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Analysis of John Keats's

"When I Have Fears:"

Death & The Freedom of
John Keats’s “When I Have Fears” has often been read as a poem about a poet and his fear of
mortality. Such a fear is not hard to unearth in Keats’s collection of poetry, not to mention his
famous letters to family and friends. However, this sonnet stands out from others of its kind and
those by its author because it paints a more nuanced portrait of death.

Keats’s fear is not simply his fate, but his failure to achieve love and fame within his short span
on earth. A different reading of this poem reveals that, though the root of this anxiety is
obviously death, as the speaker gets perspective on the shore of the world, death is also the
problematic cure. While the speaker’s fears spawn from mortality and the limitations of life, it is
this limitation that actually grants him the freedom from ultimate despair.
John Keats (1795 - 1821) was an English lyric poet whose work became widely celebrated for its vivid imagery. His
literary legacy is a remarkable achievement considering his abruptly short life of only 25 years.
To provide context, it is important to note that the poem was written by an author obsessed
with death and whose slowly disappearing family was plagued with disease. In fact, his brother
died one year after the poem was written, and Keats died just three years after that (Fay 7).

The work has also been described as being “conscious of itself as the poem of a poet” (Hecht
14). Though its discussion of artistic angst and poetry is undeniable, it would behoove the
reader to go from a more poetry-centered reading to a death-centered reading. With death at
the center, it is easier to really see the shades of gray Keats paints regarding the popular
poetic subject. This concept that it is not merely just a poem of a poet, but a more relatable and
general poem about life and death, would of course be better explained through an explication
of the text:

When I have fears that I may cease to be

Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;

In the opening lines, the speaker has clearly identified one of his fears for the reader. It is not
merely the cliché death that worries the poet, but the very specific and mildly unique fear that
he may not achieve his full creative potential (“full ripened grain”) by the time death arrives (in
the form of “high-piled books” he has written). Such anxiety is relatable to any artist and any
human being who is dissatisfied with his or her current state, or those who fear the limitations
of life despite the unlimited nature of their ideas (before his pen has even “gleaned” his
“teeming brain”).

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;

The speaker looks up at the sky’s mighty constellations, perhaps beautiful, and he fears that he
will “cease to be” before even tracing their shadows. The artist’s job, of course, is to trace or
represent in his or her respective medium—for that is the definition of art. We have thus
established Keats’s fear of achieving artistic success and fame (as he will identify later).
However, the use of the word romance can also be taken in the more cultural sense relating to
romantic relationships—a vital component of Keats’s fears:

And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,

That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the fairy power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore

The “and” tells the reader that in addition to this fear of failure in the poetic department, the
speaker is also concerned with having never experienced the majesty of solid love or getting
another chance to see this potential lover (who is limited by, and at the mercy of, time as she is
but a “creature of an hour”). This can be read that the fear exists during the present—not that
he will “never look upon [her] more” or “never have relish in the fairy power” because he will be
dead but because of the fact that he will never succeed in doing so in life (nor will he have
unlimited time to do so). This establishes the second and final components that make up the
speaker’s fears: failure in the realm of love. These two aspects make up the overall truth that
can be better generalized by saying that, “The speaker simultaneously faces the opportunities
life holds for him and the threat of his own untimely death” (Fay 7).

When these fears occur, however, then the speaker goes to the shore—a
limitation, a boundary:
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

These last two lines sound even more nihilistic than existential, as the reader might envision
Keats himself standing alone on the edge of the universe, trying to get perspective and reflect
on these fears. Keats thinks that such woe seems hard to despair because in the end, these
desires he feels so panicked to attain despite time’s “cruel hand,” as Shakespeare wrote in
Sonnet 60, sink to nothingness, lost in the cleansing and eternal waves of the water to which
he looks. In fact, Sonnet 60 opens with:

Likes as the waves make towards the pebbl'd shore,

So do our minutes hasten to their end;

This image of the waves and the shore representing the limitations of Time (capitalized and
personified as a man for Shakespeare) are significant to keep in mind when contrasting the
ending and messages of both sonnets. Shakespeare’s 60th ends with:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Despite how many scholars have overlooked the differences, the sonnets present radically
different views on poetry, art, and mortality. Keats makes no proud mention of his verse, of his
poetry’s ability to withstand the grim reaper—but it is that very fact that makes his fears of
failure so irrelevant to begin with. These differences are actually precisely the same, and even
more fitting, when one compares Shakespeare’s 107th sonnet to Keats’s “When I Have Fears.”
Sonnet 107 is one of Shakespeare’s familiar odes to the poet’s ability to cheat death through
his song:

Not mine own fears, nor the prophetic soul

Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Suppos’d as forfeit to a confin'd doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endur'd
And the sad augurs mock their own presage;
William Flesch writes that the later poem “clearly….does recall this sonnet [107]” and there is
much evidence to support such a claim (Flesch 18). The fourth word of each poem is fears
(“Not mine own fears”), both poets use the alliterate phrase “wide world,” and both utilize
nighttime imagery (“The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured”). The end of the poem,
however, adds greater meaning to the later work:

My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,

Since spite of him I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes.
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants' crests and tombs of brass are spent.

Both sonnets also discuss love and death (“My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes”)
but it is their separation that truly defines Keats’s response. The idea that “tyrants’ crests” and
“tombs of brass” are “spent” while “this poor rhyme” grants a lover “thy monument,” one must
be reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where “Not marble, not the gilded monuments / Of
princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme” (1-2). Keats offers a humbler discussion of his
poetry—so humbling it is depressing—and reflects a sort of Marvellian perspective on
immortality and art: “Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound / My echoing song” (5-6).

Even though the sonnet is commonly known as a poet’s poem about poetry, which has its clear
merits, the speaker seems uninterested in art and its ability to last for eternity. In fact, the idea
that fame sinks to nothingness challenges the very notion—for what is fame (which would be
achieved for Keats through the success of his books of poetry) if not a human’s chance at
immortality? Nothing seems immortal in the cyclical sea the speaker gazes upon, but it is the
lack of immortality that tells Keats not to worry because all the things he wishes to accomplish
before death will literally be rendered nothing by death.

Whether or not this satisfies the speaker is unknown. It is nevertheless a truthful, maybe
depressing, but ultimately freeing response to the woe. William Flesch describes this best as “a
kind of negative freedom…from ‘love and fame,’ or from ‘love of fame,’ as he calls it in a letter
to Sarah Jeffrey” (Flesch 18). On the cue of Keats’s letters, a month before writing the poem,
Keats wrote “To J.H. Reynolds” (Luke 664). Part of an included verse in the letter describes
how Keats “saw / Too far into the sea” and “I saw too distinct into the core / Of an eternal fierce
destruction, And so from Happiness I far was gone” (Gittings 413). This may unfortunately
suggest, if one recalls the shore from “When I Have Fears” that such a sight of his own
mortality (and that of his art and all of art’s rewards) is depressing overall. This is not meant to
undermine the idea of death as a cure for the fears, as its (subjectively) depressing nature is
precisely why it is a problematic cure. On an objective level, Keats’s conclusion is truthful, and
it was Keats himself who famously wrote that, “Truth is beauty.”

While many poems and sonnets present death as an evil clock driving the artist and human
insane, Keats acknowledges and responds to this phenomenon. “When I Have Fears” presents
death as less of the clichéd limit and more of a freedom from anxiety. The fear is therefore not
just about death, but about failing during the limited time alive. In the poem, death turns
everything into nothing, making such high hopes for fame and love not worth such intense
stress, and making the art apparently not even worth discussing in terms of (im)mortality. This
somewhat nihilistic and existential perspective that unlimited values are rendered meaningless
by a limited life actually calm the speaker’s angst and despair. This can be applied not only to
the life of an artist or a poet but of every mortal, as death is both the cause and solution of our
problems, the fear and the remedy.

Summary and Analysis "When I Have Fears"

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When Keats experiences feelings of fear (1) that he may die before he has written
the volumes of poetry that he is convinced he is capable of writing, (2) that he may
never write a long metrical romance, fragments of which float through his mind,
and (3) that he may never again see a certain woman and so never experience the
raptures of passionate love — then he feels that he is alone in the world and that
love and fame are worthless.


In "When I Have Fears," Keats turns to the Shakespearean sonnet with its abab,
cdcd, efef, gg rhyme scheme and its division into three quatrains and a concluding
couplet. It was written after Keats made a close study of Shakespeare's songs and
sonnets and, in its development, it imitates closely one of Shakespeare s own
sonnet patterns. The three quatrains are subordinate clauses dependent on the
word "when"; the concluding couplet is introduced by the word "then." The sonnet,
like "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," is constructed with care. Like
"Chapman's Homer," it is concerned with the subject of poetry, to which Keats
adds another favorite theme, that of love.

The sonnet is distinguished by Keats' characteristic melodiousness and by his very

distinctive style, which is marked by the presence of archaic words borrowed from
the Elizabethan poets. The first line, "When I have fears that I may cease to be,"
appeals at once to the ear and is a compelling invitation to the reader to go on with
the poem. "Before high-piled books, in charact'ry, / Hold like rich garners the full-
ripen'd grain" contains two words, charact'ry and garners, that are quite remote
from the kind of language recommended by Wordsworth in his famous preface to
the second edition of Lyrical Ballads and quite remote from the language used by
Keats in conversation with his friends.

"When I Have Fears" is a very personal confession of an emotion that intruded

itself into the fabric of Keats' existence from at least 1816 on, the fear of an early
death. The fact that both his parents were short-lived may account for the presence
of this disturbing fear. In the poem, the existence of this fear annihilates both the
poet's fame, which Keats ardently longed for, and the love that is so important in
his poetry and in his life. As it happened, Keats was cheated by death of enjoying
the fame that his poetry eventually gained for him and of marrying Fanny Brawne,
the woman he loved so passionately. This fact gives the poem a pathos that helps
to single it out from among the more than sixty sonnets Keats wrote. The "fair
creature of an hour" that Keats addresses in the poem was probably a beautiful
woman Keats had seen in Vauxhall Gardens, an amusement park, in 1814. Keats
makes her into an archetype of feminine loveliness, an embodiment of Venus, and
she remained in his memory for several years; in 1818, he addressed to her the
sonnet "To a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall." "When I Have Fears"
was written the same year. One of his earliest poems, "Fill for Me a Brimming
Bowl," written in 1814, also concerns this lovely lady. In the poem, he promises
that "even so for ever shall she be / The Halo of my Memory."

When I have Fears that I may Cease to

Be by John Keats
John Keats, poet of When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be, was obsessed with death. In
a certain way, his obsession with death is not completely surprising: his brother was always
very ill growing up, leaving Keats to nurse him throughout frequent and horrible bouts of
tuberculosis, and he eventually died from the disease. Keats himself died very young – so
his suppositions were not at all incorrect – but by age 24, he had more or less stopped
writing his poetry due to ill-health. Keats’ fears about death are therefore not quite as
strange as one would assume, given his background.

