A Call to Consciousness: John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’

BY Marlena Figge TIMEMarch 17, 2023 PRINT

So many things demand our attention in this fast-paced age that we’re tempted to just passively watch rather than expend energy to actively observe, not just to see but to truly behold. John Keats confronted the temptation of this passivity in 1819 when he composed “Ode to a Nightingale,” which would become one of the most famous poems in English literature.

Keats had just come inside from his garden in Hampstead after a few hours of listening to the nightingale’s song. He carried a few scraps of paper scrawled over with the lines of the ode, a lyric poem written to praise its subject. Filled with grief over the recent death of his brother, he struggled against the urge to check out of reality and enjoy comfortable inactivity.

John Keats
John Keats composed “Ode to a Nightingale,” which would become one of the most famous poems in English literature. “Posthumous Portrait of John Keats,” circa 1822, by William Hilton. National Portrait Gallery, London (Public Domain)

Instead, to appreciate the beauty around him, Keats fully engaged himself with the world. For most of us, birdsong would probably be a background noise, pleasant but hardly life-changing. For Keats, however, with his ability to not only see but behold, he turned the reality of a lovely birdsong into art.

His ode begins with a gaze turned inward as the speaker says, “A drowsy numbness pains/My sense.” But he’s roused to active contemplation of the world in spite of himself. Keats’s nightingale commences its song in “full-throated ease,” and the movement of the song prompts a movement within the listener.

We’re drawn along with him into a reflection on mortality and the desperation for an escape from suffering. Keats presents us with a means of reconciling ourselves with a world of pains and sorrows, and he closes his poem with a question to leave the reader with a sense of freedom to act rather than just waiting for death.

Escape Plan

As much as we would love to enjoy eternal freedom, our activity sooner or later must draw to a close. Each organic motion signifies that a life is one step closer to its end. Not so with Keats’s nightingale, which he views as a beautiful immortal being, free from mortal constraints. The speaker craves that same freedom, and he contemplates several ways to get it.

First, he turns to alcohol to sidestep the suffering in life. But no sooner has he settled upon drinking to “leave the world unseen” than his thoughts plummet once more to the world, where:

youth grows pale and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs.

The speaker then turns to poetry, hoping to fly to the nightingale’s world “on the viewless wings of Poesy.” For a moment, he believes himself to truly be in the faery land of the nightingale, but verses full of starlight and moonbeams clash with the reality that “here there is no light,” and so the world of mortality bleeds through the pages of poetry.

John Keats
John Keats wrote his poem on a scrap of paper shown in this holograph of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” written in May 1819. (Public Domain)

At last, acknowledging that an exclusively joyful existence is impossible, Keats presents us with the principal dilemma of the poem: Would a painless oblivion be preferable to a life filled with both joy and sorrow? The speaker confesses that he has been “half in love with easeful Death,” but the drawback is that there’s no enjoyment of beauty and freedom in oblivion. In this perception of death, we would simply cease to be, “to thy high requiem become a sod,” insensible to pain and joy in what would be less than sleep.

The world of the nightingale grows increasingly distant. The bird soars out of reach until, finally, Keats gives us what G.K. Chesterton calls “the most potent piece of pure magic in English literature.” Keats writes that the nightingale’s song has “charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn,” and with this, the nightingale’s song fades. The speaker wakes from his reverie.

With this final depiction of the nightingale’s world, Keats has so far distanced the bird from the world of humanity that it now seems a deity, an immortal being whose art not only charms different generations but also different worlds.

We’re left face-to-face with our own world and our own mortality. Just as the nightingale has flown beyond the hearing of the speaker, so too the reader must now move beyond the bird’s song. We can’t remain stationary; we must embrace art so as to arrive at a new understanding of life.

Wake Up Call

Keats leaves the poem unresolved, closing with two questions at the departure of the nightingale:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

This isn’t merely uncertainty at his state; it’s a question of where to go from here.

He may not have found a way to rid life of suffering, but he can now prompt us to make a decision in favor of an active appreciation of beauty in life. Keats shows in the opening of the poem that perfect insensibility is no more possible for us than the nightingale’s immortality. Even as he tries to block out all painful sensations, the speaker says:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.

Life is inherently a movement and, if we can’t escape suffering, we can allow beauty to move us so that, rather than passively waiting for death to come, we may approach it confidently, having engaged fully with the beauty life has to offer.

Marlena Figge received her M.A. in Italian Literature from Middlebury College in 2021 and graduated from the University of Dallas in 2020 with a B.A. in Italian and English. She currently has a teaching fellowship and teaches English at a high school in Italy.
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