"Ode to a Nightingale” is one of my all-time favorite poems. I’ve read it numerous times over a span of four decades and have never tired of its lines and imagery. The very first lines get me excited: “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, “/ Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.”
I love that. What appeals to me most is the frank admission of pain, deep, internal dissatisfaction, combined with a yearning for its appeasement by way of a drug. He mentions two: hemlock and “dull opiate,” the latter of which was most probably laudanum (a reddish brown tincture with a bitter taste containing almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine), easily available in the London of the early nineteenth century and which Keats is reported to have used to mitigate a chronic sore throat. During the time of the poem’s composition (sometime around April or May, 1819) he also suffered an intermittent toothache and a black eye which he got while playing cricket. The sensations he describes in a letter George and Georgina Keats (his brother and sister-in-law, then living in the United States) sound remarkably like those one associates with opiates:
Yesterday [Thursday, May 18th, 1819] I got a black eye, the first time I took a Cricket bat. Brown who is always one’s friend in a disaster applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning, though the ball hit me directly on the sight. ‘Twas a white ball. I am glad it was not a clout. This is the second black eye I have had since leaving school. During all my school days I never had one at all; we must eat a peck before we die. This morning I am in a sort of temper indolent and supremely careless: I long after a stanza or two of Thomson’s Castle of indolence. My passions are all asleep from my having slumbered till nearly eleven and weakened the animal fibre all over me to a delightful sensation about three degrees on this side of faintness. If I had teeth of pearl and the breath of lilies I should call it languor, but as I am I must call it Laziness. In this state of effeminacy the fibres of the brain are relaxed in common with the rest of the body, and to such a happy degree that pleasure has no show of enticement and pain no unbearable frown. Neither Poetry, nor Ambition, nor Love have any alertness of countenance as they pass by me; they seem rather like three figures on a greek vase - a Man and two women - whom no one but myself could distinguish in their disguisement. This is the only happiness and is a rare instance of advantage in the body overpowering the Mind.
Keat’s description matches an equally beautiful and uncannily accurate description of several heroin experiences (heroin taken orally and hypodermically) by the poet Michael McClure in a collection of McClure’s prose titled Meat Science Essays:
There is no combat with circumstances or events - no boredom or intensity. Sitting on a bed or a trip are the same. There is quiescence even while moving; there is an inviolable stillness of person. You are a warm living stone. In a fast open car you are a herculean vegetable - the wind on your face is a pleasant hand. You half-nod at the passing scenery. Eating and drinking are the same but without interest. You can feel yourself exist in a place or activity but without feeling of responsibility. There is nothing to drag you. You have occurred.
A new kind of self takes over - there is not so much I. I is an interference with near-passivity. This is a full large life - there is not much criticism, anything fills it. Rugs are as interesting as a street. Whatever is spoken is as meaningful as any other speech. Life and colors had a distracting sharpness before. You are glad they are toned down. You make study of yourself and nod on the passage of occurrences - everything is smooth and the same emotional weight. New correspondences are made, unusual things link with the common ones. There is time to study a face - thoughts are traced on it that you had not seen before. Suddenly you understand an old friend. Time does not bother, painful thoughts are fluffed like a pillow. A hand seems larger while you study it - it has details! Comparing the high to normality, you ask where the daily pains are; they are curious. You sort through them wondering why they are problems. They look different and easy. You take them apart and put them together in new ways - you find a few answers. Eyes and thoughts drift to something else. You go somewhere or you sit. You notice coincidences.
Life is an unruffled flow of the disrelated. If it bothers you, you don’t think about it.
… body and senses relax into new receptivity. There is a willingness to see and listen and to be heard and touched.
Predisposed tensions are eased. The still coolness of the world is a quiet adventure.
Hemlock is the poison Socrates self-administered in accordance with his sentence of death. He had been found guilty of refusing to recognize the gods, of introducing new divinities, and of corrupting the youth. The trial took place over a nine-to-ten hour period in the People’s Court, located in the agora, the civic center of Athens, in 399 B.C.E. The jury consisted of 500 male citizens over the age of thirty, and had been chosen by lot. Most of the jurors were probably farmers. No record of the prosecution's argument against Socrates survives.
