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Ode to a Nightingale

Ode to a Nightingale

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"Ode to a Nightingale" is a poem
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

 by John Keats
John Keats
John Keats was an English Romantic poet. Along with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the Romantic movement, despite the fact that his work had been in publication for only four years before his death.Although his poems were not...

 written in May 1819 in either the garden of the Spaniards Inn
Spaniards Inn
The Spaniards Inn is a historic pub on Spaniards Road between Hampstead and Highgate in London. It lies on the edge of Hampstead Heath near Kenwood House....

, Hampstead
Hampstead is an area of London, England, north-west of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland...

, or, as according to Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown
Charles Armitage Brown
Charles Armitage Brown was born in Lambeth on 14 April 1787.He was a very close friend of the poet John Keats, as well as being a friend of artist Joseph Severn, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Walter Savage Landor and Edward John Trelawny...

, under a plum tree in the garden of Keats House, Hampstead
Hampstead is an area of London, England, north-west of Charing Cross. Part of the London Borough of Camden in Inner London, it is known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations and for Hampstead Heath, a large, hilly expanse of parkland...

, London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

. According to Brown, a nightingale had built its nest near his home in the spring of 1819. Inspired by the bird's song, Keats composed the poem in one day. It soon became one of his 1819 odes
John Keats's 1819 odes
In 1819, John Keats composed six odes in a short period of time that have become some of his most famous poems. They are united and ordered as a set by various critics to form a greater truth, each depending on the original order...

 and was first published in Annals of the Fine Arts the following July. "Ode to a Nightingale" is a personal poem that describes Keats's journey into the state of Negative Capability
Negative Capability
Negative capability is the ability to perceive and to think more than any presupposition of human nature allows. It describes the capacity of human beings to reject the totalizing constraints of a closed context, and to both experience phenomenon free from any epistemological bounds as well as to...

. The tone of the poem rejects the optimistic pursuit of pleasure found within Keats's earlier poems, and it explores the themes of nature, transience and mortality, the latter being particularly personal to Keats.

The nightingale described within the poem experiences a type of death but it does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect. The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. In the poem, Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a "sod" over which the nightingale
The Nightingale , also known as Rufous and Common Nightingale, is a small passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae, but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, Muscicapidae...

 sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by an effort of the imagination. The presence of weather is noticeable in the poem, as spring came early in 1819, which brought nightingales all over the heath
Heath (habitat)
A heath or heathland is a dwarf-shrub habitat found on mainly low quality acidic soils, characterised by open, low growing woody vegetation, often dominated by plants of the Ericaceae. There are some clear differences between heath and moorland...

. Many critics favor "Ode to a Nightingale" for its themes but some believe that it is structurally flawed because the poem sometimes strayed from its main idea.


Of Keats's six major odes of 1819, "Ode to Psyche
Ode to Psyche
"Ode to Psyche" is a poem by John Keats written in spring 1819. The poem is the first of his 1819 odes, which include "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "Ode to a Nightingale". "Ode to Psyche" is an experiment in the ode genre, and Keats's attempt at an expanded version of the sonnet format that describes...

" was probably written first and "To Autumn
To Autumn
"To Autumn" is a poem by English Romantic poet John Keats . The work was composed on 19 September 1819 and published in 1820 in a volume of Keats's poetry that included Lamia and The Eve of Saint Agnes. "To Autumn" is the final work in a group of poems known as Keats's "1819 odes"...

" written last. Sometime between these two, he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale". It is possible that the poem was written between 26 April 1819 and 18 May 1819 - based on weather conditions and similarities between images in the poem and those in a letter sent to Fanny Keats on May Day. The poem was composed at the Hampstead house Keats shared with Brown, possibly while sitting beneath a plum-tree in the garden. According to Keats' friend Brown, Keats finished the Ode in just one morning: "In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feelings on the song of the nightingale." Brown's account is personal as he claimed the poem was directly influenced by his house and preserved by his own doing. However, Keats relied on both his own imagination and other literature for sources for his depiction of the nightingale.

