Lectures/Literary criticism/John Keats/Nightingale

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This lecture focuses on the reception of two quintessential British Romantic poems: Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Nightingale and John Keats's Ode to a Nightingale. Coleridge was a poet in his prime, known by critics for his various previous works, and was at the beginning of the Romantic poetry movement. Keats was a young poet, a lesser known poet, and wrote at the end of the Romantic poetry movement.


The image of the nightingale comes from the myth of Philomel. Most famously portrayed in Ovid's Metamorpheses, the story describes is a rape victim who is turned into a nightingale. Traditionally, nightingales were seen as tragic and melancholic. However, Coleridge believed that nightingales were more than that and sought to define them as the voice within the mysterious night that represents sublime aspects of nature. Keats, of the next generation of Romantic poets, took up the image and used it for the theme of one of his three great odes.

Coleridge's reception[edit]

Coleridge Jackson 1970 4, 51-2, 57-8, 60, 520

Keats's reception[edit]

Contemporary critics of Keats enjoyed the poem and it was heavily quoted in their reviews.[1] An anonymous review of Keats's poetry that ran in the August and October 1820 Scots Magazine stated: "Amongst the minor poems we prefer the 'Ode to the Nightingale.' Indeed, we are inclined to prefer it beyond every other poem in the book; but let the reader judge. The third and seventh stanzas have a charm for us which we should find it difficult to explain. We have read this ode over and over again, and every time with increased delight."[2] At the same time, Leigh Hunt wrote a review of Keats's poem for the 2 August and 9 August 1820 The Indicator: "As a specimen of the Poems, which are all lyrical, we must indulge ourselves in quoting entire the 'Ode to a Nightingale'. There is that mixture in it of real melancholy and imaginative relief, which poetry alone presents us in her 'charmed cup,' and which some over-rational critics have undertaken to find wrong because it is not true. It does not follow that what is not true to them, is not true to others. If the relief is real, the mixture is good and sufficing."[3]

John Scott, in an anonymous review for the September 1820 London Magazine argued for the greatness of Keats's poetry as exemplified by poems including "Ode to a Nightingale":

The injustice which has been done to our author's works, in estimating their poetical merit, rendered us doubly anxious, on opening his last volume, to find it likely to seize fast hold of general sympathy, and thus turn an overwhelming power against the paltry traducers of talent, more eminently promising in many respects, than any the present age has been called upon to encourage. We have not found it to be quite all that we wished in this respect--and it would have been very extraordinary if we had, for our wishes went far beyond reasonable expectations. But we have found it of a nature to present to common understandings the poetical power with which the author's mind is gifted, in a more tangible and intelligible shape than that in which it has appeared in any of his former compositions. It is, therefore, calculated to throw shame on the lying, vulgar spirit, in which this young worshipper in the temple of the Muses has been cried-down; whatever questions may still leave to be settled as to the kind and degree of his poetical merits. Take for instance, as proof of the justice of our praise, the following passage from an Ode to the Nightingale:--it is distinct, noble, pathetic, and true: the thoughts have all chords of direct communication with naturally-constituted hearts: the echoes of the strain linger bout the depths of human bosoms.[4]

In a review for the 21 January 1835 London Journal, Hunt claimed that while Keats wrote the poem, "The poet had then his mortal illness upon him, and knew it. Never was the voice of death sweeter."[5] David Moir, in 1851, used The Even of St Agnes to claim, "We have here a specimen of descriptive power luxuriously rich and original; but the following lines, from the 'Ode to a Nightingale,' flow from a far more profound fountain of inspiration."[6]

At the end of the 18th century, Robert Bridges's analysis of the poem became a dominant view and would influence later interpretations of the poem. Bridges, in 1895, declared that the poem was the best of Keats's odes but he thought that the poem contained too much artificial language. In particular, he emphasised the use of the word "forlorn" and the last stanza as being examples of Keats's artificial language.[7] In "Two odes of Keats's" (1897), William C Wilkinson suggested that "Ode to a Nightingale" is deeply flawed because it contains too many "incoherent musings" that failed to supply a standard of logic that would allow the reader to understand the relationship between the poet and the bird.[8] However, Herbert Grierson, arguing in 1928, believed Nightingale to be superior to "Ode on a Grecian Urn", "Ode on Melancholy", and "Ode to Psyche", arguing the exact opposite of Wilkinson as he stated that "Nightingale", along with "To Autumn", showed a greater amount of logical thought and more aptly presented the cases they were intended to make.[9]

20th-century criticism[edit]

