This is a copy of one of the most famous poems in the English language, John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819), probably in his brother George’s handwriting. Along with ‘Ode on Indolence’, ‘Ode to Psyche’, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ and ‘Ode to Melancholy’, it is one of five great Odes Keats wrote in spring 1819.
What is its form?
Having expressed frustration with the sonnet form in the poem ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’, and finding the available forms of the ode – a poetic address on a subject – similarly restrictive, Keats developed an ode better suited to the language. It consists of a stanza of 10 lines of pentameter, opening with four lines (a quatrain) rhyming a b a b, and closing with six lines (a sestet) of various rhyme schemes.
What may have inspired the poem?
Keats had discussed nightingales on a famous long walk with Coleridge in April 1819, and his friend Charles Brown remembered him sitting for ‘two or three hours’ listening to a nightingale which had nested near Brown’s house, and emerging with a version of the poem. Leigh Hunt’s series of articles The Calendar of Nature (1819) has also been suggested as an influence.
Various biographical interpretations can be made, from ‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies’ (line 26) as an echo of Keats’s brother Tom’s death in December 1818, to the whole poem being a record of an addiction to opium developed in the process of nursing Tom, or the theme being related to the disappearance of natural life in London’s suburbs during the industrial revolution.
Ode to the Nightingale. 1819.
My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as tho’ of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards ^ had sunk;
‘Tis not thro’ envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness
That thou, lightwinged 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 has 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 and blissful 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 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’s groan.
Where palsy shakes a few sad last grey 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,
Tho’ 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,
Thro’ verdrous 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 coveréd up in leaves,
And mid may’s eldest child,
The coming musk rose, full of sweetest 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 thus thy soul abroad
in such an extacy!
Still would’st thou sing and I have ears in vain
For 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 selfsame song that found a path
Thro’ the sad heart of Ruth when sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oftimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy 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?
- Article by:
- Stephen Hebron
The Romantic period was one of growing interest in ancient Greece. Stephen Hebron explores how this shaped the subject matter and forms of the era’s poets.
- Article by:
- Stephen Hebron
Stephen Hebron explores Keats’s understanding of negative capability, a concept which prizes intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge.
- Article by:
- Andrew Motion
Keats is often seen as a purely sensual poet, isolated from the social and political concerns of his day. Andrew Motion challenges this view, exploring how Keats translated political, philosophical and medical questions into physical, immediate language.
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