Ode to a Nightingale
Ode to a Nightingale
Annals of the Fine Arts (July 1819). Republished in John Keats, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems (1820). Facs. edn.: Scolar Press, 1970. PR 4830 E20AB Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,Back to Line
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine ...
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
Between the first three words of "Ode to a Nightingale," "My heart aches," and its last, "sleep," John Keats describes a brief personal escape from an existence whose suffering he can no longer endure. The "I" who speaks eight times in this perfect eight-stanza lyric is Keats himself, not a surrogate persona. Ambiguity, irony, and even implication have no place here, but biography does. Keats' letters show that he certainly believed the poet possessed "negative capability," the self-nullifying power to enter other things and speak as and for them. "Ode to a Nightingale" depicts one such experience. True enough, Keats leaves his "sole self" (72) to join with the nightingale in verse that briefly realizes, in human language, the ageless beauty of its unintelligible song. Yet it is Keats who does so, in May 1819, not the living reader, not some character in a dramatic monologue manipulated by a poet who stays outside his created world. During his training as a medical practitioner, Keats saw drugs like opium (3) and wine (11) deaden the pain of feverishly ill men, the aged shaking from palsy, and the consumptive young (23-26). His own brother Tom, dying of consumption at this time, lingers on in "Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies" (26).
Keats' friend Charles Brown recollected, 17 years later, how Keats wrote this ode.
In the spring of 1818 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under the plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his 'Ode to a Nightingale', a poem which has been the delight of every one.
The only surviving draft of the ode, in Keats' handwriting, is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It appears on two half-sheets and has "an uncancelled rejected beginning ... and the first thirty lines written continuously without stanza divisions" (Stillinger 651). Perhaps this manuscript, which Keats gave to his friend J. H. Reynolds, represents a later stage of the poem than what Brown saw on four or five "scraps." Whatever the textual history may be (and we are unlikely to know much more), Brown recalls the earliest stage of composition. Keats took "his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under the plum-tree" near Brown's house and sat under it "for two or three hours," taking pleasure in the song of a nightingale that "had built her nest" there. Afterwards, Keats returned to the house with some "scraps" on which he had been writing the ode.
Keats did not record these few hours in "Ode to a Nightingale." In the poem, the bird sings "in some melodious plot / Of beechen green" (8-9), not in a plum-tree. The time is "night" or "midnight" (35, 56), not a morning after breakfast. The season is summer (10, 50), not spring. Keats' imagination transmutes what he experiences under the plum-tree. He acknowledges, for this reason, flying up to the bird "on the viewless wings of Poesy" (33) and only returning to himself when his "fancy" fails, its spell broken by a word, "forlorn" (71-74). The morning in his chair under the plum-tree stimulated the experience described by the poem, in what we now call lucid (or wide-awake) dreaming. At poem's end, Keats recognizes this when he asks, "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / ... Do I wake or sleep?" (79-80). He has had a disorienting, transcendental experience. One moment, sightless in a pitch-black midnight, high among the leaves of a forest of trees, he was listening to the nightingale's "ecstasy"; and then suddenly he was back alone, if Brown remembers truly, under a plum-tree one morning near his house.
In retrospect, after the event, Keats describes his experience as a somatoform (bodily) dissociation, an out-of-body experience, or what parapsychologists term an OBE. Others might call it a "near-death" experience. During a critical illness, such as a heart attack, the self may appear to rise out of the dying body and to rush down a tunnel towards a light, only returning to the body when its trauma ceases. Both out-of-body and near-death experiences, available to a very large percentage of the population, are widely documented by those who had them and by other observers. A typical OBE begins when sensory input is disrupted, sometimes by drugs. The mind then feels itself float upwards out of the body to a height that has been termed "bird's-eye" or tree-high. Often the ascent may seem like travelling through a tunnel towards a bright light. Experiencing itself being divided into two, or having a dissociated double, the self may feel itself near death. Afterwards, when the mind returns to the body, the person recalls his experience, not as a dream during REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep, but as vivid or wide-awake dreaming.
