Immortality and Transcendence in John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale

‘Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death’
Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, l.51-52.

The wish for transcendence adopts an arousing vision for the second-generation Romantic poets, as they strongly believed in the healing power of the imagination and the ability to escape real life with their creative thoughts. Samuel Taylor Coleridge offers a theory for creative transcendence in one of his famous passages in Biographia Literaria (1817). He establishes a harmonious relationship between the ideal world and the real world: ‘[the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates in order to re-create: even where this process is rendered impossible’.[1] Shortly after Coleridge’s work was published, poets including John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley shed a new light onto the transcendent powers of poetry. Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819) explores the transcendent influence of the human mind through the presence of nature as an immortal symbol. The use of imaginative transcendence from a real world to the ideal in both poems exposes the transition of multiple other binaries. The wish to transcend between the real and ideal can question whether the human imagination is subject to the limitations of human experience.

In Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the bird is presented as an immortal icon. The speaker admires the happiness that the nightingale possesses: ‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot/ But being too happy in thine happiness’.[2] The nightingale embodies an excess of joy which is incomparable to the speaker’s. The superlative ‘too’ portrays the extremity of the nightingale’s immortality, invoking an excess of emotion onto the speaker. The overbalance of pleasure from a natural object links to the themes encompassing the Sublime. In The Prelude, William Wordsworth recognises nature’s superiority in the lines:

‘The Power which these/
Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus/
Thrusts forth upon the senses.’[3]

The all-consuming ‘Power’ of the bird’s songs in Keats poem invokes a raw emotion that shows how the transcendence is initiated by a Subliminal, aesthetic experience.

Whilst the nightingale is an immortal entity, it is also a bird of darkness. The dark imagery in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ resembles the death-wish of the speaker; there is ‘no light’ (l. 38) except from where the breeze causes the trees to part. The stanza is full of absences and presences caused from the transcendence from reality to the ideal, reflecting the glimpses of life and death:

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

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
(ll. 41-52)

Keats’ bird is invisible in the shadowy forest of ‘embalmed darkness’, resembling the death-wishes connected to the transcendent thoughts of the speaker. The dark imagery plunges the speaker into confusion; he ‘cannot see’, blinded by the powers of his imagination. Furthermore, he addresses the nightingale as ‘Darkling’ to emphasise his loneliness in a dark world. Although the nightingale is immortal in the ideal world, Keats is suggesting that when combined with the real world, the bird brings deathly connotations because of its black colour. He views death as a welcomed prospect; ‘I have been half in love with easeful Death’. Death to Keats seems partly desirable because of the mortality of the world he lives in. The presence of the nightingale in reality makes him see death as an escape to release him from his troubles. The dark symbolism of the nightingale draws a close association between life and death, which blurs the boundaries between the two.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contrasts the immortality of the bird with the reality of mankind to remind us of the permanent sorrow in the world, emphasising the human desire to escape it. The speaker wishes to ‘fade far away’ from the death and decay of the real world:

‘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’
(ll. 21- 24)

The verb ‘dissolve’ stresses Keats’ desire to disappear from the destructive world around him. The added emphasis of ‘dissolve’ in parenthesis separates the word away from the rest of the stanza; resembling Keats distancing himself from the decay of reality. Furthermore, the imagery of the miserable men visualises a world of grief and suffering that is not apparent in the nightingale’s world. The sensory ‘groan[s]’ interfere with the beauty of the nightingale’s song that ‘Singest of summer’ (l. 10). This contrast grounds Keats in the realms of reality and stops him from transcending. The regular rise and fall of the iambic pentameter syllables arguably represent the sound of a heartbeat; further keeping Keats connected to the physical body whilst transcending to an idealised state. This suggests that the mortality of the world cannot be escaped even if mankind wishes to be free. With regards to Keats’ poetry, Bernice Slote summarises that ‘because of the particular poetic quality of his life, Keats’ poems are nearly always viewed autobiographically’.[4] Contextually therefore, it is likely that Keats is referring to the death and sickness occurring in his life at the time he wrote the ode. His family’s misfortunes and impending struggle with tuberculosis enabled Keats to envision a world surrounded by life’s suffering and decay. This belief is exemplified in his letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May 1818:

