In literature nature has always been considered as an important topic. As a natural object, birds are also have been mentioned in poetry. In fact, many poets have written many beautiful poems on birds. Birds are often used as symbols in poetry too. For example, in Bangla literature the cuckoo bird is often associated with spring time. In English literature there are many poems which are written about birds or birds play important role in the poems.
For example, Ode to a Nightingale written by John Keats and Ode to a Skylark of P B Shelly are two very famous poems on birds. Another such poem is The Rime of the Ancient Mariner of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which the poet has used the Albatross as a symbol. According to the requirement of the assignment I have selected Ode to Nightingale by John Keats and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by S.T.Coleridge for my discussion.
Before discussing the above mentioned two poems it is needed to cast some light on the two poets and the Romantic age in English literature as a whole. The Romantic Age in English literature is a unique era because in this age all the poets created their poetry on nature and nature related topics. Nature forms the main aspect of their poetry. Before them no poet could think of nature as the main theme of a poem. The Romantic poets have successfully implemented this theme. As a result, all the great poems about birds were written in this age. John Keats was a Romantic poet who has worshipped beauty of nature in his poetry. Natural objects become lively and beautiful in his poem however he does not treat them just as lifeless natural objects. Rather he mixed his own emotion and creates a personal attachment with them.
He also expresses his own personal feelings such as happiness, sadness, hope, and frustration etc in his poems. In Ode to a Nightingale Keats has expressed a desire to escape from a harsh reality which he can not tolerate. He wants to join the nightingale and fly away into a dreamland.
On the other hand S.T.Coleridge touched the supernatural elements of nature and has presented them in a very natural way. Coleridge had a brilliant sense of imagination and with his excellent narrative skills he could imagine the most supernatural thing and then describe it in the most natural way. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Coleridge has described the life of a mariner who had killed an albatross and then suffered immensely for killing it. The whole poem is based on the reaction of killing the albatross. A bird is a beautiful creation of god and by killing the albatross without any reason the mariner had committed a grave sin against god.
Only at the twentieth century men learned to fly like a bird before aero plane was discovered men were always fascinated with the idea of flying like a bird. According to Greek mythology Daedalus and Icarus tried to imitate the birds and made artificial wings to fly. Their efforts failed in tragedy. So the concept of flying was like a dream to mankind until the beginning of the twentieth century people marveled at the birds because they could fly in the sky. The poets also appreciated this matter and their minds also wanted to fly with them. We see this kind of urge in Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale. The life of John Keats was a very tragic one he died early from a disease. He also had a depressing crush on a lady which brought him no success but only misery and in his own time some influential literary critics criticized his poetry in the worst possible way. So life became very miserable for John Keats.
All his life he sought escape from the sufferings and in Ode to a Nightingale we find the desperate effort of Keats to escape from the harsh cruel world around him. He feels that nightingale is very lucky it can fly away from any place. In the beginning of this poem the poet refers to his miserable condition:
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:
Here it is evident that the poet was suffering a lot when he wrote this poem. Life has become too much painful for him he feels as if he has drunk hemlock or opium. He wants to forget all he pain and be happy in the happiness of the nightingale.
For Coleridge the albatross is not a way of escaping but a holy and beautiful creation of god. It brings joy to the sailors. The sailors have to spend many lonely days within the sea during their voyage. So they often feel very lonely and do not get the opportunity to see any sign of life around them for days:
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
So when they see an albatross they feel happy and get hopeful that land is near them. The same thing happened for the companions of the ancient mariner. When they saw the albatross they greeted it with joy and gave it food and played with it. Thus the albatross brought companionship for them. Thanks to the arrival of the albatross they could escape from the harsh loneliness around them. Coleridge has presented this bird as a friend and companion to men.