"Ode to a Nightingale" opens when Keats acknowledges feeling "a drowsy numbness" that he associates with having taken drugs like hemlock or opium, or with drinking from the classical river, Lethe, which makes humanity forget what it was like to have lived. Keats then wishes to drink deeply of red wine so that he could "fade away" (20-21), leaving the suffering world for the nightingale's joyful song. What transports him, however, is the imagination. Despite the physical brain, which "perplexes and retards" (34), his mind enables him to "fly" up to the nightingale in the trees. He imagines the moon's bright light blown through "winding mossy ways" (40) but arrives in utter darkness, lacking sight and smell. He imagines himself desiring death, "Now more than ever seems it rich to die" (55), and experiencing it, becoming "a sod" (60). Imagination ends the experience it initiated. At the word "forlorn," Keats comes "back" to his "sole self," that is, the self left alone by its flying double. He becomes conscious of what he has experienced as, perhaps, "a waking dream" (79). Many facets of an OBE are here: drug-associated sensory deprivation, a flight upwards of a double mind through dark "ways" illuminated by a great light, the moon, a bird's-eye perspective among the tree-tops, a near-death experience, the descent of a double to its abandoned self, and a sense of having had a vivid dream.
Keats did not write "Ode to a Nightingale" as testimony about an "out-of-body experience"; it would not be recognized or named for more than a century. On the other hand, neither does Keats appear to invent this dissociative event or to copy it from other poets. Anyone can meditate, one fine, warm morning, about escaping from the harsh world of humanity into the countryside and its healing natural beauty. Samuel T. Coleridge did so in his lyric, "The Lime-tree Bower my Prison":
... Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne'er deserts the wise and pure;
No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,
No waste so vacant, but may well employ
Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty! and sometimes
'Tis well to be bereft of promis'd good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share.
Some readers believe that Keats drew from Coleridge here, but despite "lift[ing] the soul," opiate Coleridge remained fully possessed, in sunlight, of himself and his senses. Keats' last six lines owe much more to Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper." Wordsworth described the valley maiden singing, in a strange language as "No Nightingale did ever chaunt" (9), such "plaintive numbers" (18; cf. Keats' "plaintive anthem") that, once the speaker had climbed the hill, remained in his mind as "music ... / Long after it was heard no more" (31-32). As the reaper's song "could have no ending" (26), so the voice of Keats' nightingale was "immortal," heard in "ancient days" and Biblical history as in contemporary England. Both poets cluster "plaintive," unheard "music," "hill-side," and "valley" in the context of a nightingale's song, strong evidence for influence, but Wordsworth does not allude to any dissociative experience.
Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" springs from a poet's personal life-changing, mind-wrenching experience of a timeless paradise, a world "with no pain" (56). Only someone who has spent days tending the terminally ill can understand with what depth Keats longs for this respite. In the event's aftermath, he recreates the experience "on the viewless wings of Poesy" (33), using all his craft's resources, but with little sensory recall. The "tender" night (35) and "embalmed darkness" (43) disable his sight and leave him guessing at fragrances. Simple words like "song," "voice," "anthem," and "music" only hint at the nightingale's soul-pouring "ecstasy" (58). He imitates it with astonishingly resonant lines like "Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways" (40), and "The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves" (50). For the rest, Keats must describe the bird-song "of summer" (10) by depicting what he knows, its hearers over the centuries. To recreate the nightingale's song, we must listen in the context of human suffering. Only by being in two worlds at once, the self below, its double above, can we know the song's essential beauty. Why else did the song that "found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth ... sick for home," leave her standing "in tears amid the alien corn" (65-67)? She was not, like Keats at the start, "too happy in thine happiness" (6). Quintessentially, we know the nightingale's song truly only when we are aware that we cannot keep it for long. It is, at heart, "plaintive" (75), that is, sorrowful.
For this reason, Keats echoes Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" in the last stanza. Although their ways to beauty are different, their experiences are one.
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- Brown, Charles Armitage. Life of John Keats. Ed. Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Willard Bissell Pope. London Oxford University Press, 1937.
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- Masi, Alberto. European Birds; Songs and Sonagrams. 1997. http://www-stat.wharton.upenn.edu/~siler/masi/eurosongs3.html