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An Analysis of The Theme of Death in John Keats’s Odes
Death is the central theme of many of John Keats’s works. In some poems, he seems to be frightful of the ugliness of death; in others, he attempts to explore its positive aspects, and in many others, he suggests metaphysical solutions to come out of this fear. In his most famous odes, he appears to define and celebrate death using various literary devices like metaphors, imagery, symbolism, paradox, and personification. In Keats’s two well-known odes, “An Ode to Nightingale” and “Ode on Melancholy,” the poet represents two different philosophies of death; he longs for figurative death escaping literal death first ode, and he universalizes the idea of mortality in the second poem, claiming its imposition on everything, so he longs to die after rejoicing in beauty.
John Keats presents the idea of a positive death in his poem “An Ode to Nightingale.” The poet longs for death, making him united with nature with utter positive meaning while placing it against the literal death hateful for him. The poem begins with the poet’s heartache and “drowsy numbness,” making him anticipate further numbness becoming a part of the nightingale’s world. To show his withdrawal from the world and drowning into a sea of death-like detachment, he says, “one minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk” (Keats). Lethe, the underworld river, metaphorically signifies the disconnection of Keats from the literal world by attracting him toward a figurative death.
However, as the poet desires to slowly vanish and merge with nature, his ode also slowly approaches the depth of its theme – positive death. The poet is not depressed by the idea of mortality in this poem; instead, he is happy to think about the expected consequences of his gradual deadness. “Being too happy in thine happiness”; in this line, he expresses that he is not jealous of the nightingale’s song’s immortality but happy to die positively and get united with the beauty of nature. In the following stanzas, the poet is lost into the river’s depth, where he discovers happiness by blindly joining the beautiful world around him by dying. Here, the poet uses rich imagery to denote his deep connection with his abstract surrounding, like he hears the buzz of flies, tastes “each sweet,” drinks wine and touches flowers (Keats). Visual imagery is the only type of imagery he does not use here because he has lost his sight. The poet does so to close his eyes to the views of the literal world before him and ultimately unify him with the allegorical world through a positive death. Throughout the poem, the poet dives deep into his desire for a figurative death, where beauty and emotions will not be fleeting but immortal. However, his vision is disturbed by the ugliness of the literal death, which is waiting for him all the time “Forlorn the very word is like a bell/ to toll me back from thee to sole self” (Keats). These lines show the poet’s rejoining of the literal world with its fundamental concepts of death after staying in a comma-like state of positive death in his vision. Also, these lines show that he is not happy to return to his world and wait for a literal death, which will make him “sole self” by deducting all love and beauty from his surroundings. The poet, here, compares two types of death, positive figurative and destructive literal, and he keenly desires for the former as the concluding lines of the poem leave him dejected (Keats). In short, in “An Ode to A Nightingale,” the poet describes the idea of a positive death vs. isolating death through the power of his imagination, using rich imagery and metaphors while profoundly longing for a death unifying him with nature.
In “Ode on Melancholy,” John Keats twists his philosophical theme of death to an imminent ending of all beauty, giving a chance to contemplate objects before dying. He uses the device of joy to accentuate its anti-thesis, which is death. The poet begins with multiple death mirroring phrases used in his previous poems like ‘Lethe,’ ‘poisonous wine,’ and ‘death moth’ to symbolically portray his fear and shift from a distressful state awaiting death to a joyful ambition to rejoice in nature before it ends. The poet begins his first stanza with a notice of extinction by placing it parallel to beauty, “Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d by nightshade” (Keats). And then, he switches to the attractive side of objects inviting everyone to rejoice by feeding upon “her peerless eyes.” Then, finally, he paradoxically places melancholy, and death at the core of happiness states “She Dwells with Beauty- Beauty Must Die” (Keats). In the poem, the poet unconsciously longs for death as the final destination to everything, whether objects or the poet himself. He uses many images to combine happiness and melancholy, specifying his metaphorical attempt to balance the fear of death and the beauty of life. He also uses personification while elevating melancholy to the status of a goddess with idols; beauty, happiness, and pleasure. These three positive implications get negative overtone when intermixing with death, valedictory, and poison (Keats). In short, the poet is not disconnected from his ever-lasting association with death, which is the central theme of many of his poems. Although he seems to swing from the negativity of death to its positivity by getting his enough before he dies, he is never forgetful about it. He knows that he is getting closer to the end each day, so he changes his philosophy of mortal life and begins to believe in the temporary existence of everything around him, like beauty. Therefore, he communicates his message to enjoy the world before death approaches existents and non-existents.
John Keats’s “An Ode to Nightingale” identifies his keen desire to die a figurative death while exploring possible positive ways to meet with the ultimate end of mortals. In “Ode on Melancholy,” the poet universalizes the idea of death, discovers everything’s surrender to its final fate of vanishing like human beings. That’s why he suggests enjoying beauty unless imminent death approaches all mortals, whether human beings, objects, or abstract elements like beauty. Overall, the poet seems to be under the toxic impact of death, waiting for him. Unknowing its exact time to hit, he designs various ways to reduce its fear and revive his senses by using multiple literary devices like imagery, symbolism, paradoxes, personification, and metaphors to highlight death in his poetry. It is visible while reading his odes, where he appears shifting from one death doctrine to the other to longing for it in the most meaningful ways.
Keats, J. (1819). Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats. Poetry Foundation.
Keats, J. (1819). Ode on melancholy by John Keats. Poetry Foundation.