5 November 2013
The After-death: John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”
There is a healing quality to John Keats’ poetry that brings the patient closer to death than life. Keats believed in —and lived—a poetic that consumed him, thoroughly: allowing him to escape the constraints of reality and self and reach for something more collective, imaginary and thus, eternal. There is a complex transition between death and life that embodies his work; this can be seen especially in one of his more famous poems, “Ode to a Nightingale.”
To Keats, our lives are always marked by a slippery notion of truth, vis-à-vis its ongoing dialectic with the imaginary and reality; in a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, he writes, “The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream, - he awoke and found it truth.” Like the beginnings of man in the story of creation, our lives are always problematized by the uncertainty of our mind’s perception of reality as registered in the last lines of “Ode to Nightingale”: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled in that music: — do I wake or sleep?” (238)
“Ode to a Nightingale” opens with a speaker that is delirious at the onset: “My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains” (236). Further, the speaker seeks out more delirium to revive him, more alcohol to help: “O for a draught of vintage …. O for a beaker full of the warm South” (236). Within this out-of-body frame-of-mind, read as an abnegation of the self — a type of death—he projects outwardly something more eternal: the imaginary image of the Nightingale: “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” (237). The nightingale is to the poet an “Immortal Bird”, that “wast not born for death” (237).
While the image of the nightingale can be interpreted in a number of ways, one way in particular I want to consider is its use as a metaphor of a transition of death to life. The bird is named what it is because its songs are more frequently sung at night – a time of day often symbolic of death; however, the bird also symbolizes a life full of vibrancy: a song being sung is suggests vitality, and sometimes immorality. (The heroic deeds of the ancient Greek warriors were sung to keep the memories — their lives—resonant in memory: in effect, to keep them resident in the mind, the seat of ones realities. )
The narratives being sung by the nightingale are ones of a collective imagination, ones that do not die as long as it remains remembered and sung: “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 hear of Ruth, when sick for home / she stood in tears amid the alien corn” (238). In this instance, the poet and the nightingale have merged in their efforts; the poet here is bringing into recollection a prior narrative of the book of Ruth in Old Testament – singing a narrative of life like the Nightingale.
Although Keats was trained to be a
surgeon’s apothecary, it is within his written words where he discovers that
the poet can be “A humanist, physician to all men” (378). And like his own
life, which ended briefly at the age of 25 as an obscure poet flushed with
poverty, his work takes on an afterlife of its own. In a letter to his brother
George, he writes, “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death.”
He was right.
Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Modern Library,