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Much has been written about ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. The poem is generally understood to be the lament of a poet who finds he cannot stay in the unreal world of his imagination but must return to the real, material world of decay, suffering and death. However, the poem can be read as exploring the possibility that we apply the word ‘real’ to the wrong world, and as bringing into question whether our normal waking state is not a kind of dream, less real than the visionary world the poet fleetingly encounters. The premise of this argument is founded on the understanding that the visionary world the poet has glimpsed is not the world of fantasy which we all experience through the daydreams of our egos, but an objective world the Sufis call alami mithal, ‘the world of the image’. In the West, it is what medieval mystics referred to as the mundus imaginalis, and shamans from various traditional societies seem to refer to it when they speak of travelling in the dream world. The twentieth century Ibn ‘Arabi scholar, Henry Corbin, called this higher reality the ‘imaginal realm’ and it has also been called the ‘active imagination’. Mevlevi shaikh, Kabir Helminski, describes it as:
…a level of reality in which “meanings” are embodied as images which have a kind of autonomous existence. The imaginal world is an “interworld” in which visions, which are simultaneously meanings, are experienced by a psycho-spiritual faculty, the active imagination, or what Sufis would simply call the “heart.” It is important to realize that this level of perception was reliably available only to those souls which were to some extent “purified.” In its mature functioning it was certainly not a conceptual, intellectual, or merely symbolic experience, but a visionary one of the kind that many Western pscyho-spiritual explorers touch only rarely in their lives, but which is the natural medium of mature mystics.
[The Knowing Heart, ‘Soul Loss and Soul Making’]
Looking at the beginning of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, it does not start how we might expect. We might expect the description of a garden or wood to set the scene. Instead we are presented with a state of mind, and in such a way are prepared for what is primarily an inner journey:
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…
It is significant that the ode opens with a pained heart longing for oblivion. Lethe is the river of forgetfulness, sleep and death, that flows into the darkness of Hades. The sense of aching emptiness, defeat and surrender in these lines may lead us to think that nothing very uplifting can follow. However, an acquaintance with these lines of Rumi might lead us to suspect otherwise:
The unsuspecting child first wipes the tablet
and then writes the letters on it.
God turns the heart into blood and desperate tears;
then He writes the spiritual mysteries on it.
[Mathnawi II, 1826-27]
In the Dark Places of Wisdom, a book by the scholar of Greek, Peter Kingsley, describes how initiates into the Greek mysteries would lie down in a cave or specially constructed place for incubation. They would do this in order to receive divine guidance. Kingsley describes how it was best to be in a desperate, hopeless state before entering incubation, because the initiate needed to be a kind of blank slate with no hopes or preconceptions and therefore fully receptive to whatever the Divine might bring. We know that Native American initiates do something similar, that Sufis and other mystics have also retreated into dark cells to receive illumination, and that the original function of the Egyptian pyramids may have been to provide a space for similar experiences (rather than functioning merely as burial chambers). The suppression of the physical senses seems to be instrumental, as does a shattering, desperate awareness of one’s need and utter helplessness.
After having described his surrendered state, suddenly Keats is addressing a shadowy, mysterious presence:
‘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.
The nightingale is introduced as a ‘light-winged Dryad’ (wood nymph) and, paradoxically, though it sings of summer, it resides in the darkness of ‘shadows numberless’. Even more enigmatically, it is singing in such deep shadows not because it is afraid of envy we are told, but because its joy is in some way too intense.
Commentators have generally fallen into two camps: those who interpret the nightingale as being a physical nightingale, and those who interpret it as a symbol in the conventional sense – i.e. a completely fictional representation of an abstract idea (art is often suggested). But there could be a third possibility: could Keats be describing an encounter in the imaginal realm?
The nightingale is a recurring image in Sufi poetry. For Rumi, the nightingale seems to represent the one who has transcended bitterness and who has been welcomed into intimacy with the sweetheart that is Allah:
When the heart has seen the sweetheart,
how can it remain bitter?
When a nightingale has seen the rose,
how can it keep from singing?
