“being too happy in thy happiness”

Without doubt the poem Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (1795-1821) is a classic. There are just too many great lines to count, it might be easier to number the not so good lines of the total of 80 that make up the poem. Keats writes from a drowsy numbness as if he had taken a drug and in this semi wakeful state he hears the nightingale sing from somewhere deep in the forest. The joyful song of the bird causes Keats to be happy in the bird’s happiness. The poet longs for a draught of vintage, his desire being that the wine help him escape all the troubles of the world and the certainty of our own mortality. “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow” He desires to escape by following the bird, his escape is not through wine, mentioning the Roman god of wine Bacchus being carried on a chariot of leopards, rather his escape is through poetry (poesy) and creative imagination. Keats thinks of the bird and its song as immortal, this song that he hears was heard generations and centuries before by emperor and clown, even by Old Testament Ruth in her homesickness. In the last two lines he asks, was all this a vision or a dream? What does he choose to wake or sleep?

Please enjoy this poem and all its beauty and be ready to listen so attentively to the song of the nightingale. Amidst our own “weariness, fever and fret” in the present turmoil of our world, near or far, war or peace, plenty or hunger, poverty or riches, good fortune or chaotic tragic existence, still the nightingale sings the same happy song for all to hear. We so need this happy song amidst the weight of war and the tears of tragedy. Let us not tire of praying for the peoples of Ukraine, Turkey and Syria, and the all too many families in grief from the unending sickness of gun violence in this nation.

Ode to a Nightingale (1820) 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
Cooled 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 tomorrow.

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,
Clustered 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 covered 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,
Called 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.

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
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy 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 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?

Eternal and all loving God,
help me not to seek escape through dream or sleep.
Keep me awake in this troubled world
that I might hear the songs of the birds,
that I might hear the cry of the new born child,
that I might hear the cheer which welcomes
yet another survivor from days under wreckage.
Holy God, keep me awake
that I too might hear the deep cries of grief,
that I too might hear the silence of death in families
where there should have been the merry sound
of children and parents at play and at work.
Save me from weariness, fever and fret.
Keep hope alive in my soul that I too
might sing a song of love and grace,
which might move the world a little closer
to the joy of the Creator.
Hear this my prayer and my song, today and through the night. Amen.

2 thoughts on ““being too happy in thy happiness”

  1. A reminder that there is “nothing new under the sun” provides for me an encouraging challenge to stay awake , and work for a better world. I think it is also a reminder that new challenges await, but knowing “He will never leave us” provides a steady reassurance.


  2. I recall 2 semesters as an undergraduate of carrying a textbook we referred to as “the heavy red one.” That text was the well-known Major British Writers. The pages were thin, the print was small and I wrote many notes and questions in the margins. For some reason, I kept that book and it moved with us from home to home, finally settling here where it remained for 25 years until I decided it was time to pass it on to the thrift store. The innocent and often naive margin notes scribbled by my 18 year old hand intrigued me many years later, particularly those by the writings of Keats, Wordsworth and others. I’m certain that at the time, many of those writings were lost on me, until one spring day when I was first introduced to my future mother-in-law. I was nervous, she was an intellectual with a special passion for British writers, and she asked the dreaded question about what I was studying in my literature classes. By some lucky miracle, I was able to come up with some marginally intelligent comments on Ode to a Nightingale. Why that poem I will never know because it was a semester behind me and we were on to Chaucer by then. Perhaps the poem had more meaning for me than I imagined, though I haven’t thought of it until today, reading this post. You are right! We do need this happy sound, more now than ever, and always. I am fortunate to hear a birdsong early each dawn since having emptied out the dried evergreens from a window box. It is a favorite place for wrens, and each morning, no matter the weather, they sing their little hearts’ out. I’m grateful for the sound. And now I’m wishing I had kept that textbook.


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