Critical Analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats

John Keats poems “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” exist for the purpose of describing a moment in life, such as a brief song of a nightingale and scene depicted on an urn; within each moment there exists a multitude of emotions, and changing from one to another indefinably. Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” deals with the perplexing and indefinable relationship between life and art. Paradoxically, it is the life of the urn that would normally associate with stillness, melancholy and bereavement that is shown to be representative of life. In “Ode to a Nightingale” a visionary happiness is communing with the nightingale as its song is contrasted with the dead weight of human grief and sicknesses, and the transience of youth and beauty. The odes are similar in many ways as in both Keats depicts the symbols of immortality and escapism, and grief to joy. However, the symbol of nightingale is a reality dealing with the nature and the urn is a fantasy, a piece of art. Both require different senses for admiring. By comparing the elements of poems, it is evident that all aspects relate directly to the human spirit and emotions.

The nightingale and urn are symbols of immortality, a symbol of continuity of nature and art respectively. In the “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats contrasts the birds’ immortality with the mortality of human beings as he states “Here where men sit and hear each other groan, where Palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, where youth grows pale, and specter-thin, and dies,”(III, 25) but the nightingale, entertaining generations after generations has become an immortal species, so much so that the sound that poet has heard was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown, by Ruth (a virtuous Moabite widow who according to Old Testament Book of Ruth, left her own country to accompany her mother-in-law Naomi, back to Naomi’s native land), where she was amidst the corn, remembering her home town; and also by fairies. The urn in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a large sculpted vessel with Greek figures is an “unravished bride”(I, 1), an immortal perfect object unmarked by the passage of time. As a “Sylvan historian”(I, 3), it provides a record of a distant culture. Although, the urn exists in the real world, which is mutable or subject to changes, yet the life it’s depicting is unchanging.

Next, the poet has beautifully fused pain with imaginary relief or the unconscious joyous things of nature and art. To escape from pain of reality, he begins to move into the world of imagination. When he hears the nightingale, he yearns for fine wine from south France, not to get drunk but to achieve a state of mind, which will give him the pleasure of the company of the beautiful nightingale, “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim:”(II, 19-20) However, the poet realizes that he does not require wine for being with the bird, so chooses the route of flying to her through his poetry. “ Away! Away! for I will fly to thee, Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy…………..And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne, Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays”(IV, 36,37). In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poet experiences the life depicted on the urn and ambiguously comments that the urn “dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity”(V, 45). By teasing him “out of thought” (V stanza) urn draws him from the real world to an ideal, fantasy world. In lines “What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape? What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?,”(I, 5,6,7,8) poet is caught up in excitement, activities and from a keen observer becomes a participant in the life on the urn. He gets emotionally involved in the apparent activities going on including the religious sacrifice of the cow, “Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead’st thou heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?”(IV, 31,32,33,34) Thus, in both the odes, Keats tried to free himself from the painful world by identifying with the nightingale, representing nature, or the urn, representing art.

The inner pain and grief engulfing the poet is revealed in a very subtle manner in both the odes of discussion. Even when the speaker is in the imaginative world with the nightingale, he is thinking of death in “embalmed darkness.” Gradually the feeling of being embalmed becomes a wish for death. He also realizes that death means he could no longer hear the bird song and will be non-existent. Suddenly the beautiful bird song seems to him more like “requiem”(VI, 60), a song of death. As the reality is painful, poet realizes that, “fancy”(VIII, 73), has cheated him. The bird is not a symbol anymore but an actual bird that poet had heard in the beginning. The nightingale flies away and its song seems a “plaintive anthem”(VIII, 75), very faint. Its voice is “buried deep”(VIII, 77) refers to its physical distance. As the music goes from his life, the poet wonders whether his end is close. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn” the poet realizes as the figures are frozen, they will never change. Keats emphasizes the feeling of permanence by repeating the words “never, never.”(II, 17) The repetition implies that man will never be able to kiss the maiden because his position will never change, and the space between both of them will never decrease. Poet also realizes when he is no more in this world, the urn would still be there and it will say, “Beauty is Truth and truth beauty…. (V, 49).

In the “Ode to Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn” the symbols contrast. The nightingale is a living creature and a part of nature. In contrast the urn is stationary and a manmade object. Although both symbols signify immortality, and continuity, the symbols contrast in that the nightingale is reality, and the life on the urn is a fantasy with the portrayal of frozen images depicting dynamic life. Both symbols require different senses for admiring. The sense of hearing allows Keats to hear the nightingale’s enchanting music. By listening to the nightingale Keats other senses are mesmerized. In contrast Keats sense of sight allows him to become captivated with the urn. By observing the urn, Keats other senses are awakened.

John Keats presented in his poetry many issues, such as nature, existence and the soul. All of these aspects relate directly to the human spirit. The spiritual nature of Keats poetry concerns itself with exploring human emotions and understanding nature. He wrote the “Ode to a Nightingale” and the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” at a difficult time in his life. As a result there are many similarities and few differences. Together both the similarities and differences, illustrate the human spirit, and a multitude of emotions.





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12 July 2014