Saturday, 25 April 2015

Ode to a Nightingale: A Critical Analysis

Ode to a Nightingale: A Critical Analysis

Ode to a Nightingale is one of the famous odes of John Keats. It addresses a bird, Nightingale which stands for an ideal world where everything exists in a perfect order. It may symbolise the pure or unmixed joy. It may also stand for an artist and its song for a perfect piece of art. But the poem is structured around a series of binaries of ideal and real, joy and pain, intensity of feeling and numbness or lack of feeling and life and death.  The poet wavers between these binaries throughout the poem. Even at the end of the poem he is doubtful of the existence of the ideal world of the Nightingale as well as his imaginative flight into that world. His conflict and doubt may be attributed to his ‘negative capability’, capability of being in mysteries, uncertainties and in doubt. This conflict forms the heart of the poem and makes it more appealing to the reader.
                The poem begins with the poet listening to the song of Nightingale. His senses become numb and dull due to the excess of feelings of joy that Nightingale is pouring forth in his song: “MY heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pain/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk”. The poet compares this state of numbness to a state of having drunk hemlock, a poisonous European herb, or consumed an opiate and “Lethe wards sunk.” Lethe is an allusion to one of the five rivers of the Ancient Greek underworld, Hades. The Ancient Greeks believed that a soul drank from Lethe before reincarnation to eradicate the memory of their previous life. The repetition of ‘s’ in ‘a drowsy numbness pains my sense,’ combined with the long ‘o’ and ‘a’ sounds, sonically reflects the speaker’s soporific state .The poet’s ambivalent emotional response, which constitutes a mixture of pain and pleasure, to the song of Nightingale is possibly due to the imperfect nature of human mind and its inability to experience the absolute happiness. That’s why perhaps P.B. Shelley says in To a Skylark :  “We look before and after, / And pine for what is not:/  Our sincerest laughter/ With some pain is fraught;/ Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought”.
              In the next stanza the poet longs for wine to “fade away” in the mystic world of Nightingale. The description of the beautifully picturesque, sensuous and appeals to our different senses. This wine not only consists in all the goodness of flowers and country green but also it evokes the entire festive mood merry making in an idyllic village: “Tasting of Flora and the country-green,/Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!”. In the next stanza the poet stops his imaginative flight for a while and comes back to the real world of “The weariness, the fever, and the fret” what Nightingale “among the leaves hast never known”.  Here youth and beauty are transitory and thinking only causes despair. So the poet decides to escape into the world of Nightingale again not by dint of wine but by poetic imagination, “ the viewless wings of poesy”. Now the poet reaches the world of nightingale. In spite of the presence of the full moon, it is dimly lighted because of the dense green forest which casts “verdurous gloom” and allows a meagre amount of moon light to reach the earth through its “mossy ways”.

                  The 5th  Stanza is the climax of the poet’s imaginative flight.  It is a rich description of the speaker’s surroundings. It is so dark that he identifies the plants and flowers around him through their scents, employing olfactory imagery. But the stanza gives the impression of the juxtaposition of beauty and death as Keats refers to an “embalmed darkness”, “Fast fading violet covered up in leaves” and the allusion to the funeral flower of musk-rose. Keats seems to be telling us that death does not mean the end of beauty for his soul. Death maybe is not just a release from the earthly confinements and mortal pains but also the way to perpetuate the moment of ecstasy. This is clearly expressed in the next stanza. The intensification of contrasting feelings of pain and pleasure turns into his death wish:I have been half in love with easeful Death,/ Call'd him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,/ To take into the air my quiet breath;/ Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” .But the poet’s attitude to death is ambivalent as he realises that death will not bring him closer to nightingale. It leads the poet to non-existence, inability to feel the bird's ecstasy:  “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.”
            The meditative trance with which the poem begins and which reaches its peak in the fourth and fifth stanzas and that starts declining in the sixth, continues in the stanza VII through the mundane images of "hungry generations". The poet again compares the nightingale’s care free state of existence to his present one, in which “hungry generations tread” each other for survival. Nightingales’s song also soothed agony of the distressed soul to different persons (Ancient emperor, clown, Biblical homesick Ruth and captive princess of the Middle age) at different times in the past. Though they sought inspiration from the song of nightingale, they could never be united with nightingale remained at their solitary state of his existence. The solitary state of the existence of the captive princess reminds the poet that of his own, the unbridgeable distance between the poet and the nightingale. The widening of this eternal gap is marked by the slow rhythm of the verses towards the end of the poem.

           This decline, this awareness and awakening will be completed with the transition between this penultimate stanza and the last as the word "forlorn" (l.79 and l.80) closes the former and opens the latter with a change in its meaning, the second one referring to the dreamer, now back to his "sole self”(l.72), to the physical and real world, and the Romantic flight of imagination not being sustained any more..  "Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well" (l.73) It is the end of the poet’s exaltation. That stanza VIII begins with the poet bidding farewell to the nightingale. The bird has ceased to be a symbol and is again the actual bird the poet heard in stanza I, closing in a perfect circle the poem. The bird flies away to another spot to sing, but he cannot follow it as he had hoped; he had only momentarily been separated from himself by its song. Even as he listens, the melody fades into the distance like an illusion, slowly. The end of the dream, the return to reality is also accompanied with a hard awareness as a painful pilgrimage that the Ode has been: the knowledge of the limitation of the power of imagination which is identified with the nightingale and that parallelism is made complete when imagination departs the poet at the same time the nightingale does.

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