"Do I Wake or Sleep?": Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale'

G.L. Little


If the central stanzas of 'Ode to a Nightingale' are taken, as they often are, to yield that "exquisite sense of the luxurious" Keats professedly sought in place of less comforting "Philosophy", they do so by evoking a world still more tempting (and as it turns out, still more dangerous) than that implied by his impatient phrasemaking of some eighteen months before the Ode, when he wrote to his clerical friend Bailey, "0 for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts". Such a "Life of Sensations" is still often taken to be the happy isles of Keats's yearning search. His earlier critics found it all too easy to manufacture a corresponding aesthetic weakling, who haunts the poetry, forever asprawl in "the realm ... Of Flora and old Pan" and never able to pass to "the agonies, the strife Of human hearts": sleep and poetry are the same.s Despite Keats's repeated testing and rejection of such escape from human responsibility, evident through the letters, all but the very earliest poetry, and indeed in the present passage in its context, many readers saw only a dilettante in a world insulated by art and dream.

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