John Keats (1795-1821) reveals a sustained interest in dreams and quest motifs throughout his career, which bespeaks his concerns with the nature of human agency in a narrative of atonement and self-redemption. The "Ode to a Nightingale" (1819) remains a great but cryptic poem, concerned with a Keatsian preoccupation with human existence, as well as with the issues of "being-in-the-world" and "being-not-at-home" in the form of poetic trance and visionary flight.1 This poem also calls into question such renowned Keatsian concepts as "Adam's dream," "Pleasure Thermometer," and "Negative Capability."2 On 30 September 1820 Keats wrote to Charles Brown: "Is there another Life? Shall I awake and find all this a dream? There must be we cannot be created for this sort of suffering" (Letters 2: 346).3 Uttered at the end of Keats's life, this echoes the questions Keats's speaker asks earlier in the "Ode to a Nightingale": "Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?" (79-80).4 Keats here emphasizes a pervasive sense of impermanence, suffering, and illusion as well as shifts from conventional Christian 'sin' to Buddhist 'suffering' as the epistemic framework for living. In no sense was Keats a doctrinaire Buddhist, but I would like to suggest that certain Buddhist concepts may shed light on some concepts in Keats's writing.5 Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" embodies such Buddhist principles as the dharma and the Four Noble Truths, articulated through Buddhism's focus on suffering and its possible antidote.
Journal of Narrative Theory, Vol.42, No.2, pp.137-163