A Nightingale, 200 years old

Its complicated charms, its insidious contexts and its politics continue to be as effective as it was two centuries ago when Keats penned it

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 18th Aug 2019  12:00 amUpdated: 19th Aug 2019  9:58 pm

“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow” is a poetic descriptor of the human condition that is now commonplace. This descriptor made its debut in one of the most anthologised poems in the English language, whose 200th centenary is in 2019: John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Keats published this poem in Annals of the Fine Arts that appeared in July 1819.

For two centuries this poem, imbued with a strong sense of idealism and melancholy, has been seen not just as Keats’ theorisation of transcendentalism – the bird and its song transcending reality – but also of the human inability to transcend the sorrows that are its lot.

The poem opens with the speaker, like all good litterateurs, lost in a trance: “a drowsy numbness pains/My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk”. He envies the freedom of the bird, whose song draws his attention, even in his near somnambulant state. He craves various forms of escape, all reliant upon assorted mind-altering substances such as wine: ‘a draught of vintage’, ‘blushful Hippocrene’.

Suffering World

It would be an escape from the fretful world, but one effected without fanfare and spectacle: to “fade far away, dissolve”, and later: “To cease upon the midnight with no pain”. The world, the speaker underscores, is full of suffering. In a passage well known for its melancholic evaluation of the world, Keats writes:

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.

Then, rejecting any opiate of the masses, Keats’ speaker opts for poetry as escape:

I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

There is a mixing up of the senses – the neurological condition called ‘synaesthesia’ – that follows:

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

Incense appeals to the olfactory not the visual sense, but the speaker mixes these up. Expressing a deathwish, the speaker would say

for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

Pleasure and Pain

Personifying death here, Keats domesticates it, even going so far as to offer his own ‘names’ for death, and that in rhyme as well, indicating the power of poetry to impose textual control over a phenomenon humanity does not understand but knows is inevitable.

The nightingale, he believes, is not ‘born for death’ because its song has been resonant through generations – again signalling the power of art (song) to transcend death and destruction. When the poem ends, the speaker is uncertain as to his state of being:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:— Do I wake or sleep?

Did he hear the nightingale’s song in sleep or in a conscious condition? Can he trust his judgment about what he heard?

The poem’s power lies, even today, in its (supposed) glorification of art, beauty and the transcendence through these means, of suffering. Its powerful images continue to enthral as Keats smoothly shifts between auditory, visual, olfactory senses as he documents psychological states and consciousness. He evokes the twin conditions of pleasure and pain as few poems do, and demonstrates how one cannot opt for one or the other: they are inseparable twins.

The form is matched by the fragmentation of consciousness that Keats forces us to see: sleep, wakefulness, pain-driven delirium, opiated mental states. That there is no certainty around any of the ideas or ideals in Keats – he would indeed speak of ‘Negative Capability’ as this condition where poets and artists seek Beauty even though Beauty may well lead to intellectual and philosophical chaos.

Beauty in Art

Biographically, the famous Odes and their fragmented nature have an interesting story. Keats hid away scraps of his writings behind and within books. His housemate, Charles Brown, retrieved them, rearranged the scraps into the two famous ‘Ode on Indolence’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

Critics often observe that we cannot be sure which scrap went into which poem and so our assumption of the poems’ coherence is based on false assumptions! More recent criticism has described a certain ‘shiftiness’ in Keats’ work where we can discern in its ‘wordplay and ambiguity, and through structural and chronological instability’.

But there are other points of interest as well. Keats invoked Greek myths and figures – not the least, the Philomela story from Ovid, most commonly associated with the nightingale. The poem, in fact, is rich with such references, some of which are direct appropriations. For example, Keats’ famous Lethe image comes straight out of Horace’s fourteenth Epode: a “soft indolence has diffused as great forgetfulness over my inmost senses as if with parched throat I had drained the bowl that brings Lethean sleep”. The references to Plato and mortality (in Phaedo) and Hamlet are also fairly obvious.

