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John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale'

1819

Keats, 'Ode to a Nightingale'

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  • Intro

    'Ode to a Nightingale' is one of John Keats' great odes, written in May 1819, when the poet was just 23 years old. The poem is dominated by thoughts of death, underpinned by meditations on immortality and on the finite nature of joy. The previous year, Keats' brother Tom had died from tuberculosis, the illness that had also killed their mother. When writing the poem, Keats was aware that he himself had started to experience the first symptoms of the disease. 

    The poem's rich imagery emphasises a desire for an escape into a world of hallucinogenic bliss, with references to 'drowsy numbness', a 'dull opiate' and wine with 'beaded bubbles winking at the brim' . Speaking to the nightingale and its exquisite song, he writes: 'Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: Already with thee! tender is the night'. But the ecstasy brought by the nightingale is itself transient, and as the bird flies away the poet is left back in thoughts of hopelessness. Keats died, aged just 25, in February 1821.

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  • Transcript

    Audio transcript

    Reading of published version of '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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