I compare human life to a Mansion of Many apartments… [in which occurs the] sharpening of one’s vision into the heart and nature of Man- of convincing one’s nerves that the world is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression.’[5]

The degenerated earth that Keats lives in opposes the nightingale’s infinite life; as the bird ‘wast not born for death’ (l. 61). The age and decay of the real world in Keats’ ode contrasts with the state of the bird to suggest that mankind is inferior. Combining the world of imagination with the real world is important to Keats because without imagination, the real world is confined to ugliness. On the other hand, merging the two worlds with the speaker’s imagination shows how one cannot simply transcend into the other. Earl Wasserman argues that Keats’ juxtaposition of immortality and pain emphasises the instability of reality, ‘for the perfection of the nightingale’s happiness underscores an uneasiness of the poet’s’.[6] In a universe of suffering and pain, seeing the nightingale triggers the speaker’s imaginative thoughts. Keats binds a world of pain and fear by forging the ideal and real world as one: ‘Still wouldst though sing, and I have ears in vain-/ To thy high requiem become a sod’ (ll. 59- 60). In these lines, Keats is implying that even with the joyous sounds of the nightingale, death inevitably still surrounds him. It is not a jubilant celebration of life but a ‘requiem’ for the dead.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ highlights his awareness of the transcendent power of art when he rides on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy’ (l. 33). Furthermore, Keats transcends beyond admiring the nightingale when he notes that ‘Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes’ (l. 29). The nightingale is no longer an aesthetic beauty but a metaphor for poetic inspiration. For Keats, the power of poetry is not the only motivator for his transcendent experience. The poem’s rich imagery of intoxication emphasises a desire to escape into a world of hallucinogenic bliss. The imagery of the ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ (l. 17) suggests that alcohol is an overwhelming factor to the quality of Keats’ thoughts. The plosive alliteration is onomatopoeic and captures the action of sparkling wine fizzing. The ‘winking’ is suggestive of bubbles forming and bursting, which personifies the alcohol as opening and shutting like an eye. This can allude to Keats’ imagination flitting from reality to the ideal through the influence of alcohol. The ode begins with ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains/ My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk’ (ll. 1- 2) to suggest that the speaker is drinking to escape his misery. The decadent start of the poem concentrates on the suffering of the speaker, through the repetition of the first-person determiner ‘my’ to emphasise the speaker’s unstable state of mind. The ‘drowsy numbness’ adds delusion and portrays the real world as blurred and uncertain. Furthermore, Keats uses Greek myth in his ode to express his desire to transcend from the uncomfortable reality of modernity. Greek myth is used to describe the transcendence of Keats flying to the nightingale ‘Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards’ (l. 32). In Greek myth, ‘Bacchus’ is the god of agriculture, wine and fertility; encompassing the earthly consciousness of the real world. To ‘not’ use reality as a way to transcend to the ideal suggests that alcohol is an insufficient source of inspiration for his imagination. John Strachan disapproves of Keats’ work, describing it as ‘neither poetry nor anything else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium’.[7] In disagreement with Strachan’s criticism, the intoxication of the speaker in the ode can be seen as a symbol of the real world’s chaos as opposed to the poet himself. Keats criticises the self-indulgence of mankind and shows its interference with the poetic inspiration.

Featured Painting:
Joseph Severn, Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath, 1845, Oil on Canvas, 114 x 97cm, Guildhall Art Gallery, London.

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. The Floating Press (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 365- 366.

[2] John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1464- 1466 (l. 6) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 554- 558.

[4] Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958) p. 4.

[5] Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May, 1818 in Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

[6] Earl Wasserman. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953) p. 188.

[7] John Strachan, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on The Poems of John Keats (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 39.

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Unattainable Perfection in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To the Skylark

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;

Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, To The Skylark, ll. 13- 15

Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’ is a poem that encapsulates a clear yearning for the blissful joy and unattainable perfection that the skylark comes to represent. Herbert Grierson and James Smith argue that the speaker’s admiration for the skylark encourages him to ‘escape from human life… into the joyous, free and irresponsible life of Nature’.[1] The speaker is captivated by the bird’s beautiful music and longs to experience its happiness too:

‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love and wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
(ll. 66- 70)

Here, the ‘flood of rapture so divine’ conveys the overwhelming immortality of the skylark’s song. The fluidity of its music is reflected in the stanza’s form; the fifth line of the stanza is longer to suggest that the sound is ‘flood[ing]’ over the quatrain. In comparison to overflowing water, the poem’s form is uninterrupted and continuous. The enjambment between lines 68-70 linguistically presents the music as unblemished, as well as displaying the speaker’s thoughts as gushing and all-consuming. His admiration for the immortal bird transcends him into a fantasy of desire. Shelley inscribes the skylark as a representative of inspiration when he asks it to ‘Teach us, Sprite or Bird’.

Death is not so much desired in Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’. The bird is compared to ‘a glow-worm golden’ (l. 46). The glow-worn itself is hard to see in the ground, yet the light it radiates is prominent. This is arguably a comparison to the skylark who cannot be seen by the speaker yet it’s beautiful music can be heard. The glow-worm’s luminescence underground suggests that it is a symbol that prevents death. Its ‘golden’ description portrays the bird as a beacon of hope and guidance for the speaker who is surrounded by darkness. Similarly, the paradoxical simile ‘like a star of Heaven,/ In the broad day-light’  (ll. 18- 19) alludes to light imagery in order to show how the skylark is ever-present in both light and darkness. This imagery complements a later piece of artwork by Samuel Palmer, ‘The Rise of the Skylark’ (1839). In the painting, there is no sign of the bird aside from in the title. The multi-coloured, bright sky represents the joyous nature of the skylark and the prominence of the sunlight is captivating in comparison to the dark land. In the centre of the painting is an opened fence, which can symbolise the gateway for mankind to escape the fields of reality and join the skylark through an imaginary transcendence.

Similarly, Shelley suggests that because man is restrained by sorrow, he cannot transcend to the life of the perfect skylark:

‘If we were things born
Not to shed to a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.’

Without the imperfections of human life, we still cannot compare to the ideal. This extract contradicts the concept of ‘tabula rasa’, as even when humans are ‘[re]born’, they will not be entirely pure from worldly grievances. Shelley is recognising that the world is full of joy and sorrow, yet the skylark’s world only embodies joy. The paradox of happiness and sorrow within mankind is discussed in Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry:

A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasure of his species must become his own.[3]

Hence, hearing the skylark reflects Shelley’s keen awareness of the mixture of his personal sorrows and the pure joy from his imagination; he compares the mortality of the real world with the immortality of the imagined to suggest that mankind will always be tainted with an unfavourable ‘humanness’.

In Shelley’s poem, it is the speaker’s intense wish to reach the bird which alludes to his unfulfilled desire. The use of incessant questioning emphasises the inadequacy of the imagination in poetry: ‘What thou art we know not;/ What is most like thee?’ (ll. 31- 32). The anxious questioning of this stanza closely links to an extract from Shelley’s essay ‘On Life’ (1819):

For what are we? Whence do we come? and whither do we go? Is birth the commencement, is death the conclusion of our being? What is birth and death?… I confess that I am one of those who am unable to refuse my assent to the conclusions of those philosophers who assert that nothing exists but as it is perceived.[4]

