Notes for Keats "Ode to a Nightingale"

This is a brief outline of the poem. Use this as a guide.

 "The eve of st. agnes"

Follow-up notes to our class discussions.  Consider this reading.  Feel free to agree/disagree/add your own readings.  One correction for your notes:  The last line of the Spenserian stanza uses a hexameter--or Alexandrine--line.  I gave you the rhyme scheme in class.

One way of reading the poem sees it as validating the visionary imagination that integrates dream and reality, physical and spiritual, moving Porphyro and Madeline to a transcendent reality--"a Shadow of reality to come" (Keats's letter, pg. 966, top)--that will make up our immortal existence.

But reading the poem closely, particularly the core stzs of the poem we read (29-39), we see that this "dream" is not like Adam's dream (same Keats letter).  Madeline is frightened and distraught to find Porphyro in her bed, a carefully plotted "stratagem" (stz 16) of his to be with his lover.

The religious imagery associated with Porphyro (e.g., line 339) seems ironic or to emphasize his romantic/love interests.  Madeline, too, is described as a spirit and angel, but again this use of religious language is used to describe their romantic passion and fitness as lovers.  Consider Madeline's connection to the beadsman, whose ascetic religious rituals emphasize coldness and joylessness.  She, too, desires to enact the ritual of St. Agnes Day, and she is described as "Hoodwink'd with faery fancy" (line 70).

More appropriately, perhaps, Porphyro is associated with magic and sorcery: stzs 14 and 16, his association with Merlin (stz. 19), and his use of an amulet (stz 29), which seems unnecessary if his purpose was noble or saintly.  His actions are also linked to bird hunting or watching; Madeline is associated with "lambs unshorn" (line 71)

Also consider Madeline's reaction to Porphyro after she wakes up--stzs 34-37 (sexual union--Stz 36).  Rather than a transcendent state, a product of the merging of dreaming and reality that has no pain and celebrates romantic love, Madeline fears she will be left to "fade and pine" (line 329), and Porphyro frames the situation of rival families (Romeo and Juliet) and the storm outside as part of a fantasy romance;  together, they can escape from the mansion together.

In the end, the poem suggests that the conflict between dreaming and reality is not about removing or escaping from reality but rather addressing it, that life is a mixture of pain and pleasure that must be faced.  The poem reverses that pattern outlined in Keats's letters:  Instead of a repetition of earthly pleasures (through the creative imagination) that make up our immortal existence, the "Eve" reveals an attempt to enact a repetition of spiritual pleasures that lead to earthly ones.  Dreaming in this sense offers a false promise.  If Porphyro and Madeline are to be truly together, they must do so in the actual world.