In early March of 1997, my English 102 junior college professor assigned everyone in the class a poem that we had to interpret, give a presentation based on our interpretation and finally submit a short overview of our interpretation. I was assigned “Ode to a Nightingale” by the poet John Keats (1795-1821). What started out as an impossible task of interpreting Keats turned into one of the best papers I wrote in college.
I was a terrible writer all the way through high school and it carried over into junior college. I went to junior college in the beginning of my undergraduate studies because I was immature, a terrible student, too poor to afford traditional college and not sure what I wanted to go to school for. At 21, I was just starting my march toward my degree when many of my high school classmates were preparing to march for graduation.
When receiving the news on drawing one of Keats’ famous odes, I quickly informed my professor that I needed another poem to work with since I did not understand much of the language that Keats used. She informed me that I could not change the poem I was assigned and that she believed I could complete the assignment with good results.
The presentations were to take place later on in March so I started reading interpretations from professional writers on the subject of Keats. They did not resonate with me and I thought they all sounded the same. It seemed like nobody knew how to truly interpret Keats’ ode to a bird he witnessed in a tree, and I was about to be dumb enough to use their reviews as my own.
When it became my turn to give my presentation on Keats, the results were the worst I ever experienced as a student. My professor actually left the room during my time at the podium. When everyone noticed she left, my one classmate told me I could stop now in the nicest way possible without embarrassing me any further. Ten days away from submitting the written part of this assignment and I had zero hope of turning in any credible work.
Two days after my most gut-wrenching moment as a student, I came to the conclusion that I had to put aside all of the professional interpretations and create an interpretation that represents my own, unique opinion as to what Keats was really saying in, “Ode to a Nightingale”. I submitted my final draft with no expectations of a grade higher than a B- since my interpretation was far different than anything I ever read about that poem.
When I got the results back in early April, I couldn’t believe my final grade and what was written underneath the grade:
“A superb interpretation of a grand classic–well developed, much insight and well written.”
I only let one person from my class read that paper. It was the student who told me to stop my presentation when our professor left the room. She couldn’t understand how I crafted this unique take on a Keats classic after I completely screwed up during the presentation portion of the assignment. She claimed that my paper was the best class paper she ever read, but since we were both walking in circles at a Pittsburgh junior college, I didn’t think her complement had a lot of weight attached to it.
Nineteen years later, I have decided to share this same paper with anyone who is having trouble crafting an assignment on Keats. It is my own view on what Keats was actually expressing in “Ode to a Nightingale”. Since I prepared this for an introductory course, the length is under 1,000 words. At the end I included my works cited, and yes, one of the books I acquired information from was written in 1899. Holding that book in my hands was a delicate process since I feared the spine of the book would peel away from the pages.
Before reading my interpretation, here is the poem. Read the first four stanzas on the left, then move to the top right:
(Written on March 31, 1997)
In 1819, a friend of John Keats named Charles Brown described how Keats created “Ode to a Nightingale”. Brown claimed that upon one sunny morning in the spring of 1819, Keats took a chair from his breakfast table out into the backyard and sat under a plum tree with pen and pad in hand. Up in the tree was a male nightingale resting, for his day (which was night) was coming to a close. By observing the bird, Keats was reminded of its graceful song and its carefree lifestyle, a life Keats wished he could lead. From this wish “Ode to a Nightingale” was created. The only way Keats could escape into the world of the nightingale was through his poetry as stated in lines 31 through 33:
Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
In stanza one Keats tries to forget about his painful life caused by the early death of his brother Tom in December of 1818, and his discovery that he contracted tuberculosis from Tom while he was dying. Keats uses words such as opiate (opium) and Lethe-wards (river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) to symbolize forgetfulness. At the middle of stanza one Keats shifts his attention to the nightingale in the tree. In line 9 the nightingale is described as having “shadows numberless” and in line 10 he sings in “full-throated ease”. These two lines create an impression that the nightingale’s world is full of life and health. These two qualities that the nightingale possesses are the same two qualities that Keats wishes for.
In stanza two Keats imagines that he can enter the world of the nightingale. In lines 11 through 20 Keats would love to taste (experience) the countryside as much as he loves to drink a well-aged wine. Keats continues this fantasy into stanza three, and at the same time reminds the nightingale in lines 21 through 30 why he wants to follow him into the countryside. In line 26 Keats is believed to be talking about his deceased brother Tom, further emphasizing his need to release himself from his worrisome life.
In stanza four, Keats comes back from the imaginary world and back into reality. Stanza four is simply the setting for stanzas five and six. The moonlight in line 36 symbolizes Keats’ imagination toward the life of the nightingale at the twilight of the night. The darkness described in line 38 symbolizes Keats’ belief that death will be upon him very soon in the future. In stanza five Keats describes a funeral scene that may resemble his brother Tom’s ceremony. In stanza six, Keats admits his preoccupation with death and calls upon spirits to take his soul away.
Keats enters the world of the nightingale for the final time in stanza seven. Keats reminds the nightingale that humans do not hunt them for food (lines 61 and 62), but have enjoyed their song throughout the ages, especially in times of despair as Keats expresses in lines 63 through 70:
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
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
For the eighth and final stanza, Keats returns to reality as stated in lines 71 and 72:
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Lines 73 and 74 conjure up a belief that Keats’ long time love Fanny Brawne, is having sexual relations with another man:
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Keats believes that she is not in love with him anymore. Because of the tuberculosis, Brawne cannot receive the love she desires from Keats. Keats is confident that this belief is true, and reflects this in lines 75 through 78:
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:
The nightingale’s fading song symbolizes the slow loss of life in Keats. This is caused by Keats’ belief that Fanny Brawne has a relationship with another man and his bout with tuberculosis. Keats now believes that he has no reason to live, so he shows this by the nightingale’s long journey to the forest (the symbol of life now far away). In the final two lines of the poem (79 and 80), Keats wonders if the nightingale he saw in the tree was real or in a dream that he was having:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?
In line 80, Keats asks how he can hear the beautiful song of the nightingale once again. If the encounter was in a dream, then Keats will go out and seek the nightingale’s song. If the encounter was real, then Keats will dream about the beautiful song of the nightingale.
Stanza eight unveils the stage of Keats’ illness at the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats now accepts that he is losing his lady love and his life because of tuberculosis. Keats enjoyed observing anything that reminded him of his wondrous, romantic lifestyle before his illness, including the beautiful melody of a nightingale’s song.
Abrams, M.H., et al., eds. 20th Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1968.
Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.
Jacobus, Lee A. Literature: An Introduction to Critical Reading. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1996. 844-846.
“The Complete Poetical Works of Keats”. Cambridge 7th ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.