When I have Fears that I may Cease

to BeSummary
This poem was written in 1818, only a few short years before Keats’ own death. It is
primarily a poem about Keats’ fear of mortality, however in true Keatsian fashion, death is
also the solution for more of what ails Keats. It would be prudent to remember that Keats’
poems have all, in some way, featured death; death of nature, death of love, death of
memory, but death all in all. There are few poems, in fact, that do not reference the ending
of things.

When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be is effusive with imagery, sensual in its
description of the fears that Keats possesses, and short. Keats runs the gamut from worrying
about dying before he is famous, worrying about the death of his beloved, and then
deciding that death itself is not such a terrible situation.
When I have Fears that I may Cease
to Be Analysis
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
Keats’ first worry is this: what if I should die before I have written to the best of my
ability? It is not merely death, therefore, that worries Keats, but death in infamy – ironic, as
he is now one of the most renowned names of English poetry. In fact, Keats was so sure
that he would die without creating a ripple in the world of English poetry that his
tombstone was made out to the one ‘whose name was writ in water’, thus showing the
transience of Keats’ fame. He also feared that he would not be able to achieve his full
capacity in terms of writing. He feared the limitations of his life.

The use of fertility words – ‘gleaned, ‘garners’, ‘full ripen’d grain’ – subtly reinforces the
idea of the artist’s creation and his mind as a fertile landscape. Keats views his imagination
as a field of grain, wherein he is both the man harvesting, and the product being harvested.

When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,

Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
The second quatrain shows Keats viewing the beauty of the natural world. This natural
world, full of miracles, is what Keats decides he can transform into poetry; the material that
he works with is Keats’ own medium, the medium of nature – ‘when I behold, upon the
night’s starred face, / huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, / and think that I may never
live to trace / their shadows with the magic hand of chance;’ shows the nature of Keats’
fleeting beauty, and contrasts the immortality of nature with the transience of Keats’ verse.

As an artist, he fears the lack – he is terrified that he will die before doing justice to the
beauty of nature, however, paradoxically, he is also terrified of not achieving the artistry
that he has dreamed of, of not doing justice to the beauty of nature, even should the
opportunity to write about them present itself. The further reference to ‘high romance’
could also show Keats’ terrors about not finding the right person to fall in love with. Keats
feared being lonely, as well, and the woman that he met and fell in love with – Fanny
Brawne – was never consummated in a formal marriage, as her mother wouldn’t give him
consent to marry. He died betrothed to Fanny, in Italy, though it was clear from their
discovered correspondence that neither Fanny nor Keats believed they would meet each
other again in Keats’ final year alive. From a letter from Franny Brawne to Frances Keats,
““All I do is to persuade myself, I shall never see him again.”
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
In the final stanza, he turns to the idea of love. The use of the phrase ‘fair creature of an
hour’ shows that even his love is not immortal; the crux of this poem is the short nature of
love, of creativity, of everything that had given Keats a glimmering view on life. The
opening of the quatrain with the word ‘and’ shows that it is an additional fear of Keats’, to
not only have never achieved artistic mastery, but also to never see his potential lover again
(which, as history shows, turns out to be true; he never did see Fanny Brawne alive again).
Thus we get to the dual terrors that haunted Keats’ life – the opportunities provided by life,
and his inability to live up to them. Keats is terrified of failure, more than death, almost; to
have achieved love, and then to lose it, seems to Keats to be the biggest terror.

The final two lines give the poem an overarching feeling of misery and despair – Keats
finds himself standing alone, trying to understand these fears, and not managing. Thus, no
matter if he attains these fears, or if he doesn’t, Keats will still be anxious and worried and
life will still be scared.

Historical Background
From a letter to Fanny Brawne, 13 October 1819:

My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot
proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and
see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a
time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else – The time is passed when
I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning
of my Life – My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I
am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop
there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the
present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely
miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to
separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never
change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love – You note came
in just here – I cannot be happier away from you – ‘T is richer than an
Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished
that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I
shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my
religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My Creed is Love and
you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot
resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen
you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my
Love.” I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is
selfish – I cannot breathe without you.
Yours for ever
John Keats
A reading of one of Keats’s best sonnets
John Keats wrote a number of sonnets in his short life, and ‘When I have fears
that I may cease to be’ remains a popular and widely anthologised one. Some
words of analysis are useful in highlighting the relevance of Keats’s imagery in
this poem, as well as the form and language of the sonnet. The poem is
a Shakespearean sonnet rhyming ababcdcdefefgg, which is particularly
appropriate here, since in this poem Keats is preoccupied with dying
prematurely, before he has had a chance to write his best work and take his place
‘among the English poets’ (as Keats himself put it).
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.
In summary, Keats writes about what he does whenever he is overcome by the
solemn reflection that he may die before he has achieved anything of lasting
value. The poet’s mind is depicted as awash with ideas and thoughts, a ‘teeming
brain’, and Keats is like a farmer having to harvest the fruits of his fertile
imagination. Note the word ‘glean’d’, as well as ‘garner’ and ‘grain’, all of which
suggest the harvest – a time in the agricultural calendar

where things come to fruition and the

fruits of the farmer’s labours can be enjoyed. Keats isn’t at that stage yet. His
poetry, he feels, hasn’t yielded any real fruit – or ‘grain’, to borrow his own
metaphor. The books of poetry Keats is writing don’t yet hold the ‘charactery’ –
the text, in other words – of his greatest or most ‘rich’ work.

All around him, Keats says, he sees things which he wants to write about: the
night sky with its stars, described as ‘huge cloudy symbols of a high romance’,
suggesting the ‘magic’ behind the stars which he, the poet, wishes to write about
with his ‘magic hand of chance’. In line 9, Keats turns to address his beloved –
most probably Fanny Brawne, whom Keats would have married if he had not
died aged 25 in 1821 – and says that when he reflects that if he dies, he will
never be able to look at her any more, or experience the ethereal power of love,
then he feels all alone, and worldly love and fame cease to have any meaning.
(When Keats refers to ‘unreflecting love’, he is making the point that love is
emotional and thus not necessarily sensible or rational: it’s not the product of
thoughtful reflection, but a more sensual and impulsive thing.)
Time – and the fact that the poet may not have much time left to make his mark
on the world – is a preoccupation of Keats in this poem, and this is neatly
captured by the urgency of the beginnings of many of the sonnet’s fourteen lines,
which concern time: ‘When … Before … Before … When … And when …’ with
the last of such words, ‘Then’, coming not at the head of a line – and not at the
beginning of the final couplet, as we might reasonably expect from a
Shakespearean sonnet – but in the middle of the twelfth line, cutting in early
before the couplet has been reached. It’s as if time is even shorter than the poet
had realised, or could realise. True enough, in three years, John Keats would be
dead from tuberculosis.

A Short Analysis of Keats’s

‘This Living Hand’
A summary of a remarkable short poetry fragment by John Keats

‘This living hand, now warm and capable’ is an oddity amongst John Keats’s
poetry – indeed, amongst Romantic poetry in general. Just eight lines long – or
seven-and-a-half, even – it’s almost a fragment, written in blank verse, almost as
if it’s a snippet of spoken dialogue from an unwritten play. (Fittingly, Keats
wrote ‘This living hand’ on a manuscript page of one of his unfinished poems.)
The most likely date for the poem’s composition is towards the end of 1819. A
short summary and analysis of the poem’s contents (if it can be called a ‘poem’)
may help to elucidate its meaning.

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –
I hold it towards you.
The poem, like many other poems, is a memento mori: it reminds us that we are
all mortal and destined to die. The speaker’s hand is, at present, warm with the
blood running through it and capable of touch (‘earnest grasping’ suggesting
clinging to a loved one, but also perhaps hanging on to life: Keats already feared
he was not long for this world). But if he were dead and his hand cold, his hand
would haunt the addressee of the lines, to the extent that she (and we can
speculate that the addressee of the poem is a lover or would-be lover – possibly

Keats’s own betrothed, Fanny Brawne) would

wish that she had been the one to die instead, so that she might be relieved of her
Why should she feel this pricking of conscience over the death of the poet? The
poem does not tell us. It ends with something strikingly direct and demonstrative
– ‘see here it is – / I hold it towards you’. There’s something dramatic about it, so
that even if the lines weren’t written as the tiniest fragment of an unwritten
drama, they resonate with dramatic potential, with the ‘thisness’ of the stage
direction. There’s also something suggestive about that final line breaking off,
midway – just as Keats’s own hand would be stilled by death when he was in his
prime, struck down by tuberculosis while only twenty-five years of age.
The poem’s directness and plainness of speech make it unusual, even amongst
Keats’s other poems. One of the most masterly things about it is the way it holds
in delicate – indeed, fragile – balance a series of opposites: living/dead,
warm/cold, nights/days, thou/I, now/then (now my hand is warm and capable, but
then, if I were to die, it would be cold and lifeless). This is what makes the poem
so chilling: Keats is writing about a hand that is living (indeed, most probably the
very hand he used to write the poem), but speculating on what it will be like
when he is dead and the blood had stopped flowing through it. And it is a case
of when, not if – not just because we all die, but because Keats already knew,
when he wrote the poem, that he would be dying sooner than most. (The poem’s
composition predates his first major lung haemorrhage by a few months, but the
symptoms of TB were already present.) But Keats does not say when: instead, he
holds the very prospect of death at arm’s length (‘if it were cold / And in the icy
silence of the tomb’).
Then there are the wonderful local effects that lend the poem its haunting power:
‘icy silence’ seems to give off a cold chill through its delicate sibilance and
assonance; the return of the unreal and abstract ‘dreaming’ in the viscerally real
and bodily ‘stream’ of blood reminds us that dreams are nothing if we do not live
to see them realised. And finally, the last word of the poem, which is perhaps the
biggest mystery of all: ‘you’. It seems a simple enough word, but it is actually
hugely surprising. Why? Because if we look back through the poem, we find
‘thy days’, ‘thy dreaming nights’, ‘thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of
blood’, ‘thou be conscience-calmed’. ‘Thou’, not ‘you’. Why does Keats
suddenly shift from the intimate ‘thou’ address to the more formal and distant (or
deferential) ‘you’ form of address?

There is no easy answer to this, but one analysis that might be proposed is that
the poet is submitting his hand for either acceptance or rejection, in a formal
manner: he is, quite literally, offering his hand. On 18 October 1819 – around the
time Keats probably wrote this fragment – Keats proposed to Fanny Brawne. She
accepted, granting her own hand in marriage. He offered his hand, and she
vouchsafed hers in return. They were destined never to marry; Keats would be
dead in two years. Twelve years after Keats’s death, Fanny married, and raised a
family of three children. She died in 1865, having outlived Keats by more than
40 years.

