Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ode to a Nightingale (poem) by John Keats

Ode to a Nightingale                               John Keats

John Keats is a great Romantic poet. Of all the great Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, such as William Wordsworth, P.B. Shelley and Lord Byron, S.T. Coleridge and Robert Southey, Keats possessed the strongest impulse of pure romanticism.  He says: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” He again says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”.  His famous Odes ( “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” etc.) explore the joy of imagination and beauty and their ability to transmute life and reality. Keats died of consumption in Rome and was lamented by Shelley in the famous elegy Adonais. Ode to a Nightingale was inspired by the actual song of a nightingale in a garden in Hampstead where Keats was staying at that time. This poem is the best example for what Wordsworth calls “ the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected at tranquility”. Only a few months ago Keat’s only brother Tom died of consumption and that is why there is an elegiac reflection in the poem.

Listening to the Nightingale, Keats becomes intoxicated with its melodius music. The intensity of joy produces a sorrowful feeling. The poet feels that he has drunk hemlock poison or opium and he feels a drowsy numbness. He has forgotten his misery, pain and life itself as if he had crossed the Lethe river, the Underworld River of forgetfulness. The nightingale is singing in full-throated ease. Her spontaneous music delighted the poet. So he tells the bird that he is not at all envious of the bird for its happiness, but he himself is overjoyed in the happiness of the bird, such is effect of the music of the bird. He calls the poet Dryad – a nymph of the woods.

Keats wants to share the happiness of the Nightingale and. So he wants to escape from this world of sorrow and live with her for ever. First of all he thinks of flying to the bird under the intoxication of wine. He wants to forget his sorrows by entering the happy world of the nightingale. Like the pastoral villagers who enjoy their festivals with wine, dance and songs and thus forget their sorrowful life at least for a day and live under the intoxication of wine. Keats says that he is coming to the bird among the leaves of the forest, because he is tired of this life on the earth, where there is no love and happiness. There is only sorrow, disease, pain and sufferings. Today’s youth becomes patient and dies next day. Youth and beauty don’t last long here.  That is why the poet wants to escape to the happy world of the Nightingale.

Keats does not want to fly to the bird under the intoxication of wine. On the other hand he wants to fly on the invisible wings of imagination (viewless wings of Poesy). In his powerful imagination, the poet has already with the bird in the jungle. There is full moon in the sky. But there is dark in the jungle. When the breeze blows, trees are dancing and moon beams filtrate through the leaves and branches into the ground of the jungle. It is a wonderful sight. There are winding mossy ways and the poet is walking. He cannot see the flowers, but he smells their fragrance and recognizes each flower by their smell and season. The grass, the thicket, the wild fruit trees, white hawthorn flowers, the pastoral eglantine, fast fading violets, the Musk Rose. This stanza is rich with sensuous expression of colour, scent and touch.

 He is still listening and the music of the Nightingale overflows everywhere and the poet reaches his peak of happiness. The ecstasy of the moment makes Keats crave for death. The poet confesses that he tried to die a number of times in the past. He says that it is the best time for him to die because he can die in happiness enjoying the music of the bird. It is a painless death for him. Even after his death, the endless music flows and it becomes a funeral song for him. His mortality is contrasted with the immortality of the bird’s song.

The poet is overjoyed by the sweet music of the Nightingale.  So he says that the music of the bird is immortal. In the past also the Nightingale’s music delighted everyone. The same music entered the sad heart of the emperors and clowns alike and made them happy in their moment of sorrow. Perhaps the same music, which the poet is listening now, entered the sad heart of Ruth when she was standing alone in the corn field of Boaz and comforted her. Ruth is a character in the Bible. After her husband’s death, she went with her mother-in-law Naomi to the land of Judha. There she gleaned corn in the field of the rich man Boaz who later married her. Again Keats imagines that the nightingale’s song has been flowing over centuries and delighted the sad heart of every one in ancient times. The bird’s song has touched the sad heart of rich and poor, young and old and entered the windows of the magic castles in fairy tales and comforted everyone when they are forlorn and in sorrow and made them happy.

The word “forlorn” is like the sound of a bell and it shakes the poet back into the world of reality. The wings of his imagination are clipped and he fell down to the sorrowful life once again. Now the bird’s music is fading away among the hills and valleys and the poet wakes up from his day-dream (reverie) and he is not sure whether his strange experience was a dream or vision. Human life is like a dream.
Annotate the following
1.      ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness
2.      O, for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene.
3.      Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
4.      I cannot see what flowers are at my feet
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs.
5.      Still wouldst thou sing and I have ears in vain
To thy high requiem become a sod.
6.      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.
7.      The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous sea, in faery lands forlorn.
8.      Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!


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