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Comparison of Two Poems on Birds
In literature, nature has always been considered an important theme. As a natural object, birds are also mentioned in poetry. In fact, many poets have written many beautiful poems about birds. Birds are often used as symbols in poetry as well. 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 an important role in the poem.
For example, Ode to a Nightingale written by John Keats and Ode to a Skylark by PB Shelly are two very famous poems about birds. Another such poem is The Rime of Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which the poet has used the Albatross as a symbol. As required by the assignment I have chosen Ode to Nightingale by John Keats and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by STColeridge for my discussion.
Before discussing the above two poems, it is necessary to shed some light on the two poets and the Romantic era in English literature as a whole. The Romantic era in English literature is a unique era because in this era all the poets created their poetry on nature and nature related themes. Nature forms the main aspect of their poetry. Before them, no poet could think of nature as the main theme of a poem. Romantic poets have successfully applied this theme. As a result, all the great poems about birds were written in this era. John Keats was a romantic poet who worshiped the beauty of nature in his poetry. Natural objects become alive and beautiful in his poetry, but he does not treat them as lifeless natural objects. Rather, he has mixed his emotions and created a personal connection with them.
He also expresses his personal feelings like happiness, sadness, hope and disappointment etc in his poems. In Ode to a Nightingale Keats has expressed the desire to escape from a harsh reality which he cannot tolerate. He wants to join the nightingale and fly away to a dreamland.
On the other hand STColeridge touched the supernatural elements of nature and presented them in a very natural way. Coleridge had a great sense of imagination and with his great 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 terribly for killing it. The whole poem is based on the reaction of killing the albatross. A bird is a beautiful creature of god and by killing the albatross for no reason the sailor had committed a grave sin against god.
It was only in the twentieth century that people learned to fly like a bird before the airplane was discovered, people were always fascinated with the idea of flying like a bird. According to Greek mythology, Daedalus and Icarus tried to imitate birds and made artificial wings to fly. Their efforts failed in tragedy. So the concept of flight was like a dream for mankind until the early twentieth century people marveled at birds because they could fly in the sky. Even the poets appreciated this matter and their minds also wanted to fly with them. We see this kind of prompting in Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. John Keats’ life was a very tragic one, he died early from an illness. He also had a hopeless love for a lady which brought him no success but only misery and in his time some influential literary critics criticized his poetry in the worst possible way. So life became very miserable for John Keats.
Throughout his life he sought to escape from suffering and in Ode to a Nightingale we find Keats’s desperate attempt to escape from the harsh cruel world around him. He thinks that the nightingale is very lucky to be able to fly away from any place. At the beginning of this poem, the poet refers to his miserable condition:
My heart aches and a sleepy numbness aches
My feeling, as if I had smoked coney,
Or empty some dull opiates into the gutters
A minute passed and the Lethe-reparts had sunk:
Here it is evident that the poet suffered a lot when he wrote this poem. Life has become very painful for him, he feels as if he has drunk curo or opium. He wants to forget all the pain and be happy in the bliss of the nightingale.
For Coleridge, the albatross is not a way of escape, but a holy and beautiful creature of God. It brings joy to sailors. Sailors must spend many lonely days at sea during their voyage. So they often feel very lonely and cannot see any signs of life around them for days on end:
At last an Albatross passed,
Out of the mist he came;
Had he been a Christian soul,
We greeted him in the name of God.
So when they see an albatross, they feel happy and hope that the land is close to them. The same thing happened to the comrades of the ancient navy. When they saw the albatross they greeted it with joy and gave it food and played with it. So the albatross brought them company. Thanks to the arrival of the albatross they could escape the harsh loneliness around them. Coleridge has presented this bird as a friend and companion for men.
Both poems have used symbolism very skillfully. Coleridge has used the technique of voluntary suspension of disbelief where readers will forget the real world and believe that the world the poet is presenting is real. The plot of the poem centers around the idea of sin-suffering-prayer-redemption. It is a poem with a moral touch. The sailor first committed a sin and then suffered for it. After much suffering he prayed to God and then God forgave him. The sailor learned his lesson and told others to show love and kindness to God’s creation. The albatross symbolizes Jesus Christ. The sailor killed the innocent bird that brought companionship and hope to him and his fellow sailors:
And a good south wind came up behind;
The albatross followed,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the navy lobby!
