“Already with thee!”: Keats’s “Negative Capability” and “Ode to a Nightingale”

In less than ten words, we can define John Keats’s concept of “negative capability” as “the ability to dwell on or with uncertainty.” In an 1817 letter to his brothers, Keats described negative capability as essential to “a Man of Achievement especially in Literature” (Keats 492): in order for a poet to “perceiv[e] reality in all its manifold complexity,” he or she must “remain open-minded…to embrace the unsure and ambiguous, to avoid the temptation to rationalize all uncertainties, to negate one’s own personality and prejudices” (Bedford Glossary of Literary and Critical Terms 332). Hence, the word “negative.”

For an example of negative capability at work, look no further than stanza four of Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” a poem written in 1819 and published in 1820. The poem’s speaker describes his wish to “fly” (31), or imaginatively transport himself to the nightingale, rejecting his previous discussion of using alcohol (“Bacchus and his pards” (32)) as his means of doing so. Instead, the speaker declares that the “viewless wings of Poesy” will be the vehicle of his transcendence (33). Allowing “Poesy” the imaginative power to carry out this task (despite the interference of his “dull brain” that “perplexes and retards” him through its tendency toward thought and rhetorical argumentation  (34)), the speaker comes to the realization that he is, in fact,  “Already with [the nightingale]” (35). Though he begins the stanza desiring to “fly” to the nightingale, he ultimately realizes that his imaginative engagement with it through poetry demonstrates that he is “[A]lready with [it].” Once he can identify his “dull brain” as an impediment to his perception of reality “in all of its manifold complexity,” the speaker demonstrates “negative capability”–the ability to simply perceive and experience (in this case, desire), rather than pursue some fulfillment of (and thus, end to) it.

I previously uploaded a recording of “Ode to a Nightingale” performed by actor Ben Whishaw, who played John Keats in Jane Campion’s 2009 Bright Star, but it was taken down for copyright reasons. You can still find it on iTunes, and I highly recommend it. Whishaw is a fantastic Keats. In its place I’ve uploaded a recording of Benedict Cumberbatch’s recitation of the poem. While listening to it, consider the following: do you agree with my interpretation of these lines? Where else in the poem do we find evidence of negative capability? Does the speaker entirely abandon “fact and reason” in favor of “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts” (Keats 492)? What observations do you have about Cumberbatch’s performance of the poem in relation to the poem’s content? Did you notice something when he read it that you had not noticed when reading? Are there any lines that he either delivers really well, or ones that you think are totally wrong in his interpretation?

Additionally, I have also uploaded an audio clip from the movie in which Whishaw as Keats explains a bit of his poetic philosophy.

Full text of the poem here (the numbers are line numbers):

“Ode to a Nightingale”

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, 5
But being too happy in thine happiness,
That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10

O for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South! 15
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stainèd mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 20

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 30

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night, 35
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways. 40

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 45
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. 50

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a musèd rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 55
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod. 60

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path 65
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 70

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 75
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep? 80


Griffin, Andrew. “Sonnets.” UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA. 4 October 2012.

Keats, John. Complete Poems and Selected Letters of John Keats. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Murfin, Ross C., and Supryia M. Ray. The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.

45 Comments Add yours

  1. I do realize the use of “Negative Capability” in “Ode to Nightingale”
    Negative Capability is the capacity of poet to keep himself away from the hold of irritable reaching after fact and reason.
    Throughout the piece, Keats illustrates his attempt to “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” the brutalities that are associated with the the world surrounding him (line 21). Though he recognizes the inevitability of death and suffering in the world, Keats continuously seeks dwell in his own transient sphere through drugs and self expression so that he can somehow escape the dreadfulness of life itself. The negative capability in this poem is apparent in the sense that Keats is attempting to flee from the uncertainty of life by all means through the use of drugs and alcohol and also to the point where he can longer distinguish his own reality.
    His use of negative capability allows the poem to speak for itself. While he desires to fly with the Nightingale and escape reality, he knows that it cannot truly happen. His realization of this leads him to believe that he is already with the nightingale imaginatively and he is satisfy with that.

  2. nessarae93 says:

    The recording of “Ode to Nightingale,” performed by Ben Whishaw did a great job of creating the epitome of negative capability in transcending the listener above the mundane, depressing world Keats describes. Like a bird, I felt almost in a trance soaring through an illuminated world of tranqulity while escaping the cage of a grounded, beauty-sucking world. The beautiful songbirds playing then ceasing abrubtly creates a flight simulation that correlates to the mind of Keats. His mind rises like the immortal Bird he gives a deity-like title to, then falls to the harsh reality of the woeful sorrows humans must walk in.

