How to Read a Poem

November 6, 2015

Last week, we posted Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats as a lead into the idea of spirit and/or death. Today, we intend to look more closely into that poem to find out what exactly is the mood, tone, spirit, quality and devices of the poem. Critical thinking will help inform the way we read Keats, but also the way we read poetry in general.

Keats felt passionate about the imagination's ability to become more than human, to link into a more perfect presence or spirit. With each poem that he wrote, he further developed his own imagination. In this poem, Ode to a Nightingale, his muse is the nightingale itself. Do you think that he was listening to the nightingale when he physically wrote this poem? Is there ever actually a bird in the poem? Is there a rhyme scheme or meter? If so, does it add to the poem's meaning? Is there a spirit or presence in this poem? If so, what spirit?

Keat's poem is on the left, and to the right of Keat's ode, there are a number of questions that may help as you read through the poem. Obviously, there are many questions that can be asked when reading a poem. This deals with some major questions of this poem. We encourage you to add your own questions (or answers) about Keat's ode in the comments below. Enjoy!


Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats                                 What is an ode? Why to a nightingale?


My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

     My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

     One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,                               Why are the lines indented this way?

     But being too happy in thine happiness,—

          That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

               In some melodious plot

     Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

          Singest of summer in full-throated ease.                 Why does the happy nightingale's

                                                                                          song reinforce the narrator's sadness?


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been

     Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

     Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!            Why does Keats focus on nature?

O for a beaker full of the warm South,                                What images is he portraying?

     Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,                      Does this aid with emotional support

          With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,                of his point?

               And purple-stained mouth;

     That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,           What does it mean to leave the world

          And with thee fade away into the forest dim:          unseen? Why would he want this? Is

                                                                                           this what a nightingale does?


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget

     What thou among the leaves hast never known,          What does the narrator know that the

The weariness, the fever, and the fret                                 nightingale does not?

     Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;

Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,

     Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;

          Where but to think is to be full of sorrow

                 And leaden-eyed despairs,

      Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,

            Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

      Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,                                   Why does he invoke 'Poesy' here?

      Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:                What does that allow him to do?

Already with thee! tender is the night,

      And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,             Why does this poem take place at

            Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;                   night? Could it also take place during

                  But here there is no light,                                 the day?

      Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

            Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

     Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet                     Why is darkness embalmed? What is

     Wherewith the seasonable month endows                     the mood throughout this stanza?

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;                      How does mood affect the poem?

      White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;                  Is the nightingale still present?

             Fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves; sad?         What has happened or is happening to

                And mid-May's eldest child,                                the narrator? To the nightingale?

     The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

           The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time                                 Who is the darkling? Do you feel its

     I have been half in love with easeful Death,                   presence? Does the narrator? How?

Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,

     To take into the air my quiet breath;

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,                            Why?

      To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

           While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

               In such an ecstasy!

     Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—             Why does the narrator have ears

          To thy high requiem become a sod.                          in vain? What is a sod?


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!                     Why was the bird born?

     No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

      In ancient days by emperor and clown:                        What is the connection between

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path                     the narrator, emperor and clown?

     Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,    Why an emperor and a clown?

          She stood in tears amid the alien corn;                     Why Ruth? How is corn alien?

               The same that oft-times hath

     Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam

         Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell                                      Why does Keats repeat 'Forlorn'?

      To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

      As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.                              Who is the fancy? And how would

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades or deceive?          fancy cheat? Who is the narrator

      Past the near meadows, over the still stream,                saying goodbye to?

           Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep

                In the next valley-glades:

     Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

         Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?                     Why does he end the poem with

                                                                                             a question? Does the answer matter

                                                                                             to you and/or to the narrator?


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