At the beginning of the 20th century, Rudyard Kipling referred to lines 69 and 70, along side of three lines from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan, when he claimed of poetry: "In all the millions permitted there are no more than five—five little lines—of which one can say, 'These are the magic. These are the vision. The rest is only Poetry.'"[10] In 1906, Alexander Mackie argued: "The nightingale and the lark for long monopolised poetic idolatry--a privilege they enjoyed solely on account of their pre-eminence as song birds. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale and Shelley's Ode to a Skylark are two of the glories of English literature; but both were written by men who had no claim to special or exact knowledge of ornithology as such."[11] Sidney Colvin, in 1920, argued, "Throughout this ode Keats’s genius is at its height. Imagination cannot be more rich and satisfying, felicity of phrase and cadence cannot be more absolute, than in the several contrasted stanzas calling for the draft of southern vintage […] To praise the art of a passage like that in the fourth stanza […] to praise or comment on a stroke of art like this is to throw doubt on the reader’s power to perceive it for himself."[12]

Bridge's view of "Ode to a Nightingale" was taken up by H. W. Garrod in his 1926 analysis of Keats's poems. Like Albert Gerard would argue later in 1944, Garrod believed that the problem within Keats's poem was his emphasis on the rhythm and the language instead of the main ideas of the poem.[1] When describing the fourth stanza of the poem, Maurice Ridley, in 1933, claimed, "And so comes the stanza, with that remarkable piece of imagination at the end which feels the light as blown by the breezes, one of those characteristic sudden flashes with which Keats fires the most ordinary material."[13] He later declared of the seventh stanza: "And now for the great stanza in which the imagination is fanned to yet whiter heat, the stanza that would, I suppose, by common consent be taken, along with Kubla Khan, as offering us the distilled sorceries of 'Romanticism'".[14] He concluded on the stanza that "I do not believe that any reader who has watched Keats at work on the more exquisitely finished of the stanzas in The Eve of St. Agnes, and seen this craftsman slowly elaborating and refining, will ever believe that this perfect stanza was achieved with the easy fluency with which, in the draft we have, it was obviously written down."[15] In 1936, F. R. Leavis wrote, "One remembers the poem both as recording, and as being for the reader, an indulgence."[16] Following Leavis, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, in a 1938 essay, saw the poem as "a very rich poem. It contains some complications which we must not gloss over if we are to appreciate the depth and significance of the issues engaged."[17] Brooks would later argue in The Well-Wrought Urn (1947) that the poem was thematically unified while contradicting many of the negative criticisms lodged against the poem.[18]

Richard Fogle responded to the critical attack on Keats's emphasis on rhyme and language put forth by Garrod, Gerard, and others in 1953. His argument was similar to Brooks: that the poem was thematically coherent and that there is a poet within the poem that is different from Keats the writer of the poem. As such, Keats consciously chose the shift in the themes of the poem and the contrasts within the poem represent the pain felt when comparing the real world to an ideal world found within the imagination. [18] Fogle also responded directly to the claims made by Leavis: "I find Mr. Leavis too austere, but he points out a quality which Keats plainly sought for. His profusion and prodigality is, however, modified by a principle of sobriety."[19] It is possible that Fogle's statements were a defense of Romanticism as a group that was both respectable in terms of thought and poetic ability.[20] Wasserman, following in 1953, claimed that "Of all Keats' poems, it is probably the 'Ode to a Nightingale' that has most tormented the critic [...] in any reading of the 'Ode to a Nightingale' the turmoil will not down. Forces contend wildly within the poem, not only without resolution, but without possibility of resolution; and the reader comes away from his experience with the sense that he has been in 'a wild Abyss'".[21] He then explained, "It is this turbulence, I suspect, that has led Allen Tate to believe the ode 'at least tries to say everything that poetry an say.' But I propose it is the 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' that succeeds in saying what poetry can say, and that the other ode attempts to say all that the poet can."[21]

Later critical responses[edit]

Although the poem was defended by a few critics, E. C. Pettet returned to the argument that the poem lacked a structure and emphasized the word "forlorn" as evidence of his view.[22] In his 1957 work, Pettet did praise the poem as he declared, "The Ode to a Nightingale has a special interest in that most of us would probably regard it as the most richly representative of all Keats’s poems. Two reasons for this quality are immediately apparent: there is its matchless evocation of that late spring and early summer season […] and there is its exceptional degree of 'distillation', of concentrated recollection".[23] David Perkins felt the need to defend the use of the word "forlorn" and claimed that it described the feeling from the impossibility of not being able to live in the world of the imagination.[22] When praising the poem in 1959, Perkins claimed, "Although the "Ode to a Nightingale" ranges more widely than the "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poem can also be regarded as the exploration or testing out of a symbol, and, compared with the urn as a symbol, the nightingale would seem to have both limitations and advantages."[24] Walter Jackson Bate also made a similar defense of the word "forlorn" by claiming that the world described by describing the impossibility of reaching that land.[22] When describing the poem compared to the rest of English poetry, Bate argued in 1963, "Ode to a Nightingale" is among "the greatest lyrics in English" and the only one written with such speed: "We are free to doubt whether any poem in English of comparable length and quality has been composed so quickly."[25] In 1968, Robert Gittins stated, "It may not be wrong to regard [Ode on Indolence and Ode on Melancholy] as Keats's earlier essays in this [ode] form, and the great Nightingale and Grecian Urn as his more finished and later works."[26]

