The Image of the Nightingale in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”

April 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” though written nearly a century apart, share many poetic elements that allow readers to effectively draw a surface parallel between the two poems. Though both of these poems have analogous stylistic elements, a similar solitary speaker in nature and an overall forlorn tone, it is the image of the nightingale in each poem which ultimately comes to symbolize vastly different ideals for each poet. While Keats’s nightingale is representative of the Romantic ideals of creative and imaginative power in which the speaker can connect/identify with to bring life to his solitary position, Hardy’s thrush serves to accentuate the speaker’s stark and lifeless world, and further alerts both speaker and readers of the incapability of any connection to it that defines Keats’s “Ode.” Through the symbol of the nightingale representing such different ideals in each poem, the poems serve to reflect the vast differences between the eras in which the poems were written. Where Keats’s “Ode” is largely representative of Romantic ideas of power and connection with nature, Hardy’s clearly marks the end of the Victorian period and the beginning of a new era in which nature and humanity are stripped of their previously lush and deified effects. Though “Ode to a Nightingale” and “The Darkling Thrush” end with vastly different messages, the poems share many surface similarities. In fact, “Keats’s Nightingale may have been stirring in Hardy’s consciousness when he wrote The Darkling Thrush” (Mays 62), cites critic Charlie Mays’s essay, “Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’: The ‘Nightingale’ Grown Old.” These similarities, according to some critics, are deliberate, as Hardy intended to use familiar Romantic poetic elements that readers can recognize in order to further set up the divergent message in his own poem. One such similarity between the poems lays in the form and rhyme scheme that each poet develops.For example, in Hardy’s “Thrush” as well as in Keats’s “Ode,” each stanza, with the exception of one line in Keats’s poem, is written in iambic pentameter. Though Hardy utilizes eight line stanzas to Keats’s ten, each poet’s use of iambic pentameter creates a poem that flows quite easily and allows readers to focus on the speaker and driving action of the poem. Though typically utilized in odes, Hardy’s choice to write “The Darkling Thrush” in iambic pentameter serves to again remind readers of these similar Romantic traits in order to further emphasize the disparate message he will later establish in his own poem, which helps to create the sense of irony often present in Hardy’s poetry.Further, both poems operate under a similar rhyme scheme, with Hardy’s eight line stanzas following an ABABCDCD pattern, and Keats ten line stanzas utilizing an ABABDCEDCE form. Again, this simple rhyme scheme is commonly used in Romantic odes, but Hardy’s attempt at it adds to the irony of the message that lies within it. Because Hardy’s poem was written in 1900, well after the composition of Keats Ode, he was aware of readers’ familiarity with not solely Keats’s Ode, but Romantic odes in general. Thus, because these poems share familiar surface and stylistic traits, readers cannot help but to “keep in mind” Keats’s own poem in their reading of Hardy’s at the time his was written. Along with being structurally similar, both “Nightingale” and “Thrush” also focus on the image of a speaker solitarily observing nature and convey an initial forlorn tone and mood. According to critics, Keats actually composed “Ode to a Nightingale” based on his own similar experience in which he sat alone under a tree, seemingly under the trance of the bird. Philip Greenblatt et al refer to this occurrence in the annotation of the poem, stating: “Charles Brown, with whom Keats was then living with… wrote ‘In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest near my house. Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in her song; and one morning he… sat under a plum tree for two or three hours. When he came into the house he had some scraps of paper in his hand. . . On inquiry, I found those scraps… contained his poetic feeling on the song of our nightingale.’ (Greenblatt et al 903)Keeping this experience in mind, readers can witness the similar stance that Keats’s speaker in “Nightingale” also takes. For example, in the first stanza of “Nightingale,” readers are immediately introduced to the subjective speaker and the depressed mood of the poem through the opening lines, “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk /” (lines 1-2). Through using the first person “I” and “my” to convey the opening tone of the poem, Keats establishes the subjectivity in a poet’s work that often characterized Romantic writings, as the tone and overall feeling of a poem is expressed through the senses of a solitary individual. “Nightingale” is clearly no exception, as the experience and the feelings associated with the poem’s driving action are conveyed through the subjectivity of the speaker involved. The first person description also allows readers to gain a sense of the dejected mood that is present at the beginning of “Nightingale” through the first person speaker. Through lines referring to “[his] heart aches” and descriptive