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Ode to a Nightingale
By John Keats (1795-1821)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Composition and Publication
Summary
End Rhyme
Internal Rhyme
Meter
Poem Text and Notes
Theme: Death
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Keats
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
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Type of Work

......."Ode to a Nightingale" is a romantic ode, a dignified but highly lyrical (emotional) poem in which the author speaks to a person or thing absent or present. In this famous ode, the speaker addresses a nightingale while developing his theme, death. The romantic ode was at the pinnacle of its popularity in the nineteenth century. It was the result of an author’s deep meditation on his subject. 
.......The romantic ode evolved from the ancient Greek ode, written in a serious tone to celebrate an event or to praise an individual. The Greek ode was intended to be sung by a chorus or by one person. The odes of the Greek poet Pindar (circa 518-438 BC) frequently extolled athletes who participated in games at Olympus, Delphi, the Isthmus of Corinth, and Nemea. Bacchylides, a contemporary of Pindar, also wrote odes praising athletes. 
.......The Roman poets Horace (65-8 BC) and Catullus (84-54 BC) wrote odes based on the Greek model, but their odes were not intended to be sung. In the nineteenth century, English romantic poets wrote odes that retained the serious tone of the Greek ode. However, like the Roman poets, they did not write odes to be sung. Unlike the Roman poets, though, the authors of nineteenth-century romantic odes generally were more emotional in their writing. The author of a typical romantic ode focused on a scene, pondered its meaning, and presented a highly personal reaction to it.

Composition and Publication Dates

.......John Keats completed "Ode to a Nightingale" in May 1819 in the Hampstead section of London. The London firm of Taylor and Hessey published the ode in 1820 as part of a collection entitled Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems.

Summary of the Poem

.......So exquisite is the song of the nightingale in the shadowy forest that it makes the speaker's heart ache with joy and numbs his senses like a drug. The singing kindles in him a desire for a drink made of flowers and greenery and spiced with dance, the music of southern France, and days spent in the sunshine. The speaker says he would also enjoy a drink from the fountain of Hippocrene, which is sacred to the goddesses who inspire poetry. Then he would disappear into the forest with the nightingale on a journey toward death.
.......Among the shadows, he would forget about the afflictions of the world--weariness, fever, worry, old age. In this life, to think is to be sad and despairing. And love and beauty are all too brief.
.......The speaker bids the nightingale to fly away so that he may accompany it--not in the leopard-drawn chariot of Bachus (the god of wine and revelry) but on the wings of poetry. The speaker says, "tender is the night" (line 35) as Queen Moon sits on her throne, surrounded by her starry spirits. Light blows down from heaven through the gloomy shadows.
.......Entering the region of death, the speaker says he cannot see the flowers around him and cannot smell the fragrance from the boughs. But he knows that nature has endowed his dark environment with grass, thickets, wild fruit trees, white hawthorne, and eglantine. There are dying violets covered with leaves, as well as musk roses and the murmurs of insects.
.......Long has the speaker been a friend of Death, whom he calls "soft names" (line 53) in his poetry. Now, as the nightingale sings its song, it would seem a comfort to him for Death to take him. He would "cease upon the midnight with no pain" (line 56).
.......Unlike the speaker, the nightingale is immortal. Down through the centuries, the speaker says, emperors and clowns alike have heard its song, as did Ruth. (The Book of Ruth in the Old Testament tells of this native of Moab--in the southwest of present-day Jordan--who left home to live, work, and marry in a foreign land.) 
Alas, the song of the nightingale fades away, traveling past meadows, over a stream, up a hillside, and into the next valley. The speaker is alone. Did he have a vision? Was he dreaming?

End Rhyme

.......The end rhyme in each stanza follows this pattern: abab cde cde. The first stanza demonstrates the pattern.

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.
Internal Rhyme

.......The poem also contains internal rhyme, as in the following phrases and clauses. 

beechen green (line 9)
sunburnt mirth (line 14)
leave the world unseen (line 19)
sad, last gray hairs (line 25)
I will fly to thee (line 31)
in embalméd darkness, guess (line 43)
thy high requiem (line 60)
To toll me back from thee to my sole self! (line 72)
thy plaintive anthem fades (line 75)
Past the near meadows, over the still stream (line 76)
Meter

.......The meter of the poem consists mainly of iambic pentameter, as lines 1-5 of the first stanza demonstrate. 