[Mathnawi VI, 2639]
Keats momentarily draws our attention away from the nightingale itself, however, to a thirst that he seems to associate with the bird; a thirst for an intoxicating drink that will allow him to join the nightingale in its ecstasy:
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,
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:
Of course, the wine of spiritual intoxication is also an image central to Sufi poetry:
This heart of mine
tugged at my collar
and led me to the village
of that Beloved of mine.
When I drank the wine
of that humble town,
I unwound my turban
and pawned even my shoes.
As I gave up my intellect
and took hold of Her ringlets,
I got tangled in the curls She loosed –
completely, beautifully entangled.
Moment by moment the wine’s taking over;
see what my state has come to
with such ancient wine.
See what’s happened to my mind.
[Divani Shamsi Tabrizi, 1413]
Keats’ wine has been ‘cool’d a long age’ and has the humbleness of the earth. Rumi’s wine is ‘ancient’ and drunk in a ‘humble town’.
For Keats, the wine comes with a deluge of other associations too. It is a drink from Hippocrene, which for ancient Greeks was the fountain of poetic inspiration located on Mt Helicon, the place where the nine Muses live. In the Islamic tradition, there is the fountain of eternal life associated with Khidr, the mysterious spiritual guide, whom in turn we might equate with the Green Man of the West who brings spring in his wake. Keats’ wine tastes of ‘Flora and the county-green’, Flora being the Roman goddess of spring and flowers. And then there is the association with the ‘Provençal song’ of the troubadours, the medieval poets who sang of chivalry and love in Provençal, Southern France, and who are now understood to have inherited much of their imagery (particularly the symbols of the nightingale and wine) from the Sufis (either via Muslim Spain or contact in the Middle East). So this heady surge of allusive imagery seems to be drawing Keats into a spiritual stream submerged deep within Western consciousness, rife with the imagery of spiritual intoxication.
Intriguingly, just as with the nightingale, there is a great deal of shadowy earthiness associated with the wine: ‘the forest dim’ and the cool of ‘the deep delved earth’ juxtapose images of ‘sun-burnt mirth’ and ‘the warm South’. And when Keats associates the wine with dance, perhaps Flamenco naturally springs to mind; because that art form, at home in sun-drenched (Moorish) Spain, defines itself as being on a quest for duende, the dark energy of the earth.
The twentieth century Spanish poet, García Lorca, tried to explain duende. For him it was a power that surges up from the earth through an artist’s feet, a kind of daemon that unlocks the yearning for death in the human heart, demanding complete authenticity from the one it possesses. He tells us:
The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm.
In all Arab music, dance, song or elegy, the arrival of duende is greeted with vigorous cries of ‘Allah! Allah!’ so close to the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and who knows whether they are not the same? And in all the songs of Southern Spain, the appearance of the duende is followed by sincere cries of: ‘Viva Dios!’ deep, human, tender cries of communication with God through the five senses, thanks to the duende that shakes the voice and body of the dancer…
[‘Theory and Play of the Duende’]
Though we might not agree with everything Lorca has to say about the duende, perhaps he does hit upon an important truth: divine inspiration has a dark, earthy aspect as well a light, heavenly one.
Rumi urges us to ‘search the darkness’, for in it we will not only find the fountain of life but also the source of light:
Though we sleep and rest in the dark,
doesn’t the dark contain the water of life?
Be refreshed in the darkness.
Doesn’t a moment of silence
restore beauty to the voice?
Opposites manifest through opposites:
in the black core of the heart
God created the eternal light of love.
[Mathnawi I, 3861-65]
Keats’ ode explores this mysterious darkness further, but first he makes it clear that the nightingale he has encountered is of an immortal kind, for in the next stanza of his ode he contrasts its permanent state to the pitiful decay of everything in the material world. Still speaking to the nightingale, he says he wishes to…
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,
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.
Commentators who interpret Keats’ nightingale as being a physical bird would seem to be on the wrong track, and we clearly sense in the lines above disillusionment with the sensual world in general.
For Rumi, realisation of the futility of purely earthly pleasures is an important step on the spiritual path:
People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterwards repent of the lust they’ve indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.