After a long dialogue among his attending friends on the nature of death and immortality, which is the substance of Plato’s Phaedo, the jailer brings Socrates his drink of lethal hemlock. Socrates asks how he should proceed:
You, my good friend, who are experienced in these matters, shall give me directions how I am to proceed. The man answered: You have only to walk about until your legs are heavy, and then to lie down, and the poison will act. At the same time he handed the cup to Socrates, who in the easiest and gentlest manner, without the least fear or change of colour or feature, looking at the man with all his eyes, Echecrates, as his manner was, took the cup and said: What do you say about making a libation out of this cup to any god? May I, or not? The man answered: We only prepare, Socrates, just so much as we deem enough. I understand, he said: but I may and must ask the gods to prosper my journey from this to the other world - even so - and so be it according to my prayer. Then raising the cup to his lips, quite readily and cheerfully he drank off the poison. And hitherto most of us had been able to control our sorrow; but now when we saw him drinking, and saw too that he had finished the draught, we could no longer forbear, and in spite of myself my own tears were flowing fast; so that I covered my face and wept, not for him, but at the thought of my own calamity in having to part from such a friend. Nor was I the first; for Crito, when he found himself unable to restrain his tears, had got up, and I followed; and at that moment, Apollodorus, who had been weeping all the time, broke out in a loud and passionate cry which made cowards of us all. Socrates alone retained his calmness: What is this strange outcry? he said. I sent away the women mainly in order that they might not misbehave in this way, for I have been told that a man should die in peace. Be quiet, then, and have patience. When we heard his words we were ashamed, and refrained our tears; and he walked about until, as he said, his legs began to fail, and then he lay on his back, according to the directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said—they were his last words—he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
What ties all these narratives together is the perplexing issue of non-being. Or, more to the point, the strange mingling of Being and Nothingness that forge our lives, that shift and shimmer and seesaw in fluxions of spirit and flesh. It is a rich paradox that the more intensely we engorge with Being and whet our appetite for sensation and insight, the greater our vulnerability to pain seems to be. The more our consciousness dilates, the more of the world enters in. Consequently, the possibilities for experiencing loss, injury, and fear are that much greater, and the need for relief that much more acute. Anguish, malaise, and darkness intensify as the appetite for life intensifies, and as the pains inherent in life intensify with it, the attractions and seductions of Non-Being grow correspondingly magnetic. It’s as if the more passionately we embraced life, the more we craved its cessation. The more we crave Being, the more we crave Non-Being. It is a Moëbius Loop of irresolvable contradictions.
For a long time, I’ve craved non-existence. I want to feel non-existence. It is the one thing about death that attracts me. But, of course, the irony is that in order to experience non-existence, I cannot exist. And if I do not exist, I cannot experience non-existence. That being the case, the alternative is to live. Not just to live, but live with intensity. I can, with great deliberation, encourage a receptivity to all the vagaries of life, its voluptuous charms and peculiar ecstasies as well as its stings and entanglements. If the allures of death are too final, too extreme, too irrevocable, I can always become a thrill-seeker. Death will arrive one day anyway. In the meantime, I can flirt with Non-Being in its conceptual, metaphysical guise, submit myself to the influence of certain drugs, hypnotics and analgesics, or practice meditation. If I achieve the opposite of non-existence, then the craving for its opposite pole will grow to a point of such intensity as to jump across the abyssal frontier and satiate Being with Non-Being.
Non-Being is at the very heart of Being. It is Nothingness from which we derive our freedom, our fullest range of possibilities, our fullest absorption in Being. Non-Being leads to Being, and vice versa.
Such flirtations are painful. They will hurt. The stars we cannot reach, the mind ultimately bound to its little sphere of blood and bone, always restless, always uncertain, fearing and craving its end simultaneously, are the conundrums that feed our hunger for greater intensities of life. That bound us to life. That help us transcend life.
The pain is exquisite, and cannot be escaped. Nietzsche had a marvelous phrase for this phenomenon, “the wound of existence”:
It is an eternal phenomenon: by means of an illusion spread over things, the greedy will always finds some way of detaining its creatures in life and forcing them to carry on living. One person is held fast by the Socratic pleasure in understanding and by the delusion that he can thereby heal the wound of existence; another is ensnared by art’s seductive veil of beauty fluttering before his eyes; a third by the metaphysical solace that eternal life flows on indiscriminately beneath the turmoil of appearances - to say nothing of the common and almost more powerful illusions which the Will constantly holds in readiness.
Lethe is one of five rivers flowing through Hades, the underworld of Greek mythology, the other four being the Styx (river of hate), Akheron (the river of sorrow), Kokytos (the river of lamentation), and Phlegethon (the river of fire). Within the geography of Dante's Divine Comedy, the river borders Elysium, the paradisiacal resting place of the virtuous who lived before the birth of Christ, and so could not enter into the Christian heaven. In Classical Greek, the word Lethe means “oblivion,” “forgetfulness,” or “concealment.”
I had always imagined the water of Lethe to be dark and heavy and to taste bitterly of a cramped, subterranean world of sulfur and brimstone. Danté, however, gives it a very different description in Canto XXVIII of the Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy:
The water you see does not rise from a spring, fed by the moisture that the cold condenses, as a river does that gains and loses volume, but issues from a constant, unfailing fountain, that, by God’s will, recovers as much as it pours out freely, on every side.
On this side it falls with a power that takes away the memory of sin: on the other, with one that restores the memory of every good action. On this side it is called Lethe, on that side Eunoë, and does not act completely unless it is tasted first on this side, and then on that. It surpasses all other savours, and though your thirst to know may be fully sated, even though I say no more to you, I will give you this corollary, out of grace, and I do not think my words will be less precious to you, because they go beyond my promise to you.
So, not bitter at all, but more like cold, clear spring water.
“Was it a vision, or a waking dream,” Keats asks at the end of his “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Fled is that music: - do I wake or sleep.”
This is the very state that Keats’s poem arouses each time I read it. If I give my attention completely to its lines I feel the same arousal of the senses while simultaneously feeling an abatement of life’s thornier issues. It’s as if his consciousness, be it under the influence of laudanum or not, transmitted the same resonances to my consciousness. This gives wonder to the power of words, especially written words, and the Lethe-like waters that flow through them.