John Keats Ode to a Nightingale Summary, Analysis and Literary Devices


 John Keats
John Keats(1795-1821) is one of the most sensuous poets in English, whose poetry is remarkable for its colour and imagery. The distinctive quality in Keats is the ability to convey his vision as a sensuous experience. He focusses on several sense impressions relating to an object and thereby gives the reader a full apprehension of it. His early works(particularly Endymion) were harshly criticised, by the time he was twenty-four, he had won recognition for his great odes - Ode On Melancholy, Ode On A Grecian Urn, Ode To A Nightingale and Ode To Autumn. All these odes were written in his most creative year of 1819. Seriously ill with tuberculosis, Keats died in Rome when he was twenty-six.

John Keats was an English romantic poet. The romantic period was the most fruitful period in the history of English literature.  Keats is perhaps the greatest and one of the main representative of the romantic poets belonging to the second generation. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, etc. belong to the first generation and Byron, Shelley, Keats, etc. belong to the second generation of the romantic poets.

Keats odes are remarkable for their fusion of intensity of feeling and concreteness of detail and description. They also process a dramatic quality for we are made aware of the presence of two voices engaged in a lyrical debate.


Stanza I
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.
Stanza II

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora an the country green,
Dance, and Provencal 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:
Stanza III
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 eye,
Or new Love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

Stanza IV
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.

Stanza V
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Where with 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.

Stanza VI
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.

Stanza VII
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.

Stanza VIII
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?


Keats-ode-to-a-nightingaleOde to a Nightingale is a poem in eight stanzas. Stanza I describes the poet's excitement as he listens to the song of a nightingale.

Stanza II & III expresses the poet's wish to enter into the world of the nightingale and thereby remain oblivious of the weariness and fretful stir of human existence. He asks for a draught of wine that can induce in him a state of druggedness so that he can fly away into the blissful world of the bird.

Stanza IV records the poet's recourse to poetic fancy as an alternative to aid him in his flight into the realm of the nightingale. The poetic fancy leads him to the bird in its perch up among the treetops where he can see the moon and the stars. But this does not last long and he wakes out of it to return to gloom and darkness on earth.

stanza V shows the poet's separateness from the bird. This appeal to poetic fancy has not liberated him from the human world of pain and misery, but has helped him to respond with delight to the naturalistic world, full of colourful flowers.

Stanza VI expresses Keats morbid impulse to die at that very moment of experiencing an intense joy and empathy with nature so that he can cease to experience pain hereafter. The poet says that it is rich to die in his present state of heightened ecstasy. But alongside this death wish comes the still greater painful awareness that death marks not only severance from the pains of life but also from the bird and its sweet song as well.

Stanza VII affirms the permanence of the bird's song in this world. It is not that the bird is immortal, but its song is. It had thrilled successive generations in the past and shall continue to thrill successive generations in the future.

Stanza VIII shows the poet waking up from his fancy and becoming aware that the nightingale has fled and he can no longer listen to it. The poem concludes with an unanswered question whether he had experienced genuinely a heightening of experience or whether it was just a vision and a dream.

The movement of the poem is related to the poet's movement
i) from the ideal happy world of the nightingale to the dull everyday world of pain, misery and suffering and 
ii) from a state of ecstasy to a state of forlornness (desolation)

The turn of these two movements comes at the end of the fourth stanza. The first four stanzas assert the poet's identification with the bird and its song and the latter four stanzas lay emphasis upon the poet's separateness from the bird. The bird is present only in the first section and it is absent in the rest of the poem.


Stanza I (lines  1-10)
In lines, 1-4 Keats expresses his longing to lapse into a state of forgetfulness so that he can give up the world and its attendant pain and fly into the world of the nightingale. The words that he used to stress upon the impulse to seek oblivion are "heart aches", "drowsy numbness", "pains", "dull opiate", "hemlock"(poison) and "Lethe-wards had sunk". All these words express the poet's wish for a state of oblivion and thereof for a movement into the world of the nightingale.The physical sensations of aches and pains are juxtaposed with the state of drowsy numbness and druggedness. How does Keats reconcile a state of conscious pain with that of inertness and insensibility? Why does he do so?