From the late 1960s onward, many of the Yale School of critics describe the poem as a reworking of John Milton's poetic diction, but they argued that poem revealed that Keats lacked the ability of Milton as a poet. The critics, Harold Bloom (1965), Leslie Brisman (1973), Paul Fry (1980), John Hollander (1981) and Cynthia Chase (1985), all focused on the poem with Milton as a progenitor to "Ode to a Nightingale" while ignoring other possibilities, including Shakespeare who was emphasised as being the source of many of Keats's phrases. Responding to the claims about Milton and Keats's short comings, critics like R. S. White (1981) and Willard Spiegelman (1983) used the Shakespearean echoes to argue for a multiplicity of sources for the poem to claim that Keats was not trying to respond just Milton or escape from his shadow. Instead, "Ode to a Nightingale" was an original poem,[27] as White claimed, "The poem is richly saturated in Shakespeare, yet the assimilations are so profound that the Ode is finally original, and wholly Keatsian".[28] Similarly, Spiegelman claimed that Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream had "flavored and ripened the later poem".[29] This was followed in 1986 by Jonathan Bate claiming that Keats was "left enriched by the voice of Shakespeare, the 'immortal bird'".[30]

Focusing on the quality of the poem, Stuart Sperry, argued in 1973, "'Ode to a Nightingale' is the supreme expression in all Keats's poetry of the impulse to imaginative escape that flies in the face of the knowledge of human limitation, the impulse fully expressed in 'Away! away! for I will fly to thee.'"[31] Wolf Hirst, in 1981, described the poem as "justly celebrated" and claimed that "Since this movement into an eternal realm of song is one of the most magnificent in literature, the poet's return to actuality is all the more shattering."[32] Helen Vendler continued the earlier view that the poem was artificial but added that the poem was an attempt to be aesthetic and spontaneous that was later dropped.[33] In 1983, she argued, "In its absence of conclusiveness and its abandonment to reverie, the poem appeals to readers who prize it as the most personal, the most apparently spontaneous, the most immediately beautiful, and the most confessional of Keats's odes. I believe that the 'events' of the ode, as it unfolds in time, have more logic, however, than is usually granted them, and that they are best seen in relation to Keats's pursuit of the idea of music as a nonrepresentational art."[34]

In a review of contemporary criticism of "Ode to a Nightingale" in 1998, James O'Rouke claimed that "To judge from the volume, the variety, and the polemical force of the modern critical responses engendered, there have been few moments in English poetic history as baffling as Keats's repetition of the word 'forlorn'".[7] When referring to the reliance of the ideas of John Dryden and William Hazlitt within the poem, Andrew Motion, in 1999, argued "whose notion of poetry as a 'movement' from personal consciousness to an awareness of suffering humanity it perfectly illustrates."[35]


  1. 1.0 1.1 O'Rourke 1998 p. 4
  2. Matthews 1971 qtd pp. 214-215
  3. Matthews 1971 qtd p. 173
  4. Matthews 1971 qtd. 224
  5. Matthews 1971 qtd p. 283
  6. Matthews 1971 qtd p. 352
  7. 7.0 7.1 O'Rourke 1998 p. 2
  8. Williamson 1897 pp. 217–219
  9. Grierson 1928 p. 56
  10. Woods 1916 qtd. p. 1291
  11. MacKie 1906 p. 29
  12. Colvin 1920 pp. 419–420
  13. Ridley 1933 p. 222
  14. Ridley 1933 pp. 226–227
  15. Ridley 1933 p. 229
  16. Leavis 1936 p. 144
  17. Brooks and Warren 1968 p. 45
  18. 18.0 18.1 O'Rourke 1998 pp. 4-5
  19. Fogle 1968 p. 41
  20. O'Rourke 1998 pp. 5-6
  21. 21.0 21.1 Wasserman p. 178
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 O'Rourke 1998 p. 6
  23. Pettet 1957 p. 251
  24. Perkins 1959 p. 103
  25. Bate 1963 p. 501
  26. Gittings 1968 p. 312
  27. O'Rourke 1998 pp. 7-9
  28. White 1981 pp. 217-218
  29. Spiegelman 1983 p. 360
  30. Bate 1986 p. 197
  31. Sperry 1994 pp. 263–264
  32. Hirst p. 123
  33. O'Rourke 1998 p. 3
  34. Vendler 1983 p. 83
  35. Motion 1999 p. 395


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