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Ashes Sparks


John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale": An Easy Publication for a Difficult End

by Anne Wullschlager

A poet and his context

John Keats is one of the most, if not the most beloved poet of Romanticism. However, he did not fit neatly into the framework of the Romantic era. Keats was not old enough to be a part of the founding group with Wordsworth and Coleridge, but unlike his upper-class contemporaries Shelly and Byron, Keats was of the middle working class. His life is somehow much more solitary in relation to these other men. He seems here nor there, but nevertheless exceptional. There is something sympathetically attractive about this outsider state, which is compounded by the tragic course of events leading to an early death at the age of 26 in February 1821. The shattering death of his brother Thomas Keats December 1, 1818, and a renewal of spirit through the engagement to Fanny Brawne that same December, culminated in a spring of morbid creation, in a year which has been called Keatsí "Annus Mirabilis" or "The Year of Miracles." It was indeed his most successful period, writing a number of his best works with seeming ease in may. His famous Ode to a Nightingale was published in July with virtually no effort and commended for its lyrical beauty and realistic depth. He had arrived on the brink of something, on the brink of marriage, of sickness, of realizing more deeply his own mortality, and his own genius.

Composition and Publication

The composition and publication of Ode to a Nightingale is a soothing moment in a life marked with tragedy and rejection. Although simple, it is virtually an ideal story of creation and publication; a natural, unconcerned, and instantaneous exit from the poetís mind to paper and from the poet to a public audience. Although the exact date of composition is uncertain, it came short after Ode to Psyche sometime in the second half of May 1819. Charles Brown, one of Keatsí closest companions and in whose house Keats commonly resided, recalls the moment when Keats wrote the poem in a letter to Lord Houghton:


In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her next 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 some books.

Indeed, Keats did compose the eighty lines into eight impressively regular stanzas in a single morning. It was written on two half sheets. The stanzas are easy to order and the writing is extremely clear, with few simple corrections. There also appears to be an abandoned beginning at the bottom of the page on the opposite side from the proper beginning. The pages are crumpled and torn about the edges, supporting Brownís memory of him "thrusting" the poem in the back of a bookshelf.

When Keats finally removed the poem from that place is hard to tell, although we know that within a monthís time of the first ( basically final) draft he recited it for Benjamin Haydon, a close friend and painter. Recalling this moment, Haydon writes:

as we were one evening walking in the Kilburn meadows he repeated it to me, before he put it to paper, in a low, tremulous undertone which affected me extremely.

Contrary to what appears to be a recitation before the composition of the poem on paper, Keats had in fact written it down, but did not feel that the copy he had was ready to hand over for publication, which his recitation that day, lead Haydon to encourage. Haydon was an intimate ally with James Elmes the editor of a magazine called "Annals of the Fine Arts." On Monday the fourteenth of June, Keats sent Elmes a copy of the poem and it appeared in the July 1819 issue, anonymous, but signed with a dagger. This was a clear response to earlier critics, who harshly reviewed such works as Edymion. He wanted to send Ode to a Nightingale out into the world free of the negative prejudice which the critics had encumbered him with. It was gracefully welcomed and acknowledged, hushing the anxiety of criticism and reassuring Keats that he had arrived at a form that agreed with his own particular genius.

After this primary publication, he began organizing his poems for a collective volume. He worked on his poems intensely in January 1820. He spent time copying a few of them, particularly Ode to a Nightingale for his brother George, who had returned to London for a brief time to gather funds. Shortly after, on February 3, Keats suffered his first severe lung hemorrhage and was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Right after his second sever haemorrhage on June 22, the volume "Lamia," "The Eve of St. Agnes," and other poems was published July 1 or 2 1820 by Taylor and Hessey.

This publication includes some minor, but marked changes from the original version of the poem in the "Annals of the Fine Arts." The word "fairy" in line 70 is changed to "faery." This change is documented to have taken place long after the original draft. The change suggests that Keats did not want to directly convey the atmosphere of an imaginary land of nymphs and lovely winged creatures. By changing the spelling he removed it one step from the over romanticized version of the imaginative realm of fairies, and more clearly conveys the "faery-land of old romance, of King Arthur and Palmerin." (Amy Lowell, pg. 253). Although it is interesting to note that "fairy" is still used in the second edition of Romanticism an Anthology, edited by Duncan Wu. The timing of two other corrections is more difficult to determine, because they appear on the first draft. The original "wide casements" became "the magic casements," and the "keelless" sea was now "perilous." The changes have since been praised and the whole volume was well reviewed. Soon after this triumph the doctor assures him he wonít survive another winter in England and on September 17 sets sail for Italy.

Why the Poem deserved such a perfect fable of publication

The meaning of this poem is in its perfect expression of the imperfect reality of experience. The fundamental flaw between the morbid banality and ecstatic beauty of life is too universally understood for this poem to enter the world with any conflict. The trajectory of its creation and publication is also bordered with two opposing realities; in December of 1818, Keats was supposedly engaged to his beloved Fanny Brawne, and yet a short while after the poemís completion he began to show signs of his terminal state of health. The poem seems to intertwine these two pressures so that one feels a harmonic resonance, a quivering space between these two realities. Keats was on the edge of crossing over into the next stage of life, where death is ever- present. This poem is the interplay of those two realms. Keatsí true genius seems to reside in that state of limbo, that falling back and forth between where the heart and imagination can briefly take us, and where painful experiences of life and death ultimately deliver us.

The poem fuses "real melancholy" with "imaginary relief" (Leigh Hunt) to adequately express the double life of human experience. The poemís movement through the different modes is achieved through a loose stylistic perfection; a dream-like experience of intoxication done with intense stanzaic regularity. Ode to a Nightingale not only waxes and wanes between these realms, it vibrates deeply with a true look at what Keats in his life has endured, and foreshadows the death to come. Within the beauty there is still the ever-present, unrelenting mortality of man to ground us: "Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;/Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,/where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies" (Keats, ln. 24-6). Although, he is not too forlorn to take flight in the ecstasy of his own creative imagination and poetry. He allows the bird song to carry him off: "Away! Away! For I will fly to thee" (Keats, ln. 31). He escapes "the dull brain" (Keats, ln. 34) and forgets himself long enough to see "the Queen Moon is on her throne,/Clustered around by all her starry fays" (Keats, ln. 37-8). Stanzas 4 and 5 suppress the pain, which he returns to for the last three. However, we do not feel betrayed in either direction or pulled too far to one side or the other, and in the conclusion are left to wonder which realm is reality: "Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/Fled is that music - do I wake or sleep?" (Keats, ln. 79-80).

The relationship of the poem to the story of its emergence and publication is a rather bizarre avenue of exploration, because it does not follow the rules of cause and effect. It suggests rather some sort of simultaneous intuitive interplay or correlation between the public handling of a poem and what the poem ultimately says. In this case the publication of Ode to a Nightingale does seem to be in concert with the poemís meaning: "the odes are analogous with experience as a whole" (Walter Jackson Bate, pg. 500). The purity of its source, the single sweep of its composition and its immediate and unlabored publication, reasserts the poem as a symbol of reality itself, while being lyrically elevating, laced with harmonies and echoes, shadows and mutable reflections of a complex consciousness - as if to say it was something so fundamentally human that it could not be met with any resistance.


 Bate, W.J. John Keats. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,    Cambridge, Ma. 1963.

Cook, Elizabeth. John Keats. Oxford University Press, Oxford. 1990.

Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Atlantic Monthly Press, Boston. 1968.

Lowell, Amy. John Keats II . The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Ma. 1925.