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
 

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
         Cool'd 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,
                Cluster'd 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 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.

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,
         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
         Charm'd 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 fam'd 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?
 

 

 

 
 

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