John Keats’ famous poem Ode to a Nightingale is a poem of romance. But it carries with it a note of sad reflection-a tone of bitter meditation that seizes upon the man of the world, fatigued with the ‘fretful stir unprofitable and the fever of the world. The poem records the aching joy and the ‘leaden-eyed’ despair, the lyrical passion, and the bitter pain of the poet’s mind. There is a transition in the poet’s mood from dreamy ease and idle fancy to poignant despondency and pensive contemplation, as he realizes the transitoriness of human pleasure and the mortality of man’s desire.
Keats starts his poem with a contrast between the ecstatic joy, the ever-appealing music, and the apparent immortality of the song of the nightingale and the sorrow, change, and fatality in human life. The contrast leads him to realise that the world of man is one of fevered thoughts and bitter frustration, whereas the realm of the nightingale is one of romance, loveliness, and eternal beauty. The poet wants to escape from the chaotic and dreadful world, to leave the world unseen and, with the nightingale, to fade away into the forest dim:
“Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and here each other groan;”
From the woe and weariness of the maddening world of man, Keats longs to attain peace and bliss, given by the sweet and joyous, melody of the nightingale. To Keats, the song of the nightingale is a thing of beauty—the beauty that has no end. A thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Keats breathes the very breath of beauty in the song of the bird. Since beauty can never die, the joy given by it is eternal. Keats’s nightingale remains immortal amid the mournings and moanings of this mortal world as a thing too beautiful to die, too joyous to fade.
Keats’s thought, of course, lacks logic here. The nightingale is not immortal. It is subjected to death and decay. But Keats is speaking not of an individual bird, which lives and dies, like a human being. His subject is the song, of the bird-the joy that the song gives. A particular bird dies. But the song, as the representative of the whole species, never ceases to please men and women. It continues and is cherished with joy and wonder by all—the new and the old, the rich and the poor. Changes and chances do not come over the song of the bird. The survival of the fittest is the very condition of man’s existence. Among men, each generation, in its struggle for existence, tramples down its predecessors. But the case, thinks Keats, is not so with the song of the nightingale. It remains a joy for men and women of all ages, nations, and classes. And the poet eulogizes the immortality of the bird’s song:
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird !
No hungry generations tread thee down,
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown :
But the world of men is so ugly and so sickly that even the conception of beauty cannot last long here. The spell of beauty is soon broken in the heat of the sordid reality of the poet’s life. The despondency of the poet is too severe to allow him to live for ever in the realm of fancy, imagination, and beauty. The poet fails to escape as easily as he has hoped. The loveliness of the bird’s song cannot triumph long in man’s mind, lost in earthly sorrows and sufferings. The song of the nightingale fades away in the forest dim, leaving the poet amid the din and bustle of a dying race. The worshipper of beauty is brought back to the filth and frailty of the real life. The feeling of ecstatic delight is over. And what remains is the overintense craving for the joy that is no more. A tone of sadness pervades the poet’s mind. In a state of utter confusion and depression, he pines for what he has lost.
“Was it a vision, or a waking dream ?
Fled is that music :-Do I wake or sleep?”
Also read; Ode on A Grecian Urn: Representative Romantic Poetry
Also read; Summary and Critical analysis of the poem The Little Vagabond by William Blake