Literary Shelf

The Sadness of the Inevitable

With every passing minute, we continue on the road of experience. Even though we know that the journey of our path is more important than the destination of death, we continually fear this inevitable. Building on this fear in 'Ode to a Nightingale', John Keats illustrates the need to escape from reality and understanding the sadness that comes from the realization that there is no real escape. The poet uses the immortality of a nightingale's song to contrast with the speaker's life and show the reader that reality can be distracted for short periods of time, but can never be abandoned. In a series of situations and possible escape mechanisms, the speaker comprehends that there is a sadness that comes with the knowledge that one's fate and destiny can not be altered no matter how stern the attempts. 

As the poem begins, the speaker hears the sweet song of the nightingale and becomes envious of the birds happiness. His initial mood shows the reader that his heartaches and there is a numbness that pains [his] sense, the same as the effects of drugs on the mind. (ln.1, 2) The speaker's state of clouded sense brings forth a dreary atmosphere as the poem begins. The poet purposely includes mood to show the reader the changes that go on in the speaker as the poem progresses. Eventually, the reader will see that these sad feelings will once again return to the speaker when his attempts to alleviate them fail. As the stanza progresses, the speaker hears the bird singest of summer in full-throated ease his spirits rise to thoughts of a possible escape from his current dismal sensations. (ln. 10) He enjoys the music of the bird because it helps him come out of this somber state his mind is in. The poet tries to bring the speaker out of his world and into the wonder of all that is instilled in the nightingale. As the presence of the bird brings promising spirits into the speaker's mind, he spirals into thoughts of possible escapes from his inevitable life. 

The first thing he thinks of is a beaker full of warm South, the blushful Hippocrene. (ln. 15, 16) It isn't so much the wine that the speaker believes is the escape, but the feeling evoked when excessive wine is consumed. The speaker thinks that the carelessness he will feel with the consumption of wine will lead him to the escape of life that he desires. He hopes that he can drink himself from clarity, leave the world unseen, and with [the nightingale] fade away into the forest dim. (ln. 19, 20) This strong urge to leave the world without being noticed illustrates that the speaker desperately wants to quietly escape from the realities he faces. This shows the desperation the speaker feels in his current life. But he soon realizes that the sensation attained from an abundance of alcohol will only last until the alcohol is within him. As the liquid passes, so does his elated state and he will eventually return to the sadness of his reality. Thus, the speakers initial thoughts of escape may be successful in the short run, however they will fail in the end. Although the first of his attempts resulted in despair, the speaker hasn't yet lost his sense of curiosity. He continues to find better ways to permanently alleviate himself from his current situation. 

After declaring his need to leave the world, the speaker digresses some to illustrate to the reader the reasons for his desire of departure. He recalls that in his world, as opposed to that of the nightingale, there is a weariness, fever, and fret that consume the individuals and capture them till death. (ln. 23) He sadly conveys that palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs and the youth grows pale, spectre-thin, and dies. (ln. 25, 26) With specific diction, the speaker illustrates the uncertainty of life at any stage in the game. The speaker shows that there is sadness and death in any age bracket because the old are cursed with palsy and the young are too often struck with tuberculosis. Keats specifically uses tuberculosis because his brother Tom died of the tragic disease. Thus understanding the frailty of life, Keats includes himself in the poem at this point and shares the speaker's disgust for a world full of sorrows. (ln. 27) This sadness of life is what drives the speaker to want to fly away with the bird. He somehow sees the realm of the bird as being above and beyond sadness and mortality because he can not actually see the nightingale. Yet he knows the bird exists because of its song. He dreams of a world far away in which the only thing he hears is the sweet melody of the bird and his worries of death no longer capture his mind. Being in the realm of the bird will help his mind create wondrous poetry and ease his current melancholy state of mind.

