John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 54|
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
The "Ode to a Nightingale" is the richest of the five in obvious attractions. It gives unalloyed pleasure to all lovers of Keats except the minute philosophers. One of these picks it to pieces and finds it full of flaws. It is, he declares, inapt in phrase and illogical in thought. Now any two judges may disagree about the aptness of figurative language; the answer to the objection on this point is that the ode has furnished as many lines for pleasurable remembrance as the other four. But about the laws of thought there can be no real disagreement. If the "Ode to a Nightingale" is illogical, an analysis ought to expose that lack of logic. Here is the argument by stanzas with a few words of interpretation.
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1. It is night. The song of the nightingale has stirred the poet to a mood of rapture almost intoxicating. He is, for the moment, happy beyond man's common privilege.
2. He desires a continuance of this rapture and seeks to share the bird's exalted life. As a means he first thinks of wine. He chooses southern wine because it is lighter and has more of the inspiration of the fabled waters of Hippocrene than the harsh beverages of the north.
3. He admonishes the nightingale to escape wholly from this melancholy world, where joy is ephemeral and human fate is laden with misery.
4. He promises to follow the bird in flight. But on second thought he will not use wine as the means. He will fly on the invisible wings of poetry. Momentarily he is lifted by illusion.
5. As his poetic imagination becomes rapt with inward gazing, the physical world about him fades into obscurity. He has a vague sensation of being in "embalmed darkness."
6. Still hearing the bird's song, he muses on death. The present seems the richest moment for dying. There would be the music of the bird and no pain. Even when he is in his grave, he reflects, the bird would still sing.
7. Then in his musing the bird's song becomes the symbol of the eternal note of joy in nature—the note that has cheered emperors and clowns, even the sad heart of Ruth. [This is the chief crux in the logic. The bird, however, has lost its individual identity and has become the agent of utterance for eternal song in nature. No reasonable person would presume that Keats believed this nightingale had sung to Ruth. It is only a symbol. Shelley used this symbolism for the Skylark, the Cloud, the Sensitive Plant, the West Wind; each is made the embodiment of an eternal elemental spirit. The antiquity of this literary convention (which offends the logician) dates back as far as Moschus. "Verily thou all silent will be covered with earth, while it has pleased the nymphs that the frogs shall always sing." Lament for Bion, iii, 112, 113.] It is contrasted with the transitory life of man and his magic fancies of romance, now forlorn.
8. The word "forlorn," its doleful sound and meaning, breaks the illusion of the imagination and summons him back, like a warning bell, to the normal state of man. Poetry cannot sustain this ethereal flight with the bird. He catches its faint strains, now remote. He is left alone, still in a daze, to suffer the disenchantment of the human world.
It may be superfluous to add that this ode is, in miniature, a spiritual biography of the poetic life. Its logic is defensible; its psychology is final. Keats here commands the title of "the poet's poet." It should be noted, nevertheless, that this poet cannot find in nature an enduring refuge.
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