Step #2 — Ode to the Nightingale

Posted on: April 16th, 2012 by

Step #2 in our Poetry in Performance Process

Let us examine “Ode to a Nightingale”, looking at its blue-print or structure, how it changes from beginning to end, the details or words that add to its progress, and the story the poem presents as it develops.

We will be careful during this initial step to avoid connotative interpretations. In other words, we will focus only on the poem’s surface appearance and the world it inspires within us.

Begin by imagining that you are in the poem the Ode.

You are not an addition to the poem; you are the poem’s consciousness, its being, its persona.

You are where that persona is

As you step into “Ode to the Nightingale”, it is crucial to remember first impressions.

Stanza 1

Where are you?  {Where are you not?}

You are in the subjective mind of the poem’s persona, feeling the ache and numbness of the speaker; it is a numbness that might very well lead to death, as “hemlock” is a deadly poison.  It is also, however, a numbness that makes the world and the ache fade away, again transporting you toward death, as Lethe is the river of forgetfulness that bounds the ancient Greeks realm of the dead.

You are not alone, however; in fact, it seems that your state of mind is inspired by the nightingale, which you cannot see, but only hear singing happily in the shadows of a nearby tree.  You are not envious of its joyous song, but of that song’s unbounded, uncritical joy, whose melody celebrates summer without a worry in the world.

Stanza 2

Hearing the bird’s celebration makes you want more than anything else to grab a bottle of vintage wine and drink.  The cool beverage makes you think of nature, its green foliage and rolling hills, and the celebrations that take place there–the dances and the folk songs.

And you don’t just want to sip that beverage either; you want to down a large cup full of the liquor, which you compare to the Hippocrene fountain the source of poetic inspiration.  In fact, you want to drink enough magic elixir that the world around you will simply disappear, and in disappearing you will be able to join the nightingale in the tree beyond.

Stanza 3

Now, knowing where you want to go–to the nightingale–you remember why you want to go there.  The nightingale, it seems, has never known the pain that humans know, i.e. the pain of watching people grow sick and die.  In your world old men moan as death approaches,  People are beset by tremors and paralysis.  And the young–oh, watching them whither away is worst of all.  In fact, in your world to think about the world is to fill oneself with its pain and suffering because then you know that every beauty–even love–is temporary and will soon be taken away.

Stanza 4

In stanza 4 the despair becomes unbearable and you want to take flight immediately, but you don’t want to do it through the previously mentioned drink–Bacchus being the Greek god of liquor and ecstasy.  You want to fly away and join the nightingale through the power of poetry itself–ironically, another aspect of Bacchus and his pards.

No sooner than you’ve made that decision, you find yourself with the song bird despite your rather slow mind.  And the night is gentle, with the moon shining down along with the other celestial bodies.  Yet, your new, imaginary realm’s most striking feature is the darkness that surround you, save what moon-glow weaves its way to you through the gloom.

Stanza 5

It is so dark that you cannot see the vegetation around you; you can, however, smell it.  The rich scents fill you and you are able to identify each flower.  Your delight is so superb that you name each one, from the lowly grass to the “coming musk-rose”.  Their collective scents fill you with the memories of summer evenings, particularly the buzzing of the flies.

Stanza 6

Unfortunately, the sound of those flies brings you back to death.  Not to the death of others, however; you are reminded of how often you have sought death for yourself, as a way to ease the pain of life, of having to endure the suffering that you see around you,

You realize that now–at this very moment–would be the perfect time to die.  You are in a state of absolute joy.  Ironically, as you celebrate your discovery you make yet another discovery.  If you died, the nightingale would continue to sing, proving that your listening was meaningless.  You would in comparison to the bird become “a sod”, which is little more than the dirt itself .

Stanza 7

In this stanza the irony of the previous stanza leads to a revelation.  Thoughts of death simply to do belong in the presence of the nightingale’s song.  This bird’s song–so full of ecstasy and joy–has been sung throughout time and history; it has lifted the spirits of everyone, regardless of gender, class, or rank.

In your revelation you consider those that have heard the song: the emperors and fools, the biblical characters who were in the depths of despair; you even think of the magic that the song has done, opening sealed trunks on dangerous seas.

Stanza 8

Though your revelation saves you from your thoughts of death, it also ends your imaginative transport to the realm of the nightingale; in fact, it ends the song altogether.  You are brought back to yourself, unable to hear the singing of the bird that was once just beyond your view.

You say your good-byes to the bird and her hymn, acknowledging that the magic of the song is perhaps not as powerful as you once thought.  The memory of the song, however, lingers well beyond its presence.  You imagine the song and its magic rolling over the meadows and the streams, and the hills, to be buried deep in an open field in a nearby valley.

You stand there wondering if what your state of mind was or is–dreaming or awake.


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