More Romantic poetry can be found in related posts: our analysis of

Wordsworth’s classic sonnet ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’, our analysis
of Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, and our analysis of Keats’s ‘On First Looking
into Chapman’s Homer’.
On John Keats's "This living hand"
I was just starting out when I stumbled upon John Keats's last serious gesture in poetry, the final
fragment, a terminal point. I felt the blood in his hand, the trauma of what could never be finished,
the lure of the partially whole, and it has reminded me ever since that poetry is a bloody art. It's a
form of play, true, but the stakes are mortal. Everything is on the line.

It was sometime in December, 1819, and Keats's health was perilous. The wastage of his body was
becoming apparent. Leigh Hunt remembered that his friend often looked at his hand, "which was
faded, and swollen in the veins, and say it was the hand of a man of fifty." Keats had received his
death warrant from tuberculosis, and the great poems were behind him—the sonnets, the odes,
including "To Autumn," which may be the most perfect poem in English. He was working on a
comic poem to be called "The Cap and Bells; or, The Jealousies." He never finished the fairy tale, the
weakest of his mature poems, the Spenserian stanzas he churned out with remarkable fluency to
earn some money for his publisher, but at some point while he was writing it he broke off and jotted
down some lines in a blank space on the manuscript. He turned from stanza 51—"Cupid I / Do thee
defy"—and wrote something dark and serious, preternaturally alive, this untitled eight-line

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.

It was once thought that these lines were addressed to Fanny Brawne, but most scholars now agree
that Keats meant them for use in a later poem or play. They weren't published until 1898 when they
appeared in H. B. Forman's one-volume edition of Keats's work. Once encountered, though, this
fragment of consciousness can't be ignored or forgotten. In "The Fall of Hyperion" Keats had
already foreseen the moment "When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave."

The poet dreams through his hand, a sign of dexterity, the capable movement of a
capable imagination. The person who wrote "This living hand" knew, at the very moment of writing,
the "warm" hand with which he could still touch you would soon be "cold" and unable to
grasp anyone or anything. He is distraught, terrified really, and reaches out for contact. He is
enraged and displays his hand to prove to you he exists—"see here it is." He converts the listener,
the reader, from a formal "thou" to a more intimate "you." The sentence moves from the
conditional future to the present tense. He will someday be collaring you from beyond the grave, but
he can only physically enact that gesture while he is still alive.

Keats understood that he would probably be dead by the time you encounter this fragment. He
suggests that he would like to cheat death by haunting the reader's days and nights, troubling your
dreams, so devastating you that you would be willing to sacrifice yourself and calm your conscience
by trading places with him. This impossible blackmail—"So in my veins red life might stream
again"—is a last desperate gesture. He once lifted up a living hand. It reaches out to us still, but now
through words. Here it is—this made work, this living thing. Look, he is holding out his hand. He is
challenging you, whoever you are, to grasp it.

Joel Brower's Commentary on John Keats's "This Living Hand"

This short poem by John Keats—just seven and a half lines of blank verse—was
most likely written sometime very near the end of 1819, a remarkable year in
the life of the 24-year-old poet, during which he'd written "The Eve of St.
Agnes," "Bright Star," "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Ode on a Grecian Urn,"
"Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode on Melancholy," and "Ode on Indolence." Not bad
for one year's work. Even better, he was in love. In April, he'd become
secretly engaged to the "beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable
and strange" Fanny Brawne (the description is from a letter Keats wrote to his
brother George on December 16, 1818, just after he'd met Brawne for the
first time), and they had made the engagement official at some point during
the autumn. Meanwhile, however, the tuberculosis that would eventually kill
the poet had already begun to press the life out of him. In February of the
following year, 1820, he would suffer a severe lung hemorrhage, after which
he would write no more poems, and he would die a year after that, in
February, 1821, at the age of 25. "This living hand" was written at the peak
moment of Keats's life, when he was filled with "ripeness to the core," as he
wrote in "To Autumn," and just before he was to begin his awful decline.
Keats wrote "This living hand" in the margins of the manuscript of a longer
poem he was working on called "The Cap and Bells," a satirical and slightly
ribald fairy tale full of witticisms and winks, very different from his usual
serious, meditative poems. Why was he writing such a poem? Perhaps his
friend Charles Brown put him up to it, thinking Keats might be able to sell it
and raise some much-needed money. Perhaps after writing so many intensely
solemn poems in the preceding year, and being so preoccupied about his
health, finances, and love life, Keats wanted to play around with something
more light-hearted. Whatever the reason, the poem didn't much agree with
Keats—he planned to publish it under a pseudonym rather than his own name,
and, as it turns out, he never finished it.
We may imagine that one morning Keats found himself looking at his own
hand as it glided across the page, tossing off the frothy lines of "The Cap and
Bells," and that he was struck by the realization that "this living hand now
warm and capable" would soon be "cold and in the icy silence of the tomb."
The lines came to him, and he didn't even reach for a different sheet of
paper; he just wrote them right there in the margin of "The Cap and Bells," as
if to deliberately cast a shadow of morbidity over that poem's bright, comic
lines. I like thinking about that moment, and imagining that Keats became
suddenly irritated with the artificiality of "The Cap and Bells," a poem written
to distract and entertain, rather than to illuminate some essential human
truth. Perhaps "This living hand" is a kind of vindictive gesture, a splash of ink
in the faces of the silly characters that populate "The Cap and Bells"? The
structure of the poem may support such a reading. Notice how Keats begins
with a hypothetical scenario—"would, if it were cold . . . "—and then builds up
that scenario with layer after layer of syntax and significance, preventing you
from even taking a breath as you read on and the sense of inexorability swells
in a gathering wave of anger and fear until that wave finally breaks—"see—
here it is—"—and the mood switches suddenly from the subjunctive to the
indicative, as if the poet is casting aside all evasions and artifice and
thrusting toward us the inevitability of death.
This isn't necessarily what Keats had in mind. Some have suggested that the
"you" in the poem is Brawne, and that in the poem Keats is both boasting
about how much she'll miss him when he has died, and at the same time
panicking that because of his illness, she may no longer want to be with him.
(Indeed, two months after he writes this poem, Keats will offer to break the
engagement, because he doesn't want Brawne to feel trapped in a
relationship with a dying man.) Other critics have noted that at around the
time Keats wrote "This living hand," his friend Brown was trying to talk him
into writing a verse drama, and since verse dramas often use blank verse, it's
possible that Keats was imagining a character in a play speaking these lines,
rather than himself. We'll never know whether Keats imagined himself or a
dramatic character speaking these lines, or whether he imagined the "you" to
be Brawne, the reader, or someone else entirely, but the poem gains power
rather than loses it on account of this ambiguity, since so many different
readings are possible.
Any interpretation of the poem has to acknowledge the masterful use of
rhythm I've described—that vertiginous build-up and abrupt revelation—and
has to reckon too with the sublime weirdness of the poem's sentiment, which
might be paraphrased as something like, "If I were dead, you'd feel so awful
that you'd be willing to die yourself if it would bring me back to life. In fact,
only by trading your life for mine would you be able to have a clear
conscience." This is not exactly humble! Literature and history are full of
examples of people who consent to die so that others might live, but can you
name any examples of people who demanded that others die in order that
they themselves might live? This seems to be the outrageous demand that
Keats is making when he extends that hand at the end of the poem.
But it's more complicated than that. We need to remember that Keats has not
said the hand is dead; he's only talked about what would happen if it were
dead. As Keats "holds it towards you" at the end of the poem, the hand is still
very much alive, and "warm and capable of earnest grasping." Death—the
poet's, and your own—may be inevitable, but it is still at this moment being
held in abeyance, and the poet's veins are streaming with "red life." Keats has
managed, in this short poem, to make that extended hand a figure for both
warm life and cold death, but above all for the understanding that the two
are inextricable. To reach out and take that hand is not to embrace life or
death, but to acknowledge both.
Finally, the poem's last line. Is it confident, or desperate? I can hear it both

Summary and Analysis "Ode on a Grecian Urn"


Keats' imagined urn is addressed as if he were contemplating a real urn. It has

survived intact from antiquity. It is a "sylvan historian" telling us a story, which the
poet suggests by a series of questions. Who are these gods or men carved or
painted on the urn? Who are these reluctant maidens? What is this mad pursuit?
Why the struggle to escape? What is the explanation for the presence of musical
instruments? Why this mad ecstasy?

Imagined melodies are lovelier than those heard by human ears. Therefore the
poet urges the musician pictured on the urn to play on. His song can never end nor
the trees ever shed their leaves. The lover on the urn can never win a kiss from his
beloved, but his beloved can never lose her beauty. Happy are the trees on the
urn, for they can never lose their leaves. Happy is the musician forever playing
songs forever new. The lovers on the urn enjoy a love forever warm, forever
panting, and forever young, far better than actual love, which eventually brings
frustration and dissatisfaction.

Who are the people coming to perform a sacrifice? To what altar does the priest
lead a garlanded heifer? What town do they come from? That town will forever
remain silent and deserted.

Fair urn, Keats says, adorned with figures of men and maidens, trees and grass,
you bring our speculations to a point at which thought leads nowhere, like
meditation on eternity. After our generation is gone, you will still be here, a friend to
man, telling him that beauty is truth and truth is beauty — that is all he knows on
earth and all he needs to know.

Keats has created a Greek urn in his mind and has decorated it with three scenes.
The first is full of frenzied action and the actors are men, or gods, and maidens.
Other figures, or possibly the male figures, are playing musical instruments. The
maidens are probably the nymphs of classical mythology. The men or gods are
smitten with love and are pursuing them. Keats, who loved classical mythology,
had probably read stories of such love games. In Book II of his Endymion, he
recounts Alpheus' pursuit of Arethusa, and in Book III he tells of Glaucus' pursuit of

The second scene is developed in stanzas II and III. Under the trees a lover is
serenading his beloved. In stanza I, Keats confined himself to suggesting a scene
by questions. The second scene is not presented by means of questions but by
means of description. We see a youth in a grove playing a musical instrument and
hoping, it seems, for a kiss from his beloved. The scene elicits some thoughts on
the function of art from Keats. Art gives a kind of permanence to reality. The youth,
the maiden, and the musical instrument are, as it were, caught and held
permanently by being pictured on the urn. And so Keats can take pleasure in the
thought that the music will play on forever, and although the lover can never
receive the desired kiss, the maiden can never grow older nor lose any of her
beauty. The love that they enjoy is superior to human love which leaves behind "a
heart highsorrowful and cloy'd, / A burning forehead, and a parching tongue." The
aftermath of human love is satiety and dissatisfaction. In these two stanzas Keats
imagines a state of perfect existence which is represented by the lovers pictured
on the urn. Art arrests desirable experience at a point before it can become
undesirable. This, Keats seems to be telling us, is one of the pleasurable
contributions of art to man.