 
........1...................2...................3.................4................5
My HEART..|..aches, AND..|..a DROW..|..sy NUMB..|..ness PAINS

........1......................2................3............4................5
My SENSE,..|..as THOUGH..|..of HEM..|..lock I..|..had DRUNK,

......1................2................3.............4................5
Or EMP..|..tied SOME..|..dull OP..|..iate TO..|..the DRAINS

......1................2..................3.......,\...........4................5
One MIN..|..ute PAST,..|..and LETH..|..e- WARDS..|..had SUNK:

......1................2................3.............4...............5
'Tis NOT..|..through EN..|..vy OF..|..thy HAP..|..py LOT
 

However, the eighth line of each stanza is in iambic trimiter, as the following lines demonstrate.
......1..............2..............3
In SOME..|..mel O..|..dious PLOT...............(line 8)......(Read -dious as a single syllable)

......1.................2..................3
And PUR..|..ple-STAIN..|..éd MOUTH..........(line 18)

.......1.................2.................3
And LEAD..|..en-EYED..|..de SPAIRS..........(line 28)

Text of the Poem
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 Lethe1-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
         But being too happy in thine happiness,—
                That thou, light-wingéd Dryad2 of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen3 green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease..........................10

O, for a draught4 of vintage! that hath been
         Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora5 and the country green,
  Dance, and Provençal6 song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
   Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,7
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainéd 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 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....................30

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
      Not charioted by Bacchus8 and his pards,9
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.........40

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
    Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalméd10 darkness, guess each sweet
         Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
       White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;11
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

Darkling12 I listen; and, for many a time
  I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a muséd 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 requiem13 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
    Through the sad heart of Ruth,14 when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
        Charm'd magic casements,15 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
         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


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Notes
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1.....Lethe: In Greek mythology, the river of forgetfulness, which flows through Hades. Drinking its water results in loss of memory.
2.....Dryad: In Greek mythology, a forest nymph (minor goddess).
3.....beechen: (1) Having to do with beech trees; (2) having to do with hardwood trees of the beech family.
4.....draught: Cup; glass; drink.
5.....Flora: (1) In Roman mythology, the goddess of flowers; (2) flowers.
6.....Provençal: Having to do with Provence, a region in southern France. Provençal troubadors (poet-musicians) were renowned for the love songs they sang.
7.....Hippocrene: In Greek mythology, a fountain on Mountain Helicon favored by Muses. Drinking its water inspired poets.
8.....Bachus: Roman name for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.
9.....pards: Leopards or panthers.
10...embalméd: Fragrant; sweet-smelling.
11...eglantine: Rose, usually with pink flowers.
12...Darkling: In the dark.
13...requiem: Hymn for the dead.
14...Ruth: Subject of the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament. A resident of Moab in the south of present-day Jordan, she left her native land to live in Bethlehem, five miles south of present-day Jerusalem, where she worked as a gleaner (one who gathers a grain harvest). She marries a Jew named Boaz and becomes the great-grandmother of Israel's King David. 
15...The same . . . casements: The same nightingale song that passed through magical windows
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Theme: Death

.......As the song of the nightingale soothes the speaker like a drug, he begins to ponder death and yearns to "fade away into the forest dim" (line 20) and forget "the weariness, the fever, and the fret" (line 23) that are part of everyday life. At the time that Keats completed the poem (May 1819), death and its meaning were his constant companions; for he was suffering from tuberculosis, the disease that claimed the life of his brother on December 1, 1818. In line 26 of the poem, Keats appears to refer to his brother when he writes that "youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies." John Keats himself died on February 23, 1821.

Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. (For definitions of figures of speech, click here.)

Alliteration

of hemlock I had drunk (line 2)
dull opiate to the drains (line 3)
Singest of summer (line 10)
deep-delved earth (line 12)
Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth (line 14)
With beaded bubbles winking (line 17)
And with thee fade away into the forest dim (line 20)
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget (line 21)
breezes blown (line 39)
winding mossy ways (line 40)
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; (line 47)
And mid-May's eldest child (line 48)
many a muséd rhyme (line 53)
self-same song (line 65)
sole self (line 72)
Anaphora
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 (lines 25-29)
Apostrophe
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! (line 61)
Assonance
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk (line 2)
Of beechen green (line 9)
sunburntmirth (line 14)
Metaphor
O for a beaker full of the warm South (line 15)
Comparison of the South to a liquid

on the viewless wings of Poesy (line 33)
Comparison of poetry to a bird

Personification
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes (line 29)
Comparison of Beauty to a person

the Queen-Moon is on her throne (line 36)
Comparison of the moon to a person

Simile
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self! (lines 71-72)
Comparison of the word forlorn to a bell
Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Write a ten-line poem that imitates the rhyme scheme and dignified tone of "Ode to a Nightingale." The subject is open.
  • What is the difference between a lyric poem, such as "Ode to a Nightingale," and a ballad?
  • Write an essay explaining how the events in Keats's life influenced his poetry.
  • Write an essay centering on the ancient Greek myths surrounding Mount Helicon, the site of the fountain of Hippocrene (line 16). 
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