In the same way the people of Jerusalem crucified Christ, who was innocent and who brought hope for their salvation. The other sailors were horrified to discover that the sailor had killed the albatross:
And I had done a devilish thing,
And it would work for them:
No doubt I had killed the bird
This caused the wind to blow.
Ah wretch! they said, the bird to kill,
This caused the wind to blow!
Normally, the song of the nightingale is a symbol of joy and happiness. But Keats wrote this poem when he was suffering greatly from his illness. Although he sought happiness through the whistle, he knew in his heart that he would die soon. So the symbols of death and oblivion are present in this poem. Keats has often referred to Greek mythology. In doing so, he has treated the nightingale in such a way as if it were a magical bird that was beyond all sadness. So the bird is magical and free from human suffering. Keats wished he could be like him and overcome all his pain and sadness. In his effort to end sadness, he is like the Buddha. The Buddha throughout his life tried to find a way to free himself from human suffering and achieve salvation. Keats has the same aim and in this poem his nightingale has this magical power. The only problem is that Keats knows that he is a human being and cannot be like the nightingale.
In Ode to a Nightingale Keats tries to strike a fine balance between feeling and thought. We can find extraordinary sensual passages, as in the beginning. Using the word ‘sense’ and makes the readers feel this sleepy numbness as well.
The poet later deals with the problems of human life, as in the third stanza:
‘Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where paralysis shakes a few hairs, sad and last gray,
Where youth fades, the specter thins and dies;
Where only to think is to be full of sorrow.’
Unlike 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. In fact The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is like a fairy tale that at first seems like a children’s story without any deep meaning, but a closer look makes readers realize that it contains the deepest moral lessons. The moral of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is:
He prays best, he who loves best
All things great and small;
For the dear God who loves us,
He did and loves them all.
Christianity teaches us the same thing – to love God and his creations. No other religion gives so much importance to this kind of love. The albatross gave this love to the sailors, bringing them joy and luck. Thus, the albatross is also a magical bird. It is the bird that brings good luck and pleasant smell to sailors. The Ancient Mariner acted selfishly and brutally in killing him. He thought only of his own pleasure. He didn’t even think that he was killing an innocent bird for no reason. He didn’t lack food, but he certainly lacked kindness. He forgot that there was a God who was more powerful than anyone. Of course the god did not like that he killed the bird for no reason.
God showed the sailors that no matter how much power a man has, he must not be merciless with nature. If they did not follow humanity then they would be punished. The punishment the sailor suffered was terrible. He suffered the worst form of pain – loneliness and isolation. By nature human beings are social animals, so being alone on a ship in an endless sea was certainly a terrible thing to suffer. He often wished he had died, but he didn’t
An orphan’s curse would be drawn to hell
A breath from above;
But oh! more terrible than that
Is the curse in the eye of a dead man!
Seven days, seven nights, I saw that curse,
And yet I could not die.
Only after the sailor realized his sin and prayed deeply to God for forgiveness was he saved.
At the same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell and sank
Like lead in the sea.
In his personal life, Coleridge was not a very religious person, but in this poem he has praised Christianity in a very high way. Christianity always asks its followers to seek God’s forgiveness every day. 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 for his country, England. When the sailor returned from his voyage to England, he felt that he had arrived in heaven
Oh! dream of joy! is this really?
The pinnacle of light I see?
Is this the hill? is this kirk
Is this my place?
In conclusion, the two poems are among the greatest bird poems in English literature. Poets have used birds as symbols and associated them with their lives. Birds are magical but contain something more than magic. They take us to another world – a dreamy and ideal world. The main difference between the two poets is that the nightingale seems to be something in the sky for John Keats and has nothing to do with everyday human life, but is something that is beyond our normal life. On the other hand, ST Coleridge’s albatross is something that relates to our everyday life. The sailors fed him and played with him. It was like their only friend in an endless sea.
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