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Video: Poetry and Immortality in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale | Belinda Jack

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 ReaderGeorge 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 JournalLiterary ReviewTimes Literary SupplementTimes Higher Education SupplementBBC 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

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? 

John Keats (1795 – 1821) 

6 comments on “Video: Poetry and Immortality in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale | Belinda Jack

  1. thomasgoff
    July 30, 2021


    The ode on this mysterious night-bird’s charm
    Stamps John Keats as a votary of that tribe
    Divining the divine in roulades that harm
    No listener, but their profusion seems to gibe
    At yet ensorcel creatives of all kinds:
    Respighi, in Pines of Rome, dares us to laugh
    At urgent division a feathered diva unwinds,
    First broadcast—the risible part—by phonograph.
    The emperor, the clown, we know the verse,
    Akin to Amy Beach’s hermit thrush
    On piano; but Keats it is who feels the hearse,
    Its roll over cobblestones, beneath the onrush
    Of nearness and distance, fistfuls of song no fist
    May trap, gray plumage a reticence lost in mist.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. thomasgoff
    July 30, 2021

    “With Achilles Shouting in the Trenches”
    from a letter by Keats

    Keats here is at his lowest ebb, and yet
    He cannot be effaced; only himself
    May nullify himself, elude the net
    Of personhood, turn surf slipped over a shelf
    Of coastal stone. Poor Tom is most unwell;
    Tuberculosis transmitting, brother to brother.
    Keats’ recent sore throat; the venom in the swell
    Of hissing blasts, one critic after another:
    All this, but receding from contour into cloud,
    He conjures his five-feet-high frame to dissolve,
    Materialize as a tall warrior, screaming loud
    Oaths numbing the enemy, steeling friends’ resolve.
    Unarmored Achilles’ thousand-decibel peals
    Make Crokers spill mangled by their own
    chariot wheels.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Gerald Fleming
    July 25, 2021

    Had never heard Fitzgerald’s voice before. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Barbara Huntington
    July 23, 2021

    Saving to watch tonight

    Liked by 1 person

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