion of death and dying that preoccupied Keats. Death is even personified and directly addressed in the sixth stanza.
  • Immortality – It is ironic that a poem so filled with tones of death also features a theme of immortality. The first hint at it is in the first stanza with the mention of the Lethe River. Though this river is in the underworld, it is still symbolic of existence beyond earthly life. Later, in the seventh stanza, the nightingale is even referred to as “immortal Bird.”
  • Nature– Many facets of the idea of nature fall under this umbrella theme, including, but not limited to:
    • Speaking of nature– This is exhibited in almost every stanza of the poem by relating everything to a natural phenomenon.
    • Unity with nature – Romantics had strong appreciation for and ties to nature. They were fascinated by the many functions nature encompassed, which Keats shows in this ode.
    • Supernatural elements of nature – Another Romantic idea that will be discussed more fully under the ‘Supernatural’ theme heading,
  • Supernatural– The Romantics, including Keats, had a preoccupation with supernatural forces and happenings, which is shown in many works of the period, including this ode.
    • Roman Gods – Many references are made to Roman gods and goddesses throughout this piece, including those to Flora and Bacchus. The Romantic period interest in the supernatural led to a revival of interest in this sort of mythology.
    • Greek Mythology – There are perhaps more references to Greek mythology than there are to Roman gods in this ode. Again, like the Roman gods, there was a revival of interest in these types of topics during this period. Some references to Greek culture fly under the radar, since there are so many miniscule meanings behind so many things. For instance, the hemlock reference in the beginning can be related to the Greeks since they used it to poison prisoners like Socrates. Similarly, white hawthorn (line 46) was supposedly carried by ancient Greeks during weddings. Other references include the more obvious Lethe-wards, Dryad, the Hippocrene.
    • Fairies – Fairies are very much associated with nature, so it makes sense that they would be referenced in this poem as well. Keats creates a depiction of the fairies in the sky with the moon watching over the earth that is typical of the time, as well as referencing “faery lands” as a sort of alternate universe.
  • Earthly Experiences – As much focus as this ode places upon non-concrete ideas and things that do not actually exist, there is still a strong anchor tying it all down to human life.
    • Emotions and Abstract Ideas – This poem is riddled with emotions and also personification of abstract concepts, like Beauty and Love in the third stanza. There is a tone of longing throughout the whole piece, as well as a yearning to forget things, showing Keats’s feelings about his own life. There is even the idea of eagerly anticipating death as a peaceful end to pain on Earth.
    • Bodily Decay – This theme is most evident in the third stanza detailing what is thought to be the effects of tuberculosis. He takes a break from relating things to unearthly ideas and focuses on the sadness that exists as human bodies begin to fall apart.
  • The Nightingale’s Significance – Keats relates the nightingale to a creature of mythological proportions by calling it a “light-winged Dryad of the trees” and by stating that its song conveys as much truth as the fabled Hippocrene. The song of the nightingale is what inspired this whole piece, which sort of shows Keats’s stream of thoughts as he listened to it. He was haunted by the music and ascribed it much meaning relating to death, life, and what comes after life on Earth.

Back to John Keats

Works Cited:
[1] “John Keats: Chronology.” EnglishHistory.net. http://englishhistory.net/keats.chronology.html
[2] “John Keats: Original Manuscript Images.” EnglishHistory.net. http://englishhistory.net/keats/manuscripts.html
[3] “Keats – Ode to a Nightingale.” E-Scoala. http://www.e-scoala.ro/engleza/keats_ode.html
[4] “Keatsian Ode.” PoetryBase. http://www.poetrybase.info/forms/001/158.shtml
[5] “The Meditative Romantic Ode.” Brooklyn College. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/ode.html
[6] The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and M.H. Abrams. 8th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006. 903-05.

Image Credits Not In Captions:
1. Hemlock: http://lvillage.education.vic.gov.au/lv/tsc/hp.nsf/Files/jmissen/$File/PoisonHemlock%5B1%5D.jpg
2. River Lethe Illustration: http://uofugeron.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/1013matelda.jpg
3. Dryad: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/dryad11.jpg
4. Goddess Flora: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/women_in_greek_myths.jpg
5. Cezanne’s Mt. Provence: http://www.dl.ket.org/webmuseum/wm/paint/auth/cezanne/land/cezanne.mt-provence.jpg
6. Fountain: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/pegasusdrinks.jpg
7. Tuberculosis Effects: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/6.TB_.jpg
8. Dionysus (Bacchus): https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/dionysus_as_bull.jpg
9. Bacchus Riding a ‘Pard’: http://wwwdelivery.superstock.com/WI/223/475/PreviewComp/SuperStock_475-1709.jpg
10. Fays Dancing: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/fuselibottom.jpg
11. Ruth the Moabite: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/ruth.jpg

Christopher Cerullo
Ronnie Fricke
Jamie Hannigan