  3. I agree with many of the previous comments all focusing on Keat’s tone and specific word choice. From the beginning of “Ode to a Nightingale,” it is clear that the speaker is feeling both joy and pain. Stanza 1 opens up with both emotions of pain and pleasure. Similarly, as the bird is first depicted as a real-life animal, as the work progresses, the bird is then transformed into a symbol moreso than the original, palpable thing. The paradoxical, morphed language and images seem to parallel the idea of negative capability. Just as the tone and bird are transformed into ambiguous subjects, the poet is open-minded and embracing reality’s many complexities.

  4. lucascohen says:

    Rather surprisingly, Ben Whishaw recited this poem almost exactly as I read it in my mind. A bit more dreamy in tone, perhaps, yet the feeling of lazy emotion, almost caring enough to speak with real emotion, but not quite, was exactly how I read it. Keats’ musings are captivating only because we have all experienced them at one point or another.

    His experience with negative capability, of settling for an imaginary experience instead of dreaming for the real experience, is one I am quite familiar with. We all wish we could fly wistfully through a forest like a nightingale, leaving our earthly cares behind, but since this is quite decidely impossible, the imaginary experience, whether through dreams, literature, or today through other forms of media like movies and television, has to be enough.

  5. seswanson says:

    I find it very interesting how Keats uses beautiful nature and often dream-like images throughout the poem, yet uses them in talking about very morbid and serious issues. This creates a contrast within the poem which allows us a further explanation of Keats’ emotional state. In the second stanza Keats gives a beautiful description of the “South” and nature and how he longs to be there, yet at the end of the stanza when he realizes he cannot, his solution is just to drink and not see the world at all and “fade away into the forest dim” (20). Here we see a strong contrast between “the warm South,” (15) Keats’ fantasy and the “forest dim” which represents Keats’ reality. This is one of the few times we see him giving a negative description of nature. He uses these images in connection with nostalgia in order to express that his unhappiness and aching heart are due to his inability to have these beautiful things that he longs for. The dream-like imagery even suggests nostalgia directly and in the poem Keats states that he cannot tell whether he is dreaming or awake: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?” (79).

  6. In Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” I found the realization the narrator comes to about death and what comes after it is displayed through his accepting that there is no true way to know to be an excellent example of negative capability. This negative capability allows Keats to live and love life in ignorance of the afterlife mush as the nightingale does. I found that the bird was an example of, not only negative capability but, a much more simple species that does not consider such things. The beautiful song that this bird produces brings Keats to the realization that living in ignorance without discomfort is liberating and beautiful. As the bird leaves and the song becomes fainter I view this as Keats releasing the worry and mystery that surrounds his concerns and thoughts about what comes after you die.

  7. charisbrooke says:

    It becomes apparent right away in “Ode to a Nightingale” that Keats may be experiencing pain so deep that he does not want to face his distressing circumstances that make him feel as if “hemlock [he] had drunk” (2). When the author takes note of a blissful nightingale in his vicinity, the poem begins to exhibit negative capability through the meandering of ideas that vary from the carefree life of a nightingale to the resigned thoughts of death of a worn-down adult. The author describes the joy of the nightingale as having “full-throated ease” (10) and then consequently describes death, a usually uncomfortable and dark subject, as equally “easeful” (52). As the reader I noticed that by noting two seemingly opposite ideals of lively bliss and mysterious death Keats meanders through his thoughts of life and death quite aimlessly, as if he doesn’t really need to find an answer. However, by taking into account the melancholy tone of the poem and Keats’ references to “drowsy numbness pains” (1) and “leaden-eyed despairs” (28), it seems Keats’ pondering may be his escapism from the sorrowful, dark world around him.

  8. cdmilinovich says:

    I am personally strongly affected by music and the ability is has to set the tone of a scenario. For example, if a film has what appears to be a happy scene, if a sad song is playing, I am more likely to pay attention to the music. In the video, the music stops at line 25 and then a more somber song begins to play. This makes the poem much more melancholy, which causes it to develop deeper meaning for me. This stanza (stanza 3) is also another example of negative capability. Keats explains that the men gather together to experience the darkness and sadness of death, but do not seek to find an explanation for the meaning of it. Although the men “groan”, they do not outwardly discuss death.

