Keats listening to the nightingale by Joseph Severn (1845)
“Ode to a Nightingale” is a poem by John Keats written in 1819 in either the garden of the Spaniards Inn, Hamptead, London, or, according to Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown, under a plum tree in the garden of Keats House, also in Hampstead.
According to Brown, a nightingale had built its nest near his home in the spring of 1819. Inspired by the bird’s song, Keats composed the poem in one day. It soon became one of his 1819 odes and was first published in Annals of the Fine Arts the following July. “Ode to a Nightingale” is a personal poem that describes Keats’s journey into the state of Negative Capability. The tone of the poem rejects the optimistic pursuit of pleasure found within Keats’s earlier poems and explores the themes of nature, transience and mortality.
The nightingale described within the poem experiences a type of death but does not actually die. Instead, the songbird is capable of living through its song, which is a fate that humans cannot expect. The poem ends with an acceptance that pleasure cannot last and that death is an inevitable part of life. In the poem, Keats imagines the loss of the physical world and sees himself dead—as a “sod” over which the nightingale sings. The contrast between the immortal nightingale and mortal man, sitting in his garden, is made all the more acute by an effort of the imagination. The presence of weather is noticeable in the poem, as spring came early in 1819, bringing nightingales all over the heath. Many critics favor “Ode to a Nightingale” for its themes but some believe that it is structurally flawed because the poem sometimes strays from its main idea.