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Interpreting the Odes of John Keats

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Use these John Keats poem interpretations for your next poetry discussion party. You'll find details on two of his most famous odes.

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    Background Information

    Here's a little background information that may come in handy while analyzing the poems of John Keats:

    • Keats lived a short, difficult life, dying at the age of 26 of tuberculosis.
    • He battled anxiety and depression.
    • He is considered a Romantic Poet. The British Romantics have the following characteristics:
      • They believed in the beauty of the supernatural.
      • They championed the individual.
      • They understood and celebrated the importance of nature.
      • They were concerned with the dangers of technology.

    For a more detailed description of the British Romantic movement and information on other Romantic poets, follow the link.

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    Analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale"

    The following facts and observations were gathered during an analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats.

    1. Rhyme Scheme: ababcdecde
    2. Meter: iambic pentameter except for the eighth line of each stanza which is iambic trimeter--why?
    3. Stanza 1: Poet is depressed (this is a disturbing pattern with Keats). He makes an allusion in line 4 to Lethe, a river flowing from the Greek underworld; it's also known as the river of forgetfulness, for those who drink from it forget everything. The allusion coincides with one of the themes of the poem, Keats' desire to forget everything as he listens to a bird sing, or as he writes poetry.
    4. Stanza 1: Line 5 is an apostrophe to the nightingale whose happiness causes him to "singest of summer in full throated ease" (10). The nightingale is referred to as a "light-winged Dryad of the trees" (7). In Greek Mythology, Dryads are the female spirits of nature (nymphs) who preside over forests and groves. The two mythological references establish a surreal mood--that state between reality and dreaming perhaps. This supports the theme that the poet wants to escape reality, and does.
    5. Stanza 2: The key word in stanza 2, the item to which Keats refers to as "a draught of vintage that hath been / Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth / tasting of Flora and the country green" (11-13) is Hippocrene. For those of you who don't know: In Greek Mythology, Hippocrene is the name of a fountain on Mt. Helicon. It was sacred to the Muses and was formed by the hooves of Pegasus. Drinking the fountain's water brings forth poetic inspiration.
    6. Stanza 2: The poet's desire to drink from the fountain asserts his desire to escape from his problems through poetry: "That I might drink, and leave the world unseen / And with thee fade away into the forest dim" (19-20). Thee in this citation refers to the nightingale.
    7. Stanza 3: The poet emphasizes his desires in stanza 3, wishing to go with the nightingale who has never experienced the despair and sadness of "The weariness, the fever, and the fret... / 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" (23-27). It is because the nightingale has never experienced these things that he can sing so beautifully.
    8. Stanza 4: The poet asserts he will escape life "not charioted by Bacchus... / but on the viewless wings of Poesy" (33). Just in case you hadn't figured it out, the depressed speaker wishes to escape through poetry. Bacchus is an allusion to the Roman god of wine and revelry.
    9. Stanza 5: The poet has left the physical world and has entered a world where he sees not with his natural eyes, but with heavenly eyes.
    10. Stanza 6: The poet begins to snap out of his trance stating his desire to die while listening to the nightingale's song. He speaks to the bird: "Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain-- / To thy high requiem become a sod" (59-60). The problem with dying is the poet would no longer be able to listen to the nightingale's song although he claims it would be "rich to die, / To cease upon the midnight with no pain, / While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad" (55-57). The nightingale's song is symbolic of Nature's perfection and reminiscent of poetry.
    11. Stanza 7: He contrasts the bird with himself. Whereas he is sickly and dying "Thou [the bird] wast not born for death, immortal bird!" (61). More specifically the nightingale's song is immortal. It has no beginning, having been heard by ancient emporers and by Biblical figures, and in "faery lands forlorn" (70).
    12. Stanza 8: The word "forlorn" snaps the poet out of his trance. The nighingale has flown and the poet wonders "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?"
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    "Ode on Melancholy"

    Observations

    1. Rhyme Scheme: ababcdecde
    2. Meter: iambic pentameter
    3. Rhythm: Keats uses Anglo-Saxon derivatives to create a choppy rhythm. The fits and starts imitate the onset of melancholy--that is, moodiness, hyperactivity followed by loss of desire. The second stanza incorporates alliteration and speeds the poem's rhythm, like an oncoming wave of depression. Keats uses repetition, punctuation, and run-ons to slow the rhythm down. Melancholy, we could say, has set in and is firmly entrenched.
    4. Sound Devices: consonance: "Nor suffer thy pale forehead" (2); assonance: "nightshade, ruby grape" (3), "rosary of yew-berries" (5), "downy owl" (7); "wakeful anguish" (10), "feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes" (20); alliteration: "fit shall fall" (10), "hides the green hill" (14), "salt sand" (16)
    5. Allusions: Lethe (1) is the river of forgetfulness that comes from Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology; Wolf's bane (2) is a poisonous plant; Proserpine is the Roman Goddess of the underworld--it's important to note that Prosepine was kidnapped by Pluto and forced to stay with him for 6 months out of the year much in the same way melancholy forces one to live in spiritual and emotional darkness; Psyche, the mythological lover of Cupid, means soul.

    John Keats Poem Interpretation

    John Keats "Ode on Melancholy" describes the oppressive nature of melancholy and depression and its onset. The poet uses harsh Anglo-Saxon words along with consonance and assonance to mimic the starts and fits associated with the onset of depression. He establishes mood with mythological allusions to underworld associations and careful word choice--"nightshade" (4), "sorrow's mysteries" (8), and "shade to shade" (9). The stanza ends with an ominous declaration that melancholy will "drown the wakeful anguish of the soul" (10).

    Keats uses alliteration and end stops to quicken the pace in the second stanza; the stanza, like melancholy, rolls forth, unhindered, "hiding the green hill" (14), "glutting thy sorrow on a morning rose / Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave" (15-16). By the third stanza, melancholy is entrenched and the rhythm is slowed through enjambment and interruptive punctuation marks--a dash, semi-colon, or comma. Melancholy's exsistence proves fatal for Beauty, Joy, and Pleasure. In short, melancholy conquers all.