Optimism in “Ode to a Nightingale”

March 20, 2019 by Essay Writer

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats uses nature and a nightingale as figures for an optimistic view on mortality, and on the speaker’s life specifically. Throughout the poem, the nightingale itself is an figure for the beautiful and cyclical nature of life. The natural surroundings serve to illustrate the fertility and optimism that characterize this natural cycle. In the opening stanza of the poem, the speaker introduces the bird. He describes it with images of happiness and nature, thereby conveying to the reader his appreciation of the natural world and the connection between human and animal life. The wording in this portion of the poem and the use of vivid adjectives that reference fertility and prosperity serve to illustrate the author’s optimistic view of the natural world:That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees, In some melodious plot Of beechen green, and shadows numberless, Singest of summer in full-throated ease. (7-10)The speaker’s image of a “light-winged Dryad” and the trees as “beechen green” emphasizes the youth and beauty of the bird. Dryads are mythical creatures typically associated with occasions involving music, dance, nature, and happiness; the allusion thus characterizes not only the bird, but the speaker’s current state of mind. He adds to this by describing the plot as “melodious” and then the bird’s song as containing a quality of ease to it. The speaker suggests that his life, like the bird, is one of a lighthearted nature and optimistic outlook. In the second and third stanzas there is a change in tone to express optimism for the future through acceptance of mortality. In the second stanza the poet calls for wine to alter his perception and enhance his understanding of mortality and existence in nature. His descriptions become much more typically Romantic as he refers to wine as, “draught of vintage” (11). This association between intoxication and nature confers on the wine an almost mystical quality. The speaker describes the wine as “tasting of Flora and the country green” (13), and his environment as one of, “Dance, and Provencal song” (14). The suggestion is that the speaker uses the wine to maintain his sense of optimism through the perfection and celebration around him. This wine resembles the nightingale in many respects as it also figures summer, song, and dance, an optimism that is heightened in the poem’s subsequent stanza, in which the speaker considers his fate as a mortal. Nevertheless, through alcohol, the speaker believes he can catch a glimpse of the immortality of the nightingale. Even when faced with ominous and inevitable mortality, the speaker goes on to optimistically follow the path of the nightingale, and through this discovers beauty in the darkness. The poet, still optimistic in his belief in the nightingale, once again attempts to achieve peace, only this time with the “viewless wings of Poesy” (33). It is through this optimism that he discovers that the beauty of mother nature endures, even in the darkest of times. “Already with thee! tender is the night,And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays” (35-37). Here, the speaker’s emphasis is on the inherent strength and perfection of nature. The night is described as “tender” and the moon is idealized, represented on a throne and surrounded by fairies. Nature is described in a very appealing manor which suggests both the speaker’s optimism about the natural world and the reader’s optimism for the speaker’s own fate. The positive tone of this section is expanded through the subsequent description of the trees and their fruitful productivity: “But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine” (43-46). In this section, the speaker appeals to the various human senses. The night is described as “embalmed” or perfumed in darkness; “sweet” appeals to the sense of taste. Such sensual imagery is extended in the subsequent description of the fruit trees and fauna, which emphasizes the fertility of the natural world. It is not until the sixth stanza, however, that the speaker arrives at a truly optimistic view towards death. He relates this view back to the nightingale to present a comforting and positive view of the fate of his mortality; “I have been half in love with easeful Death” (52). In the first stanza the speaker referred to the birds song as one of, “full-throated ease” (10); here, he returns to the comforting idea of this ease as it applies to death. After alluding to his ease with death he makes it clear that death is a concept of soothing outcome and a certain satisfaction, “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!” (55-58) The midnight is a symbol of this easy death, and it is here that the speaker includes death in his conception of a fulfilling, rich natural life. He is optimistic in his view of death, and, as he considers it part of the natural cycle, he accepts it with ease and satisfaction of fulfillment. In the next stanza of the poem the speaker switches his focus from his mortality to the bird’s immortality. In the first line of the stanza he proclaims, “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” (61) It its here that it becomes apparent that the bird is a symbol of the cycle of life and the continuity of nature. The bird is a figure for the joy and innocence of the life of nature and again calls the reader’s attention to the speaker’s optimism. He goes on to reference the “ancient days by emperor and clown” (64, a description that dramatizes the poem’s transition from a mortal life of corruption to an idealized fairy tale version. He also ends the stanza with a reference to the “fairy lands forlorn” (70). These references serve to underscore the bird’s function as a symbol of optimism. In the final stanza, however, the speaker re-visits present reality. The bird ceases to be a symbol and is now nothing but a nightingale, flying to its next location where it will continue to do the same thing forever. The song of the nightingale now unimportant, the speaker is forced to contemplate the meaning of it all and arrive upon a final decision for his future. It is at this point that the speaker is both ready and accepting of his inevitable mortal fate, and is optimistic of the future. Throughout “Ode to a Nightingale,” the speaker uses symbols of the bird and nature to express an optimistic view of the natural cycles of life and death. He develops the bird as a symbol for the immortality of ideal beauty, which never grows old or dies. The peaceful and comforting images of nature serve to ease the anxiety that attend the concept of death. “Ode to a Nightingale” is a poem that celebrates life, and provides consolation for its certain ending.

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