The exact date of "Ode to a Nightingale" as well as "Ode on Indolence
Ode on Indolence
The "Ode on Indolence" is one of five odes composed by English poet John Keats in the spring of 1819. The others were "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode on Melancholy", "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode to Psyche"...

", "Ode on Melancholy
Ode on Melancholy
"Ode on Melancholy" is a poem written by John Keats in the spring of 1819. In the spring of that year, Keats wrote the poem along with "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode to a Nightingale", "Ode on Indolence", and "Ode to Psyche". In the Autumn of that year, Keats wrote "To Autumn", which completed his ...

" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn
Ode on a Grecian Urn
"Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819 and published in January 1820 . It is one of his "Great Odes of 1819", which include "Ode on Indolence", "Ode on Melancholy", "Ode to a Nightingale", and "Ode to Psyche"...

" is unknown, as Keats dated all as 'May 1819'. However, he worked on the four poems together and there is a unity in both their stanza forms and their themes. The exact order the poems were written in is also unknown, but they form a sequence within their structures. While Keats was writing "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and the other poems, Brown transcribed copies of the poems and submitted them to Richard Woodhouse. During this time, Benjamin Haydon
Benjamin Haydon
Benjamin Robert Haydon was an English historical painter and writer.-Biography:Haydon was born in Plymouth. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. Benjamin Cobley, rector of Dodbrooke, near Kingsbridge, Devon. Her brother, General Sir Thomas Cobley, was renowned for his part in the siege of Ismail...

, Keats' friend, was given a copy of "Ode to a Nightingale", and he shared the poem with the editor of the Annals of the Fine Arts, James Elmes. Elmes paid Keats a small sum of money, and the poem was published in the July issue. The poem was later included in Keats' 1820 collection of poems, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and Other Poems.


"Ode to a Nightingale" was probably the first of the middle set of four odes that Keats wrote following "Ode to Psyche" as implied by Brown. There is further evidence in the structure of the poems because Keats combines two different types of lyrical in an experimental way: the odal hymn and the lyric of questioning voice that responds to the odal hymn. This combination of structures is similar to that in "Ode on a Grecian Urn". In both poems the dual form creates a sort of dramatic element within the poem. The stanza forms of the poem is a combination of elements from Petrarchan sonnets and Shakespearean sonnets.

When it came to vowel forms, Keats incorporated a pattern of alternating historically "short" and "long" vowel sounds in his ode. In particular, line 18 ("And purple-stained mouth") has the historical pattern of "short" followed by "long" followed by "short" and followed by "long". This alteration is continued in longer lines, including line 31 ("Away! away! for I will fly to thee") which contains five pairs of alternations. However, other lines, such as line 3 ("Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains") rely on a pattern of five "short" vowels followed by "long" vowel and "short" vowel pairings until it ends with a "long" vowel. These are not the only combination patterns present, and there are patterns of two "short" vowels followed by a "long" vowel in other lines, including 12, 22, and 59, which are repeated twice and then followed up with two sets of "short" vowel and then "long" vowel pairs. This reliance on vowel sounds is not unique to this ode, but is common to Keats's other 1819 odes and his Eve of St. Agnes.

The poem incorporates a complex reliance on assonance
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences, and together with alliteration and consonance serves as one of the building blocks of verse. For example, in the phrase "Do you like blue?", the is repeated within the sentence and is...

 -a repetition of vowel sounds- in a conscious pattern as found in many of his poems. Such a reliance on assonance is found in very few English poems
English poetry
The history of English poetry stretches from the middle of the 7th century to the present day. Over this period, English poets have written some of the most enduring poems in Western culture, and the language and its poetry have spread around the globe. Consequently, the term English poetry is...