  9. emilychild1 says:

    I agree with the other comments regarding emphasis of tone in Ben Wishaw’s reading of the poem. He seems distant and melancholy, which reinforces his feelings towards life and how he desires to “fade far away”, which he attempts to do through drugs and alcohol. However, it is clear that throughout the poem he goes through a personal journey that ultimately results in personal growth. This outcome is brought about partially through the use of negative capability, which allows him to experience a more pleasurable relationship with reality and prevent him from only living inside his head. After the nightingale flies away and he can no longer hear its song, he asks: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music- do I wake or sleep? (79-80). These last two lines conclude the poem without a distinct resolution, which is part of the beauty of the poem. It leaves open for interpretation the ultimate effect of the interaction with the nightingale but also hints towards the transformation.

  10. akazan07 says:

    I agree particularly with your interpretation of Keats’ poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” that the speaker realizes poetry will bring his mind above the limitations humans are born with in experiencing the world. Negative capability is seen in the last stanza when the speaker questions the truth in reality and whether or not he should “wake or sleep” (Keats). The speaker does not entirely abandon logic and rational thought in order to dwell on the enigmas of life. While at first he may begin down that path by exploring mind-altering substances, in the end he realizes he can achieve the same thought processes through poetry rather than drugs. Whishaw attempts to portray the poem in a melancholic and overly dramatic way through his tone of voice. This poem does not necessarily have a melancholic tone, but rather it has a sense of an apathetic, existential crisis that the speaker undergoes.

  11. do7mike23 says:

    When reading the poem, I absolutely loved the way that the tone and imagery worked together to create such a comforting, dream-like environment in which the poem’s setting takes place. The use of negative capability in the fourth stanza enhances the dreaminess of the poem. The use of the words “night”, “heaven” and “Queen-Moon” create a pleasant, romantic love scene in the twilight part of the night. Along with the flowery imagery in the next stanza, including the phrases “Fast-fading violets”, and “mid-May’s eldest child”, the comfort level and romantic feel is even more accentuated.

    1. briannamyers says:

      I also enjoyed Ben Whishaw’s reading, it gave the poem more depth, and his tone and inflections during the reading changed some of the meanings I had interpreted on my own. It almost changes this from a poem of hopelessness and despair into one of deeper understanding of the subject, or Keats desire. The soft tones of musical accompaniment lends to the thought that Keats is not bitter about being drowned in a desire that takes over his entire being, but rather is thankful for it, as love is a wonderment of the mind, and he fully embraces all his mind has to offer his existence, even knowing that his mind is imperfect and at times not the sharpest part of him. Keats is at peace with his love, as is seen in his lack of concern about giving in to the love to the point that it kills him. That being said, I do see the “negative capability” of the poem, in that Keats does not mention how he wishes to sate his desire, but rather is content to simply live in this all consuming state of desire.

  12. suschang says:

    I generally agree with the video’s interpretation of the poem, because the music parallels the nature references and the actor’s tone mirrors the tone and intent of the speaker. In line 6, the speaker claims to be “too happy,” but this contrasts his wishes to die. He would rather “fade far away,” into uncertainty and death, than enjoy his happiness, showcasing “negative capability.” The speaker eventually arrives to the conclusion that he is uncertain and consumed by doubts that leave him wondering whether he was dreaming or not. Overall, the entire poem is about negative capability. The speaker’s diction (“might,” “as though,” etc) combined with paradoxes creates an uncertain mood that emphasizes the negative capability. Exclamation points are used to highlight the speaker’s frustration; however, the actor’s performance ignores those punctuations and loses the passion of the poem. For that reason, the actor’s rendition is nothing more than average. The music, unlike the actor, captures the intensity of the poem through silence, enhancing the audience’s experience.

  13. pchangala says:

    Keats exemplifies negative capability throughout his poem in his engaging, fantastical but often morose tone that transports the reader to a hazy reality as if constantly existing in a lucid dream. Stanza 6 best demonstrates the range of Keats’ tone and his explanation for his wondering state. Keats’ also demonstrates his sense of understanding by weaving together his understanding of the divine and debaucheries from his employment of the Biblical story of Ruth in line 67 to his reference of the follies of Bacchus (line 32). I find Mary Jane’s analysis of the poem very telling in Keats’ use of negative capability.Truly the poem fluctuates between rhyme and reason and concludes with a greater declaration of negative capibility in Keats’ final lines (79-80): “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
    Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?”

  14. samhumy says:

    It is amusing to note that despite the fact that Keats greatly values negative capability, he still alludes to the story of Ruth from the Old Testament in lines 65-70. Negative capability describes the ability to accept the unknown and understand its beauty. However, religion itself is a grasp at answers and a cry of fear at the unknown. In referencing the bible, Keats is actively participating in the type of thinking that he is so adverse to. This reference to Christianity and the bible is no surprise as nearly every writer of Keats’ time and many writers in general do this, but it is nonetheless interesting to observe.

