Dr. Beth Torgerson
1 May 2020
Britain was an ever-changing landscape in the 18th and 19th centuries, where rapid alterations were made to the ways of living. Romantics like John Keats dealt firsthand with the fallout of political revolutions in France, Haiti and America. These revolutions marked a change in the attitude of what we know now as Romantic England. Keats’ “Ode to A Nightingale” perfectly captures many Romantic tropes and show a poet grappling with social change, emotion, and a deep appreciation for nature. Keats spends eight stanzas pondering the nightingale’s song and appreciating its beauty while condemning man’s nature. The nightingale’s song in “Ode to a Nightingale” is the focalized point, bringing forth Keats’ observations of the disconnect between humans and nature, all which are products of the Romantic era; man’s sudden change of lifestyle which troubled many and brought man further separated from nature and into a place that lacked simplicity and profound pleasure.
In “Ode to a Nightingale”, John Keats ponders man’s new position in the world and longs for the simplicity of the Nightingale’s nature. The Industrial Revolution, spanning from 1760 to around 1820, sparked change for the lifestyles of British individuals. The movement from farming and agriculture and rural lifestyles towards urban lifestyles created the rise of a middle class where before only rich and poor existed. Proma Tagore calls this phenomenon an “Age of Consumption” – where the consumption and/or ingestion of goods became the new lifestyle which poets such as Keats abided by (67). “Ode to a Nightingale” was first published at the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution and thus is impossible to remove from this context. As Tagore gestures to, Keats uses consuming language in his ode, particularly in the first two stanzas where he refers to the “hemlock [he] had drunk” and a “draught of vintage” (lines 2-11). In order to reach a state of bliss, Keats implies man must consume. On its own, this may seem as a neutral sentiment, bearing no negative or positive connotation. However, in contrast to the nightingale’s “ease” while singing its song, it seems that Keats is convinced that there is an inherent “dis-ease” in man’s nature of consumption that has come forth from the revolution. Keats, presumably the speaker of the poem, consumes the nightingales’ song much as he would consume his wine and foods with a “purple-stained mouth” and the “drowsy numbness” which a good wine would allow. Much as Keats admits wine is used to cope with life, he is using the bird’s song, of which he acknowledges is “pouring forth” its soul for consumption. The dis-ease comes as Keats realizes that this is not natural as he listens “in vain”.
Perpetuated by the sudden change of lifestyle, but perhaps always present in human nature, is the longing for emotional fulfillment, a theme present in a range of Keats work but especially prominent in “Ode to a Nightingale”. The poet projects his musings of the intricate relationship between himself and the nightingale; of human and nature. Andrew Kappell explores the ontological difference between humans and nightingales which Keats implies and claims that the bird’s simplicity and joy comes from its obliviousness while humans are painfully aware of reality which they are situated in (272). Ontology, dealing with the nature of being, is vastly different between humans and birds, even though humans are technically as natural as birds. Human life is forever changing and altering to benefit society while birds live the same type of lifestyle over centuries. The changes occurring in the Romantic period directly affected poets like Keats and pushed them to cherish and desire a more natural way of existing as a sort of pushback to newly implemented, industrialized living.
Keats’ assertation of the birds’ immortality brings up the questions of what exactly makes the bird immortal while the human is not. As has been claimed by many Keats scholars, the immortality of the bird has nothing to do with death itself or even life cycles in general but in its simplicity and constancy as a species. “And thus the immortality of the nightingale; it is a question of focus. Nature is always dying but always alive, forever changing but always the same” (Fogle 221). Keats is not dwelling on the mortality of himself or even the human race, as nightingales live the same type of life cycle which includes death. However, the changing pace of humanity is in stark contrast to “ease” in which the nightingale carries on despite its sad song. The nightingale’s song is known historically (aka immortally) as being “solemn and plaintive” and “associated with sadness and pain” (Lawrence 24), despite the joy it brings its consumers and John Keats himself. In the seventh stanza, Keats exclaims “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird! / No hungry generations tread thee down” (61-2), and in doing so he presents the key to this poem’s meaning. “Hungry generations” refers to the greed-based changes occurring in society as generations live on. These changes tread on the happiness of individuals such as Keats who long for the emotional fulfillment they felt they were missing.
“Ode to a Nightingale” is a poem that has been long analyzed and interpreted, and the nightingale’s song lives on as an iconic poetic symbol paid homage to even in modern poetry. Keats, who specialized in the emotional nature of Romantic poetry, digs deep into the implications of the nightingale and his song in relation to humanity as he knew it. The rapid changes occurring simultaneously to the Romantic period influenced the poem “Ode to a Nightingale” as Keats deliberates the immortality of the bird versus the hunger of humanity which created an ache for fulfillment. The profound impact of the natural song on Keats marks the importance of bird song on the joy of humanity, and embraces nature as a most wholesome outlet for both introspection and consumption on a different level than day to day life allows.
Fogle, Richard Harter. “Keats's Ode to a Nightingale.” PMLA, vol. 68, no. 1, 1953, pp. 211–222. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/459916.
Lawrence, Elizabeth A. “Melodius Truth: Keats, a Nightingale, and the Human/Nature Boundary.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 6, no. 2, 1999, pp. 21–30. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44085649.
Kappel, Andrew J. “The Immortality of the Natural: Keats' ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’” ELH, vol. 45, no. 2, 1978, pp. 270–284. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2872516.
Keats, John. “Ode to a Nightingale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and Deidre Shauna Lynch, Norton, 2018, pp. 977-9.
Tagore, Proma. “Keats in an Age of Consumption: The ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’” Keats-Shelley Journal, vol. 49, 2000, pp. 67–84. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30213047.