Study Guide

Ode to a Nightingale Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

By John Keats

Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

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.

Fantasy and Travel

This poem is the ultimate dream of escapism. The speaker needs a getaway, and he uses his mind to do it. His fantastical imagination allows him to experience night from the nightingale's perspective, surrounded by dark and fragrant trees. It takes him back through history and into the realms of fairies and magic. But, by the end, the speaker's imagination fails to keep the bird from flying away, and he turns on his own "fancy" in anger. For the Romantics like Keats, "fancy" was just a synonym for imagination.

  • Lines 31-33: The speaker uses the metaphor of flight to describe his imaginative journey to join the nightingale. He will fly on the metaphorical "wings" of his own poetry.
  • Line 35: The speaker somehow arrives at his destination. Wait, when did that happen? Our advice: just go with it. Note: "tender is the night" is not an allusion to an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel – Fitzgerald's novel is an allusion to this poem.
  • Lines 36-37: Keats indulges in pure fantasy in this metaphor comparing the moon and the stars to a queen surrounded by her female attendants.
  • Lines 45-48: As he explores the fantastical forest, the speaker uses several images of plants and flowers.
  • Line 60: Hasn't everyone imagined what their funeral would be like at some point? The speaker imagines his death, and uses metaphor to compare the song of the nightingale to a musical composition called a "requiem," which is performed after someone's death.
  • Line 61: The speaker talks directly to the nightingale, which obviously cannot hear or respond. This poetic technique is called apostrophe.
  • Lines 63-66: The speaker imagines that the same song of the nightingale has been heard throughout history, and he alludes to the Book of Ruth in the Bible in order to express the song's deep and piercing sadness.
  • Line 70: He imagines the bird flying out an open window over the remote ocean in a fantasy world filled with "faeries".
  • Line 74: In frustration, the speaker turns on the personified idea that has made this whole poem possible: "fancy," or imagination. He compares fancy to a mischievous little elf who likes to fool people. In this case, the trick is making the speaker think he could ever join the nightingale.
  • Lines 79-80: At the end of the poem, the speaker cannot decide what is real and what is not. He asks two rhetorical questions to express his confusion.

Wine and Intoxication

No poet that we know of features images of wine and drunkenness in his or her poems as often as Mr. John Keats. Seriously, do not let this man near a bar. He acts drunk enough under the influence of language, we'd hate to see what happened if he got his hands on a couple bottles of actual wine. This poem is structured to make us think that the speaker is intoxicated by the music of the nightingale, which leads him to dream of fading off into a blissful nothingness, much like a really drunk person.

  • Line 2: The first half of the first stanza consists of several comparisons of the speaker to someone who is, essentially, totally wasted. Drunk. Sloshed. Blotto. In line 2 he says he feels like he has drunken hemlock, a poison. So, um, not a good kind of drunk.
  • Line 3: Using the same basis of comparison, he says he feels "as though," he consumed an "opiate" (a narcotic made from opium poppy seedpods) that, while not as poisonous as hemlock, still reduces you to basically a coma.
  • Lines 11-15: The speaker says he wants a special kind of wine distilled from all the earth's goodness and containing the essence of the south of France (Provence), with its sun, warm weather, and lush plants.
  • Lines 17-18: These images zoom in on the glass of wine he wants to consume. The popping of bubbles at the top of the glass is compared to "winking" eyes. Wine stains your mouth purple.
  • Lines 42-43: The plants in the dark forest are compared to "incense," or the really fragrant substance that Shmoop's college roommate liked to use even though it was not allowed in the dorms (grrr...). Putting aside our bad memories, Keats thinks this incense is a good smell.

Life's a Drag

Yes, this poem highlights the blissful music of the nightingale, but it also has a bleak side. The speaker is desperate to escape the world because it is full of people getting old and dying. Life is just a long parade of miseries, and he thinks it would be better to just go out quietly in the middle of the night. The nightingale's world seems so enchanting that it makes our own world seem like a real drag.

  • Line 25-26: In these depressing images, the speaker describes the earth as a place where old people suffering from paralysis ("palsy") have seizures that shake their last hairs. And young people grow thin as ghosts and then die. Thanks, Keats. Thanks for ruining our day.
  • Lines 29-30: Beauty and Love are both personified. Beauty has nice eyes, but she gets old and the eyes lose their luster. Love, the chubby kid with the bow and arrow, is totally over Beauty's eyes at that point.
  • Lines 52-53: Death is personified as a male – probably the guy with the hood and sickle. But the speaker isn't afraid of Death – he actually tries to woo him.
  • Line 62: The generations of people are metaphorically "hungry" because they "consume" their parents by taking their place. Kids – you gotta watch out for them.
  • Lines 71 and 73: These two lines have a parallel structure beginning with a two-syllable exclamation: "Forlorn!" and "Adieu!". The speaker has been abandoned by the nightingale.