  15. luis1204 says:

    In “Ode to a Nightingale” John Keats was able to delve into these deep, dark questions regarding death and the afterlife and accept the fact that the questions might be unanswerable. In doing so, Keats demonstrates the negative capability technique as he digs into his fears about his own mortality which can be witnessed in the final line when he asks whether he should “wake or sleep?” Throughout the poem he tries to escape his fears, but keeps returning back into anxiety. He tries alcohol and drugs, escaping in nature, and ultimately concludes that death is the only escape. Keats never really finds a satisfying answer to his depressing situation and this is why “Ode to a Nightingale” is a perfect example of negative capability.

  16. alexiskopp14 says:

    While listening to Whishaw recite “Ode to a Nightingale”, rather than individual words striking me, his tone of overwhelming melancholic desire was very apparent and the music that accompanied the poem was also very moving. Although words primarily make up a poem, it is the feeling that a reader gets when reading a poem that largely contributes to a person’s interpretation of it. The tone and music made this poem really come alive and appeal to a reader’s emotions and connections to the person’s battle with his feelings about life, death, and desire.
    I really like how Keats makes the readers interpret a lot of the poem for themselves, and doesn’t clearly say what he means. His use of negative capability allows the poem to speak for itself. While he desires to fly with the Nightingale and escape reality, he knows that cannot truly happen. His realization of this leads him to believe that he is already with the nightingale imaginatively and he is content with that.

  17. jessicanmeza says:

    In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats uses the idea of negative capability to delve into the idea of death and what comes after. The performance really helps assert the imagery in the poem of the nightingale singing because it clues the reader in on when the speaker is facing reality and when he is entering the realm of uncertainty. I agree with your interpretation of the poem’s lines, but I don’t think the speaker entirely abandons fact and reason for uncertainty and the unknown because he, frankly, isn’t able to.

    Although he cannot escape from his dreary life, he attempts to through drugs and alcohol. At the end of the poem, he asks a question: “…Do I wake or do I sleep?” and even in the end he doesn’t answer this question, showing that he is happy with not knowing all the answers.

  18. ardriller says:

    I most recognized negative capability in the last stanza. The nightingale flies away and its song becomes more and more faint (75). As the song ceases, Keats begins to question if he even heard the song in the first place. He is uncertain if the nightingale and its song “was it a vision, or a waking dream”. This demonstrates negative capability because he has “the ability to simply perceive and experience” the nightingales song, whether he was awake or asleep.

  19. chrismkeane says:

    I agree with your interpretation of the lines! I also think this poem is an example of negative capability because it shows the reader that Keat desires without having any intention of capturing what he ultimelty wants( to be happy). Keat is fine with just imaging what life would be like as a nightingale. The poem ends with an acceptance that his pleasure cannot last forever and the idea that death is inevitable, does anyone have an idea to what Keat is trying to tell us by ending his literary work as he did? I do not know the answer to that question and would enjoy someone’s interpretation. I also thought that the poem strayed from its main idea a few times and therefore took away from the overall effectiveness, just a thought though.

  20. phinious says:

    Yes I agree that stanza 4 shows negative capability. He is entranced by the nightingale’s song and desperately wants to be with it. But then he realizes that he is already with the nightingale just by being in a certain state of mind. He doesn’t need to fly to it any more. It also reflects one of the audio files posted where he talks about the purpose of jumping into a lake as not to immediately swim to the shore but to just be in the water and to enjoy it. So in this stanza he realizes that he can just enjoy the song of the nightingale in order to be with in and does not have to actively pursue it.

    I also feel like his tone changes after he realizes this. When he is wanting to go to the nightingale he is more joyful but that changes after he realizes he is already with the nightingale.

  21. I believe that Keats’s use of negative capability is to express his desire to abandon the restrictive condition that all humans are predisposed to and to tap into the ability to free ourselves from narrow minded perceptions. Keats wishes to be free like the nightingale and interpret the world in a way that he is not currently able to do. Although he recognizes these limitations to see clearly and can see a tangible solution, he is still not able to rid himself of these prejudices and therefore seeks freedom from his limitations through an external substance (lines 10-20 when he describes the perfect wine). He wishes to embrace the pleasures that come with unbound freedom of experience, but is restricted because the “dull brain perplexes and retards”. He also seems to emphasize the fact that he is not alone in these feelings and that the cruelties of the world that he has experienced are timeless and universal to all (lines 60-65).

