Embalmed darkness: Keats and his nightingale

I’ve been unable to do much of my own reading as I’m busy preparing and teaching new courses at work. But one of the benefits of going back over the English Lit canon to this end is that I’ve revisited some works not looked at for some time.

One recent example: the poetry of Keats. It’s interesting to read it after such a long hiatus. My more youthful self was intoxicated by his…well, intoxicated sensuality. Now I find it sometimes a little overwhelming, maybe even tipping over into indulgence.


Portrait of Keats by William Hilton, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Via Wikimedia Commons

But there are such compensations. At his best he’s surely one of the finest poets in the English language. He only published 54 poems in his lifetime, and died at 25. It’s churlish to find, as I did in the past, a morbid streak in his later work, when he knew, having medical training, that the blood he’d been coughing up was his death sentence.

I’d like to quote the fifth stanza from what is probably his most popular poem – ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. It’s popular for good reasons.

He wrote it in the late spring of 1819 during an astonishing period of creativity in the final two years of his life (he died of tuberculosis in 1821). In the poem he struggles to reconcile conflicting, elusive feelings about imagination, beauty, mortality (the pain and suffering of human existence) and immortality (the beauty of the bird’s spontaneous, natural song).

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, 

         Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, 

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet 

         Wherewith the seasonable month endows 

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 

         White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine; 

                Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves; 

                        And mid-May’s eldest child, 

         The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine, 

                The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 


There’s the impulse to fly away with the bird into the gathering darkness – this is why he can only smell the heady scent of the flowers at his feet, not see them – to transcend – escape – this temporal world – ‘the weariness, the fever and the fret’. His mother, brother and other members of his family had recently died of consumption, brother Tom only a few months earlier, so this line is particularly poignant: it’s the world of pain in which ‘youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.’ This he knew was to be his fate, too.

So the poem is all the more touching and uplifting in that he so painfully honestly persists in his attempts to determine what it is this bird’s song makes him feel, and to reproduce this struggle in his poetry; the toil is therefore doubled. The impulse to escape the world becomes associated with a kind of death-wish – ‘to cease upon the midnight without pain’ is a line that has haunted almost everyone, surely, who’s ever read this poem. ‘Easeful death’ as consummation, in which he and the bird become one. Yet the speaker in the poem knows that the immortal bird will live on, singing, while he is turned to earth, being mortal.

Looking at it again recently I realised it isn’t morbid or self-indulgent. The lush sensuality of the stanza I’ve just quoted shows that he’s only ‘half in love with easeful Death’; the other half is still capable of these transports of ecstasy that make him want to live and feel. The numbing attractiveness of dreaming, of ecstatic transportation into the eternal and ethereal may be ultimately as unsustaining or unrewarding as being bound to the mundane existence in the real world of sensation.

I don’t suppose one understands a poem like this, and what I’ve said so far doesn’t come close to a complete or adequate interpretation; but – to read it is to experience it. Who was it who said ‘A poem should not mean but be’…

All that balm and incense and ‘dewy wine’ (Keats is over-fond of those ‘poeticisms’ of adjectives with their showy ‘-y’ suffixes; he has ‘skiey’ somewhere, even worse than ‘dewy’); it’s an almost sickly, overwhelming sensuality, then, but has its necessary place in this emotional and spiritual drama of consciousness versus imagination, reality v. fantasy. At the end the bird flies off. It isn’t immortal after all; death is an inexorable certaintly. Was all this a vision or a waking dream? It seems nevertheless too potent to dismiss easily. The poem itself is poised between those two possibilities, unresolvable.

I suppose we all are, and that’s why it will always speak to us so beautifully.