Both the states ー of pain and numbness ー have a common source in the ecstatic joy of the nightingale. Keats' mood is one of drugged languor and has been occasioned by his empathic response to the happiness of the bird. The poet wishes to merge his identity with that of the bird. In these opening lines, the identification is not total; Keats is aware of his self (which explains his pains and aches), but gradually the self-consciousness fades as drowsy numbness overtakes him and the possibility of total identification is on the rise as the later lines in the stanza explain.

Lines 5-10 explains what had given rise to these strange, morbid feelings in the poet. The poet says that the feelings of depression in him are not due to envy of the bird's happiness, but because he is 'too happy' in its happiness. Keats' earlier mood of despondency seems to be perverse in the context of what gives rise to it. The mood in the opening quatrain contradicts the latter mood in the sestet.

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees (line 7)

"Dryad" means a wood nymph, a beautiful goddess who inhabits the forests. "light-winged" refers to the bird's quickness in flight. It also refers to a spirit of light-heartedness in contrast to the heavy drugged feeling of the earlier lines.

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless (line 9)

"beechen green": the green colour of the beech tree which carries associations of freshness.
"shadows numberless": "shadows" suggest thick foliage which caste the shadows.

Singest of summer in full-throated ease (line 10)

"summer": in England, summer is associated with colour and warmth.
"full-throated ease" is in contrast to the cares and pains of the world as though the bird is immune to all suffering.

Stanza II (lines 11-20)

Here the poet seeks a prolongation of his happy state by asking for a beader of wine from the South(of France). But towards the end of the second stanza(19-20) his wish for a state of intoxication is to forget his conscious self and thereafter to fade away with the bird into the forest.

Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth(line 12)

Do you recognise the alliteration here?
"deep-delved" almost suggests the strokes of spade digging the earth. It also suggests the cooling effect on the wine made out of grapes grown in the warm south as a result of storing it underground. Keats is remarkable for his attention to concrete details in this description of the vintage wine. He associates the wine with Flora (goddess of vegetation and flowers), country green, Dance, Provencal song (song of Provence in medieval France), the warm South ― all associations of warmth, high spirits and excitement.

Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene (line 16)

"Hippocrene": a fountain in Greece, sacred to the Muses and Apollo. To drink off the Hippocrene is to get poetic inspiration.

Can you trace the progression of thought and imagery in these two stanzas? 'Throat' and 'summer'  from the preceding stanza (1-10) leads to thoughts of wine produced in the South of France. The longing for the "warm south" leads him backwards in time to the song of the medieval poets of Provence and still back into the classical age when the poets had, drunk off the fountain Hippocrene to get inspired. The poet desires that wine and poetic imagination together may help him to escape into the world of the nightingale.

 "Ode to a Nightingale is the supreme expression in all Keats' poetry of the impulse to imaginative escape that flies in the face of the knowledge of human limitation." (Stuart M.Sperry: Keats the Poet).

This impulse finds concrete expression in Stanza IV (lines 31-33) Keats is one of the most sensuous of the English Poets. Here in this description of vintage wine from the warm south-cool and heady, bubbling and purple-coloured ― Keats is at his sensuous best.

Stanza III (lines 21-30)

Stanza III reiterate the poet's desire to fade far away and forget the fretful fever and stir of the world. Wine is sought as an opiate to support him in his desire for oblivion so as to forget all the painful experiences of life which include a poignant reference to his brother Tom's death(line 26) and "where but to think is full of sorrow"(line 27). The poet imagines the bird to be happy because it does not belong to the world of the humans. To be human is to experience "the weariness, fret and fever" of existence.

The poet is also aware that he is human and therefore even if he were to fly away into the nightingale's world, he cannot forever stay there in happiness. His depression is thus implicit in his desire for escape. Keats is seen struggling against the inevitable impermanence of human beauty, youth and happiness. He is striving for some enduring principle of permanence which he associates with the song of the nightingale.

Stanza IV (lines 31-40)

The thoughts of sickness, old age and death make him seek an alternative to wine in his search for a supporting aid towing him to the happy sojourn of the nightingale. The poet turns to poetic fancy to bridge the division between him and the bird. The creative activity arising out of his appeal to poetic imagination limits itself to a three-line ornate composition, at the end of which Keats is back on the ground again, far away from the nightingale's habitation. Initially, he soars high on the wings of poetic fancy to the treetops where perches the nightingale, but before long he is back on earth where there is no light other than what flickers of the moonlight through the branches and the leaves of the trees.