  22. maxinegarcia says:

    There is a noticeable shift in the speaker’s paradigm in “Ode to a Nightingale”, in which Keats displays an understanding of the transience of life through observing a nightingale. The speaker’s original reliance on self-medicating with alcohol (lines 20-24) is indicative of his inability to cope with the complexities of reality, while still angry at himself and the “lethe-wards” for finding happiness through lethargic oblivion. At one point, the speaker even daydreams of the richness of “easeful Death” (52), which makes clear how deeply disturbed the irrationality of reality has made him. However, the speaker’s desire to fly “away” (31) to be with the nightingale is satiated when he realizes through poetry he can live with the uncertainty and ambiguity, and therefore, I agree that Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” very well demonstrates negative capability.

  23. mrdgz24 says:

    The speaker’s realization that he is already with the nightingale is essential in understanding the negative capability in other parts of the poem. At the end of Stanza 5, the speaker is enthralled by the smells and sounds of the world. In Stanza 6, his mood shifts as he listens to the dark and relate this to experience inevitable death:

    He calls Death easeful and thinks that death would not be such a dramatic and painful experience. Rather than fearing the emptiness and nothingness of Death, the speaker treats Death lightly and calls him “To take into the air [his] quiet breath” (54). The negative capability in this stanza is revealed in the remaining lines of the stanza:

    “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 55

    To cease upon the midnight with no pain,

    While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad

    In such an ecstasy!

    Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—

    To thy high requiem become a sod.” 60

    “Now,” in his world with the nightingale, the speaker thinks Death would be a rich and filling experience. He realizes that his imaginative experience is meaningful and transcends it to reality, saying that while Death takes his soul, the birds will still sing and he will still have “vain” ears to listen to the bird’s “high requiem” (60).

    It’s for this experience, that Keats has not abandoned fact and reason. The fear Death is of its emptiness, which is the opposite of what the speaker describes it to be. His thoughts and perceptions of Death at this point are unaffected by his uncertainty of being in the imaginative world or real world.

  24. In “Ode to Nightingale,” the speaker demonstrates negative capability by contemplating the act of simply experiencing the world. I agree with your interpretation of these lines, but the speaker also demonstrates this with lines 10-20, when he speaks of taking his own life and his desire to “fade away” into nature. To fade away is to escape the worries and complications of living in “reality.” As seen in the final lines of the poem, the speaker does not abandon reason entirely. He looks back on the things he has seen and questions whether it was real or just a dream.

  25. nateho1991 says:

    John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” was performed brilliantly by Ben Whishaw. The tone Whishaw uses is similar to how I imagined the poem would sound. Whishaw uses a sort of playful tone to express the poem’s message.

    Throughout the poem, Keats’ is infatuated by a nightingale’s song, and seems lost in its beauty. Because of this, Keats has abandoned “fact and reason” in favor of “uncertainties, mysteries, [and] doubts” (Keats 492). He even talks about dying, as if it is not something he fears, but rather he is “half in love” with the notion of death. I would say someone who encourages death when he is in such a lovely mood is someone who has abandoned “fact and reason.” However, he does come to his senses shortly after when he realizes he is fancying death. Then he quickly jumps back to “uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts” when he cannot tell reality from fiction; which tends to make me wonder if he was actually on drugs throughout the poem.

  26. tmdenton says:

    To me, this poem demonstrates Keats’ use of negative capability to explore the elusive nature of sensory experiences. This concept is perfectly summed up in the poem’s closing lines: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream?/ Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?” (79, 80). The nightingale’s song leads Keats to figuratively fly into the forest away from “Where youth grows pale” (26). Yet, it disappears as suddenly as it had been detected. A passing flight of fancy? A profound sensory phenomena? A serious meditation on transcendence sparked by the beauty of a nightingale’s song? These questions are not altogether uncommon when one returns to tangible reality from a mind sent wandering. Keats dwells in the sober reality of negative capability, and as such, does not attempt to answer these questions. Rather, he sits with them and acknowledges their existence throughout the endless history of humankind.