. Within "Ode to a Nightingale", an example of this pattern can be found in line 35 ("Already with thee! tender is the night") where the "ea" of "Already" connects with the "e" of "tender" and the "i" of "with" connects with the "i" of "is". This same pattern is found again in line 41 ("I cannot see what flowers are at my feet") with the "a" of "cannot" linking with the "a" of "at" and the "ee" of "see" linking with the "ee" of "feet". This system of assonance can be found in approximately a tenth of the lines of Keats's later poetry.

When it came to other sound patterns, Keats relied on double or triple caesuras within approximately 6% throughout the 1819 odes. An example from "Ode to a Nightingale" can be found within line 45 ("The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild") as the pauses after the commas are a "masculine" pause. Furthermore, Keats began to reduce the amount of Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 based words and syntax
In linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and rules for constructing phrases and sentences in natural languages....

 that he relied on in his poetry, which in turn shortened the length of the words that dominate the poem. There is also an emphasis on words beginning with consonant
In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are , pronounced with the lips; , pronounced with the front of the tongue; , pronounced with the back of the tongue; , pronounced in the throat; and ,...

s, especially those that begin with "b", "p" or "v". These three consonants are relied on heavily in the first stanza, and they are used syzygically
Syzygy (poetry)
In poetry, a syzygy is the combination of two metrical feet into a single unit, similar to an elision.Consonantal or phonetic syzygy is also similar to the effect of alliteration, where one consonant is used repeatedly throughout a passage, but not necessarily at the beginning of each word....

 to add a musical tone within the poem.

In terms of poetic meter, Keats relies on spondee
In poetry, a spondee is a metrical foot consisting of two long syllables, as determined by syllable weight in classical meters, or two stressed syllables, as determined by stress in modern meters...

 throughout his 1819 odes and in just over 8% of his lines within "Ode to a Nightingale", including line 12:
Cool'd a long age in the deep delv ed earth

and line 25:
Where pals y shakes a few, sad, last, gray hairs

To Walter Jackson Bate
Walter Jackson Bate
Walter Jackson Bate was an American literary critic and biographer. He was born in Mankato, Minnesota.He is known for two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, of John Keats and Samuel Johnson...

, the use of spondees in lines 31–34 creates a feeling of slow flight, and "in the final stanza . . . the distinctive use of scattered spondees, together with initial inversion, lend[s] an approximate phonetic suggestion of the peculiar spring and bounce of the bird in its flight."


The poem begins suddenly, marked by use of heavy sounding syllables ("My heart aches" line 1), as it introduces the song of a hidden bird. Immediately, the narrator is overcome with such a feeling that he believes he has either been poisoned or is influenced by a drug. It is soon revealed that the source of this feeling is a nightingale's song. The narrator empathises with it and finds it has paralyzed his mind:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. (lines 5–10)

The song encourages the narrator to give up his own sense of self and embrace the feelings that are evoked by the nightingale. No longer a poison, the narrator wants to experience more of the feeling and escape from reality:
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
* * * * *
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: (lines 11–13, 19–20)

The narrator uses metaphorical wings to join the nightingale. It is at this moment that the poem moves into a deep, imaginative state, and the narrator cries out:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! (lines 31–35)

The state that the narrator wants is seemingly a state of death, but it is one that is full of life. The paradox expands to encompass the night, a tender presence that allows some light to shine through:
tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. (lines 35–40)

In the new state, the narrator's senses change. He loses his sense of sight, but his ability to smell, taste, and hear allow him to experience the new world, the new paradise that he has entered:
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;(lines 41–45)

The narrator describes a world of potential, and empathizes with the creatures of that world. He is soon called to the sounds of insects just as he heard the nightingale before. This is then replaced by a new sound:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath; (lines 51–54)

The narrator has blinded himself to better connect to the nightingale. This theme appears before, in the blind John Milton
John Milton
John Milton was an English poet, polemicist, a scholarly man of letters, and a civil servant for the Commonwealth of England under Oliver Cromwell...

's epic Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost
Paradise Lost is an epic poem in blank verse by the 17th-century English poet John Milton. It was originally published in 1667 in ten books, with a total of over ten thousand individual lines of verse...

