In Ode to a Nightingale Keats introduces the reader to his discontent with the void of feeling he is experiencing. In the first line Keats says how his, “heart aches” which the reader would interpret as pain; however the second half of the first line he describes, “A drowsy numbness”. This tells me that Keats is uncomfortable with the “numbness” he experiences. In the second line Keats says, “as though of hemlock I had drunk”. Norton foot notes tell us that hemlock is a poison that acts as a tranquilizer in mild doses.
Sedatives cause a euphoria that could be described as “drowsy numbness”. In the first line Keats repeats the A sound with “aches, and a drowsy numbness pains”. In the second line Keats repeats the H sound with “Hemlock I had drunk”. This alliteration and assonance creates a sort of euphoric musical quality, further emphasizing Keats’ chemically induced lack of feeling described. Continuing with the idea of drug induced emptiness in the third line Keats speaks of “some dull opiate to the drains”.
Also continuing the use of assonance Keats repeats the D sound with “emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Again the feeling produced by this repetition mimics the numb sway of a high. However this line is still more obvious than the first two because Keats mentions “opiate” which is a much more well-known drug that produces a numb sort of euphoria. The fourth line of the poem introduces a new dynamic to the first stanza. Keats says, “Lethe-wards had sunk:” Norton tells us that Lethe is a mythological river in Hades that causes forgetfulness.
With this line Keats’ intention in the first stanza can be expanded from a euphoric void of feeling to one that causes him to forget. Because of this and Keats’ later references to intoxication (see stanza 2) as well as references to death (see stanza 3) the reader could infer that Keats’ desired the forgetful, euphoric, lack of feeling. Though Keats opens the poem in line one with “My heart aches” one could debate just how much his heart really aches.
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