The third scene on Keats' urn is a group of people on their way to perform a
sacrifice to some god. The sacrificial victim, a lowing heifer, is held by a priest.
Instead of limiting himself to the sacrificial procession as another scene on his urn,
Keats goes on to mention the town emptied of its inhabitants by the procession.
The town is desolate and will forever be silent.

The final stanza contains the beauty-truth equation, the most controversial line in
all the criticism of Keats' poetry. No critic's interpretation of the line satisfies any
other critic, however, and no doubt they will continue to wrestle with the equation
as long as the poem is read. In the stanza, Keats also makes two main comments
on his urn. The urn teases him out of thought, as does eternity; that is, the problem
of the effect of a work of art on time and life, or simply of what art does, is a
perplexing one, as is the effort to grapple with the concept of eternity. Art's
(imagined) arrest of time is a form of eternity and, probably, is what brought the
word eternity into the poem.

The second thought is the truth-beauty equation. Through the poet's imagination,
the urn has been able to preserve a temporary and happy condition in
permanence, but it cannot do the same for Keats or his generation; old age will
waste them and bring them woe. Yet the pictured urn can do something for them
and for succeeding generations as long as it will last. It will bring them through its
pictured beauty a vision of happiness (truth) of a kind available in eternity, in the
hereafter, just as it has brought Keats a vision of happiness by means of sharing its
existence empathically and bringing its scenes to emotional life through his
imagination. All you know on earth and all you need to know in regard to beautiful
works of art, whether urns or poems about urns, is that they give an inkling of the
unchanging happiness to be realized in the hereafter. When Keats says "that is all
ye know on earth," he is postulating an existence beyond earth.

Although Keats was not a particularly religious man, his meditation on the problem
of happiness and its brief duration in the course of writing "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
brought him a glimpse of heaven, a state of existence which his letters show he did
think about. In his letter of November 22, 1817, to Benjamin Bailey, he mentioned
"another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by
having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so

Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats

John Keats is perhaps most famous for his odes such as this one, Ode on a Grecian Urn. As
well as Ode to a Nightingale, in which the poet deals with the expressive nature of
music, Ode on a Grecian Urn is another attempt to engage with the beauty of art and
nature, this time addressing a piece of pottery from ancient Greece.
The urn itself is ancient. It’s been passed down over the millennia to finally reach Keats’s
presence and, to him, seems to exist outside of the traditional sense of time. Ageless,
immortal, it’s almost alien in its distance from the current age.

This allows the poet (or at least, the speaker in the poem) to mull over the strange idea of
the human figures carved into the urn. They’re paradoxical figures, free from the
constraints and influences of time but at the same time, imprisoned in an exact moment. For
all that they don’t have to worry about growing old or dying, they cannot experience life as
it is for rest of humanity.

The poem represents three attempts at engaging with the urn and its scenes. Across the
stanzas, Keats tries to wonder about who the figures are, what they’re doing, what they
represent, and what the underlying meaning of their images might be. But by the end of the
poem, he realises that the entire process of questioning is fairly redundant.

Ode on a Grecian Urn Analysis

Like other entries in Keats’s series of odes, Ode on a Grecian Urn builds on a specific
structure. Its closest formal cousin is probably Ode on Melancholy, though it contains a
slightly different rhyme scheme. Split into five verses (stanzas) of ten lines each, and
making use of fairly rigid iambic pentameter, Ode on a Grecian Urn is very carefully put
The rhyme scheme is split into two parts, with the final three lines of each stanza varying
slightly. For the first seven lines, a rhyme scheme of ABABCDE is used, though the
instance of the CDE part is not always as strict. In verse one, the final three lines are DCE;
in the second verse, they’re CED; stanzas three and four both use CDE, while the fifth and
final stanza uses DCE. This gives the piece a ponderous feel, adding a sense of deliberation
to the final lines of each verse while still adhering to the form.

Just like in his other odes, the splitting of the verses into rhymes of four lines and six lines
creates a distinct sense of there being two parts to each verse. As it is, this typically means
that the first four lines (ABAB) are used to set out the verse’s subject, while the final six
lines mull over what it means.

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
During this first verse, we see the narrator announcing that he is standing before a very old
urn from Greece. The urn becomes the subject of the poem, so all of the ideas and thoughts
are addressed towards it. On the urn, we are told there are images of people who have been
frozen in place for all of time, as the “foster-child of silence and slow time.”

The narrator also explains to us that he is discussing the matter in his role as a “historian”
and that he’s wondering just what legend or story the figures stuck on the side of the
pottery are trying to convey. One such picture, seemingly showing a gang of men as they
chase some women, is described as a “mad pursuit” but the narrator wants to know more
about the “struggle to escape” or the “wild ecstasy.” The juxtaposition between these two
ideas gives an insight into how he is projecting different narratives onto one scene, unsure
of which one is true.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
During the second verse, the reader is introduced to another image on the Grecian urn. In
this scene, a young man is sat with a lover, seemingly playing a song on a pipe as they are
surrounded by trees. Again, the narrator’s interest is piqued, but he decides that the
“melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” Unaffected by growing old or
changing fashions, the notes the narrator imagines the man playing offer unlimited potential
for beauty. While the figures will never grow old, the music also contains an immortal
quality, one much “sweeter” than regular music. The narrator comforts the man, who he
acknowledges will never be able to kiss his companion, with the fact that she will never
lose her beauty as she is frozen in time.

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
The third stanza again focuses on the same two lovers but turns its attention to the rest of
the scene. The trees behind the pipe player will never grow old and their leaves will never
fall, an idea which pleases the narrator. Just like the leaves, the love shared between the two
is equally as immortal and won’t have the chance to grow old and stale. Normal love
between humans can languish into a “breathing human passion” and becomes a “burning
forehead and a parching tongue,” a problem that the young lovers will not face.

In attempting to identify with the couple and their scene, the narrator reveals that he covets
their ability to escape from the temporary nature of life. The piper’s song remains new
forever while his lover remains young and beautiful. This love, he believes, is “far above”
the standard human bond which can grow tired and weary. The parched tongue he
references seems to indicate that he’s worried about the flame of passion diminishing as
time passes, something that won’t worry the young couple. On viewing the figures, the
narrator is reminded of the inevitability of his own diminishing passions and regrets that he
doesn’t have the same chance at immortality as the two figures on the urn.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
The fourth stanza really begins to develop the ideas. Turning to another image on the urn,
this time a group of people bringing a cow to be sacrificed, the narrator begins to wonder
about the individuals’ lives. We also see the speaker in the poem attempt to think about the
people on the urn as though they were functioning in regular time. This means that he
imagines them to have had a starting point – the “little town” – and an end point – the
“green altar.” In turn, he imagines the “little town” they come from, now deserted because
its inhabitants are frozen in the image on the side of the urn “for evermore.” This hints at
what he sees as the limitations of the static piece of art, in that the viewer can never discern
the human motivations of the people, the “real story” that makes them interesting as people.

The narrator’s attempts to engage with the figures on the urn do change. Here, his curiosity
from the first stanza evolves into deeper kind of identification with the young lovers, before
thinking of the town and community as a whole in the fourth. Each time, the reach of his
empathy expands from one figure, to two, and then to a whole town. But once he
encounters the idea of an empty town, there’s little else to say. This is the limit of the urn as
a piece of art, as it’s not able to provide him with any more information.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The final stanza is perhaps the most famous piece of poetry Keats ever wrote. This time, he
is talking directly to the urn itself, which he believes “doth tease us out of thought.” Even
after everyone has died, the urn will remain, still providing hints at humanity but no real
answers. This is where we come to the conclusions he draws. There is a sense that the
narrator finds the lack of change imposed upon the figures to be overwhelming. The urn
teases him with its immortal existence, feeding off the “hungry generations” (a line
from Ode to a Nightingale) and their intrigue without ever really providing answers. The
urn is almost its own little world, living by its own rules. While it might be interesting and
intriguing, it will never be mortal. It’s a purely aesthetic piece of art, something the speaker
finds to be unsatisfying when compared to the richness of everyday human life.
The last lines in the piece have become incredibly well known. They can be read as an
attempt to sum up the entire through process of the poem in one couplet. ”Beauty is truth,
truth beauty” as an idea has proved very difficult to dissect, however, due to its
mysteriousness. It’s unclear whether the sentiment is spoken by the narrator, the urn, or by
Keats himself, thanks to the enigmatic use of quotation marks. The source of the speech
matters. If it’s the narrator, then it could mean that he has become aware of the limitations
of such a static piece of artwork. If it’s the urn, then the idea that one piece of art (or self-
contained phrase) could encompass humanity in any kind of complete fashion is
nonsensical, and the line deliberately plays off this. There’s a futility to trying to sum up the
true nature of beauty in just twenty syllables, a fact which might actually be the point of the
couplet. Thanks to the dense, complicated nature of the final two lines, the opening remains
open to interpretation.
Keats' Poems and Letters Summary and Analysis
of "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

Keats directly addresses a Grecian urn -- a symbol of timelessness and aesthetic beauty --
and contrasts this object's version of the world with the vicissitudes of real life. He asks
direct, rhetorical questions of the scenes he sees on the urn -- "What men or gods are these?
What maidens loth? (8) -- and wonders about the real scenes that the urn's decorator was
referencing. He contrasts the idyllic love he sees on the urn with the inevitable imperfection
of love among mortal humans. Keats also describes a scene of "pipes and timbrels"
(perhaps a Bacchanalian celebration?), two young lovers underneath the trees, and a heifer
being led to sacrifice. Following all this, Keats lapses into a glum mood, but the urn
presents a final lesson: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" -- which subsequently became a
famous, but frequently contested, phrase.


The poem's main topic is the idealized world depicted on a Grecian urn, a realm not subject
to the passage of human time. Keats yearns for this world's aesthetic beauty and
imperviousness to human strife, and his language mirrors the emotional intensity of the
scenes he observes: "What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?/ What pipes and
timbrels? What wild ecstasy?" (9-10). It is as though he wishes to partake in these scenes

Keats presents a paradox in stanza II: "Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are
sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on" (11-12). This line reflects Keats's tendency to be
swept up in Platonic ideals; in fact, many of his poems reflect on ideal states versus lived
reality. "Unheard melodies" are at once perfect and necessarily unattainable. Keats
contrasts the ideal love evoked in the poem with the sorrows of "breathing human
passion.../ That leaves a heart high sorrowful and cloy'd,/ A burning forehead, and a
parching tongue" (28-30). In this case, idealized love is clearly preferable. Later in the
poem, Keats is transported away from his ruminations and to "Cold Pastoral" (45) -- mortal

However, all is not lost for humans. Although all human love will certainly have an end,
Keats also notes that that which is unconsummated in the image -- "Bold lover, never,
never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal" (17-18) -- will always remain
unconsummated. He also calls the urn a "still unravish'd bride of quietness" (1), again
pointing to the impossibility of "ravishment."

