I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit tree wild:

White hawthorne, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

and mid-may’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music: -Do I wake or sleep?

By John Keats, from Ode to a Nightingale

Do we wake or sleep? Is life only the prelude to Death; does the Nightingale’s song extend only just until day when the sun takes over, and we are again reminded of the diseases and blights of life? Or is Death rather a prelude to Life?

Keats himself, as a trained physician, knew, perhaps more than many, of the prevalence of physical and emotional pain, disease, sadness, and decay.  In short, all of life’s ugliness. Yet he still knew some of the joy, the beauty, the mysterious wonder of life.Who cannot notice the incredible beauty dancing throughout his poetry? The sensory imagery, the musical qualities, the creation of ideas? His purposeful portrayal of life’s sweet pain?

This particular poem of Keat’s is my favorite. I can relate to feeling the weight of the tediousness of everyday life, the ever-present pain in the world, the confusing darkness. Life seems so terribly confusing at times, the good only a distant memory, that I often wonder whether I wake or sleep. But even in the darkness, no, especially in the darkness, there is a song. Is it ironic that the poet hears the nightingale’s song in the evening, when everything is dark, and life seems to be at its bleakest, and then dreads to wake in the day, when life is at its  brightest? If it were not for the darkened sky, would we be able to see the stars? If life is not sometimes tempered with pain, would we be able to appreciate its joy?

In a letter to persecuted Jewish Christians in the early church, James wrote:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the tesing of your faith develops perserverance. Perserverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. “

-James 1:2-4

Suffering then, eventually becomes  a positive thing, shaping us and strengthening our faith. If we believe in the salvation offered to us through Christ’s death and resurrection, we recognize that our stay here in a fallen world torn with death and sin is but a temporary trial, eventually leading into everlasting life. It could be compared to the night before the dawn of an eternal day. We may find peace in the knowledge that “God is light; in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and that He alone is stronger than sin and all of its deadly consequences. Unlike the nightingale’s song, He will never leave us or forsake us. And unlike the beauty described in Ode to a Nightingale, His beautiful perfection is not spoiled or in any way subject to decay.

Life’s burdens often seem so pressing, and life’s pain so prevalent, that I, like the poet, often wish that I could “leave the world unseen,/ And with thee (nightingale) fade away into the forest dim(stanza 2).” But it is only when we stay and choose to focus our eyes on God’s perfection, even in the midst of our world’s imperfections, that we are able to stand through the trials and gain strength. It is only when we are able to wake to God’s love and sleep to our selfishness that we will be able to constantly hear the song in the night.