Excursion on "Viewless wings of Poesy" by John Keats

suyam By suyam, 7th May 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/2halwz6s/
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Books>Poetry, Drama & Criticism

When Keats was feeling unhappy over his disappointments in his life, he happened to listen to the song of the Nightingale, while staying in the house of his friend. The happiness of the bird, as contrasted with his own misery, must have struck him with force and he burst in to a song, characterized as an Ode in English Literature.

Ode to a Nightingale -A melancholy autobiography of John Keats

An excursion on “viewless wings of poesy”
By John Keats

It was the spring of 1819. The early spell of warm weather brought flocks of birds to Hampstead Heath, a hilly area of North London, where Keats was staying with his friend Charles Brown. A Nightingale had built its nest in the garden and it was regularly singing. Keats felt tranquil and continual joy in the song of the Nightingale. One morning, he had taken a chair and sat beneath the plum tree, where the bird was sitting and singing and Keats started listening. The song of the bird was so enthralling that Keats started writing the song under the title “Ode to the Nightingale”. This title was later altered to replace “the” with “a” and the poem was published under the title “Ode to a Nightingale”.

The circumstances of the composition of the ode show how much Keats’s personnel experiences have supplied the motive powers to compose this famous poem. His life was dogged by poverty, illness, and bad luck. Keats had suffered bitter disappointments in his life. He could not marry the girl he loved and his brother had died of consumption, a little time before this poem was written. Keats himself had caught the disease in its incipient form and it was not long before he himself succumbed to it. His genius as a poet was not acknowledged by the world and the “harsh reviews and criticisms” on his works made him very much unhappy, leading to his mental agony. In spite of all these adverse situations, he was passionately attached to the ideal of beauty, as Shelley was to the ideal of Liberty and love. In fact, his conception of devotion to beauty served as an escape route for Keats, from the harsh realities of the real world.

When Keats was feeling unhappy over his disappointments in his life, he happened to listen to the song of the Nightingale, while staying in the house of his friend. The happiness of the bird, as contrasted with his own misery, must have struck him with force and he burst in to a song, characterized as an Ode in English Literature.

The mood in which he was just prior to the composition of this poem was one of brooding over the situation. There is a dramatic change in his perception, when he listens to the song of the Nightingale. At first, his heart aches and he feels, as if he had drunk of hemlock or emptied some dull opiate. Keats makes it clear to the readers that such symptoms are not through jealousy over the happiness of the bird; it is because he is too happy in the happiness of the bird and as a result, he often felt “benumbed” by the excess happiness, he derived by listening to the fascinating song of the bird.

The contrast between his life, filled with series of misfortunes and miseries and the enthralling mood with which the bird is singing a song, produces a reaction, which is characteristic of his nature. He wishes to escape from the real world and “fade away in to the forest dim” in the company of the bird. Thus he finds out an escape route to get rid of the miseries of his life. The medium of his escape route is imagination. Initially, he thought that a “draught of vintage” will do the trick for him; later, he changes his route. The right vehicle he concluded is the “the viewless wings of poesy”.

Before entering in to the imaginary land of the Nightingale, the poet gives a vivid description of the real world in which he has seen many sufferings. He longs to be free of the “weariness, the fever and the fret” of the real world, where men can only sit and hear others` groan. Keats has chosen to compare his mental state to his being intoxicated and even gone to the extent of alluding to the river Lethe, which is currently reported to be flowing in the underworld. Keats here refers to the Greek mythology, where a person who drinks the waters of the river Lethe shall get all their memories completely removed. The reason behind Keats referring to the trance- like state of the Nightingale`s song, which makes him spell bound that he cannot focus on anything else and he could completely forget his sufferings. Keats felt that the Nightingale has 'never known' the sorrows of disease and death that dominate the physical world, 'Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies'. All are unhappy, including the poet, in the real world, and “palsy shakes a few, last gray heirs”. There is an analogy in spectre-thin which alludes to the decaying body due to consumption; the word 'pale' also suggests consumptive decay.

