Ode to a Nightingale
by John Keats
The Nightingale and Greek Myth
The only place that the word "nightingale" even appears is in the title, but the nightingale and its rich, intoxicating nighttime world are at the center of the poem. As Keats imagines it, this bird lives in its own reality within the enchanting forest. In poetic terms, the nightingale has important connections to mythology that we discuss below. But the most important thing to keep in mind is that it represents a kind of carefree existence that is free from the burdens of time, death, and human concerns. The importance of the nightingale stems from its appearance in Greek myth. Since this is a poem inspired by a Greek form, it is fitting that there are several other allusions to the mythology and culture of Ancient Greece in this poem.
- Title: The nightingale is a symbol of beauty, immortality, and freedom from the world's troubles. Nightingales are known for singing in the nighttime, hence the name. In Greek and Roman myth, the nightingale also alludes to the Philomel (Philomela), whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from telling about her rape, and who was later turned into a nightingale by the gods to help her escape from death at the hands of her rapist.
- Line 4: In the extended simile of lines 3-4, opium causes the speaker to lose memory and consciousness. "Lethe" alludes to a river in the Greek afterworld, Hades. Those who drank from it lost their memory.
- Line 7: This line contains another allusion, or reference to another text. In Greek mythology, a "dryad" is a female spirit attached to a tree.
- Line 16: In Greek myth, "Hippocrene," was the name of a spring that the winged horse Pegasus created by stamping its hoof into the ground. Drinking from it was supposed to give poetic inspiration. The drink is personified as "blushing" because of its red color.
- Line 32: Bacchus is the Greek god of wine and drunkenness. In this allusive metaphor, the speaker claims that his escape into the nightingale's world will not be due to drunkenness.
- Line 61: Many readers have criticized the speaker for believing (mistakenly, of course) that the nightingale is immortal. But we think this is just an example of hyperbole, or intentional exaggeration to make a point. The point is that it is the nightingale's song that echoes through history and outlives each individual bird.