The final two lines of the poem, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/ Ye know on
earth, and all ye need to know'" (49-50), have been a source of contention for scholars since
the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" came into popular circulation. Some think that Keats wrote this
statement offhandedly, as a way to close the poem, and that is has no inherent meaning.
Others have tried to examine the meanings of "truth" and "beauty" as concepts themselves,
and suggest that truth may refer to the overarching order of the universe, logos. Still
others consider this an intentionally ironic phrase, one that is too neat and simple to be
taken at face value. The debate is by no means settled.

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Notes on Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats
In this ode, Keats studies a marble Greek urn and contemplates the story, history and
secrets that lie behind its carved pictures. Throughout the poem, he constantly
juxtaposes the immortality of art with the mortality of man. His feelings seem
confused, as he is torn between jealousy and bitterness that the urn will live forever
and be remembered when he is long dead and forgotten, and pity for this inanimate
object that has no experience of life, despite its endurance through the ages.

“Thou still unravished bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time”
From the start, Keats addresses the urn directly, using the pronoun 'thou', and
continues throughout to personify it.
The word 'still' in the first line is key to the poem, as it is polysemic: it could mean
'yet', reflecting the sense of anticipation present in the poem, or 'motionless', because
the urn does not move.
Keats contrasts the urn's peaceful quality, ('quietness' and 'silence and slow time'),
with undertones of violence, suggested with 'unravished bride' and 'foster-child'.
He uses words with long vowel sounds, such as 'silence' and 'slow' to keep the pace

“A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both?”
With 'flowery tale' and 'leaf-fringed legend', Keats uses natural imagery, a central
feature of Romantic poetry. It links the urn to nature's transcendence.
He contrasts 'sweetly' with 'haunts', which highlights the two juxtaposing sides of
the urn.
On line 7, he introduces the contrast of mortality and immortality, with 'deities or

“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?

What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
With the last three lines, Keats increases the pace with quick-fire questions, which
reveal his longing to know the urn's secrets. Do the questions need to be answered?
'Men or gods' continues the juxtaposition of the mortality with the immortal.

“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone”
Keats uses describes the scene on the urn, in which musicians are pictured, yet their
music is unheard. Because he cannot hear the music, in his imagination it is perfect.
He again addresses the inhumanness of the urn – it has no senses, so the pipes
cannot play to 'the sensual ear'.
He employs very deliberate assonance with 'ear'/'endeared', 'spirit'/'ditties' and
'no'/'tone', which makes the language very obviously poetic and lyrical – perhaps to
show that the poem is art, like the urn.

“Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,

Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve:
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”
There seems to be a sense of wasted or unfulfilled life, as the 'bold lover' will never
reach his goal, though he is so near to it, because he remains in the same moment in
time forever. The repetition of 'never' aids this thought.
Keats presents the idea that the urn is caught in an eternity of bliss and love.

“For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”
The repetition of 'for ever' shows the urn's immortality, whilst the duplication of
'happy' suggests that all is not happy.
Like in the first stanza, the word 'still' is key, acting again polysemically.
'Panting' and 'breathing' represent life's breath, and reminds the reader that the urn is
not alive. Keats again contrasts human mortality with 'for ever young' immortality.
'Far above' is linked with the gods.
He ends the stanza with the idea that love causes illness: 'a burning forehead, and a
parching tongue'. The last two lines are a further reminder of man's mortality and
inevitable death.

“Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green alter, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies?”
Keats describes the next picture on the urn, and introduces a new enigma, which will
never be answered, as expressed by the adjective 'mysterious'.
There is a semantic field of religious language and imagery throughout the fourth
stanza, starting with 'sacrifice' and 'priest'.
Like in the first stanza, the unpleasant image of the 'heifer lowing at the skies'
reveals an undertone of violence.

“…Emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.”
The word 'empty' could also be seen as key to the poem, as it seems to describe
Keats' feelings about the urn; despite its beauty, mystery and many stories, it is
without life and therefore empty, and therefoe “for evermore will silent be”.
Where in Stanza 2, the urn was presented as being in an eternity of love and bliss,
here it has changed to being eternally 'desolate'. This shows Keats' shifting feelings
about the urn. It also represents the two paradoxical sides of the urn: in one way its
immortality is a positive and joyful thing, but on the other, it is full of desolation,
isolation and emptiness. This also has a more literal meaning, as the urn can be
physically turned round by the observer, to see the various scenes.

“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought

As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'.”
In the final stanza, Keats seems to be pointing an accusing finger at the urn,
labelling it a 'silent form', which teases the reader/observer. 'Eternity' could be a link
to death.
His exclamation 'Cold Pastoral!' could be seen as one of anger or frustration, and
ultimately a rejection of the urn and its lifeless immortality.
'A friend to man' links with the earlier poem Sleep and Poetry, in which Keats writes
that poetry should be “a friend, to soothe the cares and lift the thoughts of man”.
He continues his juxtaposition of the mortality of man, demonstrated by 'old age',
'waste' and 'woe', with art's immortality: 'thou shalt remain'.
Keats offers an ambiguous conclusion with the final two lines. Depending on where
the quotation marks are placed, it could all be the urn's message, with Keats taking a
step back, or it could be his own thoughts. Is he being ironic, as he has learnt, and
become less naïve, since he wrote Endymion (“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever”)?

Ode on a Grecian Urn - Further Notes

In the first stanza, the speaker stands before an ancient Grecian urn and addresses it.
He is preoccupied with its depiction of pictures frozen in time. It is the "still
unravish'd bride of quietness," the "foster-child of silence and slow time." He also
describes the urn as a "historian" that can tell a story. He wonders about the figures
on the side of the urn and asks what legend they depict and from where they come.
He looks at a picture that seems to depict a group of men pursuing a group of
women and wonders what their story could be: "What mad pursuit? What struggle to
escape? / What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?"

In the second stanza, the speaker looks at another picture on the urn, this time of a
young man playing a pipe, lying with his lover beneath a glade of trees. The speaker
says that the piper's "unheard" melodies are sweeter than mortal melodies because
they are unaffected by time. He tells the youth that, though he can never kiss his
lover because he is frozen in time, he should not grieve, because her beauty will
never fade.

In the third stanza, he looks at the trees surrounding the lovers and feels happy that
they will never shed their leaves. He is happy for the piper because his songs will be
"for ever new," and happy that the love of the boy and the girl will last forever,
unlike mortal love, which lapses into "breathing human passion" and eventually
vanishes, leaving behind only a "burning forehead, and a parching tongue."

In the fourth stanza, the speaker examines another picture on the urn, this one of a
group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. He wonders where they are going
("To what green altar, O mysterious priest...") and from where they have come. He
imagines their little town, empty of all its citizens, and tells it that its streets will "for
evermore" be silent, for those who have left it, frozen on the urn, will never return.
In the final stanza, the speaker again addresses the urn itself, saying that it, like
Eternity, "doth tease us out of thought." He thinks that when his generation is long
dead, the urn will remain, telling future generations its enigmatic lesson: "Beauty is
truth, truth beauty." The speaker says that that is the only thing the urn knows and
the only thing it needs to know.

"Ode on a Grecian Urn" follows the same ode-stanza structure as the "Ode on
Melancholy," though it varies more the rhyme scheme of the last three lines of each
stanza. Each of the five stanzas in "Grecian Urn" is ten lines long, metered in a
relatively precise iambic pentameter, and divided into a two part rhyme scheme, the
last three lines of which are variable. The first seven lines of each stanza follow an
ABABCDE rhyme scheme, but the second occurrences of the CDE sounds do not
follow the same order. In stanza one, lines seven through ten are rhymed DCE; in
stanza two, CED; in stanzas three and four, CDE; and in stanza five, DCE, just as in
stanza one. As in other odes (especially "Autumn" and "Melancholy"), the two-part
rhyme scheme (the first part made of AB rhymes, the second of CDE rhymes)
creates the sense of a two-part thematic structure as well. The first four lines of each
stanza roughly define the subject of the stanza, and the last six roughly explicate or
develop it. (As in other odes, this is only a general rule, true of some stanzas more
than others; stanzas such as the fifth do not connect rhyme scheme and thematic
structure closely at all.)

If the "Ode to a Nightingale" portrays Keats's speaker's engagement with the fluid
expressiveness of music, the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" portrays his attempt to engage
with the static immobility of sculpture. The Grecian urn, passed down through
countless centuries to the time of the speaker's viewing, exists outside of time in the
human sense--it does not age, it does not die, and indeed it is alien to all such
concepts. In the speaker's meditation, this creates an intriguing paradox for the
human figures carved into the side of the urn: They are free from time, but they are
simultaneously frozen in time. They do not have to confront aging and death (their
love is "for ever young"), but neither can they have experience (the youth can never
kiss the maiden; the figures in the procession can never return to their homes).

The speaker attempts three times to engage with scenes carved into the urn; each
time he asks different questions of it. In the first stanza, he examines the picture of
the "mad pursuit" and wonders what actual story lies behind the picture: "What men
or gods are these? What maidens loth?" Of course, the urn can never tell him the
whos, whats, whens, and wheres of the stories it depicts, and the speaker is forced to
abandon this line of questioning.
In the second and third stanzas, he examines the picture of the piper playing to his
lover beneath the trees. Here, the speaker tries to imagine what the experience of the
figures on the urn must be like; he tries to identify with them. He is tempted by their
escape from temporality and attracted to the eternal newness of the piper's unheard
song and the eternally unchanging beauty of his lover. He thinks that their love is
"far above" all transient human passion, which, in its sexual expression, inevitably
leads to an abatement of intensity--when passion is satisfied, all that remains is a
wearied physicality: a sorrowful heart, a "burning forehead," and a "parching
tongue." His recollection of these conditions seems to remind the speaker that he is
inescapably subject to them, and he abandons his attempt to identify with the figures
on the urn.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker attempts to think about the figures on the urn as
though they were experiencing human time, imagining that their procession has an
origin (the "little town") and a destination (the "green altar"). But all he can think is
that the town will forever be deserted: If these people have left their origin, they will
never return to it. In this sense he confronts head-on the limits of static art; if it is
impossible to learn from the urn the whos and wheres of the "real story" in the first
stanza, it is impossible ever to know the origin and the destination of the figures on
the urn in the fourth.

It is true that the speaker shows a certain kind of progress in his successive attempts
to engage with the urn. His idle curiosity in the first attempt gives way to a more
deeply felt identification in the second, and in the third, the speaker leaves his own
concerns behind and thinks of the processional purely on its own terms, thinking of
the "little town" with a real and generous feeling. But each attempt ultimately ends
in failure. The third attempt fails simply because there is nothing more to say--once
the speaker confronts the silence and eternal emptiness of the little town, he has
reached the limit of static art; on this subject, at least, there is nothing more the urn
can tell him.

