John Keats, an English Romantic poet, is known for his odes that center around the Romantic ideals about nature. In this poem, “Ode to a Nightingale” the nightingale itself is a symbol of the continuity or immortality of Nature as contrasted with the utter mortality of man. Nature is always changing and yet forever the same.
In the beginning of the poem, the narrator sits listening to the song of the nightingale. He realizes as he listens that the bird is immortal as opposed to the mortal life of human beings. “Her where men Sit and hear each other groan, where Palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs, where youth grows pale, and specter-thin and dies” (III 25). In contrast, as the narrator tells the reader in Stanza 7, the nightingale has been singing the same songs for generation upon generation. The use of the word generation suggests the passage of human time and the cycle of life and death. He has sung so much throughout history that he has become immortal. The very same song was heard by emperor and clown, by Ruth (a figure from the Old Testament) and by fairies. All of these people have heard the very same singing as the narrator is hearing right now, and some of these people have achieved an immortality of their own, something close to the nightingale. In this, he addresses the immortality of nature’s cycle of change.
The narrator then begins to wish he could follow the bird and experience his own bit of immortality. At first, he thinks he needs drink to do that. When he realizes that he does not, he imagines himself flying away to join the bird. He tries to free himself from the pain of our world by associating with the immortality of the nightingale. Gradually, his reverie leads him to thoughts of death where he realizes that the song will be nonexistent then. The bird’s song then becomes a “requiem” or song for the dead. By flying away with the bird, he metaphorically has some epiphanies about his own mortality.
The bird is seen as a creature in harmony with its own world, as opposed to the narrator, who is in competition with his. The bird does not have the man’s self-consciousness and is wholly one with nature. In this way, the nightingale is truly immortal. “No hungry generations tread thee down” (VII 62). The condition of human beings is that of always striving, always being hungry for something more whereas the bird is simply alive and immortal and has that immunity from death.
At the end of the poem, the nightingale has turned into just a bird again. He listens to its song. It has cheated him (the “elf”) just as imagination (“fancy”) has, and he realizes that the bird has moved on to some other spot to sing his songs. The words “buried deep” make the reader wonder if the end is near for the speaker. Thus, the speaker has come up more close and personal with the idea of his own death. The narrator seems more plaintive and sad as the bird has emphasized his own mortality.
Through the use of the nightingale, a very real living creature in nature, Keats has provided us with both a real bird and a symbol of the immortality that is nature. Nature, in its never-ending cycle of life and death, achieves its own kind or immortality. This is something that men will never achieve. By using the bird and metaphorically flying away with it, the narrator has come up against the idea of his own death. He seems more contemplative and sadder at the end of the poem. Thus, the nightingale is not just a symbol of beautiful nature as many Romantics would convey. But the bird is a symbol of the ever-changing cycle of Nature and the fact that its ever-changing aspect lends a kind of immortality.