The poet`s excursion in search of that unchanging world, made on the "the viewless wings of Poesy" carries him far away from the problems of the real world, in to the “the cloud-cuckoo land” of the Nightingale in a trice. However, the trip does not provide him with a vision of an Elysian realm; though he is physically sitting below the plum tree in the garden, in a glimmering light. He cannot see the flowers around him but from their odour and from his knowledge of what flowers should be in bloom at that time, he can guess. In fact, Keats describes his immersion in this forest world.

As he continues to listen in the darkness, he is overcome by ecstasy so profound that he recognizes his relief of oblivion. Keats feels that the song of the nightingale is immortal, transcends time and place; that it was not “born for death.” According to him, the Nightingale's song is eternal, as he assumes that the song of the bird will continue to be listened by the humanity for generations upon generations. The poet feels that the Nightingale`s effortless song is eternal, while the poet himself is mortal. As years go by, some other Nightingale will always survive to sing, even creating a requiem when the poet himself, another kind of "singer," has been buried in the earth. The beautiful bird song has been heard for untold generations by all kinds of people ("emperor and clown") or even by characters in the Bible, in sea-stories, and in "faery lands forlorn”. Once again, we're faced with another allusion. When the poet mentions 'the sad heart of Ruth,' he is referring to the Biblical story of Ruth, a widow who travels to Bethlehem (where she lives off 'alien corn' taken from the fields), only to marry a farmer. Keats then balances this Biblical story with the pagan idea of 'faery lands forlorn.'

The poet`s imagination is interrupted when the Nightingale flies away and leaves him alone. He feels abandoned and disappointed that his imagination is not strong enough to create its own reality. He is left confused and bewildered, not knowing the difference between reality and dreams. Further, the poet is unable to remember whether he is awake or asleep. Keats concludes his poem with the following few lines:

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

The rhapsody of poetic inspiration of Keats matches with that of Nightingale’s fascinating song to imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The rapturous music of the bird encourages the poet to embrace the idea of dying, “of painlessly succumbing to death”.

In fact, the Keats life was filled with a lot of misfortunes like his unfulfilled marriage life, untimely death of his brother and he himself was infected with the deadly disease, while caring his brother Tom. This is compounded by harsh reviews inflected with the venom on his works discouraged the already-fragile Keats. Even Shelley himself argued that a stinging review of Keats's last volume of poetry contributed to the poet's early death.

In the summer of 1820, Keats`s doctors advised him to move to a warmer climate. Accordingly, he moved to Naples first and then settled in Rome, with the help of his friend Joseph Severn. Within a short period, Keats had become bedridden and died in February 1821, in spite of Severn`s ministrations, holding his friend`s hand . For his epitaph, he chose a single line: "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."

***************** ********** **********************


Aches, Dull Opiate, Fasicinating Song, Imagination, Nightingale, Ode, Pale, Shelly, Spectre-Thin

Meet the author

author avatar suyam
Retired executive of Canara Bank,with 31 years experience-Good exposure in Finance,Banking,Foreign Exchange,Credit Management and Risk Management-Interested in English Literature,writing articles.

Share this page

moderator Steve Kinsman moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
8th May 2014 (#)

Enjoyed this piece on Keats but sad to read about the melancholy way his life played out - it is clear he knew his worth though others failed to recognize it when he was alive - siva

Reply to this comment

author avatar suyam
8th May 2014 (#)

I do agree with your views Mr. Siva. It is really a misfortune that Keats was not recognized during his life time and even the very short period of his life, he could not remain happy.
John Keats died of tuberculosis on 23 February 1821 in Rome. He was hardly 25 at that time. Since his death, Keats' reputation has grown far beyond anything the poet experienced in his lifetime, only after his death. A few poems he composed in his short life are recognized as masterpieces of English Romanticism. In a moment of clairvoyance, John Keats once said, "I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death." He is perfectly right in his words

Reply to this comment

Add a comment
Can't login?