In the final stanza, the speaker presents the conclusions drawn from his three
attempts to engage with the urn. He is overwhelmed by its existence outside of
temporal change, with its ability to "tease" him "out of thought / As doth eternity." If
human life is a succession of "hungry generations," as the speaker suggests in
"Nightingale," the urn is a separate and self-contained world. It can be a "friend to
man," as the speaker says, but it cannot be mortal; the kind of aesthetic connection
the speaker experiences with the urn is ultimately insufficient to human life.

The final two lines, in which the speaker imagines the urn speaking its message to
mankind--"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," have proved among the most difficult to
interpret in the Keats canon. After the urn utters the enigmatic phrase "Beauty is
truth, truth beauty," no one can say for sure who "speaks" the conclusion, "that is all
/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It could be the speaker addressing the
urn, and it could be the urn addressing mankind. If it is the speaker addressing the
urn, then it would seem to indicate his awareness of its limitations: The urn may not
need to know anything beyond the equation of beauty and truth, but the
complications of human life make it impossible for such a simple and self-contained
phrase to express sufficiently anything about necessary human knowledge. If it is
the urn addressing mankind, then the phrase has rather the weight of an important
lesson, as though beyond all the complications of human life, all human beings need
to know on earth is that beauty and truth are one and the same. It is largely a matter
of personal interpretation which reading to accept.

Ode on a Grecian Urn activity sheet

In the final couplet, is Keats saying that pain is beautiful? You must decide whether
it is the poet (a persona), Keats (the actual poet), or the urn speaking. Are both lines
spoken by the same person, or does some of the quotation express the view of one
speaker and the rest of the couplet express the comment upon that view by another
speaker? Who is being addressed--the poet, the urn, or the reader? Are the
concluding lines a philosphical statement about life or do they make sense only in
the context of the poem?

Some critics feel that Keats is saying that Art is superior to Nature. Is Keats thinking
or feeling or talking about the urn only as a work of art?

No matter how you read the last two lines, do they really mean anything? do they
merely sound as if they mean something? or do they speak to some deep part of us
that apprehends or feels the meaning but it is an experience/meaning that can't be
put into words? Do they make a final statement on the relation of the ideal to the
actual? Is the urn rejected at the end? Is art - can art ever be - a substitute for real

Add your own readings to these ideas; what does the paradox mean to you?

Ode to a Nightingale


The speaker opens with a declaration of his own heartache. He feels

numb, as though he had taken a drug only a moment ago. He is
addressing a nightingale he hears singing somewhere in the forest and
says that his “drowsy numbness” is not from envy of the nightingale’s
happiness, but rather from sharing it too completely; he is “too happy” that
the nightingale sings the music of summer from amid some unseen plot of
green trees and shadows.

In the second stanza, the speaker longs for the oblivion of alcohol,
expressing his wish for wine, “a draught of vintage,” that would taste like
the country and like peasant dances, and let him “leave the world unseen”
and disappear into the dim forest with the nightingale. In the third stanza,
he explains his desire to fade away, saying he would like to forget the
troubles the nightingale has never known: “the weariness, the fever, and
the fret” of human life, with its consciousness that everything is mortal
and nothing lasts. Youth “grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies,” and
“beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes.”

In the fourth stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale to fly away, and he
will follow, not through alcohol (“Not charioted by Bacchus and his
pards”), but through poetry, which will give him “viewless wings.” He says
he is already with the nightingale and describes the forest glade, where
even the moonlight is hidden by the trees, except the light that breaks
through when the breezes blow the branches. In the fifth stanza, the
speaker says that he cannot see the flowers in the glade, but can guess
them “in embalmed darkness”: white hawthorne, eglantine, violets, and
the musk-rose, “the murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.” In the
sixth stanza, the speaker listens in the dark to the nightingale, saying that
he has often been “half in love” with the idea of dying and called Death
soft names in many rhymes. Surrounded by the nightingale’s song, the
speaker thinks that the idea of death seems richer than ever, and he
longs to “cease upon the midnight with no pain” while the nightingale
pours its soul ecstatically forth. If he were to die, the nightingale would
continue to sing, he says, but he would “have ears in vain” and be no
longer able to hear.

In the seventh stanza, the speaker tells the nightingale that it is immortal,
that it was not “born for death.” He says that the voice he hears singing
has always been heard, by ancient emperors and clowns, by homesick
Ruth; he even says the song has often charmed open magic windows
looking out over “the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.” In the
eighth stanza, the word forlorn tolls like a bell to restore the speaker from
his preoccupation with the nightingale and back into himself. As the
nightingale flies farther away from him, he laments that his imagination
has failed him and says that he can no longer recall whether the
nightingale’s music was “a vision, or a waking dream.” Now that the music
is gone, the speaker cannot recall whether he himself is awake or asleep.


Like most of the other odes, “Ode to a Nightingale” is written in ten-line

stanzas. However, unlike most of the other poems, it is metrically
variable—though not so much as “Ode to Psyche.” The first seven and
last two lines of each stanza are written in iambic pentameter; the eighth
line of each stanza is written in trimeter, with only three accented
syllables instead of five. “Nightingale” also differs from the other odes in
that its rhyme scheme is the same in every stanza (every other ode varies
the order of rhyme in the final three or four lines except “To Psyche,”
which has the loosest structure of all the odes). Each stanza in
“Nightingale” is rhymed ABABCDECDE, Keats’s most basic scheme
throughout the odes.

With “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats’s speaker begins his fullest and
deepest exploration of the themes of creative expression and the
mortality of human life. In this ode, the transience of life and the tragedy
of old age (“where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, / Where youth
grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies”) is set against the eternal renewal
of the nightingale’s fluid music (“Thou wast not born for death, immortal
bird!”). The speaker reprises the “drowsy numbness” he experienced in
“Ode on Indolence,” but where in “Indolence” that numbness was a sign
of disconnection from experience, in “Nightingale” it is a sign of too full a
connection: “being too happy in thine happiness,” as the speaker tells the
nightingale. Hearing the song of the nightingale, the speaker longs to flee
the human world and join the bird. His first thought is to reach the bird’s
state through alcohol—in the second stanza, he longs for a “draught of
vintage” to transport him out of himself. But after his meditation in the
third stanza on the transience of life, he rejects the idea of being
“charioted by Bacchus and his pards” (Bacchus was the Roman god of
wine and was supposed to have been carried by a chariot pulled by
leopards) and chooses instead to embrace, for the first time since he
refused to follow the figures in “Indolence,” “the viewless wings of Poesy.”

The rapture of poetic inspiration matches the endless creative rapture of

the nightingale’s music and lets the speaker, in stanzas five through
seven, imagine himself with the bird in the darkened forest. The ecstatic
music even encourages the speaker to embrace the idea of dying, of
painlessly succumbing to death while enraptured by the nightingale’s
music and never experiencing any further pain or disappointment. But
when his meditation causes him to utter the word “forlorn,” he comes
back to himself, recognizing his fancy for what it is—an imagined escape
from the inescapable (“Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well / As she is
fam’d to do, deceiving elf”). As the nightingale flies away, the intensity of
the speaker’s experience has left him shaken, unable to remember
whether he is awake or asleep.

In “Indolence,” the speaker rejected all artistic effort. In “Psyche,” he was

willing to embrace the creative imagination, but only for its own internal
pleasures. But in the nightingale’s song, he finds a form of outward
expression that translates the work of the imagination into the outside
world, and this is the discovery that compels him to embrace Poesy’s
“viewless wings” at last. The “art” of the nightingale is endlessly
changeable and renewable; it is music without record, existing only in a
perpetual present. As befits his celebration of music, the speaker’s
language, sensually rich though it is, serves to suppress the sense of
sight in favor of the other senses. He can imagine the light of the moon,
“But here there is no light”; he knows he is surrounded by flowers, but he
“cannot see what flowers” are at his feet. This suppression will find its
match in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which is in many ways a companion
poem to “Ode to a Nightingale.” In the later poem, the speaker will finally
confront a created art-object not subject to any of the limitations of time;
in “Nightingale,” he has achieved creative expression and has placed his
faith in it, but that expression—the nightingale’s song—is spontaneous
and without physical manifestation.

Summary and Analysis "Ode to a Nightingale"


Keats is in a state of uncomfortable drowsiness. Envy of the imagined happiness of

the nightingale is not responsible for his condition; rather, it is a reaction to the
happiness he has experienced through sharing in the happiness of the nightingale.
The bird's happiness is conveyed in its singing.

Keats longs for a draught of wine which would take him out of himself and allow
him to join his existence with that of the bird. The wine would put him in a state in
which he would no longer be himself, aware that life is full of pain, that the young
die, the old suffer, and that just to think about life brings sorrow and despair. But
wine is not needed to enable him to escape. His imagination will serve just as well.
As soon as he realizes this, he is, in spirit, lifted up above the trees and can see
the moon and the stars even though where he is physically there is only a
glimmering of light. He cannot see what flowers are growing around him, but from
their odor and from his knowledge of what flowers should be in bloom at the time
he can guess.

In the darkness he listens to the nightingale. Now, he feels, it would be a rich

experience to die, "to cease upon the midnight with no pain" while the bird would
continue to sing ecstatically. Many a time, he confesses, he has been "half in love
with easeful Death." The nightingale is free from the human fate of having to die.
The song of the nightingale that he is listening to was heard in ancient times by
emperor and peasant. Perhaps even Ruth (whose story is told in the Old
Testament) heard it.

"Forlorn," the last word of the preceding stanza, brings Keats in the concluding
stanza back to consciousness of what he is and where he is. He cannot escape
even with the help of the imagination. The singing of the bird grows fainter and dies
away. The experience he has had seems so strange and confusing that he is not
sure whether it was a vision or a daydream. He is even uncertain whether he is
asleep or awake.


The "Ode to a Nightingale" is a regular ode. All eight stanzas have ten pentameter
lines and a uniform rhyme scheme. Although the poem is regular in form, it leaves
the impression of being a kind of rhapsody; Keats is allowing his thoughts and
emotions free expression. One thought suggests another and, in this way, the
poem proceeds to a somewhat arbitrary conclusion. The poem impresses the
reader as being the result of free inspiration uncontrolled by a preconceived plan.
The poem is Keats in the act of sharing with the reader an experience he is having
rather than recalling an experience. The experience is not entirely coherent. It is
what happens in his mind while he is listening to the song of a nightingale.

Three main thoughts stand out in the ode. One is Keats' evaluation of life; life is a
vale of tears and frustration. The happiness which Keats hears in the song of the
nightingale has made him happy momentarily but has been succeeded by a feeling
of torpor which in turn is succeeded by the conviction that life is not only painful but
also intolerable. His taste of happiness in hearing the nightingale has made him all
the more aware of the unhappiness of life. Keats wants to escape from life, not by
means of wine, but by a much more powerful agent, the imagination.

