43 Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.10
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath 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, the blushful 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 away into the forest dim:20
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 groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray 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.30
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though 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
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.40
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 cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.50
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 forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.60
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 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;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.70
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?80
Notes on the Ode to a Nightingale
In the early months of 1819 Keats was living with his friend Brown at Hampstead (Wentworth Place). In April a nightingale built her nest in the garden, and Brown writes: ‘Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast table to the grass-plot under a plum, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale. The writing was not well legible, and it was difficult to arrange the stanza on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this was his Ode to a Nightingale.’
Page 107. l. 4. Lethe. Cf. Lamia, i. 81, note.
l. 7. Dryad. Cf. Lamia, i. 5, note.
Page 108. l. 13. Flora, the goddess of flowers.
l. 14. sunburnt mirth. An instance of Keats’s power of concentration. The people are not mentioned at all, yet this phrase conjures up a picture of merry, laughing, sunburnt peasants, as surely as could a long and elaborate description.
l. 15. the warm South. As if the wine brought all this with it.
l. 16. Hippocrene, the spring of the Muses on Mount Helicon.
l. 23. The weariness . . . fret. Cf. ‘The fretful stir unprofitable and the fever of the world’ in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, which Keats well knew.
Page 109. l. 26. Where youth . . . dies. See Introduction to the Odes, p. 230.
l. 29. Beauty . . . eyes. Cf. Ode on Melancholy, ‘Beauty that must die.’
l. 32. Not . . . pards. Not wine, but poetry, shall give him release from the cares of this world. Keats is again obviously thinking of Titian’s picture (Cf. Lamia, i. 58, note).
l. 40. Notice the balmy softness which is given to this line by the use of long vowels and liquid consonants.
Page 110. ll. 41 seq. The dark, warm, sweet atmosphere seems to enfold us. It would be hard to find a more fragrant passage.
l. 50. The murmurous . . . eves. We seem to hear them. Tennyson, inspired by Keats, with more self-conscious art, uses somewhat similar effects, e.g.:
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
The Princess, vii.
l. 51. Darkling. Cf. The Eve of St. Agnes, l. 355, note.
l. 61. Thou . . . Bird. Because, so far as we are concerned, the nightingale we heard years ago is the same as the one we hear to-night. The next lines make it clear that this is what Keats means.
l. 64. clown, peasant.
l. 67. alien corn. Transference of the adjective from person to surroundings. Cf. Eve of St. Agnes, l. 16; Hyperion, iii. 9.
ll. 69-70. magic . . . forlorn. Perhaps inspired by a picture of Claude’s, ‘The Enchanted Castle,’ of which Keats had written before in a poetical epistle to his friend Reynolds—’The windows [look] as if latch’d by Fays and Elves.’
Page 112. l. 72. Toll. To him it has a deeply melancholy sound, and it strikes the death-blow to his illusion.
l. 75. plaintive. It did not sound sad to Keats at first, but as it dies away it takes colour from his own melancholy and sounds pathetic to him. Cf. Ode on Melancholy: he finds both bliss and pain in the contemplation of beauty.
ll. 76-8. Past . . . glades. The whole country speeds past our eyes in these three lines.