"Ode to a Nightingale" is one of the most famous – probably the most famous – of John Keats's Great Odes, which also include "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "To Autumn." The ode is a traditional Greek form that usually celebrates the person or object to which it is dedicated. In this poem, Keats celebrates the nightingale, a bird with a particularly magical voice.
The nightingale is a loaded symbol for Keats because the origins of the nightingale had been so famously explained in the collection of stories called the Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid. Every good British poet in the 19th century would have known his Ovid, kind of like how every die-hard rock-and-roll fan today would know his Beatles.
In Ovid's twisted story, a woman named Philomela is raped by her sister's husband, Tereus, who then cuts out her tongue to keep her from telling the world. Philomela manages to explain the crime to her sister Procne by weaving an embroidery about it. Procne's idea for revenge is to serve her son to her husband for dinner (like we said, twisted). When he learns of this nasty trick, Tereus tries to kill the two sisters, but the Greek gods save them by turning them into birds: Procne into a swallow and Philomela into a nightingale. The irony is that the woman who lost her voice (and her tongue) becomes the bird with one of the most beautiful voices in all of nature.
In "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats wishes to flee from the pressures of the world, kind of like how Philomela escapes from her would-be murderer. He wrote the poem in 1819, while visiting his friend Charles Brown, who later wrote about the morning of its composition:
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 took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass-plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours. When he came into the house, I perceived he had some scraps of paper in his hand, and these he was quietly thrusting behind the books. On inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of the nightingale. (source)
It always amazes us how some of the most important poems in the English language were scribbled down in a matter of hours! (We should note that some critics have questioned Brown's memory of the event, but it's a good story anyway.)
Keats published his "scraps of paper" in the Annals of the Fine Arts several months later under the title, "Ode to a Nightingale." Had he lived longer, he might have written many more works this good, but, sadly, he died two years later in 1821. But Keats's influence has resonated into the twentieth century on poets like Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and countless others. If you're a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you'll notice that the title of one his most famous novels, Tender is the Night, comes from this poem. Keats is now considered one of the leading writers of the literary movement known as British Romanticism.
We all have days when it would be nice just to crawl in a hole and leave our troubles behind. Modern life can be stressful, and there is always some new issue or problem to worry about. Moments when you can just be seem pretty rare. So people try to create a little escape from life in different ways: some practice yoga, some go to movies or find a good book, some go hiking, and some turn to more artificial means like alcohol (which we bring up because it's actually central to this poem). But all of these things just calm the worries of the world – they don't actually make them go away. In "Ode to a Nightingale," however, the speaker actually has an out-of-body experience where he leaves his world and enters the realm of…the nightingale!
It's quite a strange poem, actually. The song of the nightingale affects the speaker like a drug, as if he had drunk an entire bottle of wine. This is no metaphor. He just kind of quietly drifts out of normal reality. Like Alice in Wonderland, he's down the rabbit-hole. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, he has taken the blue pill (or was it the red pill?). As in these other works, "Ode to a Nightingale" flips our view of what is real and what isn't on its head, so that by the end of the poem the speaker doesn't know whether he's awake or dreaming. Once the nightingale's song lulls him into a stupor, he fades into the atmosphere of a night in the forest, where he can hardly see a thing but can only smell the intoxicating plants around him. The poem gets even stranger when he imagines that he has died and the nightingale is singing at his funeral!
The interesting thing is that, unlike many later poets (ahem, the Beats) and some of his contemporaries (ahem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Keats did not need to take drugs to experience mind-altering visions that result in a total shift of perspective. This poem was written totally au naturel. It explores the way certain experiences – a song, a poem, a scene in nature – can make you feel like you have left your day-to-day concerns behind.
Unfortunately for the speaker, he doesn't manage to flee the world forever, and the poem expresses this disappointment, too. "Ode to a Nightingale" doesn't shy away from the hard truth: no matter what method of escape you use, everyone has to return to "real life" eventually, so you're better off finding the life that suits you best.