The second main thought and the main theme of the poem is Keats' wish that he
might die and be rid of life altogether, providing he could die as easily and
painlessly as he could fall asleep. The preoccupation with death does not seem to
have been caused by any turn for the worse in Keats' fortunes at the time he wrote
the ode (May 1819). In many respects Keats' life had been unsatisfactory for some
time before he wrote the poem. His family life was shattered by the departure of
one brother to America and the death from tuberculosis of the other. His second
volume of poetry had been harshly reviewed. He had no gainful occupation and no
prospects, since he had abandoned his medical studies. His financial condition
was insecure. He had not been well in the fall and winter of 1818-19 and possibly
he was already suffering from tuberculosis. He could not marry Fanny Brawne
because he was not in a position to support her. Thus the death-wish in the ode
may be a reaction to a multitude of troubles and frustrations, all of which were still
with him. The heavy weight of life pressing down on him forced "Ode to a
Nightingale" out of him. Keats more than once expressed a desire for "easeful
Death," yet when he was in the final stages of tuberculosis he fought against death
by going to Italy where he hoped the climate would cure him. The death-wish in the
ode is a passing but recurrent attitude toward a life that was unsatisfactory in so
many ways.

The third main thought in the ode is the power of imagination or fancy. (Keats does
not make any clear-cut distinction between the two.) In the ode Keats rejects wine
for poetry, the product of imagination, as a means of identifying his existence with
that of the happy nightingale. But poetry does not work the way it is supposed to.
He soon finds himself back with his everyday, trouble-filled self. That "fancy cannot
cheat so well / As she is fam'd to do," he admits in the concluding stanza. The
imagination is not the all-powerful function Keats, at times, thought it was. It cannot
give more than a temporary escape from the cares of life.

Keats' assignment of immortality to the nightingale in stanza VII has caused

readers much trouble. Keats perhaps was thinking of a literal nightingale; more
likely, however, he was thinking of the nightingale as a symbol of poetry, which has
a permanence.

Keats' evocative power is shown especially in stanza II where he associates a

beaker of wine "with beaded bubbles winking at the brim," with sunny France and
the "sunburnt mirth" of the harvesters, and in his picture in stanza VII of Ruth
suffering from homesickness "amid the alien corn." The whole ode is a triumph of
tonal richness of that adagio verbal music that is Keats' special contribution to the
many voices of poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats:

Summary and Critical Analysis
Keats's Ode to a Nightingale is considered one of the finest odes in English Literature. It
reveals the highest imaginative powers of the poet. The poem was inspired by the song of a
nightingale, which the poet heard in the gardens of his friend Charles Brown. The sweet music
of the nightingale sent the poet in rapture and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast
table, put it on the grass-plot under the plum tree and composed the poem.
John Keats

After he had finished the poem he came back with scraps of paper in his hand. Brown rescued
the papers and found them to be the poem on the nightingale.

Thus the poem is an expression of Keats's feelings rising in his heart at the hearing of the
melodious song of the bird. The song of the nightingale moves from the poet to the depth of his
heart and creates in him a heartache and numbness as is created by the drinking of hemlock.
He thinks that the bird lives in a place of beauty. When he hears the nightingale's song, he is
entrenched by its sweetness and his joy becomes so excessive that it changes into a kind of
pleasant pain. He is filled with a desire to escape from the world of caring to the world of
beautiful place of the bird.

The poem presents the picture of the tragedy of human life. It brings out an expression of
Keats's pessimism and dejection. He composed this poem at the time when his heart was full
of sorrow. His youngest brother Tom had died, the second one had gone abroad and the poet
himself was under the suspense and agony by the passionate love for Fanny Brawne. All these
happenings had induced in the poet a mood of sorrow. He could not suppress it. Thus the poet
enjoys the pleasure in sadness/ pain and feasts upon the very sadness/ pain into joy. This
complex emotion gives the poem a unique charm.

In the beginning, Keats seems to be an immature youth with a melancholic heart urging to find
a means of oblivion and escape. On catching the sight of a nightingale and hearing its music,
which he assumes to be an immortal voice of happiness, Keats feels that his body is getting
benumbed. But, he also feels an acute pain because he is conscious of his mortality and
suffering. He fantasizes of having drunk hemlock or 'some dull opiate': "My heart aches, and a
drowsy numbness pains, / my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk." The initial situation of
awareness and conflict is slowly to change and develop throughout the ode with a
corresponding shift in tone. The tragic awareness of suffering inflicts on him a peculiar kind of
ache because the opposing effect of dullness, which is the effect of desire, is increasing. The
awareness is a burden that makes him 'sunk' gradually towards the world of oblivion.

After describing his plight, Keats acknowledges, rather than envy the bird's 'happy lot' and
participates in its permanent happiness. He identifies the bird with dryad, the Greek Goddess
of the tree. He contrasts the mortality and suffering of human being with the immortality and
perfect happiness of the nightingale. Of course, Keats immortalizes the bird by thinking of the
race of it as the symbol of universal and undying musical voice, which is the voice of nature,
and also of ideal romantic poetry, of the world of art and spirit. This universal and eternal voice
has comforted human beings embittered by life and tragedies by opening the casement of the
remote, magical, spiritual, eternal, and the ideal. The poet is longing for the imaginative
experience of an imaginatively perfect world. At this stage in the poem, the poet is trying to
escape from the reality, and experience the ideal rather than complement one with the other.
This dualism is to resolve later. Keats begins by urging for poison and wine, and then desires
for poetic and imaginative experience.

But, as the poem develops, one feels that the numbness and intoxication the poet deliberately
and imaginatively imposes upon his senses of pain are meant to awaken a higher sense of
experience. The vintage, dance and song, the waters of poetic inspiration are the warmth of
the south together make a compound and sensuous appeal.

Keats develops a dialectic by partaking both the states-the fretful here of man and the happy
there of the Nightingale-and serves as the mediator between the two. After activating the world
of insight and inner experience by obliterating that of the sense, Keats is revived into a special
awareness of the conflict. With this awareness, he moves into a higher thematic ground
moving from the ache of the beginning through yearning for permanence and eventually
exploring the tension so as to balance the transient with the permanent.

In fact, no one can escape into the ideal world forever. Imaginative minds can have a
momentary flight into the fanciful world. But, ultimately one has to return to the real world and
must accept the reality. John Keats is no exception to this. He makes imaginative flights into
the ideal world, but accepts the realities of life despite its 'fever, fret and fury'.

The process of experience, he has undergone has undoubtedly left him with a heightened
awareness of both the modes of experience. When the imaginative life wakes, the pressures of
ordinary experience is benumbed: and when ordinary experience becomes acute, the intensity
of imaginative reality is reduced. And this makes life and experience more complete.

The song of the bird symbolizes the song of the poet. Keats is contrasting the immorality of
poetry with the immorality of the poet. This is the climax of the poem and the point where the
different themes harmonized—the beauty of the nightingale's song, the loveliness of the Spring
night, the miseries of the world, the desire to escape from those miseries by death, by wine, or
by poetry.

The Ode is not the expression of a single mood, but of a succession of moods. From being too
happy in the happiness of the bird's song, Keats becomes aware of the contrast between the
bird's apparent joy and the misery of the human condition, from the thought of which he can
only momentarily escape by wine, by poetry, by the beauty of nature, or by the thought of
death. In the seventh stanza the contrast is sharpened: the immortal bird, representing natural
beauty as well as poetry, is set against the 'hungry generations' of mankind. Keats expresses
with a maximum of intensity the desire to escape from reality, and yet he recognizes that no
escape is possible.

One kind of mastery displayed by Keats in this ode is worth noting—the continuous shifting of
view-point. We are transported from the poet in the garden to the bird in the trees; in the
second stanza we have glimpses of Flora and Provence, followed by one of the poets drinking
the wine; in the fourth stanza we are taken up into the starlit skies, and in the next we are back
again in the flower-scented darkness. In the seventh stanza we rang furthest in time and place.
The nightingale's song is unrestricted by either time or space. The voice of the nightingale is
made immune first to history, and then to geography. It can establish a rapport with dead
generations or with faery lands. In the last stanza we start again from the Hampstead garden,
and then follow the nightingale as it disappears in the distance.

The poem expresses the poet's love of romance, deep delight in nature and his interest in the
Greek mythology. In the poem the reference to Flora, Dryad, and Bacchus is made which are
all related to Greek mythology. It shows that Greek mythology had a deep hold on the mind of
the poet. The poem contains concrete imagery, richness of coloring and the elements of charm
and deep human interest. The mastery of poetic language is perfectly seen in the poem. The
style of the poem is Shakespearean. The expressions are unsurpassed.

To sum up, Keats soars high with his 'wings of poesy' into the world of ideas and perfect
happiness. But the next moment, consciousness makes him land on the grounds of reality and
he bids farewell to the ideal bird. At this moment, Keats must also have been conscious that
the very bird, which he had idealized and immortalized, existed in the real world, mortal and
vulnerable to change and suffering like himself.

The Writing of "Ode to a Nightingale"

Charles Brown, a friend with whom Keats was living when he composed this
poem, wrote,
In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest 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 the books. On
inquiry, I found those scraps, four or five in number, contained his poetic feeling
on the song of our nightingale.

Analysis: "Ode to a Nightingale"

A major concern in "Ode to a Nightingale" is Keats's perception of the

conflicted nature of human life, i.e., the interconnection or mixture of pain/joy,
intensity of feeling/numbness or lack of feeling, life/death, mortal/immortal, the
actual/the ideal, and separation/connection.

In this ode, Keats focuses on immediate, concrete sensations and emotions,

from which the reader can draw a conclusion or abstraction. Does the experience
which Keats describes change the dreamer? As reader, you must follow the
dreamer's development or his lack of development from his initial response
to the nightingale to his final statement about the experience.

Stanza I.
The poet falls into a reverie while listening to an actual nightingale sing. He
feels joy and pain, an ambivalent response. As you read, pick out which words
express his pleasure and which ones express his pain and which words express
his intense feeling and which his numbed feeling. Consider whether pleasure can
be so intense that, paradoxically, it either numbs us or causes pain.

What qualities does the poet ascribe to the nightingale? In the beginning the
bird is presented as a real bird, but as the poem progresses, the bird becomes
a symbol. As you read the poem, think about what the bird comes to symbolize.
The bird may symbolize more than one thing. Possible meanings include
 pure or unmixed joy,
 the artist, with the bird's voice being self expression or the song being
 the music (beauties) of nature
 the ideal.

