John Keats, the renowned romantic poet, intended to create a world of pure joy through his two famous odes – Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn. Both these great odes of Keats convey a note of solemnity that deepens now and then to poignant suffering. His words also evoke a haunting sense of unreality. In Ode to a Nightingale, the nightingale’s song is an illusion that soon fails, leaving the listener alone with their griefs and cares. Similarly, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, he advocates that there is no refuge but in art – the serene but immortal and unchangeable as the marble world which lives forever on the carved shape of a Grecian urn.
Many critics believe that Ode to a Nightingale” showcases Keats’s mastery of poetic language at its finest. He demonstrates exceptional skill in word choice and creating original, expressive phrases. For instance, the phrase “the blushful hippocrene,” which refers to the red stream flowing from the fountain of the Muses, evokes images of a blushing girl’s cheeks. It is difficult to determine which is more tempting: the wine or the girl. Additionally, this wine has “beaded bubbles winking at the brim.” The use of “winking” highlights its sparkling nature.
The bubbles seem to invite a man to the wine, just as a girl’s wink would invite him to her company. Another suggestive phrase is purple-stained mouth,” which again shows the high quality of the wine. Other memorable phrases and lines include “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves,” “embalmed darkness,” and mid-May’s eldest child, the coming musk-rose.” The line “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” effectively describes life’s perplexities and anxieties, while “leaden-eyed despairs” conveys the dullness in a hopeless man’s eyes.
The Ode to a Nightingale showcases the maturity and brilliance of Keats’s poetic ability. It is undoubtedly a masterpiece, revealing the magnificence of Keats’s imagination in its pure romantic form. The poem is also notable for its reflective and meditative tone. Its central theme revolves around the contrast between the joy and beauty of the nightingale’s song, which appears to be eternal, with the sorrows of human life and the fleeting nature of love and beauty in our world.
No doubt, Ode to a Nightingale” contains the fullest, highest, most intense, and valuable mental experience that Keats can imagine. This experience serves as the center of the poem and its unity. However, within this unity lies a complex of feelings and thoughts that move in alternate rises and falls – a series of waves. These waves are not of equal height; they gradually rise to a climax in the seventh stanza before subsiding in the conclusion.
The inspiration for Ode on a Grecian Urn came from a collection of Greek sculptures that Keats saw in the British Museum. Perhaps, part of the inspiration for the poem was derived from a marble urn that belonged to Lord Holland. When giving us the imagery of the carvings on the urn, Keats was not only thinking of a single urn but also Greek sculpture in general. He had a native sympathy and natural affinity with the Greek mind. This ode expresses the full force of Hellenic influence acting on an essentially romantic temperament.
Keats finds a more satisfying symbol of the permanence of beauty in the Grecian urn than in the nightingale. However, the poem implies deficiencies in the value of art that weaken its power as a symbol. The essence of the common man would definitely prefer the warm impermanence of human life to the cold permanence of the urn.
The Ode on a Grecian Urn contains a series of vivid and concrete pictures. These include passionate men and gods chasing reluctant maidens, flute players playing their ecstatic music, fair youth trying to kiss his beloved, happy branches of trees, townspeople going to a place of worship to offer sacrifice with a mysterious priest leading them, and the little town that will always remain desolate. The poem illustrates Keats’s genius in imaginative phrasing. The phrases sylvan historian” and “cold pastoral” are appropriately used for the urn.
The first phrase on the urn depicts forest scenes, while the second phrase shows the poet’s awareness of the limitations of art. When we read cold pastoral,” the once animated and vitalized carved figures now recede and fade, returning to their immobile, lifeless state on the urn. The closing stanza describes the urn as an “attic shape,” a “silent form,” and a “fair attitude,” all reinforcing its “cold pastoral” meaning. We are left with a sense that although art possesses beauty and permanence, it lacks reality. However, Keats’ most famous line in this ode is: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” This concise expression encapsulates a profound fact that man never denies.
Both poems contain contrasts that are often overlooked. Ode to a Nightingale” presents a contrast between the nightingale’s immortal song and the mortality of humans who consider themselves superior. The poem also highlights the bird’s happiness and joy versus the sufferings, afflictions, and sorrows of humanity, where beauty, youth, and love are fleeting. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” clear-cut contrasts are drawn between the urn’s frozen images and the dynamic life portrayed on it; between the human and changeable versus the immortal and permanent; participation versus observation; and above all, life versus art.
The Ode to a Nightingale begins with the poet falling into a drugged sleep and sharing great happiness with a bird that is singing too happily. This paradox is resolved in the sixth stanza, where we learn that he has often been “half in love with easeful death” and that listening to the nightingale makes him feel like dying would be even richer. Keats dreams of escaping from the world’s miseries by drinking wine and then taking flight on the wings of poesy. He wishes to leave this world unseen, and even in the richly sensuous description of surrounding darkness, we are reminded once more of death through the telling phrase “embalmed darkness.”
