What’s it about?
Keats is sitting in his garden, listening to a Nightingale sing. It has a numbing drowsy quality that sends him into a trance like state. Keats compares the Nightingale and himself, musing that its song is immortal, while he is fleeting and transient. Effectively this is a poem about many things: fragility, mortality, beauty, and the gap between reality and fiction.
This is a regular ode, told in homo-strophic stanzas. This means that each stanza follows the same regular pattern, in this case ABABCDECDE. This very ordered form mimics the song of the nightingale in its fluid musicality, and also stresses the immortality of the bird’s beautiful song, which has been heard by others for hundreds of years. An ode is a poem of celebration, so here Keats is revering the beauty of the nightingale, a little like he might a lover.
Imagery and sound:
This poem is all about sound. Keats’ writing is dominated by sensory imagery, anchored by his choices of sound. The use of assonance on the “u” sound in the first stanza creates a lullaby-esque tone to the poem “dull” “drunk” “sunk” “numberless”, reflecting the sensation he feels as he listens to the bird.
“On the viewless wings of poesy”. Poetry is Keats’ own way of escaping reality, he uses it to fly the same way that the bird can. At this point he enters the mythological world of his mind, a dream scape which is inhabited by the nightingale. The wings of poetry can’t be seen, but they can metaphorically fly Keats away from his aging and mortality, and a world where “youth grows spectre thin.” The image of a spectre, or a ghost, alludes to Keats fear of death, and the impending nature of his final days. By contrast, the bird “wast not born for death”, as even the Biblical Ruth would have heard it’s song.
In the final stanza the song stops, and he is woken from his reverie. The poem ends on the question “Was it a vision or a waking dream…Do I wake or sleep?” These final lines may suggest that Keats feels so overwhelmed he cannot believe that the song her heard could exist on the earth, and must be some kind of heavenly presence. To be honest, it’s a bit anti-climatic as an ending. The cheery tone disappears and the bird becomes a knavish “deceiving elf”. It’s back to reality for our man John.
Much of Keats’ life was shattered by illness and loss. Not only did he lose his family did TB, but suffered from it himself. He was consumed by a fear of death, and this preoccupation with mortality vs immortality is evident in contrast between him and the bird. This poem was written sitting under a tree in his garden, somewhere he would spend much of his time in quarantine in his final years.