[Mathnawi III, 2133-2134]
But Keats is disillusioned with thought too, which brings only ‘sorrow’ and ‘despair’. He keenly felt the limitations of the rational mind, and he aspired to a state in which one ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (he called this ‘Negative Capability’). Rumi agrees: ‘No matter how subtle the sleeper’s thought becomes, his dreams will not guide him Home.’ And he gives us these lines that may well offer us a key to understanding the real nature of Keats’ nightingale:
While I am dwelling with you somewhere on earth,
I am coursing above the seventh sphere, like Saturn.
It’s not I that is sitting beside you, but a shadow
cast from a bird that flies above thought:
because I have passed beyond thoughts,
and have become a swift traveler farther on.
I am the ruler of thought, not ruled by it,
because the builder is ruler over the building.
All creatures who are ruled by thought
are aching in heart and mired in sorrow.
I yield myself to thought purposely,
but when I will I spring up from among them.
I am a soaring hawk;
thought is just a gnat:
how should a gnat have power over me?
I come down from those high currents,
for the sake of those who need me.
But when disgust at the coarseness of this lowly world seizes me,
I soar up like the birds who spread their wings,
not with feathers that have been glued on,
but with these wings that have grown from my essence.
[Mathnawi II: 3555-3564]
Could Keats’ nightingale be a glimpse of his own winged essence, or perhaps what the ancient Greeks might have termed his daemon? The rational mind can never really pin down or define what the daemon is. Perhaps, we can say that it is a inner divine guide, but also mysteriously our own higher self. Although Rumi is describing his own experience, he is also offering an esoteric interpretation of the Quranic words: the birds who spread their wings (Surah al-Mulk 67:19). Perhaps the spiritual identity that Keats has glimpsed can therefore be understood better through an acquaintance not only with Rumi, but also with the Quran.
Returning to Keats’ ode, we find Keats plunging into ever more inviting shadows as he tracks the nightingale:
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 embalmèd 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.
Keats makes it clear that he is not describing the drunkenness of Bacchus, a self-indulgent drunkenness appealing to our lower nature. The intoxication for which Keats longs is of a higher order and goes hand in hand with ‘Poesy’. Throughout the ages, mystics have expressed themselves in poetry, and the ancients with whom Keats identified understood that authentic poetry has a sacred origin and purpose. With its ‘viewless wings’, poetry is potentially a vehicle into the profound depths of the Unseen, where Truth and Beauty reside eternally with God.
Having entered ‘the black core of the heart’, a place from which his ‘brain retards’, Keats seems to sense through a kind of spiritual faculty, or by some heavenly insight. And having reached such a strangely blissful place, where even the flies seem to add to the beauty of the wine-filled roses, he wishes to die:
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,
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.
Strangely, the idea of becoming a deaf sod unable to hear the nightingale’s beautiful song does not seem like an entirely sad end, or perhaps even an end at all. Keats has linked the depths of the earth so intimately with the ecstatic nightingale and the intoxicating wine that becoming a sod might make them one organic whole. As with the duende described by Lorca, his death-wish has a strange joy in it. Could Keats be entertaining the idea that he is the nightingale in essence, and the part of himself he imagines dying is in fact an inessential part?
It is not necessarily physical death that Keats is contemplating. ‘Die before you die’ the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him) advised, and Rumi offers us this possibility of the ego’s ‘death’:
Within God’s presence there is no place for two I’s. You say “I,” and He says “I”—either you must die for Him or He for you so that duality might disappear. However, His dying is impossible and inconceivable, because “He is the Ever-Living, the One who does not die.” He is so gracious, though, that if it were possible He would die for you so that the duality might vanish. However, since it is not possible for Him to die, you must die, so that He may manifest Himself to you and thereby eliminate the duality.
[Fihi Ma Fihi, Discourse 6]
Perhaps Love is calling Keats to Itself, and the death for which he is longing is the removal of the ego that stands in the way to their union. The words that he wrote to his beloved Fanny Brawne, ‘Love is my religion’, may have been more than mere sweet-talk.