Here, Shelley is mirroring the same ravenous desire that is apparent in ‘To a Skylark’. It emphasises an insufficient understanding of the imagination, as the skylark cannot answer Shelley’s questions. The strong longing for answers opposes what Keats terms ‘Negative Capability’: ‘that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’.[5] This concept requires the poet to maintain an aesthetic distance from the object, and not give himself over to it. In the poem, the speaker sacrifices them self to the bird because it is seen as a more powerful entity than them. It can be argued that, in ‘To a Skylark’, the skylark is not merely a bird but also a metaphor for creativity and poetic impulse. It is evident that the creature is a natural metaphor for poetic expression with the simile ‘Like a Poet hidden’ (l. 40). This metapoetic characteristic is common in the second-generation Romantics. Jeffery Cox observes that poets like Shelley offer a self-awareness in their work, which is ‘shaped as much by editor’s pens and government writs as it is by some internal muse’.[6] Shelley finds himself less immersed in the moment compared to his predecessors, entering a circle of poetry that associates with the external world.[7]

Stewart Wilcox observes that Shelley also enters a delusional state in his poem, yet not through alcohol but by the ancient concept of ‘furor poeticus’.[8] When escaping under the power of the skylark’s song, Shelley is possessed with a ‘harmonious madness’ (l. 103). Scholars consider the Romantic period to be the beginning of scientific inquiry into ‘poet madness’.[9] It is believed that a poet’s inspiration comes from the transition of thought beyond their own mind, leaving them in a state of divine frenzy. Shelley’s oxymoron, ‘harmonious madness’, reimagines transcendence to the ideal as an experience that is creatively debilitating as well as inspiring.

The chaotic tendencies of the imagination are also reflected by the temporal and eternal states of transcendent experience. The eternal quality of the bird in ‘To a Skylark’ is inscribed in the lines:

O’er which clouds are bright’ning
Though dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race has just begun
(ll. 13- 15)

The dynamic verbs ‘float’, ‘run’ and ‘begun’ present the bird and the imagination as boundless entities with an everlasting existence. This eternality is also reflected in the form of Shelley’s poem; the regular rhyme and consistent meter mirrors the triumphant music of the skylark and the blissfulness of the ideal world. The poem ends with the speaker announcing, ‘as I am listening now’ (l. 105). The present progressive verb ‘listening’ suggest a continuation of the imagination and a wish for Shelley’s transcendent thoughts to continue.

For Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’ illustrates a journey forever striving to obtain a happier ideal. The immortal bird singing beyond the boundaries of human life brings an allusion of the unescapable facts of human existence. Shelley longs to be transported to the idealistic world of the skylark. Although Shelley shows an awareness for the real world’s limitations, he is less defeated and more motivated by his imaginative power. It is the transcendence from reality to the ideal that allows both poets to encounter the beauty of the imagination whilst also reveal the damaging truths of reality.

Featured Image– Samuel Palmer, The Rising of the Skylark, 1839, Oil on Panel (30.8 x 24.5cm), National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

[1] Herbert Grierson and James Smith, A Critical History of English Poetry (London: Peregrine, 1947) p. 335.

[2] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘To a Skylark’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1215- 1217 (ll. 66- 70) (All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text).

[3] Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 1233- 1247.

[4] Percy Bysshe Shelley ‘On Life’ 1832 in Approaches to Teaching Shelley’s Poetry. ed. Spencer Hall (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990) pp. 111- 113 (p. 111).

[5] John Keats, ‘To George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817’ in John Keats Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) pp. 40- 42 (pp. 41- 42).

[6] Jeffery Cox, ‘Keats Shelley and the Wealth of the Imagination’ Studies in Romanticism, 34 (1995) pp. 364- 400 (p. 367).

[7] See John Keats ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ for another poem about the self-awareness of art and poetry.

[8] Stewart C Wilcox, ‘Sources, Symbolism and Unity of Shelley’s Skylark’ Studies in Philology, 46 (1949) pp. 560- 576 (p. 575).

[9] See Joseph Meringolo, The Sanity of Furor Poeticus: Romanticism’s Demystification of Madness and Creativity (University of New York, 2014).

Written by Emily Warren.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.