Historical continuity is a major obsession with Keats, here as well as in the equally famous ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ where unchanging beauty inspires generations. Flying in the face of human civilisational progress and evolution, Keats posits static beauty in art as the only stable point, from the ancient world to his own one of industrialising Europe.

Environmental Consciousness

The question is now more or less settled that Keats does not seek or support transcendence. Instead what he does is to opt out of looking at human suffering. Thus, the nightingale’s song symbolises an auditory attraction that enables Keats’ speaker to not look at or hear suffering. It enables him to turn away from palsied bodies and the groans of youth he encounters.

Experiencing compassion fatigue, perhaps, from seeing and hearing the truth of human groans, the speaker opts for the beauty of a song. Thus, Keats treats beauty as a solution to the grittiness of truth. Yet, even the nightingale is not idealised, contrary to traditional readings, because Keats’ speaker does ask what does the nightingale know, if anything: “What thou among the leaves hast never known”. So how can one seek escape into a song from a bird that does not know human suffering?

Further, when the poem ends, the music is not readily hearable: the “plaintive anthem fades”, says Keats, again suggesting that even art or beauty as escape is hard to hear. The lines imply that one has to strain to hear the song of the bird: one has to make an effort to acquire beauty, it is not readily available, except to the discerning reader/poet.

Keats also weaves environmental concerns into some of his poetry. The process of wine-making in this poem nods towards the ground/earth. That he eventually abandons wine’s pleasures for the bird’s song also gestures at localised sources of happiness: the speaker in a particular place experiences a certain joy. Now, it is obvious that for Keats the pleasures from Nature are available only in terms of memory and/or art: the memory of the song, or (in another poem) an urn or artwork. This localisation even approximates to a strong sense of place, a cornerstone of the English Romantics’ environmental consciousness.

Our Themes

The poem’s quiet documentation of hospitals and diseases has been recently studied. Druin Burch for instance argues that ‘It is the atmosphere of the [hospital] wards and the patient’s bedroom’ that is invoked in the famous lines already quoted:

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

This is not, however, unusual, for critics observe that Keats’ symbolism often draws on medical conditions. Thus, in another example, the ‘swallows’ ‘twittering’ in the skies at the end of his famous ‘To Autumn’ was, they argue, a veiled reference to a persistent throat condition that irritated Keats in that period.

Evidently, neither Keats in his 200th year nor the Romantic writers have lost their charm for contemporary critics and readers. That is perhaps so because one can find concerns and themes that resonate with our own, whether it is ‘drugs and literature’ (embodied in the 20th century in the work of William S Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg and others) or ecological thought.

Democratisation & the Literary

The attempt to locate Beauty as a cornerstone of human civilisation, as a means of its redemption, finds surprising echoes in the works of Jeanette Winterson or critics like Elaine Scarry. Scarry, for instance, has proposed that Beauty is linked to Justice and democratic thinking (On Beauty and Being Just). When we encounter Beauty, we are as humans programmed to share it, distribute it:

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people.

In Scarry’s argument there is a ‘continuity between the thing pursued and the pursuer’s own attributes’. So, ‘If one pursues goodness, one hopes in doing so to make oneself good. If one pursues justice, one surely hopes to be able one day to count oneself among the just’. If Beauty is about symmetry, where various points on the beautiful object are equidistant from each other – that is, in symmetrical relations with each other – then so is Justice.

Justice here is defined by Scarry via Amartya Sen, as ‘a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other’. There is, therefore, an intrinsic link between the object of Beauty and the object of Justice, but also a link between the pursuit (procedural, intellectual) of Beauty and of Justice. If so, sharing and working at objects of Beauty, such as poetry, is integral to how communities’ pursuit of Justice comes into being. It is from such arguments about poetry and the arts that philosophers like Martha Nussbaum believe that literary studies are central to democratisation.

The English Romantics were concerned, as Keats repeatedly foregrounded, with such questions of Beauty and its validity, social contexts and interpretations. Two hundred years later, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ retains its complicated charms, its insidious contexts and its politics. One does not read such works for aesthetic pleasure alone, for there is pleasure also inherent in discovering the complexities of the poem’s politics.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)