The concept and act of ‘death’ are often explored by poets in the Romantic movement, and Byron in ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup’ and Keats in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ are no exceptions. Both died young and both experienced tragic deaths of close family or friends before their own untimely demise.
At a time of significant philosophical and religious change, Byron and Keats explore what constitutes the afterlife, as well as life’s meaning and how to deal with mortality.
Though Byron values transient pleasures in life, Keats explored the value of nature in all its immortal glory, the difference in their personal values mirroring their differing attitudes to death and life. It is their mutual acceptance of death’s inevitability that allows them to ponder what comes before and after it.
Death is presented as a means by which the poetic voices can reflect upon life and its meaning by both Byron and Keats. In ‘Lines’, Byron comments on how in death a person’s life can have more meaning than it did in life.
This relates to his need to redefine his legacy through fighting in the war in Greece, an attempt to redeem his tarnished reputation so he would be remembered for more than the hedonism displayed in ‘Lines’. The poetic voice says “Better to hold the sparkling grape, Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood”, the juxtaposition between the vibrant life of a ‘grape’ and the semantic field of death and decay surrounding the noun ‘earth-worm’ commenting on the excitement that can be born out of legacy and romanticism rather than truth and life.
The verb ‘nurse’ is also used ironically by Byron, as it shows connotations of health and care but instead the worms only decay the skull faster. Life is also described as dull compared to what comes after by Keats, where life ‘has no light’ in comparison to the wonder of the Nightingale which exists on a more idyllic plane of existence.
The repeated use of the adverb ‘here’ to refer to the world is used to create a divide between the imagined world of the nightingale – where nature rules in its most divine form and where a human can scarcely fathom or appreciate its beauty – compared with the sickly and dark world in which Keats is condemned to live in. To describe his world, the poetic voice uses the semantic field of death and frailty: “youth grows pale, and specter thin”.
This echoes the death of Keats’ brother Thomas which the author had to experience, and as such Keats himself has always been at the precipice of death, perhaps the reason why he is ‘half in love’ with it. Keats uses asyndetic listing when describing the ‘thicket and pastoral eglantine’ that nature brings, the abundance of bountiful language juxtaposing the frailty and fragility of life that can do nothing but end in the eyes of the speaker: nature, and the nightingale, will live on.
Therefore, both poetic voices created by Byron and Keats have found a sense of security in their mortality, knowing that whatever comes afterlife cannot be stopped: they must either live life to the fullest whilst alive, or await the beauty of what is to come after death.
Furthermore, the attitude that death is inevitable and must be accepted is explored in both poems. One way in which Keats does this in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is by relishing how the ‘immortal’ Nightingale and its beauty is not bound by the human fate of having to die. Where the speaker could drift into a sleep-like and ‘easeful Death’, the nightingale cannot be tread down by ‘hungry generations’.
The adjective ‘hungry’ furthers the idea that life is draining and that the world is full of people consumed by greed; thus, if everybody could experience the beauty of the nightingale, it wouldn’t be as sublime because it would be exploited. This could allude to Keats’ view on the destruction of nature at the hands of industrialization and capitalism. In a similar fashion, the ABAB rhyme scheme employed by Byron gives a whimsical tone to the speaker who speaks of death as an unchangeable end that must be made the best of.
He says that his audience may seem to be rescued ‘from earth’s embrace, and rhyme and revel with the dead’. The alliteration of ‘earth’s embrace’ is used ironically, creating a jubilant tone when speaking of the morbid topic of death: the technique is employed with the dynamic nouns ‘rhyme and revel’. In this way, Byron expresses his hedonist attitude to life as it won’t have any bearing on our lives as a corpse, and that the inevitability of death cannot be changed.
The beauty of nature that Keats speaks of is also alluded to by Byron with his frequent references to the ‘noble substitute’ of wine: whilst humans deteriorate as they grow old, the wine matures and becomes more delicious and valuable even after we are dead. Keats associates this notion with the power of the ‘deep-delved earth’ that, by association, has infused the wine with nature’s divine power.
Both Byron and Keats show a shift away from traditional and religion-centric attitudes to death, echoing the spread of the enlightenment in Europe at the time. Although many Romantic poets rejected the ideas of the enlightenment, they shared skepticism of religion and its perceived corruption: thus, in ‘Lines’, Byron is able to reject the notion that it is sacrilege to disturb a human body once it has been laid to rest.
He begins by beseeching a society who will reject his beliefs – ‘start not – nor deem my spirit fled’ – using a double-meaning on the word ‘spirit’ to mean both a human soul and alcohol. This pun reflects the duality of the skull’s purpose; once filled with a monk’s brain finding fulfillment through religion, but now filled with wine that gives people fulfillment through jubilance.
In many ways, it can be argued that Byron’s morals and beliefs were driven by hedonism rather than a legitimate religion or God. In a similar manner, Keats sees the divine plan to be that of nature rather than a Christian idea of heaven, with nature being the sublime power of the world rather than God. The speaker somewhat worships the nightingale – hence the ‘Ode’ – as a representation of the power of nature by using religious allusions: ‘thy high requiem’.
The noun ‘requiem’ is a dedication to the dead, and the speaker’s reduced state – “a sod” – at its sign shows how, even in the superior world of the dead, he is unworthy of the nightingale’s beauty: no beauty is found in death, just release from the knowledge that you are living a life that can never share the beauty of nature.
In conclusion, both Byron and Keats explore attitudes to death through the lens of changing perceptions of the afterlife and what people live for. In Byron’s case, his life was surrounded by scandal and hedonism, and thus in ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Skull’ he explores ideas of legacy and enjoying life when you can.
For Keats, death is a notion he can barely comprehend, much like the beauty of nature: as such, in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ he continues his drab existence with the knowledge that whatever comes next might have a semblance of the serenity the Nightingale encapsulates. Although the poets and poetic voices differ in their outlook on life, it is clear that there is one thing they both accept: death is the mysterious and inevitable end to all they know.