Both the poems have used symbolism very skillfully. Coleridge has used the technique of willing suspension of disbelief where the readers will forget the real world and believe the world that the poet is presenting to be real. The plot of the poem centers around the idea of sin-suffering-praying-redemption. It is a poem with a moral touch. The mariner first committed a sin and then he suffered for it. After much suffering he prayed to God and then God forgave him. The mariner learnt his lesson and told others to show love and kindness to the creation of God. The albatross symbolizes Jesus Christ. The Mariner murdered the innocent bird who brought companionship and hope for him and his fellow sailors:
And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner’s hollo!
In the same way the men of Jerusalem crucified Christ who was innocent and who brought hope for their salvation. The other mariners felt horrified when they found that the mariner had killed the albatross:
And I had done an hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch ! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
Normally, the song of nightingale is a symbol of joy and happiness. But Keats wrote this poem when he was suffering too much form his illness. Although he sought happiness through nightingale he knew in his heart that he was going to die soon. So, the symbols of death and forgetfulness are present in this poem. Keats has on numerous occasions referred to Greek mythology. By doing so he has treated the nightingale in such a way as if it was a magical bird which was beyond the reach of any sadness. So the bird is magical and free from human suffering. Keats wished that he could be like it and defeat all his pain and sadness. In his quest to end sadness he is like the Buddha. Buddha all his life sought to find a way to get free from human suffering and achieve salvation. Keats has the same goal and in this poem his nightingale has this magical power.The only problem is that Keats knows that he is a human being and can not be like the nightingale.
In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Keats tries to make a good balance between sensation and thought. We can find extraordinary sensuous passages, as at the beginning. By using the word ‘sense’ and makes the readers feel this drowsy numbness too.
The poet later deals with the problems of human life, as in stanza three:
‘Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.’
In contrast to Keats, Coleridge uses the moral teachings of Christianity in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He has put a lot of emphasis on the concept of sin and redemption. Actually The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is like a fable that at first appeared to be a childish story without any deep significance but a closer look makes the readers realize that it contains the deepest of moral teachings. The moral lesson of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
Christianity teaches us the same thing- to love god and his creations. No other religion gives so much emphasis on this kind of love. The albatross gave this love to the mariners by bringing them joy and good luck. Thus the albatross is also a magical bird too. It is the bird which brings good luck and pleasant wind to the sailors. The ancient mariner acted selfishly and brutally by killing it. He only thought of his own pleasure. He did not even think that he was killing an innocent bird without any reason. He did not lack food but he certainly lacked kindness. He forgot that there was god who was more powerful than anyone. Certainly god did not like that he killed the bird without any reason.
God showed the mariner that no matter how much power a man possessed they should not be unkind to nature. If they did not follow humanity then they would be punished. The punishment that the mariner suffered was terrible. He suffered the worst form of pain- loneliness and isolation. By nature human beings are social animals so being alone in a ship in an endless sea was surely terrible thing to suffer. He often wished that he had died but it did not happen
An orphan’s curse would drag to hell
A spirit from on high;
But oh! more horrible than that
Is the curse in a dead man’s eye!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
Only after the mariner realized his sin and prayed to god deeply for forgiveness he was saved.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
In his personal life Coleridge was not a very religious person but in this poem he has glorified Christianity in a very high manner. Christianity always ask its followers that they seek god’s forgiveness everyday. If a person prays from the core of his heart, god is always ready to forgive him. The poem also shows Coleridge’s deep love towards his country, England. When the mariner returned from his voyage to England he felt that he had come to heaven
Oh! dream of joy! is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
In conclusion it can be said that the two poems are among the greatest poem on bird in English literature. The poets have used the birds as symbols and have associated them with their own life. The birds are magical but they contain something more than magic. They take us to another world- a dreamy and ideal world. The main difference between two poets is that the nightingale appears to be something in the sky to John Keats and it has no relationship with everyday human life rather it is something which is beyond our normal life. On the other hand the albatross of S.T. Coleridge is something that is related to our every day life. The sailors fed it and played with it. It was like their only friend in an endless sea.