Away! away! for I will fly to thee, / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy…
-John Keats, in “Ode to a Nightingale”
Ah. The sounds of spring are finally in the air. The birds are singing, which of course brings to mind some of my favorite poems in the English language, including “Hope is the thing with feathers” (Emily Dickinson), “To a Skylark” (Percy Shelley) and—of course—John Keats: “Ode to a Nightingale.”
“Ode to a Nightingale” is 80 lines long (eight 10-line stanzas), and you can read the entire poem by clicking on this link to Bartleby.com. I am not going to summarize it all here, but I would like to make a few comments on the final two stanzas. Keats takes a pretty gloomy tone at the beginning of the poem and admits that he has been having thoughts of Death and dying, but a bird that he sees singing in a tree seems to bring his thoughts back to life. This is the theme that I pick up on when I read the poem: how something so simple such as a singing bird can have the power to elevate our moods or to “toll” us into living. The final two stanzas, in which Keats addresses the bird and then reflects on its power to transform his thoughts read:
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:
Perhaps the selfsame song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
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 famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hillside; 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?
Thanks to the following source for the above quotations from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”–
Palgrave, Francis T. The Golden Treasury. London: Macmillan, 1875; Bartleby.com, 1999. http://www.bartleby.com/106/. [April 14, 2008].