Intimations of Immortality in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’

Keats poem, Ode to a Nightingale, is about the longing for a mystic past. The portal to this past time is the song of a nightingale at night in the forest. Keats hears the bird and hears a whole world through its song. How do the poetic elements reveal this mystic longing?

There is no special significance in the fact that there are eighty lines and eight stanzas. The rhyme scheme, also, is not symbolic. What we can say, generally, about the poem is that it has a song-like quality to it and that each stanza, like a healthy prose paragraph, has its own purpose. Many stanzas have some rhyme interwoven through them. Take stanza IV, where ‘moon’ and ‘glooms’ together rhyme, although they are internal and four lines apart. Or, in stanza VII, there is ‘born’, ‘corn’, and ‘forlorn’. This internal rhyming sews up each stanza nicely. The progression of the poem is not just pulled along with rhyme. Keats uses a lot of assonance, the repetition of syllables within a line. It is quite clear in lines 25 (‘sad’ and ‘last’) and 41 (‘I cannot see what flowers are at my feet’), but also appears more subtly in lines 35 (‘Already with thee! Tender is the night’) and 72 (‘To toll me back from thee to my sole self’). We get some kind of more protracted assonance in stanza I with ‘numbness’, ‘numberless’, and ‘summer’. Keats also uses a bit of alliteration, but never quite goes beyond a two-word usage of it: ‘fade far’ (21), ‘mid-May’s’ (48), and ’sole self’ (72). From stanza to stanza, ideas seem to echo and return like the reverberations, perhaps, of the nightingale’s song—fade far comes back in 47 as fast fading and in 75 as plaintive anthem fades, but we first got the idea of fading in line 20.

Keats wants to fade away with the bird. Then he tells the bird to fade away. Next, we find that the violets are fast fading. Finally, the song of the bird fades back into the forest. This is the entire storyline of the poem. Keats wants to go away with the bird, because his world is one where violets—beauty—fades away. He is like the violets and he, too, will fade. The bird then leaves, but Keats is left high and dry. We find that Keats cannot go with the bird, because if he did, he would not have heard its song fade into the distance. The next thing we can expect, after the poem, is that Keats himself will fade. But the bird? The bird itself never fades. The bird was not born for death (61). Keats was (26). He wants to go where beauty might keep her lustrous eyes (29), but he cannot. This inability to go where the bird hails from fills him with a peculiarly mystic longing.

Keats longs for ‘a draught of vintage’, a metaphor comparing the memory of summer to a rich wine. We see this later in the stanza with the image of a ‘purple-stained mouth.’ The bird sings of summer ‘in full-throated ease’ (10) and it is this song that fills Keats with the craving of summer. This is not just a memory of summer, though, which is a mundane desire everyone has in the heart of winter. It is much, much more. This memory has been ‘cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth’ (12) and so it is an old, perhaps ancient, memory. In lines 2-8, he expands the idea of summer as an entire country (13), not only where people dwell and dance (14), but where Hippocrene is (16). Hippocrene is a pool that the Muses drank from and it filled them with the inspiration to imagine. At this point, Keats is saying that the bird’s song has filled him with a longing for poetic imagination. We at first thought it was just a longing for summer, because of a pretty song. And here, at the end of line 8, we find that the entire second stanza is set up in premise-conclusion form. The poem’s form lends itself well to this.

There are ten lines in each of the eight stanzas, broken into three clumps. The first two clumps are of four lines and then there is a final, two line ending. In stanza II, the first two sections begin with parallel summaries of the next three lines, respectively: ‘O, for a draught of vintage…O for a beaker full of warm South.’ The second summary is an expansion of the meaning in the first line. It is not a drink of old memory, but a pitcher of warmth. If the second section is building on the first, what is the necessary poetic conclusion? It is that Keats ‘might drink, and leave the world unseen’ (19). This only makes sense. Everything in stanza II is unseen and only the song of the bird has inspired Keats to produce it. But Keats has not seen ‘the country green’ or ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim.’ The unseen world can be no other world than the world he has made with his poetry. And this world goes far beyond Keats. It is a world that comes upon him with the song of the bird. What else should Keats conclude, but that his poetry has accessed something beyond himself? He did not make his own heart ache. The bird did. Like Daedalus giving the idea of flight to Icarus, Keats only attempts poetic imagination because of the nightingale’s song. Like Daedalus and Icarus, Keats tries flying with the bird, but cannot sustain his flight of poetry. The bird flies on towards a new world—and Keats, having flown too high for a mortal, falls.