Complaining about the so-called illogicality of Keats’s pretense that he is listening to the same bird as the one that sang to Ruth is useless. It is, in fact, a symbolic representation of the poet’s song. Keats contrasts the immortality of poetry with the mortality of the poet in this climactic moment of his poem. Several themes are harmoniously blended here – including the beauty of the nightingale’s song, the loveliness of spring nights, and humanity’s miseries and desire for escape through wine, poetry or death. The nightingale’s song acquires greater poignancy from these miseries.
The ode should never be mistaken as the expression of a single mood. It is definitely about a series of moods. Keats goes from being too happy in the bird’s song to becoming aware of the contrast between the bird’s joy and human misery. He can only momentarily escape this thought through poetry, wine, beauty of nature, or the thought of death. The seventh stanza intensifies this contrast.
The immortal bird, which is a symbol of natural beauty and poetry, is contrasted with the hungry generations” of mankind. The poet then delves into history and legend, referencing Ruth’s tears and the “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas.” However, the “faery lands” are now “forlorn,” as reality breaks into the poetic dream and beckons the poet back to himself. Fancy, Muse of escapist poetry, is revealed to be a “deceiving elf.” Keats expresses an intense desire to escape from reality but ultimately realizes that no escape is possible.
Keats had a keen observation of nature, and nothing escaped him. In his Ode to a Nightingale, we can see his delight in the purely sensuous appeal of nature through a couple of remarkable nature pictures. One such picture is that of the moon shining in the sky while darkness covers the grassy floor of the forest.
And happy is the Queen Moon on her throne,
Clustered around by her starry fays…
The other picture is of flowers:
White hawthorn and pastoral eglantine;
Fading violets covered up in leaves…
In the Ode to a Nightingale, readers are led to believe that neither the beauty of nature (represented by the nightingale’s song) nor the beauty of art (represented by flights of poesy) can console us for the miseries of human existence on this beautiful green planet. In the Ode on a Grecian Urn, Keats makes a similar attempt. The life depicted on the urn possesses beauty, importance, and externality akin to nature. This is expressed in sharp contrast with actual life’s transitoriness, purposelessness, and unpoetic nature – at times explicitly and other times implicitly.
In the latter poem, the unwearied” melodist is “for ever piping songs, for ever new”, and the uncloying love of the imaginary world of the artist contrasts with the inevitable imperfections of human existence. In the last stanza, Keats proclaims that sorrows and meaninglessness can be transcended if we realize that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” The poet recognizes that beauty is an image of truth and if we see life steadily and see it whole, life’s disagreeables will evaporate as they do in a great work of art. Thus art points to life being as meaningful as art. Keats fully acknowledges art’s limitations.
Even when he congratulates the lover on the permanence of their unsatisfied love, he still longs for breathing human passion.” When describing a scene of sacrifice that will remain forever beautiful, he can’t help but think about the desolate town emptied of its inhabitants. Art is invaded by human suffering. The “cold pastoral,” while perfect, lacks the warmth of reality.
Both of these odes are filled with wisdom and emotion, speaking directly to the hearts of readers. The highly concentrated language and imagery only add to their impact. Each sentence is crafted in a way that maximizes its relevance to the theme, allowing for multiple interpretations. This approach ensures that every aspect of the poem is meaningful without being overwhelming.
Both of these odes are constructed with harmonious skill and deal with the favorite themes in Keats’s romanticism. One represents the artistic quality of a Greek urn, conveying the message that truth and beauty are one. The other explores the painful craving of the soul to find a beauty that endures and the fascination of death. Keats’s most characteristic form of writing odes consists of a group of stanzas with highly complex structures, yet regular or nearly regular in their resemblance to one another. Ode to a Nightingale and Ode on a Grecian Urn are no exceptions.
Each stanza of the odes consists of the first half of the octave of a Shakespearean sonnet. This means that there is only one elegiac quatrain instead of two. The quatrain is followed by a Petrarchan sestet, with the rhyme scheme being abab cde cde for Ode to a Nightingale and abab cdedce for Ode on a Grecian Urn. Each ode is built using stanzas that have ten lines, which can be considered as a kind of mutilated sonnet. Although Ode on a Grecian Urn slightly differs in its second half, these odes are interlinked by their themes and moods.
The language used in these poems is adorned with all the jewels of speech, yet their brilliance does not overpower the conciseness and precision of the overall message. The rhythms are flawlessly tailored to create a unified impression. This is precisely what modern literary readers crave – intellectual discipline coupled with imaginative and emotional handling of themes.
The odes of Keats deal with conflicts that troubled him, adding a dramatic quality to his work. His primary conflict is between the real world and the ideal world. Keats tends to escape to the world of imagination, beauty, and perfection as seen in Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” However, his escape is always obstructed by the painful realization of life’s actualities.
- Forman, Buxton H., (ed) The Complete Poetical Works of John Keats”, Oxford University Press (1907)
- Larrabee, Stephen A., “English Bards and Grecian Marbles: The Relationship between Sculpture and Poetry Especially in the Romantic Period”, Columbia University Press, 1943, p.204
- Rollins, Hyder Edward., (Ed.) “The Letters of John Keats.” 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
- Scudder, Horace Elisha. Ed., “The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats”, Boston: Riverside Press (1899)