In his penultimate stanza, Keats draws on the Bible to create what might be the most haunting image of the ode:
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 ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
The Book of Ruth appears in the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament and tells the story of a Moabitess, Ruth, who marries a Jewish man. When her husband dies, her mother-in-law, Naomi, urges her to follow her heart and return to her own people if she wishes. However, having whole-heartedly embraced the God of the Torah and being devoted to Naomi, she refuses. They both return to Bethlehem where Ruth works with the reapers in the cornfields. She is a lonely outsider amid the other labourers, until her grace and humility attracts the wealthy landowner, Boaz, to whom she is eventually married. What is interesting is that Ruth’s homesickness can be interpreted in two ways. Superficially, we might assume it is longing for her native Moab. On a deeper level however, her longing is for her spiritual home; a home which is brought to her mind by the abundant sea of corn. Much as the corn is separated from the cornfield by the reapers, we have been separated from our spiritual home in the Unseen. We might immediately think of the reed flute separated from the reed-bed at the beginning of Rumi’s Mathnawi. In clinging to Naomi and the truth of the Torah, marrying Boaz and becoming the ancestor of David and Jesus, her course is set homeward.
The equating of the song of the nightingale to the song of longing felt in Ruth’s heart, might lead us to view the nightingale’s song as an ecstatic longing guiding us back to our spiritual home. Though Keats had little time for institutionalised religion and was no Christian in the conventional sense, we might sense in these lines an affirmation that the revelation of the prophets, in its pristine and uncorrupted state, calls to us in the core of our being, and that poetry is capable of coming from the same sacred source.
The words ‘alien corn’ might also have an uncanny association for the modern reader due to the phenomena of crop circles. Whether or not these are hoaxes, corn (and its reaping and removal) is a symbol that resonates within the human psyche at some deep and mysterious level.
While the image of Ruth seems ripe with meaning, the image that follows of ‘casements’ on the sea can seem whimsical and frothy in comparison – perhaps deliberately so. A casement can be a case or a window – it holds something precious, or opens out onto something expansive. A Sufi might immediately think of the heart. The heart holds our precious essence and opens out like a window onto the ocean of the greater Self. At first glance, the ocean that Keats’ casement floats on is ‘perilous’ and does not seem like a loving expanse of Spirit at all. However, we might conclude that it is the ‘foam’ that is dangerous here and not necessarily the depths.
For Rumi, the foam of the ocean represents material phenomena, beyond which there is a vast spiritual sea. Not being able to see beyond the foam is the real cause of our sorrow:
The grief of the dead isn’t because of death;
no, it’s because they focused on phenomenal forms
and didn’t perceive that these are only the foam,
moved and fed by the Sea.
[Mathnawi VI, 1454-1455]
Within the depths of the sea, duality disappears and we discover the reality of Oneness. ‘Dissolve in the being who is everything’ Rumi urges us, just as Keats longs to ‘dissolve’ with the nightingale.
In Keats’ poem, this foam is associated with ‘faery lands forlorn’. In modern times the word ‘forlorn’ has come to mean lost or lonely. However, it originally carried the meaning of lost in a moral or spiritual sense – i.e. spiritually depraved. Fairies, of course, are thought to be capable of malice, to sometimes trap human beings in the fantasies of their egos. Whatever the nature of the ‘casements’, they may be in danger if they open amid the foam and the faery.
It is unclear what the relationship of the nightingale’s song is to the danger. The nightingale is described as charming the casements – this could mean it offers a protective charm against the danger they may be in. Keats might be suggesting that the song of the nightingale, the song from the authentic depths of our being, rescues us from the superficiality of the foam and the faery. Yet there is an element of ambiguity – the nightingale’s song could be part of the danger. After all, without the guidance of a mature mystic, how can we be absolutely sure that we have not mistaken the active imagination for the fancy of the ego? And even if our heart has experienced a genuine vision, how can we absorb our experience without our egos becoming inflated by it? Can Keats be sure the nightingale is not leading him into error? His poem ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ might be an exploration of making just such an error; its bleak refrain, ‘And no birds sing’, sets it very much apart from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ however.
On a deep level, Keats seems persuaded by the benevolence of his nightingale. He seems to sense that he has tasted the possibility of an expanded self in their encounter, because he begins his final stanza by confessing that their parting will mean a return to his ‘sole self’. We might notice, too, how their parting seems to be brought about his having mentioned the ‘forlorn’ in the same breath as the angelic bird:
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
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?