Think of the quality or qualities attributed to the nightingale in deciding on the

bird's symbolic meaning.
Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza I

Stanza II.
Wanting to escape from the pain of a joy-pain reality, the poet begins to
move into a world of imagination or fantasy. He calls for wine. His purpose is
clearly not to get drunk. Rather he associates wine with some quality or state he
is seeking. Think about the effects alcohol has; which one or ones is the poet
seeking? Since his goal is to join the bird, what quality or qualities of the bird
does he want to experience? How might alcohol enable him to achieve that

The description of drinking and of the world associated with wine is

idealized. What is the effect of the images associating the wine with summer,
country pleasure, and romantic Provence? The word "vintage" refers to a fine or
prime wine; why does he use this word? (Would the effect differ if the poet-
dreamer imagined drinking a rotgut wine?) Why does Keats describe the country
as "green"? Would the effect be different if the countryside were brown or
yellowed? The activities in line 4 follow one another naturally: dance is
associated with song; together they produce pleasure ("mirth"), which is sunburnt
because the country dances are held outdoors. "Sunburnt mirth" is an excellent
example of synaesthesia in Keats' imagery, since Flora, the green countryside,
etc. are being experienced by Keats through drinking wine in his imagination.

The image of the "beaded bubbles winking at the brim" is much admired.
Does it capture the action of sparkling wine? What sounds are repeated? What is
the effect of this alliteration? Do any of the sounds duplicate the bubbles
breaking? Say the words and notice the action of your lips.

This image of the bubbles is concrete; in contrast, the preceding imagery in

the stanza is abstract. Can you see the difference?

Does the wine resemble the nightingale in being associated with summer,
song, and happpiness?
Click for vocabulary and allusions in stanza II.

Stanza III.
His awareness of the real world pulls him back from the imagined world of
drink-joy. Does he still perceive the real world as a world of joy-pain? Does
thinking of the human condition intensify, diminish, or have no effect on the
poet's desire to escape the world?

The poet uses the word "fade" in the last line of stanza II and in the first line
of this stanza to tie the stanzas together and to move easily into his next thought.
What is the effect of the words "fade" and "dissolve"? why "far away"?

What is the relationship of the bird to the world the poet describes? See line
2. Characterize the real world which the poet describes. By implication, what
kind of world does the nightingale live in? (Is it the same as or different from the

Lead is a heavy metal; why is despair "leaden-eyed" (line 8)?

Stanza IV.
The poet suddenly cries out "Away! away! for I will fly to thee." He turns to
fantasy again; he rejects wine in line 2, and in line 3 he announces he is going to
use "the viewless wings of Poesy" to join a fantasy bird. In choosing Poesy, is he
calling on analytical or scientific reasoning, on poetry and imagination, on
passion, on sensuality, or on some something else?

He contrasts this mode of experience (poetry) to the "dull brain" that

"perplexes and retards" (line 4); what way of approaching life does this line
reject? What kinds of activities is the brain often associated with, in contrast to
the heart, which is associated with emotion?

In line 5, he succeeds or seems to succeed in joining the bird. The imagined

world described in the rest of the stanza is dark; what qualities are associated
with this darkness, e.g., is it frightening, safe, attractive, empty, fulfilling,
sensuous, alive?

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza IV


Stanza V.
Because the poet cannot see in the darkness, he must rely on his other senses.
What senses does he rely on? Are his experience and his sensations intense? for
himself only or for the reader also?
Even in this refuge, death is present; what words hint of death? Do these hints
help to prepare for stanza VI? Was death anticipated in stanza I by the vague
suggestions in the words "Lethe," "hemlock," "drowsy numbness," "poisonous,"
and "shadowy darkness"?
The season is spring (the musk rose, which is a mid-May flower, has not yet
bloomed). Nevertheless, Keats speaks of summer: in stanza one he introduces the
nightingale singing "of summer," and in this stanza he refers to the murmur of
flies "on summer eves." In the progression of the seasons, what changes occur
between spring and summer? how do they differ (as, for instance, autumn brings
fulfillment, harvest, and the beginning of decay which becomes death in winter)?
Why might Keats leap to thoughts of the summer to come?

Click for vocabulary and allusions in stanza V


Stanza VI.
In Stanza VI, the poet begins to distance himself from the nightingale, which
he joined in imagination in stanzas IV and V.

Keats yearns to die, a state which he imagines as only joyful, as pain-free,

and to merge with the bird's song. The nightingale is characterized as wholly
blissful--"full-throated ease" in stanza I and "pouring forth thy soul abroad / In
such an ecstasy!" (lines 7-8).

The mixed nature of reality and its transience are suggested by the contrasting
phrases "fast-fading violets" and "the coming musk-rose."

In the last two lines, the poet no longer identifies with the bird. He realizes
what death means for him; death is not release from pain; rather it means non-
existence, the inability to feel the bird's ecstasy. Is there any suggestion of the
bird's dying or experiencing anything but bliss? Note the contrast between the
bird's singing and the poet's hearing that song; what are the emotional effects of
or associations with "high requiem" and "sod"? Why does Keats now hear the
bird's song as a requiem? (He heard the bird's song very differently earlier in the
poem.) Might the word "still" have more than one meaning here?

Is there any irony in Keats's using the same word to describe both the
nightingale and death--the bird sings with "full-throated ease" at the end of stanza
I and death is "easeful" (line 2 of this stanza)?

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza VI.

Stanza VII.
Keats moves from his awareness of his own mortality in the preceding stanza
to the perception of the bird's immortality. On a literal level, his perception is
wrong; this bird will die. Some readers, including very perceptive ones, see his
chracterization of the bird as immortal as a flaw. Before you make this judgment,
consider alternate interpretations. Interpreting the line literally may be a
misreading, because the bird has clearly become a symbol for the poet.

 Is he saying that the bird he is now hearing is immortal? or is he saying

something else, like "the bird is a symbol of the continuity of nature" or
like "the bird represents the continuing presence of joy in life"? In such a
reading, the poet contrasts the bird's immortality (and continuing joyful
song) with the condition of human beings, "hungry generations."
 Does the bird symbolize ideal beauty, which is immortal? Or is the bird
the visionary or imaginative realm which inspires poets? Or does the bird's
song symbolize poetry and has the passion of the song/poem carried the
listening poet away?
 Has the actual bird been transformed into a myth?
 Does this one bird represent the species, which by continuing generation
after generation does achieve a kind of immortality as a species?
 Is the nightingale not born for death in the sense that, unlike us human
beings, it doesn't know it's going to die? An implication of this reading is
that the bird is integrated into nature or is part of natural processes
whereas we are separated from nature. The resulting ability to observe
nature gives us the ability to appreciate the beauty of nature, however
transitory it--and we--may be.

The poet contrasts the bird's singing and immunity from death and suffering with
human beings, "hungry generations." What is he saying about the human
experience with "hungry"? If you think in terms of the passage of time, what is
the effect of "generations"?

The stanza begins in the poet's present (note the present tense
verbs tread and hear in lines 2 and 3). Keats then makes three references to the
bird's singing in the past; the first reference to emperor and clown is general and
presumably in a historical past; the other two are specific, one from the Old
Testament, the other from fairy tales. The past becomes more remote, ending
with a non-human past and place ("faery lands"), in which no human being is
present. Is Keats trying to limit the meaning of the bird's song with these images
or to extend its meaning? What ideas or aspects of human life do these references
The mixed nature of reality manifests itself in his imagining the nightingale's
joyous song being heard by in the past in the series of three images. Is the
reference to the emperor and clown positive or neutral? The story of Ruth is
unhappy (what words indicate her pain?). In the third image, the "charm'd magic
casements" of fairy are "forlorn" and the seas are "perilous." "Forlorn" and
"perilous" would not ordinarily be associated with magic/enchantment. These
words hint at the pain the poet recognized in the beginning of the poem and is
trying to escape. Does bringing up the idea of pain prepare us or help to prepare
us for the final stanza?

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza VII


Stanza VIII.
The poet repeats the word "forlorn" from the end of stanza VII; who or what
is now forlorn? Is the poet identified with or separate from the nightingale?

In lines 2 and 3, the poet says that "fancy" (imagination) has cheated him, as
has the "elf" (bird). What allusion in the preceding stanza does the word "elf"
suggest? What delusion is the poet awakening from?

The bird has ceased to be a symbol and is again the actual bird the poet heard
in stanza I. The poet, like the nightingale, has returned to the real world. The bird
flies away to another spot to sing. The bird's song becomes a "plaintive anthem"
and fainter. Is the change in the bird, in the poet, or in both? Is Keats's
description of the bird's voice as "buried deep" a reference only to its physical
distance, or does the phrase have an additional meaning? It is the last of the death
images running through the poem.

With the last two lines, the poet wonders whether he has had a true insight or
experience (vision) or whether he has been daydreaming. Is he questioning the
validity of the experience the poem describes, or is he expressing the inability to
maintain an intense, true vision? Of course, the imaginative experience is by its
nature transient or brief. Is his experience a false vision, or is it a true, if
transitory experience of and insight into the nature of reality?

Has the dreamer in this poem changed as a result of his visionary experience?
For instance, has his life been improved in any way? has he been damaged in any
way? (The effect of the dream on the dreamer is a thread that runs throgh Keats's
poems. The life of the dreamer in "La Belle Dame sans Merci" has been
destroyed, and there is a question about the impact of dreaming on Madeline in
"The Eve of St. Agnes.) What does the tone of the ending seem to you, e.g.,
happy, excited, hopeful, depressed, sad, despairing, resigned, accepting?

Does Keats, in this ode, follow the pattern of the romantic ode?

This ode was written in May 1819 and first published in the Annals of the
Fine Arts in July 1819. Interestingly, in both the original draft and in its
first publication, it is titled ‘Ode to the Nightingale’. The title was altered by
Keats’s publishers. Twenty years after the poet’s death, Joseph Severn
painted the famous portrait ‘Keats listening to a nightingale on
Hampstead Heath’.

Critics generally agree that Nightingale was the second of the five ‘great
odes’ of 1819 and its themes are reflected in its ‘twin’ ode, ‘Ode on a
Grecian Urn’. Keats’s friend and roommate, Charles Brown, described the
composition of this beautiful work as follows:

‘In the spring of 1819 a nightingale had built her nest 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 the books. On inquiry, I found these scraps, four
or five in number, contained his poetic feeling on the song of our
nightingale. The writing was not well legible; and it was difficult to arrange
the stanzas on so many scraps. With his assistance I succeeded, and this
was his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem which has been the delight of

Brown’s account was dismissed as ‘pure delusion’ by Charles Wentworth

Dilke, the co-owner of Wentworth Place who visited Brown and Keats
regularly. After reading the above account in Milnes’s 1848 biography of
Keats, Dilke noted in the margin, ‘We do not usually thrust waste paper
behind books’.

It should be noted that Brown wrote his account almost twenty years after
the event. Some critics believe he may have confused the compositions
of ‘Ode on Indolence’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The original manuscript
of ‘Indolence’ is lost and the order of its stanzas remains doubtful (note
Brown’s memory of arranging stanzas.)
The manuscript is actually on two sheets of paper, not ‘four or five’ as
Brown recalled, and the stanzas are in relative order. But the work was
written hastily on scrap paper. It is clear that Keats did not anticipate
writing such a lengthy poem when he took just two sheets of paper into
the garden, – and he did not dare interrupt his writing to fetch more later.

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