“Ode to a Nightingale” and Actual Nightingale Songs

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats contemplates ideas of mortality, immortality, death, and nature through a nightingale. Like Shelley’s poem dedicated to a skylark, the bird itself is not described visually, and both poems have parts where they focus on the birds’ songs. Keats’ Ode is very musical. The stanzas are all structured through an ABABCDECDE rhyme scheme, and the lines alternate between long and short. The effect is a lyrical poem that gives the reader an impression of a call and response, even as about halfway through the poem, the topic shifts to the nightingale’s blissful ignorance of the effects of death. The nightingale has never known the space “where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies.” The bird can fly away, unburdened by a knowledge or fear of death and its imminence. The narrator is very aware of death, saying he himself has been “half in love with easeful Death,” but he appears jealous of the bird, calling it “immortal” and desiring to fly away and meet the nightingale.

On a lighter note, the musicality of the poem gave me the wrong idea of a nightingale’s song. I thought this was perhaps how a nightingale sounded, that it might sound like a call and response or at least lilting and beautiful, so I looked up some videos. In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHclIUjWUiI) the nightingale has that back and forth, call and response type of song that I expected. However, the first video I watched (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XdlIbNrki5o) gave me a very different listening experience. I could not see at all how Keats thought his poem was mimicking this sound, nor why he would want to, and Wikipedia describes nightingales as having a “frog-like alarm call,” which I found accurate to some of the sounds the bird made here.

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