But on the viewless wings of Poesy, (line 33)

"viewless wings of poesy'': Keats speaks of the wings of poesy as invisible, because the flight (of imagination) is too high for a vision of the earth to be visible. The poet expects to soar high into the far distant, almost ethereal world of the bird aided by poesy.

"poesy": Keats uses the word rather in an affected sense to mean poetry. There is something of a self-conscious effort in the description of the moon and the stars.

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: (line 34)

The human brain cannot take in the broad sweep of poetic fancy. Despite its retarding effect, the poet's imagination wings him swiftly to the abode of the nightingale on tree tops.

Lines (38-40): But the poetic fancy cannot last long. It is just as temporary as the effect of wine on him. He is grounded on earth where there is neither light nor darkness, save what filters of the moon and the stars through the leaves of the trees.

Stanza V (lines 41-50)

Keats' response to the sensuous beauty of the physical world is at its best in this stanza. Despite the semi-darkness around, he is able to imagine the flowers and their colours through their sweet scent. Keats said that when the primary sense of sight is absent, the other senses are intensified and provide "much room for imagination". In this stanza, you can recognise Keats' olfactory sense, his auditory sense and his sense of taste at work even as he confesses that "I cannot see what flowers are at my feet"(41). The sound of the buzzing flies, caught by the auditory sense is expressed through the employment of sibilant words like "murmurous", "Flies", "summer" and "eves". These words give the onomatopoeic effect of the bees buzzing around.

To evoke sensuous excitement Keats employs sensuous imagery in this stanza. The adjectives "soft incense", "dewy wine", "white hawthorn", "pastoral eglantine" and "fast-fading violets" convey concrete physical details of the flowers.

Stanza VI (lines 51-60)

The colourful flowers, the musk-rose and dewy wine conjure up thoughts of luxury and inebriation which for Keats are portentous signals as they once again lead him to thoughts of death. The line of thinking in this stanza bears a close resemblance to stanzas II and III. As he listens to the bird's song in darkness, he feels that it is the opportune time to die, "to cease upon the midnight with no pain".

He says that it seems rich to die at that very moment when he is at the heights of ecstasy, experiencing a rich and sensuous excitement.  To descend from that state of total bliss will be only painful, analogous to a death-in-life state. (You can recall his earlier description of a state of numbness in stanza I). Hence the poet seeks an alternative life-in-death state where to be dead at this moment is to preserve for posterity this unsullied moment of ecstasy and glory.

I have been half in love with easeful Death.(line 52)

Keats says that he is only half in love with death and we will discover Keats' offer of explanation to this in the last two lines. Keats is painfully aware that after his death, he shall not be able to listen to the bird's song which shall continue to be heard in the world. For him who is dead, it will be no more than a requiem.

"easeful death": (i) painless death  (ii) death that releases him from pain and gives him peace and rest.

At this moment of total surrender to sensuous excitement, Keats become aware of his separateness from the immortal bird.

Stanza VII (lines 71-80)

The stanza begins with an ambiguous statement when Keats addresses the nightingale as the "immortal bird". But he corrects himself in line 73 by turning attention to the voice of the bird for it is the voice that had been heard in the past and shall continue to be heard in the future even as it is presently heard by the poet. Tracing the perennial voice of the nightingale, Keats moves from the present to the past ("emperor and clown"), through the Biblical times ("Ruth") and then to the remote world of fairies ('charmed....faery lands'). The generations pass, but the nightingale's voice continues.

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,(line - 76)

"The sad heart of Ruth": reference to the Old Testament story of Ruth, the kind and devoted daughter-in-law of Naomi of Moab near Jerusalem. Ruth instead of turning to her father and mother after the death of her husband accompanied her widowed mother-in-law to the land of Bethlehem. She worked in the field of Bo'az to earn her living and ultimately was rewarded for her devotion and kindness to her mother-in-law. Keats' reference here is to Ruth in the fields of Bo'az where she stood gathering the sheaves of corn. She is sad and lonely having moved far away from her native land to work in alien fields.

Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam (line 79)

Keats opens up the world of the legends, of fairy tales ㅡ a world that is in the subconscious and present in all of us.