  27. jennykiyama says:

    Before really delving into “Ode to Nightingale,” my thoughts on how poets use negative capability were unclear. However, Keats clearly expresses that negative capability is when a poet or speaker has the capability to express their feelings of doubt, anxiety, or even a sense of questionability without seeking to find answers. I think in “Ode to Nightingale,” Keats expands on the idea of negative capability also in the third stanza because he is able to delve into the uncertainty, obscurity, and darkness of death and the afterlife knowing that his fears and questions may not be answered or alleviated. In the last stanza of “Ode to Nightingale,” Keats begins to come back to reality as the music of the nightingale fades. After “fad[ing] far away,” (21) from previously taking drugs and facing a “drowsy numbness” (1), Keats forgets whether he is awake or asleep and if that was just a dream or reality, “was it a vision, or a waking dream?” (79). I agree with you Mary Jane, that Keats utilizes negative capability in this poem because he is able find acceptance with the fact that death is ultimately an inevitable part of life. He is truly able to, as you said, simply perceive and experience the mystery of death without necessarily seeking answers or solutions. Ultimately, Keats demonstrates the concept of negative capability as a way to avoid the need and desire to justify all uncertainties.

  28. lucasgigena says:

    It seems to me that while the speaker in this poem is essentially admiring the nightingale and its detachment from the problems of mankind, he or she is also expressing a thinly veiled bitterness toward this detachment throughout the work. When he or she writes of the immortality of the nightingale’s song, how “The voice I heard this passing night was heard/In ancient days by emperor and clown,” it seems to be with both wonder and jealousy. Specifically, I feel as if this jealousy is directed towards the fact that although the problems that plague the narrator lead him or her to self-destruction, the nightingale’s song has been present during the similar struggles of hundreds or thousands of other people, “by emperor and clown,” which is something that the narrator believes renders his or her struggles, which seem incredibly complex, insignificant in the grand scheme of humanity.

  29. kielyford says:

    I really enjoyed Ben Wishaw’s reading of the poem. His somber tone gave a sort of numb feeling that Keats, himself, is describing in the poem. Wishaw’s reading of the poem helps bring attention to how Keats wants to lose himself, “Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” by using different types of drugs to numb his brain and carry his mind somewhere far away from reality(21). Negative capability is then easily seen in the fact that he is losing touch with the constraints of reality and opening his mind to all the possibilities of the imagination. At the end of the poem where Keats asks “do I wake or sleep” makes me believe that he is seeing the world in a different way after diving into his imagination because he can now see all the sides of reality because he broke down the walls in his mind that where holding him back from experiencing it all (80).

    1. elydston says:

      I agree that the somber tone of the speaker in the video clip is well suited to the uncertainty of the poem. However, I interpreted negative capability not as a separation from reality, but a connection with it. The poem does describe flying “away! Away!” which insinuates a disconnect between the speaker and his or her own reality, but I would interpret this as the speaker’s way of releasing strict prejudices in order to accept new truths, rather than fleeing from reality as a whole (line 31). The uncertainty remains in the poem through the final like, “do I wake or do I sleep,” but I chose to interpret this as the uncertainty of a man experiencing the very real confusion of the world, rather than delving into his own imagination for answer.

    2. tfung116 says:

      The reading of the poem helped reinforce the gloominess of the poem that I did not clearly perceive when I read it myself. In the poem, Keats expresses a strong desire to flee from the world of problems and explores this concept throughout the poem. He is in a dream-like state until the very last stanza. There, he comes to a realization that the world he wants to escape is inescapable. Though he knows this, he is still uncertain of what to do. Should he continue this desire and dream of false hope knowing that it impossible or should he accept it and be miserable?

  30. My first reading of “Ode to a Nightingale” was forgettable. However, upon returning to it, lines 5-10 shone through as a prime example of the escapism and Keats’ desire to find something in his life worth experiencing and remembering instead of simply waiting for the “easeful Death” carried in a “mused rhyme.”

    “‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot, 5
    But being too happy in thine happiness,
    That thou, light-wingèd Dryad of the trees,
    In some melodious plot
    Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
    Singest of summer in full-throated ease. 10”

    In the Nightingale, Keats finds a creature that seems to have life figured out. Much like the example in the second clip of the lake, in which the idea is to float on experiences rather than swim to shore and safety, the “Dyrad” obtains and a sustained happiness through its surroundings and experiences and not its “happy lot.”

    In line 10, summer represents the season in which Keats hopes to find “happiness in [his own] happiness.” Throughout the poem, a melancholic tone carries Keats’ mental journey from states of self-induced disillusionment via alcohol and opiates, to a state of near euphoria when he finally “flys” to the Nightingale. In lines 60-70, Keats demonstrates his negative capability through stating that the Nightingale’s song has been heard and interpreted independently throughout history.

