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.
Keats’s friend Charles Brown, whom he was living with in Hampstead, England at the time, wrote that:
“Keats felt a tranquil and continual joy in [the nightingale’s] song; and one morning he took his chair from the breakfast-table to the grass plot under a plum-tree, where he sat for two or three hours” when he had composed the poem on a few scraps of paper.
on December 1, 1818, Keats’ brother Thomas died of tuberculosis . It is a significant event in the life of Keats, and therefore relevant to the use of references to the disease in the poem as well as the theme of death, as this poem was written just six months after his passing. In the third stanza, Keats writes, “The weariness, the fever, and the fret/. . . /Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,/Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies” (ll. 23-26)
From – https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/ode-to-a-nightingale/)
The stanza captures a highly subjective experience – something that the speaker is experiencing within his own existence. It focuses on his inner feelings – emotions – as well as his senses. His physiological and psychological faculties are engaged in this stanza. The ‘heart’ is a metaphor for how one feels – it is bounded by intense emotions. Here, it is evident that the poet reveals his deep anguish or sorrow right at the beginning of the stanza. It is the psychological aspect of the subjective experience that he addresses. Right after that he speaks of the ‘drowsy numbness’ which ‘pains’ his sense – this word can be taken to mean two things. The online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary gives the definitions below (I have selected 2 out of 6).
1. one of the five powers (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) that your body uses to get information about the world around you
2. good understanding and judgment; knowledge of what is sensible or practical behavior (Italics mine)
The first meaning given above mentions the physiological aspect – whereby which we perceive the external world and thereby make interpretations about it.
The second meaning is of the intellectual faculty – the mind, which interprets the information absorbed by the 5 senses.
The two are obviously connected and the manipulation of one may affect the way a person experiences (which is based on the way one interprets) the world around him. The substances the speaker lists (hemlock and opium) would influence the senses (the five powers of smell, touch, hearing, taste and vision) as well as the rational thinking – sound judgment. Therefore, it is clear that the drowsiness that numbs the speaker’s senses will affect his consciousness to a great degree.
First, he compares his state to the effect created by drinking hemlock – a poison. This suggests the snuffing out of the consciousness. Then he compares it with an overdoes of opium, which is not as lethal, but only a suspension of mindfulness – an easing of the consciousness. The speaker is quick to note that it is not envy which sparks this sorrow inside of him. Rather, it is the excessive happiness he experiences in admiring the nightingale’s own happiness. Why does something so plainly delightful cause such anguish in his mind that he feels as if he is drowning in Lethe? It is because the speaker is reminded of the transience of beauty and the inevitability of death, which is the lot (part of the reality or existence) of humankind.
Lethe is a river in greek mythology which is associated with forgetfulness and oblivion. It is also known as Ameles potamos (river of unmindfulness).
In Classical Greek, the word lethe (λήθη) literally means “oblivion”, “forgetfulness”, or “concealment”. It is related to the Greek word for “truth”, aletheia (ἀλήθεια), which through the privative alpha literally means “un-forgetfulness” or “un-concealment”. (Wikipedia).
The intense anguish brought on by the thought of death, decay and suffering causes the speaker to symbolically move towards Lethe – or forgetfulness, oblivion, or, a dimming of the consciousness. The word ‘sunk’ connotes the idea of drowning – becoming submerged in the realm where consciousness ceases. Where the mindful existence becomes suspended. It can be interpreted as a movement towards death – the cessation of existence. It could also refer to the suspension of the consciousness of death which overshadows the human existence – of which the nightingale seems to be free. Imagine: If you and I were not aware of the fact that we are going to die one day, how would that change our perception of life? Would we then devalue life or live it ever more fully?
When we think about John Keats, whose life was haunted by death from his early days, and who had to go through many sufferings in his young life, it is only natural that his oeuvre is laced with the inevitability of death and how this heightens our awareness of life itself. As we look at the rest of the poem, it will be evident through the maze of paradoxes that he employs.
The nightingale is called a ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees.’