, where Book III describes the nightingale's song coming out of darkness. The world is no longer present in the poem, as the imagination has taken over. What separates life and death, self and nothingness, are removed:
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod. (lines 55–60)

Death serves as a muse within the poem. It is, to the narrator, soft and comes upon the narrator as he composes the poem. He seeks death, wants to die, and wants to be with the nightingale because he experienced the height of life and nothing else would be worth experiencing. To live after that point would be a living death to the narrator. He desires to be like the nightingale, able to constantly give himself up in song and transcend life and death. However, he soon realizes that he will always be different from the bird:
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: (lines 61–64)

The world of imagination is not a place that a man could ever live in. This knowledge causes the narrator to become disheartened as the imaginary world is destroyed. The narrator cannot have the imaginary land. He is not just separate from the bird, but from poetry and imagination in general. The narrator mourns in the final lines of the poem as he realizes that he has been abandoned by his art:
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
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:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep? (lines 71–80)


"Ode to a Nightingale" describes a series of conflicts between reality and the Romantic
Romanticism was an artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution...

 ideal of uniting with nature. In the words of Richard Fogle, "The principal stress of the poem is a struggle between ideal and actual: inclusive terms which, however, contain more particular antitheses of pleasure and pain, of imagination and common sense reason, of fullness and privation, of permanence and change, of nature and the human, of art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream." Of course, the nightingale's song is the dominant image and dominant "voice" within the ode. The nightingale is also the object of empathy and praise within the poem. However, the nightingale and the discussion of the nightingale is not simply about the bird or the song, but about human experience in general. This is not to say that the song is a simple metaphor
A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible thing to represent a less tangible thing or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., "Her eyes were glistening jewels." Metaphor may also be used for any rhetorical figures of speech that achieve their effects via...

, but it is a complex image that is formed through the interaction of the conflict voices of praise and questioning. On this theme, David Perkins summarizes the way "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" perform this when he says, "we are dealing with a talent, indeed an entire approach to poetry, in which symbol
A symbol is something which represents an idea, a physical entity or a process but is distinct from it. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for "STOP". On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for...

, however necessary, may possibly not satisfy as the principal concern of poetry, any more than it could with Shakespeare, but is rather an element in the poetry and drama of human reactions". However, there is a difference between an urn and a nightingale in that the nightingale is not an eternal entity. Furthermore, in creating any aspect of the nightingale immortal during the poem the narrator separates any union that he can have with the nightingale.

The nightingale's song within the poem is connected to the art of music in a way that the urn in "Ode on a Grecian urn" is connected to the art of sculpture. As such, the nightingale would represent an enchanting presence and, unlike the urn, is directly connected to nature. As natural music, the song is for beauty and lacks a message of truth. Keats follows Coleridge's belief, as found in "The Nightingale", in separating from the world by losing himself in the bird's song. However, Keats favours a female nightingale over Coleridge's masculine bird but both reject the traditional depiction of the nightingale as related to the tragedy of Philomela. Their songbird was a happy nightingale that lacked the melancholic feel of previous poetic depictions. The bird is only a voice within the poem, but it is a voice that compels the narrator to join with in and forget the sorrows of the world. However, there is tension in that the narrator holds Keats's guilt regarding the death of Tom Keats, his brother. The song's conclusion represents the result of trying to escape into the realm of fancy.

Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘’To a Skylark’’, Keats’s narrator listens to a bird song, but listening to the song within “Ode to a Nightingale” is almost painful and similar to death. The narrator seeks to be with the nightingale and abandons his sense of vision in order to embrace the sound in an attempt to share in the darkness with the bird. As the poem ends, the trance caused by the nightingale is broken and the narrator is left wondering if it was a real vision or just a dream. The poem reliance on the process of sleeping common to Keats's poems, and "Ode to a Nightingale" shares many of the same themes as Keats's Sleep and Poetry and Eve of St. Agnes. This further separates the image of the nightingale's song from its closest comparative image, the urn as represented in "Ode on a Grecian Urn". The nightingale is distant and mysterious, and even disappears at the end of the poem. The dream image emphasizes the shadowiness and elusiveness of the poem. These elements make it impossible for there to be a complete self identification with the nightingale, but it also allows for self-awareness to permeate throughout the poem, albeit in an altered state.