Throughout history, there have been mystics obsessed with birds for this very reason. Mystics consider the bird as the perfect symbol of longing for an unseen world. Why? Because birds are from the world above and they come singing a beautiful and unintelligible language. It is that language that grants us intimations of immortality–provides us with glimpses of the divine. We cannot, however, maintain the moment of beauty. It flies and fades past us and we try to capture it, like Keats, ‘on the viewless wings of Poesy’ (33). We are filled with dissatisfaction, because it leaves us. The mystics are the ones who find themselves beset with a longing to hold beauty eternally. Mystics long for death—for mystics believe that this reality is a dream, a shade of the immortal beauty beyond.

We find all these elements in Keat’s poem Ode to a Nightingale. There is a bird, a ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’ (7) and its beauty causes his heart to ache. His heart aches, because the bird teaches him of a world beyond his own, for ‘thou wast not made for death, immortal bird!’ He wants then to die, ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death.’ This encounter is fleeting and his mind cannot grasp the full meaning of the encounter. Keats is experiencing a moment of mystic longing…with one key difference. Instead of the bird being a messenger of the divine heavens, it is a symbol of the undying beauty in nature. This is the longing to reach beyond death and become immortal. ‘O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth’ (11-12). In the end, like a good mystic, Keats questions whether his entire life is the dream and whether by dying he might wake up into immortality.

The answer is yes.

The Young Man who Flees

The main question at hand was, “Did John Mark write the Gospel of Mark?” Most people who argue for the authorship of John Mark point to various testimonies in the Early Church after many decades had passed. Papias, Irenaeus, and Jerome all claim that Mark was using the eyewitness testimony of Peter. For evidence, some scholars will do in-depth analyses of the text itself, looking at places where the author comments on Peter’s internal thoughts. Other scholars have suggested that Mark put himself in the narrative, unidentified, as the young man who flees naked in the Garden of Gethsemane, recorded in 15:51-52. I grew up assuming this particular character was the evangelist himself and that he was just too embarrassed to mention his name. Surprisingly, it turns out that the character of Peter and the presence of this young man in the Garden of Gethsemane are connected—but it has nothing to do with the identity of the author. Whoever the author of Mark was (and I believe a compelling case could be made for John Mark), it seems clear that the Evangelist inserted real historical events—and omitted others—with purpose. The author was not inserting the event of the fleeing young man to reveal his personal character, but rather to reveal the character of the disciples.

From a brief scan over all the passages before the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are a core group of followers that surrounded Jesus who are made distinct from other groups. This contrast is made early on in 3:7-21. There is πολὺ πλῆθος (τὸν ὂχλον) who follow Jesus as one great mass throughout many scenes and then there is the twelve disciples listed right afterwards in 3:16-19. These are ὰποστουλος, who Jesus called to send out in v. 14 (αποστελει). Right here at the very beginning of the Gospel, we are met with an expectation for who these people ought to be (ἱνα ἀποστελλῃ αὐτους κηρυσσειν καυ ἐχειν ἐξουσιαν εκβαλλειν τα δαιμονια). Sometimes, they do what they’re supposed to (6:13), sometimes they don’t (9:18, 9:28). This happens often in the text; as soon as Mark introduces an expectation for the disciples, that expectation is either met or failed. Another example of this is in 9:37 (Ὁς ἀν ἑν τῶν τοιουτων παιδιων δεξηται ἐπι τῷ ὀνοματι μου, ἐμε δεχεται), which the disciples firmly disobey in 10:13 (οἱ δὲ μαθηται ἐπετιμησαν αὐτοῖς). Again, in 9:35, Jesus says that his disciples must be the last of all. But in 10:35-40, James and John ask to be first of all in heaven! What are we supposed to make of this? Only that the disciples do not understand what it means to be a disciple, much less understand what Jesus is really doing (6:51-52, 8:4, 7:18, 8:14-21, 9:32). Instead of looking at those passages where the incomprehension of the disciples is clearly stated, I want to look at Jesus’ reply to James and John at 10:38. In reply to their obvious bad discipleship, Jesus asks them if they can join him in his Passion and he asks “δυνασθε πιεῖν το ποτηριον ὁ ἐγω πινω?” We get this same word, ποτηριον, in 14:36, when Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane to God, asking that God will take away the very thing from him that James and John said they were able to drink in v. 39. And just a few verses later from 14:36, we get the young man, νεανισκος, fleeing and leaving behind his σινδων behind.

To understand how 14:51-52 is connected to the ensuing passion of Jesus, I want to take us back to the nature of the character ὀχλος. Remember I said that this group is quite distinct from the interior group of disciples. The ὀχλος are frequently the ones receiving the ministry of Christ and following him around, ἠκολουθησεν (3:7). The young man has this same relationship to Jesus in 14:51 (συνηκολουθει αυτῷ). Of course, his disciples have the same relationship to Jesus (6:1, ἀκολουθοῦσιν αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηται αὐτοῦ). I want to suggest that the crowd, because they relate to Jesus in the same way as followers, are supposed to be compared and contrasted with the disciples. The disciples are the interior group of followers and are, therefore, supposed to understand (4:34), but the crowd seems to understand at times who Jesus is. We see this in the proclamation of 7:37, “Καλῶς παντα πεποιηκεν, και τους κωφους ποιεῖ ἀκουειν και ἀλαλους λαλεῖν.” However, this proclamation by the crowd might not demonstrate comprehension, either. Maybe we are to have these kinds of proclamations in mind when we read of Jesus quoting Isaiah in 4:12 as a warning. The quote from Isaiah in 7:6-7 might also be applied. Maybe, too, is the crowd’s amazement and pleasure with Jesus (12:37) to be compared with Peter’s proclamation of Jesus as the Christ (8:29). It might be noted that in the Gospel of Mark, Peter acts as the first of the disciples. His character seems diagnostic of the whole interior group. And Peter might perceive who Jesus is, but does he understand? We are left asking if just recognizing Jesus, as the crowd and Peter do, is all it means to be a disciple.

Right before Peter’s confession, we essentially see Jesus asking his disciples if they are just like the crowd. Jesus does this by referencing the same quote from Isaiah about perceiving and not understanding (8:17-21). That first Isaiah quote (4:12) was in reference to the crowd, because Jesus said, “ἐκεινοις δε τοῖς ἐξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τα παντα γινεται” and in 3:33-34 it says that Jesus only spoke to the crowd in parables. We are to conclude that the crowd is even more contrasted with the disciples in this way, as the ones who are outside and do not receive the special information. My main point here is this: even if Jesus explains things to the disciples, they remain just as confused as the crowd—and, therefore, perhaps just as unfaithful. This whole comparison between the crowd and the disciples goes to show that discipleship is about something else besides just receiving the right knowledge, the right name, the right word.

Jesus’ parable of the sower goes to show this point—and we even get Jesus to explain it for us. Up until the point of the Garden of Gethsemane, it is still uncertain whether the disciples have only heard the word, but will lose it as soon as tribulation comes (4:17). That is the question: when tribulation comes, will the disciples do what they are supposed to?

Remember that Jesus initially called them to himself, so that they might be sent out. What does it mean for them to be sent out? We are supposed to conclude that to be one of the disciples means to be sent out (3:14). But what does that mean? As you will see, it ultimately means following Jesus to his death. The real test of whether or not the word heard has taken root in your heart is if, when tribulation comes, you do not flee. Discipleship is the difference between ακολουθειν and εφυγειν. I find it interesting that when Jesus preaches on this in 8:34, he addresses both the disciples and the crowd, “And calling the crowd to himself with his disciples he said to them, ‘If anyone wants to follow me, he must deny himself and take his cross and follow me.’” Earlier, we saw that Jesus said that James and John will fulfill their discipleship by taking the ποτηριον he himself does not want (10:39). But so too will others, as Jesus predicts in 9:1.

At this point, you might be wondering why I have even brought in a discussion of the crowd at all in this essay. Wouldn’t it have been enough to simply discuss how the disciples seem unprepared for the higher calling of following Jesus to the Passion? Yes, if I was writing an essay on the disciples. But, I am writing an essay on the young man who flees in 14:51-52. You are now prepared, I hope, to see how the young man who flees is related to the disciples.

We have seen how the crowd is what is called in literature a foil. A foil is a character whose purpose is to emphasize and contrast with another character, so that the foil itself is only relevant in the way it reveals key truths about the main character. In the case of the Gospel of Mark, the disciples are the main character and the main question is whether or not they will see their discipleship through to death. The crowd is the main foil, but occasionally out of the crowd emerges an individual figure. I will briefly mention two individual foils, foils who prepare us to understand the flight of the young man:

In 10:17-22, we get an unidentified wealthy man: “And getting himself ready for the way, someone ran up and knelt down at him…”  This wealthy man asks what he is supposed to do to be saved, and Jesus says he is to “ἀκολουθει μοι.” We know what the cost is, because Jesus just told us what it is in 8:35-36. This unidentified man knows that being a disciple means (basically) losing your life and he decides against it. We immediately see why Mark added in this scene of the wealthy man, because Mark told us what the expectations are for a disciple prior to the scene.

In Mark 10:46-52, we get the healing of Bartimaeus. This particular foil is especially lucid for us, because like the νεανισκος, he also casts off his cloak! ἀποβαλλων τὸ ἱματιον (10:50). The difference is that he is throwing off his cloak in joy, but the νεανισκος does it for some other reason. From the context, the casting off of his ἱματιον is nothing more than a gesture of strong emotion. He is clearly excited to see Jesus, because he cries out ‘κραζειν’ twice. In v. 52, we get this: “‘Go, your faith has saved you.’ And immediately he saw again and followed him (ἠκολουθει αὐτῷ) on the way.” Bartimaeus, unlike the foil before, has the right posture of a disciple.

Now, we get the last foil: νεανισκος. As we have seen, the foils in the Gospel work to show how either the disciples have succeeded or failed in meeting the expectations set for them by Jesus. What are the expectations for the disciples before 14:51-52? In 14:27, Jesus says, “Παντες σκανδαλισθησεσθε.” That is the same word (σκανδαλιζονται) used in the parable of the sower to describe those who will fall away in time of tribulation (4:17). Surely, here in 14:27, we get Jesus elucidating the point he made in that parable about what it means to fall away when διωγμος arises—he was talking about the disciples! Like every time before, we see the disciples encountering the expectation made for them. Their failure is in 14:50: και ἀφεντες αὐτον ἐφυγον παντες. Like every time before, we get a foil to the disciples. The flight of the young man goes to show that all the disciples had fallen away and failed to follow Christ into death. We know the young man is associated with the disciples (and all previous foils), because ‘συνηκολουθει αὐτῷ’. Perhaps there is no merit to this, but if the young man is associated with the crowd, then his flight shows that all have abandoned Jesus. It is as if the crowd all once worshipped Jesus, but in this moment of tribulation, that following crowd has now been whittled down to one, last unidentified character. And he, too, abandons Jesus.

One scholar I read suggested that this flight of the youth is a checkpoint on the way to Peter’s denial of Jesus in 14:66-72. At this point, we can see that this is not only possible, but likely. Peter, who once proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, now in a moment of διωγμος, does not let the word take root in him. Some scholars I read mocked a symbolic analysis of the text. Here, we cannot help ourselves. Embracing discipleship means embracing death, as Jesus taught, but the young man leaves behind a σινδων (14:52). This is the same kind of garment that is used as a burial cloth for Jesus (15:46). The only perfect disciple was Jesus, who did not shrink back from διωγμος, who was wrapped in a σινδων, and οὐκ εφυγεν τοῦ ποτηριοῦ.

 

Bibliography

Burkitt, F. Crawford. Historical Character of the Gospel of Mark. The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 15, No. 2 (April, 1911), 169-193. The University of Chicago Press.

De Witt Burton, Ernest. The Purpose and Plan of the Gospel of Mark. The Biblical World, Vol. 15, No. 4 (April, 1900), 250-255. The University of Chicago Press.

Harmon, G.M. Peter: The Man and the Epistles. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1898), 31-39. The Society of Biblical Literature.

Hasan, Michael J. The Naked Young Man: A Historian’s Hypothesis on Mark 14:51-52. Biblical, Vol. 79, No. 4 (1998), 525-531. Peeters Publishers.

Jackson, Howard. Why the Youth Shed His Cloak and Fled Naked: The Meaning and Purpose of Mark 14:51-52. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 116, No. 2 (Summer, 1997), 273-289. The Society of Biblical Literature.

Matera, Frank J. The Incomprehension of the Disciples and Peter’s Confession (Mark 6:15-8:30). Biblical, Vol. 70, No. 2 (1989), 153-172. Peeters Publishers.

Muddiman, John. Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark. Newsletter (National Conference on Literature and Religion), No. 9 (October, 1986), 2-3. Oxford University Press.

Sanderson, Barbara. Gethsemane: The Missing Witness. Biblica, Vol. 70, No. 2 (1989), 224-233. Peeters Publishers.