  31. krawfish says:

    I really enjoy the way Keats demonstrates the usage of negative capability rather than telling us, the readers, what we should do. Personally, I believe that negative capability is essential for everyone so that we are exposed to more different, though maybe less believable, ideas. Therefore, it was compelling to me how in lines 21-27, Keats seems to be describing the negative aspects of the world- how everything dies off, or the pains of laziness and the stresses of life- and shows us of escaping to a world that was much different. This escape would not be possible if we were merely rejecting the idea that such a world exists, and, as mentioned above, Keats shows in line 32 of not using alcohol to reach the nightingale.

    Lines 51-55 really called out to me, as Keats describes his being “half in love with an easeful death”. He describes there never being a better time to die (line 55), and that is when the narrator had reached the nightingale and was not in a world he did not like, but instead somewhere where he/she felt comfortable with dying. Dying itself is a uncomfortable subject, and for the speaker to be “half in love” with it and even knowing where they would want to die stirs a mixture of understanding yet melancholy feeling. As the reader, I almost feel sorry that the speaker feels this way, had it not been that I can understand this feeling as well.

  32. thejkwan says:

    I really enjoyed Ben Whishaw’s performance of “Ode to a Nightingale”. It helped to reinforce my own interpretation of the narrator’s melancholic tone. However, what struck me the most about the performance was actually the music that accompanied the poem. The music stops briefly in two parts of the poem:

    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
    And leaden-eyed despairs;

    Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
    To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

    In lines 24-28, the music disappears, emphasizing the hopelessness of the third stanza which in turn would explain his desire to “fade far away”. The second pause in the music occurs in the last stanza on lines 71-72 pinpointing the transition of the speaker’s dream-like state back to normal. However, the music begins playing again and the speaker is once again unsure of his conscious state.

    1. I noticed this as well, it was probably the only insightful thought I had about this poem. I’ve read it quite a few times but there are large parts that I’m still having difficulty with.

      It appears that Keats associates the nightengale’s song with immortality and everyday life with boredom and decay. This is the part of the linked video where the music stops as well. But he also appears to desire death, thinking that it will be a better, more dreamlike way to experience the nightengale’s beauty. So possibly in this sense negative capability refers to a state of unconsciousness in which one can appreciate something without judging it.

      I noticed the poem has some overlapping themes with Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium as well. Both connect an immortal beauty to a birdsong and attempt to inhabit it to escape the mundane world around them; the difference being, Yeats wishes to metaphorically become the bird itself and Keats only wishes to join it (and recognizes his inability to do so).

      1. oh also, I had a difficult time understanding if negative capability would relate to the sublime at all. They seem like similar ideas, because they both deal with the experience of humbly accepting an inability to describe the unknowable. Would Keats reject the process of naming and categorizing the sublime as 18th century philosophers did?

  33. fw221b says:

    Ben Whishaw’s reading of the poem gave it a sort of dream-like tone that I don’t think I really got from reading it on my own. Neither quite here, nor there, it feels as though the speaker is at an in-between, going from facing the harsh truths of reality to simply living for the sake of living. I absolutely adore the idea of going into a situation which is completely foreign and simply taking things as they are rather than trying to force reason, meaning and rationale behind every uncertainty. In the supplemental video where he says “The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake” is just so beautifully elucidated, and is reflected in “Ode to a Nightingale” itself in the line “Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!” (61). Through this the speaker is expressing how living beings are not born for the sole purpose of dying; we must not look to the final outcome, but rather focus on the bit in the middle – the period where we are actually meant to live life for the sake of living life and enjoy and experience it rather than looking for the rhyme and reason for a specific outcome.

    In fact, even during the first half of the poem where the speaker is strung up on the desire and prospect of alcohol, though we know he has a specific outcome in mind, the way he describes it, he’s not necessarily entirely focused on being able to forget and drown himself in the stuff, but rather he delves deeper into the drinks themselves – the way they are, the way they make him feel, their aroma, their warmth – almost as though the drinks are living themselves. So I don’t think the speaker necessarily entirely abandons “fact and reason” for uncertainty, but rather he shifts his perception of what he finds to be important. Rather than wallowing in pity for one’s life as it draws down, he embraces the place he is in now and takes it as it is instead of jumping straight to the end line. And with the line “do I wake or sleep?” I find him just letting go and officially immersing himself in this concept of not caring about the end, but solely focusing on the present moment – no matter how mysterious or uncertain it may be (80).

  34. The speaker in Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” so clearly hates the state of the world he lives in. His description between lines 24 and 30 paints a very dreary picture of what he has to see every day:

    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
    And leaden-eyed despairs;
    Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 30

    He wants to fly with the Nightingale, to be free and liberated from his sad, crushing existence. He considers the use of substances to achieve the feeling, so essentially he considers burying his pain in alcohol, but he decides he’d rather do so through thought and imagination.

    This poem is a strong example of negative capability as it presents a desire without any intention of truly realizing it. The speaker is content to ponder what life as a nightingale would be like for him. He wants to escape his miserable life while accepting its inescapability.

  35. sbreyfogle says:

    I believe that Keats’s poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” is primarily about how Keats discovers poetry as a viable means of creative expression and how poetry enables him to experience escapism from the harshness of life that exists around him. Before finding poetry, Keats tries various mind altering substances to try to experience escapism. In the third stanza, he describes how using drugs would “numb” him to the misery around him :

    Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
    What thou among the leaves hast never known,
    The weariness, the fever, and the fret
    Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
    Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, 25
    Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
    Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
    And leaden-eyed despairs;
    Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
    Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow. 30

    But then, in stanza 4, he does away with the booze and beautifully uses the symbolism of a nightingale to espouse poetry as the most fulfilling way for him to experience creative expression. Simultaneously, the release that his poetry gives him allows him to cope with the misery he sees around himself.

    As a note, nightingales are birds renown for their apparent creativity and wide variety of song. Poets reportedly often use them to represent poetry and the genesis of creative expression, as Keats does in this poem. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Nightingale)

    Now, to answer the prompt. From my understanding, negative capability simply entails entails having the capacity to be comfortable ruminating on an issue without concern of finding a solution. In this poem, Keats is distressed about coping with the misery around him and wants to find a means to do so. After some experimentation, he does reach a viable answer for his search for a meaning outlet – poetry. Although my understanding of this term may be incomplete, I believe that this poem is a poor example of negative capability because Keats finds an answer to his quandary.

  36. ahushjoy says:

    The speaker speaks in a resigned manner as if he has began to realize the painful nature of the present, demonstrated by the description of the afflictions that exemplify the transient nature of life (lines 25-29). Through various drugs he attempts to find a means of escape to this ethereal realm that seems to embody what he craves. Here in this world the speaker is able to experience the senses in a way where the sensations themselves are more important than attempting to rationalize what is happening. As he awakes seems to have difficulty distinguishing reality from his dreams, which poses an interesting question, what actually is truly living, experiences from the dreams or that of real life.

    1. I agree that this poem is filled with a resigned, melancholic tone. Occasionally Keats will drift to a blithe tone, somewhat indicating that the worries of the world are futile and inevitable, however the overarching tone displays a sense of definite resignation. Throughout the piece, Keats illustrates his attempt to “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget” the brutalities that are associated with the the world surrounding him (line 21). Though he recognizes the inevitability of death and suffering in the world, Keats continuously seeks dwell in his own transient sphere through drugs and self expression so that he can somehow escape the dreadfulness of life itself. The negative capability in this poem is apparent in the sense that Keats is attempting to flee from the uncertainty of life by all means through the use of drugs and alcohol and also to the point where he can longer distinguish his own reality. I also find it interesting that Keats’s correlation with the nightingale is extremely effective in emphasizing his own individuality and self expression.

    2. eugekim says:

      I also agree that Keats is writing in a very resigned and melancholy tone. He writes “fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
      What thou among the leaves hast never known” (21, 22) and it shows Keats resigned attitude towards finding happiness and with the nightingale. He realizes his inability to find happiness, even after the drugs and his mention of alcohol. This tone of voice shows his awakening from what he’s living.

  37. helenkimmm says:

    I find it fascinating that Keat’s use of negative capability provides his poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” with a timeless quality. His negligence of details that could even possibly indicate the social context of his time makes the poem relevant and well-suited for any time period and his tone, ephemeral and otherworldly. But it could well be a historicist’s worst nightmare. And the distance that he seems to take from the subject matter may not be such a good thing after all – literature cannot be truly appreciated if it does not “speak” to the reader. Perhaps he forgot to take into consideration that his strong embrace of all things uncertain and unsure could certainly push readers away as much as it attracts others and possibly prevent himself from seeing things that could better his literature.

  38. I love the whimsical tone that he provides throughout, and even calls the bird a “Dryad of the trees”, and as we all know that means that the song is lulling him into such a love that he doesn’t care enough to save himself from death, revealing this in saying that he had “been half in love with easeful Death” (lines 7, 52). It enhances the softness of listening to the bird, and even reminds me of being on a boat- the waves gently rocking the vessel back and forth, until it becomes a sort of lullaby. Then, as soon as the bird song is gone, he seems to come out of his stupor, but there still seems to be a fog around him because he can not determine real from imagination, and that’s really fascinating to me because I love mermaid tales, and stories of losing yourself for love as it seems required to do.

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