Midway through the poem, there is a split between the two actions of the poem: the first attempts to identify with the nightingale and its song, and the second discusses the convergence of the past with the future while experiencing the present. This second theme is reminiscent of Keats's view of human progression through the Mansion of Many Apartments
Mansion of Many Apartments
The Mansion of Many Apartments is a metaphor that the poet John Keats expressed in a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds dated Sunday, 3 May 1818....

 and how man develops from experiencing and wanting only pleasure to understanding truth as a mixture of both pleasure and pain. The Elysian fields
Elysian Fields
-General use:* Elysium, in Greek mythology, the final resting places of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous- Places :* Elysian Fields, Hoboken, New Jersey, site of the first organized baseball game* Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans* Elysian Fields, Texas...

 and the nightingale's song in the first half of the poem represent the pleasurable moments that overwhelm the individual like a drug. However, the experience does not last forever, and the body is left desiring it until the narrator feels helpless without the pleasure. Instead of embracing the coming truth, the narrator clings to poetry to hide from the loss of pleasure. Poetry does not bring about the pleasure that the narrator original asks for, but it does liberate him from his desire for only pleasure.

Responding to this emphasis on pleasure, Albert Guerard, Jr. argues that the poem contains a "longing not for art but a free reverie of any kind. The form of the poem is that of progression by association, so that the movement of feeling is at the mercy of words evoked by chance, such words as fade and forlorn, the very words that, like a bell, toll the dreamer back to his sole self." However, Fogle points out that the terms Guerard emphasizes are "associational translations" and that Guerard misunderstands Keats's aesthetic. After all, the acceptance of the loss of pleasure by the end of the poem is an acceptance of life and, in turn, of death. Death was a constant theme that permeated aspects of Keats poetry because he was exposed to death of his family members throughout his life. Within the poem, there are many images of death. The nightingale experiences a sort of death and even the god Apollo
Apollo is one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities in Greek and Roman mythology...

 experiences death, but his death reveals his own divine state. As Perkins explains, "But, of course, the nightingale is not thought to be literally dying. The point is that the deity or the nightingale can sing without dying. But, as the ode makes clear, man cannot—or at least not in a visionary way."

With this theme of a loss of pleasure and inevitable death, the poem, according to Claude Finney, describes "the inadequacy of the romantic escape from the world of reality to the world of ideal beauty". Earl Wasserman essentially agrees with Finney, but he extended his summation of the poem to incorporate the themes of Keats's Mansion of Many Apartments when he says, "the core of the poem is the search for the mystery, the unsuccessful quest for light within its darkness" and this "leads only to an increasing darkness, or a growing recognition of how impenetrable the mystery is to mortals." With these views in mind, the poem recalls Keats's earlier view of pleasure and an optimistic view of poetry found within his earlier poems, especially Sleep and Poetry, and rejects them. This loss of pleasure and incorporation of death imagery lends the poem a dark air, which connects "Ode to a Nightingale" with Keats' other poems that discuss the demonic nature of poetic imagination, including Lamia. In the poem, Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—he uses an abrupt, almost brutal word for it—as a "sod" over which the nightingale
The Nightingale , also known as Rufous and Common Nightingale, is a small passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae, but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, Muscicapidae...

 sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by an effort of the imagination.