lines comparing the speaker’s mood as if he had consumed poison or a “dull opiate,” the initial tone of the poem—the mood before the speaker describes the nightingale—is established. Keats’s speaker refers to the world using depressive imagery describing, “The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan; Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; / Where but to think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs” (lines 23-28). Through descriptions such as this, the speaker offers readers a solemn and despondent image of his state of mind and initial surroundings that exist without the presence of the nightingale in the poem. Hardy, in a similar fashion to Keats, also uses the stylistic element of a first person speaker to establish the depressed mood in “The Darkling Thrush.” Like “Ode,” Hardy’s poem also opens by focusing on the first-person speaker as he states, “I leant upon a coppice gate / When Frost was spectre-gray” (lines 1-2). Again, adopting a characteristically Romantic trait in conveying the mood through the speaker, Hardy also focuses on the speaker’s solitude in nature through the lines, “And all mankind that haunted night / Had sought their household fires” (lines 8-9). Through Hardy’s establishment of the speaker of the poem alone in nature he is again utilizing a pattern that allows readers to recognize the Romantic elements present his own poem in order to later set readers up for his ultimate reversal of these Romantic ideals by the end of his poem. Like Keats’s speaker, Hardy’s speaker in “Thrush” also conveys a sense of dejection through making subjective statements about his internal state. For example, the lines, “And every spirit upon the earth / Seemed fervourless as I” (16-17) are indicative of this depressed state. Again, Hardy’s similarity to Keats’s “Ode” is his speaker’s subjective offering of the tone of the poem. Readers acquire the overall tone not simply from the imagery used, but directly through the first person. To build upon this mood of angst and solitude that is established at the beginning of each of these poems, another major similarity in these two poems is the thematic concern of death. Though both poems, as readers will later learn, have vastly different interpretations of death, each share a common theme in its ominous existence and sense of inevitability throughout each. In Keats’s “Ode,” for instance, the speaker acknowledges that death is a regular part of the cycle of existence stating, “Here… / Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies; /” (line 26). Later in the poem, he again speaks about death, yet this time in relation to his own existence and ponders “For many a time / I have been half in love with easeful Death,/ … Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/ To cease upon the midnight with no pain,/” (lines 51-57). To Keats’s speaker, it is clear he views death as a looming presence, as he contemplates his own end in both acknowledging its inevitability and remaining hopeful that his own might be painless, as if it could occur while the speaker was in a brief experience of ecstasy offered through the nightingale.Similarly, the theme of death also seems to pervade Hardy’s entire poem. According to critics, Hardy’s original title for “The Darkling Thrush” was instead “By the Century’s Deathbed,” which seems appropriate, as the metaphors and imagery of death pervade almost every line of the poem. Not only does Hardy use imagery such as “crypt” and “corpse” in his descriptive verse, but the poem itself was actually composed on New Year’s Eve of 1900. Thus, combined with the speaker’s stance at the “weakening eye of day,” the poem quite literally expresses the death of the speaker’s day, the year, and the century. This overwhelming sense of death’s looming presence in Hardy’s poem is again a reminder of its inevitability that is simply so pervasive that each speaker has no choice but to acknowledge and further contemplate it.Keats’s and Hardy’s poems continue to parallel each other with the sudden appearance of the image of the nightingale, a familiar image for poets “which often had symbolic significance because of its strange habit of singing only in darkness” (May 63). Subsequently, it is the entrance of the nightingale that serves as the turning point of these two poems, as it marks the point where Keats’s speaker is able to connect with the bird and has a euphoric “transformation” in spite of the forlorn world, whereas Hardy’s speaker is unable to identify with the bird, reflecting the emerging view of his era: nature no longer offered the deep spiritual connection and experience that it once did in the Romantic period. “[T]he bird is a symbol of the visionary imagination, and hope of identification with it provides the drive in both poems,” (62) asserts Charles May’s article “Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’: The ‘Nightingale’ Grown Old.” Further, its appearance in each poem as singing in complete darkness around the image of the solitary speaker in nature are parallel features; yet what each poet does with the image bird, however, is the area where these poems diverge, ultimately marking the divergence of Romantic and post-Victorian ideologies as well. In Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” for example, the speaker’s identification and experience with the bird is a distinguishing characteristic of Romantic writings. To Keats, the nightingale represents a connection to nature wherein the speaker, through poetic identification, is granted a temporary reprieve from the inevitability of death in the world that he contemplated earlier in the poem. With the entrance of the nightingale in each poem, readers can also begin to see a distinction in how each poem characterizes nature. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” nature is portrayed as glorified and sensuous, and the speaker of the poem, through the nightingale, is able to connect to this deified state resulting in his own internal experience of ecstasy in spite of the negative feelings that initially surrounded him. For example, Keats’s speaker uses especially sensuous terms to describe nature, referring to the nightingale as singing upon “some melodious plot / Of beechen green” (lines 8-9). Nature is again characterized in lush terms later in the poem as the speaker describes “the grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; / White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; / Fast fading violets…” (lines 45-47). Later, Keats’s speaker again appears to deify the nature surrounding him, describing heaven-like qualities that reflect the earth around him through the lines “But here there is no light, / Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown / Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways” (lines 38-40). These sensuous and glorified images of nature are particular characteristics of Romantic poetry, as Philip Greenblatt notes in his “Introduction to the Romantic Period,” “Romantic poetry… has almost become synonymous with ‘nature poetry. … many poems of the period are almost unmatched in their ability to capture the sensuous nuances of the natural scene…”(Greenblatt et al 11). Keats’s “Nightingale” shares in this Romantic feature, as the speaker, through the bird, is allowed a deep identification to share in nature’s plentitude. Most significantly, Keats’s speaker possesses the ability to experience a connection to this glorified natural state through the nightingale. According to May, the primary difference between Keats and Hardy’s writings is utilization of the nightingale to connect to nature. “The focus in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is on the plentitude of nature and the speaker’s limitations in participating in it. In ‘The Darkling Thrush,’ the focus is on the vacuity of nature and the speaker’s courage to . . . reject such a connection” (May 63). Consequently, readers can view instances throughout Keats’s poem of the speaker’s “at oneness” with the nightingale. For example, the lines “Away! Away! For I will fly to thee / Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards, / But on the viewless wings of Poesy /” (lines 31-33) express the speaker’s desire and ability to metaphorically “take flight” with the nightingale, leaving the world as he knows it momentarily. This sentiment is again described in the lines, “. . . I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim: /” (lines 19-20). Again, a speaker’s ability to fully connect to the natural world described is a characteristically Romantic theme, as Greenblatt gives Keats the credit for being a “Romantic craftsman” in his ability to achieve this connection in his work. Greenblatt explains this Romantic quality of Keats’s writing stating, “[his] description in which all the senses… combine to give the total apprehension of an experience; a delight in the sheer existence of things outside himself, the poet seeming to lose his own identity in a total identification with the object he contemplates…”(Greenblatt et al 879). Identification with nature, therefore, is a Romantic theme that readers should not lose sight of, as later poetry, as evidenced by Hardy, is markedly devoid of this theme. Though Keats’s speaker expresses an initial depressing attitude regarding his current state and the state of mankind in general, it is undoubtedly clear that his identification with the nightingale offers him reprieve from this state. While referring to his connection with the bird, Keats speaker states, “Though the dull brain perplexes and retards: / Already with thee! Tender is the night, / And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne” (34-26). Later, Keats describes the ecstatic experience with the bird that he is actually able to gain from this identification with it, even expressing a lack of fear of the inevitability of death, so long as the speaker remains in the ecstasy of the bird. He states, “Now more than ever it 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!” (lines 55-58). To Keats’s speaker, the nightingale offers an escape from mortality, an escape that Romantics believed one could simultaneously achieve through a deep connection to nature. “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” Keats exclaims. Mays’s article agrees with this escape sentiment: “The nightingale’s song celebrates natural plentitude; and Keats is able, if only momentarily, to participate in this plentitude on the ‘viewless wings of Poesy.’ Granted, Keats is tolled back to himself and the world of through and change when the bird’s song fades, but he is still left with a valid experience of at-oneness…” (Mays 65).Ultimately, as Mays notes, Keats’s speaker is taken back to his reality as he bids adieu to the bird and its song eventually fades, but it was the brief experience of ecstasy that Keats’s speaker had through identifying with the natural bird that makes the poem quintessentially Romantic. Though the natural world in both of these poems still holds the concept of the inevitability of death, the ability of an individual to connect to the spiritual qualities of nature represent a brief reprieve and escape. To Hardy, however, the familiar entrance of the nightingale purposely reminds readers of its Romantic significance to accentuate his opposing theme in one’s inability to take solace in nature. According to Mays, “Hardy purposely took Keats’s romantic view of nature and inverted it to write an ironic rejection of such a view. The resulting reversal of the Keats poem makes an appropriate comment on the end of a century in which poets often saw nature as symbolically full of meaning and value worth identifying with” (Mays 63). Hardy presents nature not as glorified and spiritual, but just as he sees it: cold, dead and unforgiving. To Hardy’s speaker, ‘what you see is what you get,’ and what the speaker sees clearly is in opposition to the lush plentitude that Keats’s speaker witnesses earlier. To Hardy, nature is not an object to be glorified, and the nightingale does not have transformative properties as Keats’s does; it is simply a feature in Hardy’s dark landscape; and the speaker does not understand why it is singing. In this view, the speaker’s view of nature in “The Darkling Thrush” clearly is in direct opposition the speaker of “Ode to a Nightingale.” For example, while Keats’s speaker describes nature as lush and in sensuous terms, Hardy’s speaker’s description deprives nature of any life at all. Through using imagery reminiscent of death, nature in this poem comes to appear as stark and lifeless—hardly something to be glorified. Hardy’s speaker states, “The land’s sharp features seemed to be / The Century’s corpse outleant, / His crypt the cloudy canopy, / The wind his death-lament. / The ancient pulse of germ and birth / Was shrunken hard and dry /” (lines 9-14). Again, words such as “corpse” and “death-lament” clearly establish nature as devoid of life or spirit, in direct opposition to Keats’s. To Hardy, the thrush itself is also devoid of its spiritual and uplifting qualities that it held for the speaker in Keats’s “Ode.” For example, while Keats’s nightingale sat upon a lush “melodious green plot,” Hardy’s thrush rests on “tangled bine-stems” and “bleak twigs.” In addition, Hardy’s thrush is certainly not an “immortal bird” to be revered as Keats’s is, but rather is “An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small” (21). Through these descriptions of nature as devoid of imaginative and spiritual qualities, Hardy’s poem marks a clear divergence from Romantic ideals that Keats so aptly displays in his poem. According to critic Katherine Maynard, “The image of tangled and overgrown stems illustrates humanity’s failure to find in nature a suitable accompaniment to its own human song. . . Neither God nor nature accompanies humanity, comforts or consoles people, in this earthly existence. By dint of mindless vitality, nature, in the form of the aged thrush, sings when a person surely would not sing. . .” (Maynard “The Tragic Lyric”). The ability of nature to no longer grant people imagination and strength that so characterized Romantic writings is strikingly evident in Hardy’s poems, showing a clear divergence from “nature poems” such as Keats’s. To continue this concept, Hardy’s speaker, unlike Keats’s, is also unable to find a connection to the singing thrush and the imaginative qualities in nature that it has come to represent. As in “Ode to a Nightingale,” Hardy’s thrush also bursts into “a full-hearted evensong” and he later states how the bird “Had chosen thus to fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom” (22-23). However, in Hardy’s poem, the speaker is unable to establish a connection with the bird that was so common in Romantic verse. According to Maynard’s article, “By conventions of symbolism, [Hardy] is, of course, the thrush, but he has not become the thrush. The Romantic Lyric [in contrast] occupies a passage of time during which poet and apostrophized objet draw near to, meet or become one another, after which they withdraw into separateness once more. (Maynard “The Tragic Lyric). In Hardy’s poem, it is clear that the speaker never reaches this point of ‘meeting.’ He hears the song of the nightingale and sees the image of the bird on the vine above him, yet, he cannot relate to the bird and “become one another” as Keats’s speaker had; Hardy’s speaker does not understand earthly reason for the bird’s song. This sentiment is elucidated in the lines “So little cause for carolings / Of such ecstatic sound / Was written on terrestrial things / Afar or nigh around” (lines 25-28). Here, the speaker hears the bird’s song, but because he cannot establish that Romantic connection to it, he takes no solace in the bird’s joy; he does not grasp it at all. Hardy’s inability to identify and thus experience a brief joy through the nightingale is further exemplified in the ending lines of the poem in which the speaker states, “Some blessed Hope Whereof he knows / And I was unaware” (line 32-33). The explicit statement of the speaker’s own ignorance to the bird’s song