“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

KeatsNightingale“Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats is a pretty dark poem, in my opinion. Keats seems to express a longing to escape reality, either through drugs, death, or poetry. Reality is nothing but suffering and he wants nothing more than to leave the real world and lose himself forever in fantasy and imagination.

The poem opens with Keats expressing pain and his desire to numb himself to everything around him.

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
         My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
         One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

He continues to portray a depressing view of life, which fuels his desire to escape. He wants to become like the nightingale, hidden from the harsh light of reality and existing only in forests of darkness, singing (or creating poetry) in a realm removed from life’s suffering.

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 hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
         Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
                Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
                        And leaden-eyed despairs,
         Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
                Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

At the end of the poem, Keats realizes that he cannot escape reality. He discovers that the realm of imagination created through his poetry is nothing but a lie. His words, rather than transporting him to another place, only bring him jarringly back to reality like the tolling of a bell.

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.
When I studied English Romanticism in college, I appreciated Keats, but he was not my favorite by any stretch. I confess, though, that I find myself enjoying his works more now. Maybe my head is in a different place. Anyway, if you want to read the poem online, click here.

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