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. (line 80)

"forlorn": Keats describes the faery lands as "forlorn" because they are not for men. They have become inaccessible for no man can ever return to them. The word "forlorn" connects this stanza to the next and the final one.

Stanza VIII (lines 81-90)

With the anguished expression "forlorn", he is back to his state of painful awareness that the earthly and the eternal can never be bridged. All his effort at identification with the bird has proved to be of temporary value. As the bird flies to the next valley and as its song fades, the illusion of oneness with the bird dissolves. The song that Ruth had heard reminded her of her separation from her home and the song that had thrilled Keats reminds him of his separation from the bird. As the song recedes, the poet moves towards his forlorn self. The poem ends with a question about the validity of such a heightened experience when it leaves him with a sense of loss and depression. Keats raises a question that operates on two levels. It can pertain to the genuineness of that thrilling experience which the song had given him. He wonders whether it was all a vision or a dream. He sounds sceptical thinking that the song had given him just an illusion of ecstasy. On another level, the question may relate to the poet's perception of the nightingale as a symbol of permanence. Such a conception may be just idle whimsies on his part.

The conflicting tendencies towards mortality as expressed in stanza VI - of attraction and fear are developed in the last two stanzas. Each one of them is given prominence separately. Stanza VII pays tributes to the immortality of the song and thereby stresses the poet's fascination for death so that he can remain in that ecstatic moment of identity with the bird. Stanza VIII contradicts this desire for death as it registers man's limitations that can never give him permanent joy as he imagines to have experienced. The poem Ode to a nightingale thus maintains the dramatic debate between two voices of the poet. It comes to a full circle as it begins with the experience of the heart and ends with the questioning of the heart. The exciting song sounds no more than a "plaintive anthem", keeping in line with the earlier description of it as "high requiem"


An ode is a form of lyric, a poem of address, of an elaborate structure. Here in this ode, Keats is addressing a nightingale. The poetic devices he employs is known as the apostrophe (a figure of speech in which someone absent or a something or an idea is addressed as though present and able to respond to the address). Ode to a Nightingale is a poem of eight stanzas, each stanza consisting of ten lines. The first quatrain rhyming abab and the following sestet having a cdecde rhyme scheme
 This ode is remarkable for its varied allusions literary, biblical and mythological. The reference to "Hippocrene" and "Bacchus" take us back to ancient literary works. The Biblical allusion to Ruth and mythological allusion to "charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam of perilous seas, in fancy leads forlorn"(79-80) reinforce the permanence of the nightingale's song and juxtapose it with the forlorn misery of human beings who experience nothing but "the weariness, the fever and fret" of existence.

 Keats' craftsmanship is remarkably in evidence in this poem. He is not a poet of all-embracing sensuousness. He rises from the sensuous to the ethereal and spiritual dimensions and thus has a close affinity with the Greek ideal of Beauty.

In this poem Ode to a Nightingale, we find Keats' skill in word painting and verbal coinage. A good example of this is seen in the phrase "full-throated ease" (line 10). The song of the nightingale is described in visual imagery. Yet another example is in the description of the wine in terms of "the blushful Hippocrene" and "Purple-stained mouth" – where the tase is expressed in visual terms.

Other examples of his verbal coinage include "leaden-eyed"(line 28), "Viewless wings of Poesy" (line 33), "embalmed darkness" (line 43).

 Alliteration: "Deep-delved", "beaded bubbles"...."the fever and the fret".

Diction: Stanza V is remarkable for Keats' poetic diction. You can notice the contrast between such homely words as "the seasonable month" and "soft incense", "dewy wine" "embalmed darkness". Though Keats is literally referring to the scent of the flowers, these words conjure up thoughts of luxury and wine.

We can see similar kind of contrast in stanza VII between the enchantment and mystery suggested by "charm'd", "magic", "faery" and the emotionally disturbing associations of "perilous" and "forlorn". All these are in close link with the homely word "casements" a word that returns the poet (and the render) to reality.

Thou wast not born for death immortal Bird! (71)
No hungry generations tread thee down; (72)

In lines 71-72, out of 14words that Keats employs, only two have more than one syllable. The succession of monosyllables is intended to produce flat, prosaic reality.

Reference: Understanding Poetry, Indira Gandhi National Open University School of Humanities.
See Also

Short Story 'Misery' by Anton Chekhov

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