“Ode to a Nightingale”
Author: Catharine Niuzzo Honaman

Time: 1 – 2 classes
Preparation Time: 1 – 2 hours to read lesson and to learn about John Keats if not already familiar with him and his poetry by visiting the website http://englishhistory.net/keats/contents.html
Materials: A copy of “Ode to a Nightingale” for each student

Antibiotics have provided an impressive cure for Tuberculosis, once a death sentence. However, with the development of antibiotic resistant strains of Tuberculosis, the disease is once more a growing foe in public health. This makes John Keats’s poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ a little more relevant to today than we might like. In ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ Keats attempts to understand his own mortality in the face of this grim disease. Students will read and analyze this poem to see what poetic devices Keats employs to help him deal with the looming specter of death at an early age from tuberculosis.

This is the explore lesson. Students will see through the work of John Keats how the view of life of the individual is shaped by the conditions of a society living with a major disease.

Students will be able to:
1. Identify examples of simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, symbolism, allusion, and imagery in a literary selection;
2. Make connections between the author’s outlook on life and the impact that this life-threatening disease had on his philosophy;
3. Draw comparisons between the fictional description of life in Year of Wonders and the actual experience John Keats had living in a time when serious illness killed family and friends.

National English Education Standards
Standard #2
Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

Arizona State Standards
Strand 2: Concept 1
PO 2. Analyze the author’s use of figurative language, including simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, symbolism, allusion, and imagery in a literary selection.
PO 3. Compare (and contrast) the illustration of the same theme in two different literary genres, using their structural features as the basis for comparison.

Teacher Background
It would be helpful to be familiar with the life of John Keats and his place in the cannon of British literature. For a good overview of his work and his life visit: http://englishhistory.net/keats/contents.html

Related and Resource Websites
http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/lit_terms/ (literary terms)
http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/lit_terms/terms/ (literary terms)
http://ftp.ccccd.edu/andrade/britlit/romanticism/nightingale.html (A guide to understanding “Ode to a Nightingale”)



1. Ask the students if they can name any diseases which were once fatal but can now, sometimes quite easily, be cured. Tuberculosis, syphilis, and tetanus are just a few. Contracting any of those diseases in the past not only meant death but terrible suffering and misery throughout the duration of the illness. Penicillin and antibiotics have given modern people a feeling of invincibility in the face of disease. That was not always so and many a poet and artist explored the theme of untimely death from contagion. At this point mention that while we may now feel invincible against tuberculosis, the development of antibiotic resistant strains has resulted in tuberculosis being on the rise again. In some areas of both this country and others Tuberculosis is a serious health problem.

2. When the famous poet John Keats lost his brother to Tuberculosis he was filled with despair. In his distraught state he tried to come to terms with the briefness of human life. Read “Ode to a Nightingale” with your students and discuss, stanza by stanza, what Keats is communicating to his reader. A good web site to aid you in this is: http://ftp.ccccd.edu/andrade/britlit/romanticism/nightingale.html

3. After the students understand what Keats is saying about the briefness of life, go on to a literary analysis of the text. One way to do this would be to break the class up into small groups and have each identify examples of simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, symbolism, allusion, and imagery in a literary selection. Time may be saved by putting the definitions of the above-mentioned literary devices on the board. Two great resources for these are:

The following definitions are from the first web site.

Simile is the comparison of two unlike things using like or as.

Metaphor is the comparison of two unlike things using the verb "to be" and not using ‘like’ or ‘as’ as in a simile.

Personification is giving human qualities to animals or objects.

Hyperbole is exaggeration or overstatement.

Symbol is using an object or action that means something more than its literal meaning. Allusion is a brief reference to a person, event, or place, real or fictitious, or to a work of art. It is a casual reference to a famous historical or literary figure or event.

An allusion may be drawn from history, geography, literature, or religion.

Image is language that evokes one or all of the five senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touching.

After the groups have combed through “Ode to a Nightingale” for strong examples of the various literary devices, hold an entire class discussion to compare what the different groups found. Then ask the students which reading (Brooks or Keats) spoke to them most and why. What images in both pieces will stay with them?

Your students have analyzed Keats’s poem to appreciate both his message and his expertise as a writer. His message becomes all the more compelling when we realize that he will be dead within two years of composing “Ode to a Nightingale.” Conclude class by discussing with the students how poetry, and art as a whole, isn’t just a frivolous pursuit when the real work of the day is finished; often it is how we make sense of a world that defies human understanding.


Embedded Assessment
Both the written work and the class discussions offer opportunities to evaluate how well the students are engaging the objectives of the lesson. The last question of the class discussion (What images in both pieces will stay with them?) could be used as a brief written assignment for which students could be graded on both proper use of written language and effectively backing up their opinions with clear examples from the text.


PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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