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The Transient Sublime and Mortality in “Ode to a Nightingale”

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何梓涵 12010007
To Professor Hou Yiling
English Literature

The Transient Sublime and Mortality in “Ode to a Nightingale”

Composed during the most creative period in Keats’s brief poetic career, “Ode to a Nightingale” has long been regarded as one of the most refined works of his poetry. Previous criticism has comprehensively explored its themes of nature, beauty and mortality, as well as its demonstration of Keats’s notion of Negative Capability. But based on my research, few critical reviews have touched upon the point which I find clearly suggest itself in this poem: that the poet’s experience here depicted is not merely an escape into the realm of ideal beauty, but also an intoxication with the Romantic sublime. Between the sublime and
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But his pain stems not from grief, which we learn by surprise, but from an excess of happiness occasioned by the bird’s song which is “too happy” to be endured. This ambivalent mixture of pain and pleasure is the characteristic mark of the sublime, which is further heightened by the sharp contrast between the poet’s painful numbness and the bird’s god-like rapture and freedom.
The poet then calls for wine, “a beaker full of the warm South” which may carry him into a state of the sublime where identification with the nightingale and union with nature are accessible, in order to escape “the weariness, the fever, and the fret” of human lives, where youth dies early and even love does not last long. But then he changes his mind: he will fly to the nightingale not through the artificial device of alcoholic intoxication (“Bacchus and his pards”), but through the agency of poetic imagination (“the viewless wings of Poesy”).
For a moment the poet succeeds, exclaiming that he is “already with thee”. Imagination leads him into a trance, where he loses consciousness while arriving at the climax of the sublime. In his most exalted poetic vision, he beholds the holy lustre of “the Queen-Moon” and “her starry Fays” in the tender night sky. But soon common sense abruptly obtrudes, pulling the poet from up amid the stars down to the earthly gloom where “there is no light”. As if
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