On “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats
Poetry speaks to those of us who hear it across vast distances of time, culture, and personal identity. If I didn't believe this, there would be little for me that explains how a poem by an 19th century Englishman would so profoundly impact a 20th century Jamaican-American woman. I'm speaking, of course, of the well-known poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats and, the unknown story of my 18-year old self's discovery of the same as a first-year college student in Miami in 1990—almost two centuries after Keats' had written the poem, in the spring of 1819, when he may already have sensed that he was dying.
Perhaps someone interested in arguing that we read in relation to our own history might conjecture that the lines, "Darkling, I listen; and for many a time/I have been half-in love with easeful Death," the ones that haunt me most from the poem, do so because my father committed suicide or because I am a reader and poet who loves the elegiac mode, sometimes (like Keats) to a fault. Fact is when I fell in love with that poem I did not know the real cause of my father's death and would not learn that family secret for another few years. Fact is when I fell in love with the poem, I had no inkling I would become a poet, no idea such a thing was possible for a girl from the Caribbean who had never encountered the likes of herself in a poem and would not do so for several years, by which point it would be to contemporary voices that my ear would be tuning.
But Keats' poem, archaic as the syntax and diction at times are, resonated with what I felt sure of by the time I came to it: death is a force that cleaves us and from whose finality there is little retreat but in the world of poetry and metaphor. Keats' idea of negative capability was introduced to me in tandem with my first readings of the poem. He had coined the term to describe a desired capacity to be in a state of "uncertainty," without "irritable reaching" for a singular truth. In the concept of negative capability and in the poem exists the possibility that we might, in art at least, remain unbound by our limited human conception of existence—that the nightingale could sing past death and, in so doing, momentarily free the poet from the fact of his mortality.
I used the poem's closing image—"Fled is that music"—juxtaposed with Bob Marley's insistence on lyric redemption—"Won't you help me sing these songs of freedom? Is all I ever have"—as epigraphs for my second book. I did so to suggest the paradoxical nature of the elegy, which is that it makes present an absent figure. After many years of reading Keats' poem, I concede to critics that 'Nightingale' is not his most perfect ode (an honour I would bestow on to "To Autumn" or perhaps the usually agreed upon "Ode on a Grecian Urn"). But for me "Ode to a Nightingale" remains his most interesting because it is the most vexed, a poem struggling to face death and embrace the "uncertainty" of what, if anything, lies on the other side. Whatever Keats might have felt of death's hovering presence in his life, as first one of his brothers and then he himself went to an early grave, in his poem the nightingale "sing[s]. . .in full-throated ease."
Ode to a Nightingale
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell