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.