The ‘fancy’ that is a ‘deceiving elf’ has generally been understood by commentators to be the imagination, which is equated with the mere fancy of the ego. The conventional interpretation is that Keats is admitting that his vision of the nightingale is unreal. However, perhaps the ‘deceiving elf’ he refers to is actually the ordinary waking state which denies reality to the visions of the imaginal realm. Keats can be understood as celebrating the fact that ordinary waking consciousness cannot triumph completely and sometimes a higher reality breaks through, even if we cannot hold onto it for long. Certainly, he at least holds this open as a possibility in the double-headed questioning of the final lines. If we have never experienced the imaginal realm, or heard or hoped of its existence, we might be tempted to brush past Keats’ question, to assume it is there merely for poetic effect, to stress the intensity of his fantasy. For if we take him seriously, our whole conception of reality may need turning on its head.
Rumi, however, insists on just such a shake-up. He might have answered Keats with these lines:
He has caused what is non-existent to appear magnificently existent,
while the truly existent He has caused to appear as non-existent.
He has hidden the Sea, yet made the foam visible;
He has concealed the Wind, but displayed the dust.
[Mathnawi V, 1024-1025]
As for the imaginal realm: could it be the ‘wide expanse’ that Rumi describes for us below?
Stir a little like the fetus that you may be given
the senses to behold the Light.
Then you will leave this womb-like world
and go from the earth into a wide expanse.
Know that the saying, “God’s earth is wide,”
refers to that spacious region where the saints are at home.
The heart isn’t weighed down in that spaciousness:
there the fresh boughs of the palm tree
don’t become dry and brittle.
Right now you bear the burden of your senses:
You grow weary, exhausted, and stumble.
When you sleep, you’re carried aloft;
your fatigue falls away, and your burden,
your pain and anguish, are taken from you.
Consider your sleep as just a taste
of that state in which the saints are soaring.
[Mathnawi I: 3180-3186]
Again, Rumi’s wisdom is based on the Qur’an and the words ‘God’s earth is wide’ are a direct quotation from Surah Az-Zumar (39:10). The Arabic word for ‘earth’ used in the Qur’an is wa-ardu and the linguistic root from which it derives also contains the following meanings: ‘a place for abiding’, ‘to be patient’ and ‘a tremor arising from a relaxed state’. The Arabic word for ‘wide’ used in the Quran is wasi ‘atun and its linguistic root gives us ‘to comprehend’ and also one of God’s names, the All-Comprehending (Al-Wasi’). Could we therefore understand ‘God’s earth is wide’ as: ‘The God-given place, where we patiently abide and feel tremors of ecstasy, is the place where we truly comprehend’? Such a place is where the saints abide continuously Rumi tells us.
To conclude, rather than describing a desperate flight from reality, Keats’ ode may well be describing a desperate flight into Reality. We can read his ode as proposing the existence of a spiritual realm veiled from normal waking consciousness, and we might turn to Rumi, Sufism and the Qur’an if we want to confirm its existence. Keats was only 23 went he wrote his ode. In another two years he would succumb to tuberculosis, but in his brief life he challenged the increasing materialism of his day and its assumptions (assumptions which have taken root even more firmly in our own time). For him the world was the ‘Vale of Soulmaking’, and so, like Rumi, he inspires us to set about the work of making a soul and perceiving the reality of Spirit.
~ Daniel Dyer
‘Ode to a Nightingale’, www.poetryfoundation.org
The Knowing Heart, by Kabir Helminski, Shambhala Publications
The Pocket Rumi, translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski, Shambhala Publications
The Rumi Daybook, translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski, Shambhala Publications
Jewels of Remembrance, translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski, Shambhala Publications
Love’s Ripening: Rumi on the Heart’s Journey, translated by Kabir Helminski and Ahmad Rezwani, Shambhala Publications
In the Dark Places of Wisdom, by Peter Kingsley, Element Books
‘The Theory and Play of the Duende’, lecture by Garcia Lorca, translated by A. S. Kline, www.poetryintranslation.com
The Quranic Arabic Corpus corpus.quran.com/wordbyword.jsp
‘John Keats’ by William Hilton
‘Ruth in Boaz’s Field’ by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld