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“Ode to a Nightingale,” by John Keats, details a speaker in thought whilst observing a nightingale singing nearby. This is not the only time in which Keats writes from the perspective of a pondering speaker, such as in “When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” but “Ode to a Nightingale” separates itself from Keats’ other work by using a different tone, different syntactical structure, and metaphor.
“Ode to a Nightingale” opens with the speaker describing how his heart “aches” and that a “drowsy numbness pains” his whole being, as though he had drank a poison or “emptied some dull opiate” (Nightingale 1-3). The speaker is looking to express a sense of pain and dread within him, as if he had taken a drug that was meant to hurt him. The speaker is living in pain. Conversely, the speaker in “When I have Fears” is talking about fear. The speaker fears an early death; he wants to have “high piled books” that hold his words like “rich garners [holding] the full-ripen’d grain,”(Fears 3-4).
The difference in the two speakers is that the speaker in “When I have Fears” has some hope within him (intrinsically by his fear of an early death instead of acceptance of the possibility) to not die before writing what he sees himself capable of, while the speaker in “Nightingale” has completely succumbed to his feelings of dread, pain and heartache. Keal uses both speakers to portray a sense of despair within both poems, but the emphasis on pain in “Ode to a Nightingale” gives a point of contrast from “When I have Fears that I May Cease to Be’s” emphasis on fear.
Keats also uses structure to contrast his works. From a perspective standpoint, both poems are a look into the respective speaker’s thoughts, with the speaker intentionally unidentified. Being written “Ode to a Nightingale” features eight stanzas with 10 lines of poetry per stanza. ‘When I have Fears,” conversely, is a sonnet, containing 14 lines of poetry within one stanza. “Nightingale” features an AB, AB, CDE, CDE rhyming scheme for each stanza, while “When I have Fears” uses an AB, AB, CD, CD, EF, EF, GG scheme for the entire work. The varying lengths allow the respective poems to come into their own. When I have Fears” is more compact; the speaker describes his fear as if it were nothing new to him. “Nightingale” being much longer emphasizes the speaker observing an outside force that resonates within him in that moment, despite him also dwelling on personal issues.
The nightingale itself allows Keats to explore a desire within the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale;” escape. The “light-winged Dryad of the trees” sings “of summer in full-throated ease.”(Nightingale 5-10). Its song acts as a reminder of summer, of “[the taste] of Flora,” “the country green,/ Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth”(Nightingale 13-14). The speaker wants “a beaker full of the warm South” and full of “the blushful Hippocrene,”(Nightingale 15-16), a fountain said to have waters that provide poetic inspiration. The world he envisions through the bird’s song provides a stark contrast to the world that he lives in. Living in the leaves, the nightingale has never known “the weariness, the fever,” or “the fret” that exist in the world of man. In this world, men “hear each other groan,” cerebral palsy“shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs” and “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.”(Nightingale 24-26). The speaker sees dread in his life as a human, in which “to think is to be full of sorrow”(Nightingale 27). The nightingale’s song pulls the speaker away from his reality, showing him a world that he desires to live in as well, separated from his humanity.
The nightingale’s song allows Keats to explore an escape for the speaker. Presenting a world created by song; a world that seems far from reality. The fantasy that exists within the speaker’s thoughts in contrast with the pain and reality that he lives in only further pushes the poem’s larger idea on escape. The speaker says that he has been “half in love with easeful Death” and that he “call’d him soft names” to “take into the air [his] quiet breath”(Nightingale 52-53). Calling Death “soft names,” as if the speaker wants to allure death and have it take him away from the doom and despair he calls his life. He sees this moment as the perfect time for him “to cease upon the midnight with no pain” while the bird “[pours] forth thy soul…in such an ecstasy”(Nightingale 56-58). The speaker has accepted death for himself, but sees the bird for much more.
To the speaker, the nightingale “wast not born for death” and his voice “was heard/ In ancient days by emperor and clown” and had “charm’d magic casements…in faery lands forlorn”(Nightingale 61, 63-64, 69-70). The song of the bird represents escape, and the speaker imagines that others have lived in his position and also heard the nightingale’s song, specifically mentioning the story of Ruth, in which she leaves her husband for another man because of a famine. Keats, in alluding to Ruth through his speaker, addresses the notion of many people living in this state of dread and desire for escape from their painful realities.
The final stanza sees the speaker of “Nightingale” snapping back to reality. The word “forlorn” works to “toll [him] back” to “[his] sole self” and pull him away from the fantasy that the nightingale’s song had sent him to (Nightingale 71-72). He ends the poem confused; the bird’s song has faded away, and the speaker asks himself “Do I wake or sleep?”(Nightingale 80). He does not know whether the nightingale was real or an illusion, and he does not know whether he was dreaming or if he was awake while pondering about the bird. Fantasy and reality have been blurred for the speaker, and Keats capitalizes on this. In “When I have Fears,” Keats separates reality from the fears within the speaker, but in “Nightingale,” the speaker’s reality as he watches the bird and the fantasy that the bird’s song elicits is blended into one. In blending reality and fantasy, Keats makes the idea of escape less tangible. Despite the speaker seeming to have found a world of summer and warmth in the bird’s song, he ends the poem back at square one, except now unsure if he truly can escape the dread he lives in.
Ultimately, structural and thematic differences allow John Keats to distinguish “Ode to a Nightingale” from his other work “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” and show a person in a bleak reality with no way to escape.
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