demonstrates both the poetic quality the bird represents (“Hope”) and the speaker’s inability to capture or identify with those feelings and qualities. The thrush, to the speaker, exists in the rest of the forlorn nature that the speaker is surrounded by. In contrast to Keats’s speaker, the bird carries no meaning to Hardy’s because the speaker cannot identify with it. Maynard adds to this theory stating, Whatever prompts the bird’s song is not evident to Hardy. The “illumined joy” of the song and “blessed hope” it betokens seem small recompense for the pain men and women endure now and have endured through the century. If the bird sings while humanity confronts the desolation of its existence, the question arises whether nature has any sense—awareness or concern—at all, for the thrush’s joy can only be heard as an ironic comment on humanity’s joyless state (Maynard “The Tragic Lyric”). Simply, the bird exists in nature and Hardy’s speaker realizes it exists; yet that is all the bird is to this speaker. The fact that the speaker of the poem is denied identification with this bird, an identification that, in Keats’s poem, allows for the brief trip away from one’s own mortality, is a theme in Hardy’s work that reflects the change in historical time period. Nature, and a connection to it, no longer signifies the deep spiritual and uplifting experience that it held in the Romantic period. According to Mays’s essay, Hardy’s speaker’s inability to identify with this natural glorious bird as Keats had is indicative of Hardy’s own rejection of Romantic ideology at the turn of the 19th century when he composed his poem. As Mays states, “the resulting reversal of the Keats poem makes an appropriate comment on the end of a century in which poets often saw nature as symbolically full of meaning and value worth identifying with” (Mays 63).According to critics, the thrush’s ability to “enlighten” a speaker’s stark world is also how these two poems contrast so distinctly. Charles Lock’s essay “‘The Darkling Thrush’ and the Habit of Singing” notes on this divergence stating, “In Romantic Lyric, the bird is anthropomorphized by metaphor, transformed into a symbol of the poet and of poetic aspirations. In Hardy’s poem, the thrush remains a thrush…” (Lock “The Darkling Thrush and the Habit of Singing”). The thrush’s song, in Hardy’s poem, marks a bitter irony on the reality that Hardy’s speaker perceives: a cold, lifeless landscape. Again, focusing on Hardy’s divergence from Keats’s Romantic tradition, his speaker is positioned alone in nature with a feeling of emptiness, as if nature can no longer satisfy the individual. Thus, the conclusion of Hardy’s poem is reflective of the conclusion of the 19th century and the views that went along with it. Mays states this change in historical viewpoints most adequately when he says, “[Hardy] is left at the end of the poem with his harsh awareness of a natural world that cannot fulfill man’s hope for value and meaning, a world that makes the song of the aged thrush an ironic indicator of the distance between the Romantic view of nature at the beginning of the century and the absurd view of nature at the end of the century” (Mays 65). Through “The Darkling Thrush,” readers can gain a sense of this great change in historical eras and the views and ideologies that come with them. Hardy’s thrush, unlike Keats’s lush “immortal Bird,” is just that: a withered thrush singing in the blackness. Further, his inability to connect with the bird highlights the divergence between this deep connection to nature that was so aptly felt and described by Romantic writers. Readers are thus left with an emerging Modernist view reflecting the harshness and lifelessness of nature and society at large, which, in the end, is in direct opposition to the Romantic tradition reflected in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”Ultimately, the parallels found in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” are undeniable. Utilizing a similar form and style, their focus on a solitary speaker within nature experiencing a depressed feeling, and, obviously the most significant similarity: the focus of each poem on the image of the nightingale; these poems are strikingly reminiscent of one another. However, with the entrance of the nightingale, these poems take drastically different routes in the significance of the bird to the reader, to nature, and to the time period itself. Where Keats’s deep connection with the nightingale comes to symbolize the identification of a person with the imaginative qualities of nature, thus granting those who partake a brilliant reprieve from the imminence of one’s own mortality; Hardy’s thrush comes to represent a type of “Romantic failure.” Hardy’s inability to find this Romantic connection to his thrush and to nature itself represents the divergence in themes in the Romantic period from Hardy’s entrance into the Modern era. Thus, while mortality looms in both of these periods, Keats, like many Romantics, can briefly retreat during an experience with nature; Hardy, however, is offered no reprieve. Alone in a harsh world, nature, to Hardy’s post-Victorian audience, is no longer indicative of a Romantic escape. Thus modern readers, like Hardy, have no choice but to accept and continue into an unknown Modern era eerily devoid of meaning.

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