Compare the ways in which Keats addresses personal concerns in “Ode to a Nightingale and “When I have fears” Many of the poems that Keats wrote address a lot of personal concerns that he had in his life. Keats was writing in the Romantic period and was the eldest child of a family in which many members had died of consumption. He spent most of life living in the knowledge that he too would probably die of consumption.
In his writing he expresses these thoughts on suffering and tries to realise his fate through his poems. His personal concerns of death, beauty and poetry also contain great conflicts, doubts and inconsistencies within his feelings about them. He makes these come alive by using sensual imagery and by experimenting with different poetic techniques and forms. In this essay I will compare Keats’ personal concerns and how he addresses these concerns in “Ode to a Nightingale” and “When I have Fears”.
Both poems ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and ‘When I have Fears’ deal with similar themes – that of Keats relationship with death, beauty and poetry. Stanza three of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ shows Keats’ depression and illness in its full context. He describes the many woes of illness: “the weariness, the fever and the fret” and uses a whole stanza to convey this. He also talks about the utter despair that he feels and how the illness has caused him to lose everything: “where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs, where youth grow pale, and spectre thin, and dies, where to think is full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despairs, where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow”. He is trying to realise the inevitability of death and recalls how he has often tempted Death, personifying Death and calling ‘him’ in ‘soft names in many a mused rhyme’.
He longs to transcend his meagre existence through the means of poetry: ‘On the viewless wings of Poesy’. He sees Poetry as a vehicle through which he can transcend the world of mortal human existence. However in “When I have Fears” Keats recognises the beauty that exists in the mortal world. He does not wish that death will take him to a world full of beauty but instead worries that he will never be able to capture the beauty of the mortal world in his poetry before he dies. Instead of describing the woes of mortal existence he describes the beauty of mortal existence. He firstly fears that he will not complete his writing and attain fame: ‘I may cease to be/ Before my pen has gleamed my teeming brain’.
Secondly he fears he will die ignorant before experiencing and understanding all of life’s beauty. “The nights starred face,” is symbolic of the ultimate questions in a person’s life and Keats is fearful that he may die before they are answered. He again describes these questions and his poetry as being already there but as being “cloudy” and in “shadows” as if he cannot see them clearly yet. This idea continues in the way in which Keats worries that he will never “live to trace their shadows, with the magic hand of chance”. He is perhaps constantly viewing his mind as already containing all his ideas, but just needing time to wait until they are ripened or wait until they move from shadows into the clarity of his mind.
Finally he fears that he will never find true love: “and when I feel fair creature of the hour, that I shall never look upon thee more, never have relish in the faery power of unreflecting love!”. The use of the exclamation mark shows that this is probably Keats’ largest fear despite his supposed mistrust for women and this gives an interesting insight into his personality. He thinks of love as being the ultimate goal in life and is scared that he will never look upon it. A main theme within these two poems is that of conflict. ‘Ode To a Nightingale’ shows his conflict between mortality and immortality, between life and death and between transience and transcendence. ‘When I Have Fears’ similarly explores the inconsistencies in Keats mind.
Throughout ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ Keats uses the nightingale as a metaphor of constancy and also as a symbol of transcendence, immortality, youthfulness, beauty and art. This contrasts greatly with the suffering that he has to endure constantly, and the poem shows his longing for a quick and easy death so he can be like the nightingale and flee from the transience of human mortality – lose the very thing that makes him suffer.
At first Keats describes the drug-like effect that the nightingale’s song has had on him and the pain from his illness: “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”. This sets the scene for the emotional imagery that Keats uses and allows him to explore deeper into his thoughts and feelings. It also prepares the reader for the inconsistencies that Keats will have to delve into within his thoughts. He is eternally yearning for a different life before returning to reality to face his current position.
He describes the immortality of the nightingale and gives the best example throughout the poem of the nightingale being seen as a symbol of constancy: “thou was not born for death immortal bird! No hungry generations tread thee down”. He also writes about the wonder of the nightingale’s song and how it juxtaposes both worlds. The nightingale is also described as resilient to all illnesses and is obviously a creature that Keats particularly loved and admired.
Overall this stanza shows that the nightingale is free from all restraints and the ongoing change of the physical world, producing a powerful image in the process. Through using the metaphor of the eternal bird in comparison to the painful mortality of the transient world the internal conflict within Keats is explored, ending on him being drawn back to his ‘sole self’ possibly suggesting that the Nightingales fancy cannot delude him any more.