Keats's reception

Contemporary critics of Keats enjoyed the poem and it was heavily quoted in their reviews. An anonymous review of Keats's poetry that ran in the August and October 1820 Scots Magazine stated: "Amongst the minor poems we prefer the 'Ode to the Nightingale.' Indeed, we are inclined to prefer it beyond every other poem in the book; but let the reader judge. The third and seventh stanzas have a charm for us which we should find it difficult to explain. We have read this ode over and over again, and every time with increased delight." At the same time, Leigh Hunt wrote a review of Keats's poem for the 2 August and 9 August 1820 The Indicator: "As a specimen of the Poems, which are all lyrical, we must indulge ourselves in quoting entire the 'Ode to a Nightingale'. There is that mixture in it of real melancholy and imaginative relief, which poetry alone presents us in her 'charmed cup,' and which some over-rational critics have undertaken to find wrong because it is not true. It does not follow that what is not true to them, is not true to others. If the relief is real, the mixture is good and sufficing."

John Scott, in an anonymous review for the September 1820 London Magazine argued for the greatness of Keats's poetry as exemplified by poems including "Ode to a Nightingale":
The injustice which has been done to our author's works, in estimating their poetical merit, rendered us doubly anxious, on opening his last volume, to find it likely to seize fast hold of general sympathy, and thus turn an overwhelming power against the paltry traducers of talent, more eminently promising in many respects, than any the present age has been called upon to encourage. We have not found it to be quite all that we wished in this respect--and it would have been very extraordinary if we had, for our wishes went far beyond reasonable expectations. But we have found it of a nature to present to common understandings the poetical power with which the author's mind is gifted, in a more tangible and intelligible shape than that in which it has appeared in any of his former compositions. It is, therefore, calculated to throw shame on the lying, vulgar spirit, in which this young worshipper in the temple of the Muses has been cried-down; whatever questions may still leave to be settled as to the kind and degree of his poetical merits. Take for instance, as proof of the justice of our praise, the following passage from an Ode to the Nightingale:--it is distinct, noble, pathetic, and true: the thoughts have all chords of direct communication with naturally-constituted hearts: the echoes of the strain linger bout the depths of human bosoms.

In a review for the 21 January 1835 London Journal, Hunt claimed that while Keats wrote the poem, "The poet had then his mortal illness upon him, and knew it. Never was the voice of death sweeter." David Moir, in 1851, used The Even of St Agnes to claim, "We have here a specimen of descriptive power luxuriously rich and original; but the following lines, from the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' flow from a far more profound fountain of inspiration."

At the end of the 19th century, Robert Bridges's analysis of the poem became a dominant view and would influence later interpretations of the poem. Bridges, in 1895, declared that the poem was the best of Keats's odes but he thought that the poem contained too much artificial language. In particular, he emphasised the use of the word "forlorn" and the last stanza as being examples of Keats's artificial language. In "Two odes of Keats's" (1897), William C Wilkinson suggested that "Ode to a Nightingale" is deeply flawed because it contains too many "incoherent musings" that failed to supply a standard of logic that would allow the reader to understand the relationship between the poet and the bird. However, Herbert Grierson
Herbert John Clifford Grierson
Sir Herbert John Clifford Grierson was a Scottish literary scholar editor and literary critic.-Life and work:...

, arguing in 1928, believed Nightingale to be superior to "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode on Melancholy", and "Ode to Psyche", arguing the exact opposite of Wilkinson as he stated that "Nightingale", along with "To Autumn", showed a greater amount of logical thought and more aptly presented the cases they were intended to make.

20th-century criticism

At the beginning of the 20th century, Rudyard Kipling
Rudyard Kipling
Joseph Rudyard Kipling was an English poet, short-story writer, and novelist chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his tales for children. Kipling received the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature...

 referred to lines 69 and 70, alongside three lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was an English poet, Romantic, literary critic and philosopher who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England and a member of the Lake Poets. He is probably best known for his poems The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla...

's Kubla Khan
Kubla Khan
Kubla Khan is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, completed in 1797 and published in Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep in 1816...

, when he claimed of poetry: "In all the millions permitted there are no more than five—five little lines—of which one can say, 'These are the magic. These are the vision. The rest is only Poetry.'" In 1906, Alexander Mackie argued: "The nightingale and the lark for long monopolised poetic idolatry--a privilege they enjoyed solely on account of their pre-eminence as song birds. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and Shelley's Ode to a Skylark are two of the glories of English literature; but both were written by men who had no claim to special or exact knowledge of ornithology as such." Sidney Colvin, in 1920, argued, "Throughout this ode Keats’s genius is at its height. Imagination cannot be more rich and satisfying, felicity of phrase and cadence cannot be more absolute, than in the several contrasted stanzas calling for the draft of southern vintage […] To praise the art of a passage like that in the fourth stanza […] to praise or comment on a stroke of art like this is to throw doubt on the reader’s power to perceive it for himself."

Bridge's view of "Ode to a Nightingale" was taken up by H. W. Garrod in his 1926 analysis of Keats's poems. Like Albert Gerard would argue later in 1944, Garrod believed that the problem within Keats's poem was his emphasis on the rhythm and the language instead of the main ideas of the poem. When describing the fourth stanza of the poem, Maurice Ridley, in 1933, claimed, "And so comes the stanza, with that remarkable piece of imagination at the end which feels the light as blown by the breezes, one of those characteristic sudden flashes with which Keats fires the most ordinary material." He later declared of the seventh stanza: "And now for the great stanza in which the imagination is fanned to yet whiter heat, the stanza that would, I suppose, by common consent be taken, along with Kubla Khan, as offering us the distilled sorceries of 'Romanticism'". He concluded on the stanza that "I do not believe that any reader who has watched Keats at work on the more exquisitely finished of the stanzas in The Eve of St. Agnes, and seen this craftsman slowly elaborating and refining, will ever believe that this perfect stanza was achieved with the easy fluency with which, in the draft we have, it was obviously written down." In 1936, F. R. Leavis
F. R. Leavis
Frank Raymond "F. R." Leavis CH was an influential British literary critic of the early-to-mid-twentieth century. He taught for nearly his entire career at Downing College, Cambridge.-Early life:...

 wrote, "One remembers the poem both as recording, and as being for the reader, an indulgence." Following Leavis, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, in a 1938 essay, saw the poem as "a very rich poem. It contains some complications which we must not gloss over if we are to appreciate the depth and significance of the issues engaged." Brooks would later argue in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) that the poem was thematically unified while contradicting many of the negative criticisms lodged against the poem.

Richard Fogle responded to the critical attack on Keats's emphasis on rhyme and language put forth by Garrod, Gerard, and others in 1953. His argument was similar to Brooks: that the poem was thematically coherent and that there is a poet within the poem that is different from Keats the writer of the poem. As such, Keats consciously chose the shift in the themes of the poem and the contrasts within the poem represent the pain felt when comparing the real world to an ideal world found within the imagination. Fogle also responded directly to the claims made by Leavis: "I find Mr. Leavis too austere, but he points out a quality which Keats plainly sought for. His profusion and prodigality is, however, modified by a principle of sobriety." It is possible that Fogle's statements were a defense of Romanticism as a group that was both respectable in terms of thought and poetic ability. Wasserman, following in 1953, claimed that "Of all Keats' poems, it is probably the 'Ode to a Nightingale' that has most tormented the critic [...] in any reading of the 'Ode to a Nightingale' the turmoil will not down. Forces contend wildly within the poem, not only without resolution, but without possibility of resolution; and the reader comes away from his experience with the sense that he has been in 'a wild Abyss'". He then explained, "It is this turbulence, I suspect, that has led Allen Tate to believe the ode 'at least tries to say everything that poetry an say.' But I propose it is the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' that succeeds in saying what poetry can say, and that the other ode attempts to say all that the poet can."

