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In his essay “A defense of poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley summarizes the role of the poet: “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sound (Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry”). Reference to birds is quite common in the works of Romantic authors, whereby the image stands for heights unachievable to the human condition, for transcendence. Inspired by the realm of perfection that birds inhabit, the Romantic poet tries to escape his earthly existence, to “soar” to unseen heights only to realize the impossibility of his mission. The journey of the poet takes the form of a pilgrimage, which leads the traveler back to his original point in earthly existence. This theme is developed in similar, and yet different ways, by two Romantic poets – Percy Bysshe Shelley in his “To a Sky-lark” and John Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale.”
Both Shelley and Keats use a bird as their muse and as a universal symbol for the human experience. The general topic of the two poems is quite similar – consciousness leaves humans restless in their search for the ideal that never comes. The lyric speaker is aware of a state of unattainable perfection and thus could never fully appreciate the joys of life. The bird, in this sense, serves as the embodiment of the unreachable. The attitude towards it, however, is markedly different in the two works. Shelley is awed by the sky-lark and shows pure admiration, while Keats is envious of the flying creature and its state of perfection. Thus, the emotions of the two lyric speakers also differ – the tone of Shelley’s poem is elevated, inspired, urging, while Keats’ feelings wander on a sinuous slope from languor, to reverence, and end in despair. Aspirations towards the image of the bird differ too – Keats and Shelley have diverging aims in their invocations. For Keats, the nightingale is a means for achievement of pure transcendence, for Shelley the sky-lark is an expressive “device” that will deliver the author’s messages to the world. Both of these poems, however, share the similarity of looking at the mysteries and majesty of nature to try to understand the life of mankind. In this sense, both texts are resplendent with vivid imagery, created through the use of numerous stylistic devices.
The nightingale and the sky-lark are addressed as immortal symbols of poetic inspiration in the two poems. They are both invisible and, therefore, unattainable. The only path that leads to the birds is their melodious song, which manages to inspire and touch Shelley, but leaves Keats in melancholy. This phenomenon is probably due to the different expectations and visions of the respective birds that the poets hold – “the skylark is conceived in a social and intellectual vein, and the nightingale in an aesthetic and sensuous vein (Jalal Khan, pp. 13).” It is indeed more difficult to reach the purely abstract, aesthetic ideal of beauty and eternity that Keats describes through the image of his nightingale. Shelley, on the other hand, supplicates the sky-lark to give him something tangible – a means to spread his revolutionary chants of liberty, equality in contrast to tyranny and oppression. Thus, hope for achievement still persists for one of the poets – “The world should listen then, as I am listening now (Shelley, To a Sky-lark, line 105).” – and is totally lost for the other.
The moods in the beginning of the two poems are in stark contrast – Shelley addresses the sky-lark with “Hail” and the attribution “blithe spirit,” showing awe and admiration. On the other hand, we see Keats – gothic and somber in his self-pity. The poet starts by addressing the pains of life – his dull senses, as if numbed by an opiate, are described in the extended simile: “One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, line 4).” The first stanza is like the onset of an awakening, the start of a journey that, later on, will realize its elevated climax only to end back where it began. The movement is from a feeling of diminished life (“numb”, “sunk”, “dull”, “drowsy”) to that of full life (“light-winged”, “happy”, “green”, “full-throated ease”). In the second stanza, Keats, exploiting a well-known Romantic image – wine, tries to achieve his intended flight to transcendence. In the next passages, the author makes use of rich figurative language to illustrate the heights to which his spirit (poetic inspiration) flies.
It is indeed remarkable how Romantic poets use images from nature to illustrate their point. References to natural objects and phenomena are exquisitely carved to serve a higher purpose – in them, the poet searches for answers to unanswerable questions. Both “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To a Sky-lark” celebrate an aspect of nature, a higher order of existence that the poet compares to man’s limited life on the earth (Percy Byssche Shelley Group on e-notes.com). In Shelley, allusion to nature happens through the use of parallel structures and extended similes, while metaphors of the natural world and personification of human emotions are more common in Keats.
Another common Romantic idea underlies the poems of both Keats and Shelley – consciousness is the enemy of sheer joy, the faculty of reason prevents us from achieving transcendence. This is what Shelley refers to when he describes the song of the sky-lark as an “unpremeditated art.” The same thought is expressed by Keats in the sentence: “Though the dull brain perplexes and retards (Keats, Ode to a Nightingale, line 34).” In stark contrast to their predecessors – the poets of the Enlightenment – Romantics renounce reason as the greatest faculty of human mind. To the contrary, they condemn it as an obstacle to perfection. It is indeed reason that reminds Keats of the fact he can never be too happy and brings him back to earth from his state of semi-elevated joy – he becomes a “sod” again. According to Leavis, the Ode is “an extremely subtle and varied interplay of motions, directed now positively, now negatively (Leavis, pp.74).” In Shelley there is no painful realization of humankind’s incapacity to reach an ideal state of mind, but the poet does express his regret of not being able to soar in the skies and personally get his message across. Thus, Shelley is prevented from speaking and Keats – from feeling.
Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” impresses with rich detail, elaborate form of writing, and a plethora of emotions. While more simple in style and composition, Shelley’s “To a Sky-lark” poses the same eternal question – why is human perfection unachievable? Both poets give the same answer: consciousness – humankinds’ greatest gift – is also its greatest curse. Both Keats and Shelley are aware they will never attain desired transcendence, although they see it in a different manner. Keats views achieving the state as a means to feel pure aesthetic pleasure; for Shelley it is a nexus of idealism and his own radical thought. An additional, and acute, difference between the two poems can be noted towards their end – Shelley turns to the future, to a potential for an enhanced listening of a new song; Keats seems hopelessly stuck in the bare present. Ultimately, in the reader’s mind, the authors remain who they really were – a “sad genius who tried to live a happy life (Global Poet, Jan 2001),” and a “man distracted from the awareness of his own mortality by the constant spectacle of the death of others (Paul deMan, pp. 190).”
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