Just as the song of the nightingale will make the bird immortal, the speaker hopes that his written poetry will help future generations repeat his name and help him live on in spirit. In this way, his sadness is abated with the thought of possible immortality via his lyrics. The need to leave shows the speakers need to escape from the harshness he faces in his life. Again his attempt to escape has been thwarted by the reality he sees. Observing from afar, the speaker asks to fly with the bird to a place he believes will alleviate this sadness. He asks that his escape be not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, But on the viewless wings of Poesy, where the lyrics of the bird live forever. (ln. 32, 33) The speaker metaphorically associates the song of the bird to the lines of his poetry. Believing that poetry stems from imagination, the speaker rejects the initial escape of wine and moves to a longer lasting escape of imagination through poetry. The speaker believes that in the world of the nightingale, there is inspiration for poetry that can not be found in the darkness of his reality. He notices that there is no light in the realm of the nightingale but it doesnt matter to him because without vision, he is better able to guess each sweet wherewith the seasonable month endows. (ln. 38,44) Imagination enables an individual to escape from his world and into a realm of one that he creates. This need to imagine that the speaker has portrays his lack of happiness with his situations in the real world. But when the speaker comes to know that he cannot reach the far off nightingale, his hopes of poetry are shattered and he is once again forced to face his life.

Adding to the image of darkness, the speaker's imagination leads him to the ultimate escape from life, death. The poem abruptly shifts gear and the speaker seems to come back from his daydream to understand that he can never actually be in the world of the nightingale. Along with this knowledge also comes the readiness to die. At this sensational moment, he is half in love with easeful death and is ready to have the air take [his] quiet breath. (ln. 52, 54) He sees that there is no greater moment for him to die then the one he is currently in, one where he could cease upon the midnight with no pain and still hear the pouring forth of the nightingales song. (ln. 56,57) Although he cannot join the bird in immortality, he can at least enjoy the music and die peacefully. This acceptance of death is the third sign of the speaker's need to escape from his world. The speaker is turning to death as a last resort for his escape. His past efforts have failed him and his forced now to consider his last option. Since death is the final escape from life, this assertion implicitly shows the reader the glum of the speaker's world. Since the speaker is not yet ready to end his life, he goes from this morbid thought to the question of the nightingales mortality. His escape attempts have all been rejected and so he then questions why the bird can stay immortal and he can not. 

As the speaker runs out of ways to escape his dismal life, he compares himself to the nightingale and recognizes the sadness of his own mortality. He notes that the bird wast not born for death and no hungry generations tread [it] down. (ln. 61, 62) This immortality that the he sees in the bird helps the reader to understand that the speaker yearns to be with the bird not only to escape life, but also to escape death. The immortal bird is not so because of his being, but rather because of his song. The speaker says that the voice of the bird he hears was heard in ancient days by emperor and clown. (ln. 63, 64) The voice then makes the bird immortal because it lives on in the minds of the people who have heard it. The song never dies and thus neither does the bird. The speaker comes to realize that upon his own death, he will not be able to leave a mark as the bird has done. This thought makes the speaker's mood dismal again while he comprehends the sadness of mortality of all men. He understands that all men die alone and will eventually be forgotten. With this final understanding, the speaker returns to the somber mood that he was in at the beginning of the poem. The poem was just a journey of thought in which the speaker evolved to understand the truth in mans mortality. There is no escape for him and he must life his last days facing the inevitable. Running out of ideas and escapes, the speaker suddenly wakes form his trace of possibility and returns to the drudge he was consumed in before the sound of the nightingale. Coming full circle, the poem shows the reader and the speaker the lack of escape from the world.

Throughout this entire poem, the speaker has tried to find ways to escape his world. When he finally comes to know that there is no escape, he curses the nightingale for being able to use its mortality to become immortal. The speaker yearns to find ways to be immortal but is unsuccessful in his attempts. He comes to realize that his place on the earth is cemented and he can not shift the world to accustom his needs and desires. The speaker has evolved to a higher understanding of mans mortality with the help of a singing nightingale. 

Ode To A Nightingale
by John Keats

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provenal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

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;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

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
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves;
And mid-May's eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain
To thy high requiem become a sod.

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 self-same 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 oft-times 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 fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; 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?   


More by :  Tanvi Patel

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