A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature: over 400,000 monthly users
John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” — a lecture by Professor Belinda Jack
What is Keats’ poem about, and why is it one of the greatest poems ever written? ‘Thou wast not born for Death! immortal bird/ No hungry generations tread thee down.’ Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ contains these curious lines. How can a bird be ‘immortal’? The poem is partly about immortality, but how does its complex poetic web work?
Running time: 49 minutes
Email subscribers may click on the title of this post to watch the video.
Belinda Jack is Fellow and Tutor in French at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She features regularly in the press and media thanks to the popularity and insight of her published works, including books such as The Woman Reader, George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large and Negritude and Literary Criticism: The History and Theory of “Negro-African” Literature in French.
Professor Jack obtained her D.Phil. in Negritude and Literary Criticism at St John’s College, University of Oxford in 1989, having earlier obtained a degree in French with African and Caribbean Studies from the University of Kent. Her academic career over the past twenty years has been at Christ Church, University of Oxford, where she is an ‘Official Student’ (Fellow and Member of the Governing Body) and Tutor in French. Her main interest lies in French literature of the 19th and 20thcenturies.
As well as her five books, Professor Jack is widely published through her many articles, essays, chapters and reviews. Her recent articles and reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Literary Review, Times Literary Supplement, Times Higher Education Supplement, BBC History Magazine and Littérature. She is a regular on the BBC and international radio and television, as well as a frequent speaker at literary festivals throughout the British Isles and beyond.
All of Professor Jack’s past Gresham lectures can be accessed here.
Ode to a Nightingale BY JOHN KEATS 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. O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool'd a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green, Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth! O for a beaker full of the warm South, Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim: 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 gray hairs, 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. 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, 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. I cannot see what flowers are at my feet, Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs, But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet Wherewith the seasonable month endows The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild; 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. 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 mused rhyme, To take into the air my quiet breath; Now more than ever seems it rich to die, 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. 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 Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, She stood in tears amid the alien corn; The same that oft-times hath Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn. 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 fam'd to do, deceiving elf. Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades 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? -----