Keats' Poems and Letters

Keats' Poems and Letters Summary and Analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale" and "When I have fears that I may cease to be"

Summary of "Ode to a Nightingale":

Keats addresses a nightingale singing among beech trees. The poet feels as though he has taken poison or an opiate, because he is overwhelmed with happiness at the bird's song. He wishes that he could drink in the delights of living in Southern France (the Provençal region) by consuming a special draft of wine. Yet Keats points out that the nightingale cannot know the affairs and concerns of men, which include, sadly, mortality. Keats declares that he will not drink wine, but that he will instead achieve bliss by writing this poem. He contrasts the world of the nightingale with his own, real world: one (the nightingale's) has a visible moon, and the other (his) does not, so that he remains in darkness.

Thus, Keats must rely on his other senses (smell, touch, etc.) to determine what kind of plants surround him. In the darkness, he thinks fondly of death. His ideal death would take place here in the forest, as he listens to the nightingale's song. He notes that the song of the nightingale is "immortal" and accessible to anyone -- heard by ancient emperors as well as by clowns. He says that even the Biblical figure, Ruth, may have heard it during her exile. The nightingale's song is also thought to open treasure chests on "faery" (70) seas. Keats is ultimately called back to his "sole self" (reality), and wonders whether he actually ever heard the nightingale's song or whether it had been a dream.

Analysis of "Ode to a Nightingale":

This poem carries on a number of common features in Keats' poetry: he addresses the nature of the ideal versus reality, speaks of "rich" death, and calls forth ancient Greek mythological figures in his descriptions of natural phenomena. Keats opens the poem with a description of a dreamy, Romantic state: he feels as though he must have drunk hemlock (an ancient poison used to kill, among others, Socrates) or have taken opium. He describes himself as sinking "Lethe-wards." (Lethe is one of the five rivers of Hades, whose power was to wash away memory.) But he is only in this state because of the delight he feels at the nightingale's song. He metaphorically describes the nightingale as a "Dryad of the trees:" Dryads were Greek mythological beings who embodied the spirits of trees.

Keats longs for the happy oblivion that would come after drinking an ideal wine, a wine that itself recalls the pleasures of life in southern France (Provençal). Or he could drink from the Hippocrene fountain, which was dear to the ancient Greek muses and was thought to give poetic inspiration. He wishes, above all, to forget mortal life, in which "youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies" (26). He writes that "but to think is to be full of sorrow/ And leaden-eyed despairs" (28-29), echoing a Biblical verse, "For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow" (Ecclesiastes 1:18). These themes are in keeping with Keats' usual preoccupation with mortality, which also appears in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "When I have fears that I may cease to be".

Keats' narration goes on to express Keats' frequent wish to live in a realm of Platonic perfection -- this time, of Poesy (poetry). In this poetic world, which the nightingale occupies, the moon shines bright. There is no temporal reality for the nightingale, who "wast not born for death" (61). The nightingale's song, unchanged, was heard by the ancients as clearly as it is heard today. In Keats' world, however, there is only darkness, and here he contemplates a beautiful, "rich" death. He seems to be courting Death itself, calling Death "soft names in many a musèd rhyme" (53).

Ultimately, as in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and other poems, Keats cannot sustain his flight of fancy. He is called back to his "sole" (that is, physical) self (72). Fancy itself is called a "deceiving elf" (74); in Keats' time, elves were thought of as mischievous tricksters. Keats ends the entire poem by calling into question the fierce division between the world of dreams and the world of reality: "Was it a vision, or a waking dreams?/ Fled is that music: -- do I wake or sleep?" (79-80). In Keats' construction, these worlds are only tenuously divided and may in fact overlap.

Summary of "When I have fears that I may cease to be":

Keats expresses the fear of meeting his end without fulfilling his poetic potential, without "tracing" (7) (writing about or experiencing) a great romance, and without looking upon the face of a woman he loves. He compares the poetry that he will have written to harvested grain. He also states that when he has these fears, he retreats to "the shore/ Of the wide world" (12-13) and thinks, until his ideas of "love and fame to nothingness do sink" (14).

Analysis of "When I have fears that I may cease to be":

Keats' fear of death, here, is nuanced: it is not just mortality taken broadly, but specifically the chance that he will not have produced enough in his short span of life to be "satisfied," that he fears. However, the closing lines suggest that, while mortality is the enemy of artistic production, it also somehow frees the artist from worry. In the end, no matter what, "love and fame to nothingness do sink" (14). Perhaps such matters are not worth worrying about anyway.

Keats repeatedly uses imagery from the harvest -- "glean'd" (2), "garners" and "full-ripen'd grain" (4) -- to describe the thoughts emerging from his "teeming brain" (2). The phrases "high-piled" and "rich" (3-4) suggest abundance. Again, Keats sets forward a paradox: he is both the field of grain and the harvester of this grain. In the next lines (5-8), he describes the poet's work: to grasp "high cloudy symbols" (6) in natural phenomena, and use a "magic hand" (8) to transform them into poetry.

When it comes to love, Keats' beloved is the "fair creature of an hour" (9); such brevity evokes both mortal impermanence and the impermanence of love itself. And Keats notes that "unreflecting love" is only a "faery power" (11-12); faeries are capricious illusionists, so love itself is hardly a reliable and solid phenomenon. But Keats also uses the sonnet form of "When I have fears" to underscore these ideas. Most Shakespearean sonnets establish their themes, and, in the final lines, "turn" on such themes or comment on them. The final two lines of this sonnet describe Keats' response to these depressive realities: to stand alone "on the shore of the wide world... and think/ Till love and fame to nothingness do sink" (12-14). This is a rather nihilistic response, but it ultimately confers upon Keats a kind of negative freedom from worry, because death renders human activity meaningless. The poet is, in a typically Keatsian paradox, "ecstatically hopeless" about the nature of human and artistic striving.