Act three, scene five: Romeo and Juliet are on the balcony, looking out over the Capulet’s garden. «Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day,» says Juliet, tilting her ear to a sound coming from the depths of a tree. She believes it is the song of the nightingale, the night bird who watches over their secret love. But Romeo disagrees. «It was the lark, the herald of the morn», he says, as he knows the sun will soon rise and light up the Capulet’s garden. And that means he does not have very long to climb down from the balcony and escape before the first rays of sunlight give him away.
John Keats was certainly aware of this scene when he wrote his Ode to a Nightingale
; but unlike the lines penned by William Shakespeare – an author Keats had studied in depth during his period of reflection between abandoning his medical studies and dedicating his time exclusively to poetry – in Ode to a Nightingale
there is no hint of dawn. Because the poet prefers to dwell in darkness.
«Tender is the night,» wrote Blake: that time when Queen Moon sits on her throne, surrounded by starry fairies. And yet all that is left of this dazzling light by the time it reaches the earth is a pale, almost phantasmagorical memory. It is in this atmosphere that Keats creates his poetry.
In an article
published on «The Keats Letter Project» Professor Chris Washington analyses in depth the attention Keats pays to the “dark side”. It is the task of the “chameleon poet” as Keats describes himself in a letter to Richard Woodhouse, to move between dark and light, between what is real and what is evanescent and ghostly, by constructing bridges between life and death. Poets have no identity. Instead, they embody, from time to time, the Sun, the Moon, the sea, men and women. It is their task to give voice to the potential of poetry.
And to do that, they have to immerse themselves in the dark side.
In this constant exchange of light and shadow, Keats cannot help staring in adoration at his bright star, the young Fanny Brawne, to whom the poet dedicated his sonnet Bright Star
. “Would I were steadfast as thou art,” writes Keats. In other words, if only I could live forever like this constant and unchanging light. But this steadfastness (similar to the steadfastness of the Sun) is impossible for the poet, who has to take up the challenge of his ever-changing identity and face the dark side in order to bring to life, through poetry, the creatures that inhabit this world.