Ode to a Nightingale

"Ode to a Nightingale" by John Keats © Barb Sligl
Spring rumination: a robin's nest, old book of Keats' poetry and "Ode to a Nightingale"

There’s a robin’s nest just outside my window. The red-breasted mama bird flits in the bushes and hops around my patio with squiggling worms clasped in her beak. I peek through the glass to see if she’s there, tending to her babies. I’ve even glimpsed three little heads outstretched, beaks agape, awaiting mom’s squirming gifts. Sometimes I hear the babes’ tiny squawks or their mother’s song. It makes my heart swell.

In the midst of my anxious eavesdropping on the robin (I so worry about the mischievous cat next door…), I happened to glance at my pile of books (my tsundoku!) and pick up a worn copy of a collection of John Keats’ poems. I found this second-hand volume of work by the English Romantic poet at a consignment bookstore in Hay-on-Wye, Wales (home of the famous literary gathering, the Hay Festival, coming up soon), and can’t say I’ve cracked its spine since. And yet something compelled me to open it up…and it opened to “Ode to a Nightingale.”

My second-hand collection of Keats’ poetry © Barb Sligl

Life’s full of such odd, serendipitous coincidences. I read the poem on the spot and smiled. Here’s the first stanza:

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains

My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:

‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,

But being too happy in thine happiness,—

That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees

In some melodious plot

Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,

Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

There’s sadness coupled with joy, wonder tempered by a tragic quality, a sense of something both infinite yet fleeting. And while there’s an old-fashioned sentimentality (Keats wrote this in the early 1800s) the words still read true and relevant. At least to this reader (read the full poem here).

Each time I go check on the robin’s nest and see it without mama bird, I think…Where is she? Did something happen? Where’s that cat? Please come back!

Nature is a study in contrast—light and dark, birth and death, yin and yang. How many birds have come and gone, sang and been silent since Keats wrote his “Ode to a Nightingale”? He himself died at the far-too-soon age of 25 (another story to muse about; meanwhile, here’s more on the poet).

But in his short life he left a string of verse that far outlasts him (and his nightingale), including a group of five odes revered as some of the greatest short poems in the English language. “Ode to a Nightingale” is described as “…a troubled meditation, one of the richest and most compressed in English poetry, on the power of human imagination to meet joy in the world and transform the soul.”

And all inspired by a bird. Φ

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