‘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’. 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’. 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.’
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,
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’. 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.’
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’. 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’. 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.
 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. The Floating Press (Auckland: The Floating Press, 2009) pp. 365- 366.
 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).
 William Wordsworth, ‘The Prelude’ in Romanticism: An Anthology, ed. Duncan Wu, 4th ed (Oxford: Blackwell, 2012) pp. 554- 558.
 Bernice Slote, Keats and the Dramatic Principle. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958) p. 4.
 Letter to John Hamilton Reynolds, 3 May, 1818 in Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats (New York: Modern Library, 2001).
 Earl Wasserman. The Finer Tone: Keats’s Major Poems. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953) p. 188.
 John Strachan, A Routledge Literary Sourcebook on The Poems of John Keats (London: Routledge, 2013) p. 39.
Written by Emily Warren.
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