Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale is worthy of a dissertation. I return to it often to consider its subtleties of diction, lineation and thought. Its nuances are endlessly provocative. Recently I was considering the entirety of the imaginative movement of the poem and the speaker’s final state and in that final state I saw a consequence unique among the Romantic poets.
The speaker of the Ode imaginatively projects qualities onto the bird throughout the poem, the first is happiness. This projection of happiness is the speaker’s tenuous connection to the bird, his means of escaping the heartache and sorrows of human life. The listener’s ability to find this escape in the bird’s song is dependent upon his ability to project onto the bird what he imagines its song means. This imaginative projection or fancy is simultaneously a movement toward death in its most intoxicating characteristic, which is as a way of escaping pain. It is Hamlet’s desire
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,
This is the core of Ode to a Nightingale. The Ode’s speaker simply wishes to fantasize himself into nonexistence, “to cease upon the midnight with no pain.” It is here, in desiring death that he then projects onto the bird the quality of immortality. This immortality is insinuated primarily through the realization that the bird’s song today is the same as in ancient times and will be the same tomorrow after the speaker is dead.
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
The speaker doesn’t think to partake of the bird’s immortality as he does of the happiness. The consequence is that, by the end of the poem, the happiness seems to be stolen from the listener when the word “forlorn” invades his musings and returns him to the human world of thought and sorrow. But the projected immortality of the bird remains intact and flies off with the bird as the song fades into the distance. Thus the imaginative projection splits and the speaker is stuck in a kind of in-between where his imagination still projects the immortality of the bird outward into the deepening silence but the happiness ends as his mind recoils inward to the thoughts of pain, aging, sickness and death that plague daily, mortal life.
Here, at the end, the poem enters a realm that is unique among the Romantic poets. Unlike other poems of other Romantic poets, especially Blake or Shelley, the Ode is a kind of critique of pure imagination. The whole imaginative effort of the speaker to posit happiness in the nightingale and then take part in that happiness, to posit immortality in the bird and then, in that context of ecstatic, immortal, joyful song desire death almost to the pitch of willing it true, finds its end in the reality of individual suffering and the limits of human thought. Once again, as the Ode so often does, it recalls Hamlet. In this instance it recalls Hamlet’s comment that, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” For the Ode’s speaker, the human condition is one of bad dreams bounded in a nutshell. The imaginative effort is to free oneself from it. But the freedom is temporary and when it ends, leaves in its wake a feeling of betrayal because “the fancy cannot cheat so well/As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.” The dreamscape the speaker inhabits at the end of the Ode is not the enchanted, mythological dreamscape of most of the Romantics, even Keats in his other poems, but instead it is a dreamscape of suspicion, where everything is haunted by scrutiny and doubt.