Later critical responses

Although the poem was defended by a few critics, E. C. Pettet returned to the argument that the poem lacked a structure and emphasized the word "forlorn" as evidence of his view. In his 1957 work, Pettet did praise the poem as he declared, "The Ode to a Nightingale has a special interest in that most of us would probably regard it as the most richly representative of all Keats’s poems. Two reasons for this quality are immediately apparent: there is its matchless evocation of that late spring and early summer season […] and there is its exceptional degree of 'distillation', of concentrated recollection". David Perkins felt the need to defend the use of the word "forlorn" and claimed that it described the feeling from the impossibility of not being able to live in the world of the imagination. When praising the poem in 1959, Perkins claimed, "Although the "Ode to a Nightingale" ranges more widely than the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poem can also be regarded as the exploration or testing out of a symbol, and, compared with the urn as a symbol, the nightingale would seem to have both limitations and advantages." Walter Jackson Bate
Walter Jackson Bate
Walter Jackson Bate was an American literary critic and biographer. He was born in Mankato, Minnesota.He is known for two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies, of John Keats and Samuel Johnson...

 also made a similar defense of the word "forlorn" by claiming that the world described by describing the impossibility of reaching that land. When describing the poem compared to the rest of English poetry, Bate argued in 1963, "Ode to a Nightingale" is among "the greatest lyrics in English" and the only one written with such speed: "We are free to doubt whether any poem in English of comparable length and quality has been composed so quickly." In 1968, Robert Gittins stated, "It may not be wrong to regard [Ode on Indolence and Ode on Melancholy] as Keats's earlier essays in this [ode] form, and the great Nightingale and Grecian Urn as his more finished and later works."

From the late 1960s onward, many of the Yale School of critics describe the poem as a reworking of John Milton's poetic diction, but they argued that poem revealed that Keats lacked the ability of Milton as a poet. The critics, Harold Bloom (1965), Leslie Brisman (1973), Paul Fry (1980), John Hollander (1981) and Cynthia Chase (1985), all focused on the poem with Milton as a progenitor to "Ode to a Nightingale" while ignoring other possibilities, including Shakespeare who was emphasised as being the source of many of Keats's phrases. Responding to the claims about Milton and Keats's shortcomings, critics like R. S. White (1981) and Willard Spiegelman (1983) used the Shakespearean echoes to argue for a multiplicity of sources for the poem to claim that Keats was not trying to respond just Milton or escape from his shadow. Instead, "Ode to a Nightingale" was an original poem, as White claimed, "The poem is richly saturated in Shakespeare, yet the assimilations are so profound that the Ode is finally original, and wholly Keatsian". Similarly, Spiegelman claimed that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream had "flavored and ripened the later poem". This was followed in 1986 by Jonathan Bate claiming that Keats was "left enriched by the voice of Shakespeare, the 'immortal bird'".

Focusing on the quality of the poem, Stuart Sperry, argued in 1973, "'Ode to a Nightingale' is the supreme expression in all Keats's poetry of the impulse to imaginative escape that flies in the face of the knowledge of human limitation, the impulse fully expressed in 'Away! away! for I will fly to thee.'" Wolf Hirst, in 1981, described the poem as "justly celebrated" and claimed that "Since this movement into an eternal realm of song is one of the most magnificent in literature, the poet's return to actuality is all the more shattering." Helen Vendler continued the earlier view that the poem was artificial but added that the poem was an attempt to be aesthetic and spontaneous that was later dropped. In 1983, she argued, "In its absence of conclusiveness and its abandonment to reverie, the poem appeals to readers who prize it as the most personal, the most apparently spontaneous, the most immediately beautiful, and the most confessional of Keats's odes. I believe that the 'events' of the ode, as it unfolds in time, have more logic, however, than is usually granted them, and that they are best seen in relation to Keats's pursuit of the idea of music as a nonrepresentational art."

In a review of contemporary criticism of "Ode to a Nightingale" in 1998, James O'Rouke claimed that "To judge from the volume, the variety, and the polemical force of the modern critical responses engendered, there have been few moments in English poetic history as baffling as Keats's repetition of the word 'forlorn'". When referring to the reliance of the ideas of John Dryden and William Hazlitt within the poem, Andrew Motion, in 1999, argued "whose notion of poetry as a 'movement' from personal consciousness to an awareness of suffering humanity it perfectly illustrates."

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