Commentary on Keats' Ode to a Nightingale

Commentary on Keats' Ode to a Nightingale - Richard Harter...

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Richard Harter Fogle: is Ode to a Nightingale coherent or escapist? i) Ideal and Real in the Romantic imagination The Nightingale is a Romantic poem of the family of Kubla Khan and The Eve of St. Agnes in that it describes a choice and rare experience, intentionally remote from the commonplace. Nowadays we sometimes underrate the skill required for this sort of thing. The masters of Romantic magic were aware that ecstasy, for example, is not adequately projected by crying, "I am ecstatic!" Keats gets his effects in the Nightingale by framing the consummate moment in oppositions, by consciously emphasizing its brevity; he sets off his ideal by the contrast of the actual. The principal stress of the poem is a struggle between ideal and actual: inclusive terms which, however, contain more particular antitheses of pleasure and pain, of imagination and commonsense reason, of fullness and privation, of permanence and change, of nature and the human, of art and life, freedom and bondage, waking and dream... The felicity which is permanent in the nightingale is transient and therefore excessive in the poet. It is too heavy a burden to be borne more than briefly, and dangerous in its transience. Its attractions make everyday living ugly by contrast. Cleanth Brooks has defined as the theme of the poem "the following paradox: the world of the imagination offers a release from the painful world of actuality, yet at the same time it renders the-world of actuality more painful by contrast." Allen Tate has called the Nightingale "an emblem of one limit of our experience: the impossibility of synthesizing, in the order of experience, the antinomy of the ideal and the real." Both statements strike into the crucial dilemma of the Romantic imagination, a basic donnée of the Romantic poet which he may turn to his advantage or his bane as he is able to cope with it. Good Romantic poems, like Kubla Khan and the Nightingale , define this dilemma, dramatize it, 'and transform it to a source of strength. Such poetry accepts the risk to get at the value, in full awareness of the issues. To affirm either that the difficulty itself is avoidable, or that it could be definitively solved by a properly framed discourse, would be to talk of something other than poetry... (pp 32-33) ii) Does Keats do justice to reality? The fabric of stanza 2 is too fine for common wear, a happiness too great, a conjunction of circumstances impossibly appropriate. The draught of vintage has been "Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth," the quite un-Miltonic fount of the Muses is "the true , the blushful Hippocrene," and the beaker is brim-full, with "purple- stained mouth." Such concentration of effect is probably what Keats had in mind when he advised Shelley to "load every rift with ore." Here it is used to image a Golden Age, before Jove reigned, of fullness, gusto, ease, and freedom. To achieve this ideal, however, the imagination builds upon the finite actual. The passage is deliberately pure and quintessential—the ore has been refined—and in its purity delicately defiant and mirthful.
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