Here's my interpretation.
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:
’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,-
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.
First stanza, Keats has seen this Nightingale in the tree. The whole stanza is pretty unimportant, just describes the experience and how he feels.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:
Here he is speaking of drowning away his sorrows in
Second Stanza is where is starts getting good. Keats longs for a 'draught of vintage', a glimpse into the past. He realises that Nightingales have been singing the same song for centuries, millenia possibly, and that their song has not changed since. See the references to mythology and ancient times 'Tasting of Flora, 'Beaker full of the warm south'.
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
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
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
The third stanza is where it really gets going. Keats realises that these birds never experience sorrow, or pain in the sky, it is something 'thou among the leaves hast never known'. 'Youth grows pale....and dies', 'Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes' on humans for too long, Melancholy and sadness has to cast it's eye on them too.
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
Not the imperative tone of the first line. Keats realises that he too can reach the greatness of the bird (the immortality of it's song) without the aid of Bacchus (God of Wine) and his pards. He can soar to the heights the bird reaches on 'The viewless wings of Poesy'. Poetry too can be immortal. 'Already with thee tender is the night', Keats refers to both Poetry and the Bird transcending him. While he is in a place where 'there is no light', the bird's song, and his poetry has outlived him and continues to soar.
I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves
Here Keats focuses on death. Keats realises that his poetry does not necessarily have to be appreciated right now ('I cannot see what flowers are at my feet'), but he realises that 'in embalmed darkness' he will be able to 'guess each sweet', in other words although his work is not appreciated now, in death it will be.
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain -
To thy high requiem become a sod.
In this canto he is describing his suicidal tendencies. He’s still talking to the bird when he says “thou”.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Here Keats praises the Bird and in effect, his poetry. 'No hungry generations' can wear the Bird away, the bird's song, and Keats' own poetry will still remain. Keats states that he was heard a song that was heard 'In ancient days by emperor and clown' and far back in Biblical times by 'Ruth'.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: - Do I wake or sleep?
Here Keats starts to doubt what he has just thought of. It seems almost too perfect, and Keats remembers that imagination is usually more perfect than reality, hence the reason he asks 'Do I wake or sleep?'. This final part is up to the reader and I believe it is directly aimed at the reader. Reading Keats' work nearly 2 centuries on, I think it was fair to say that Keats was awake, his work still lives on as we all seem to prove