Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Nightingale in English Literature and Tradition

by Mark Patton

The nightingale is a bird rarely seen in Britain, and, increasingly, a bird that is also rarely heard. Birdsong in general was far more ubiquitous on these islands before the beginning of the Nineteenth Century than it has been since: both because, in the days before intensive agriculture and industrialisation, there were many more birds, but also because they had many fewer noises to compete with. The nightingale long occupied a special place in English literature and tradition because of the mellifluous quality of its song and because it is one of the few British birds to sing at night. Concerned by the decline of this much-loved migratory species, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has established a National Nightingale Festival, running until the 27th of May.

"Nyhtegale," from Alciato's Book of Emblems, c 1350 (image is in the Public Domain).

The nightingale first appears in a poem of around 1174, in which she engages in a debate with that other bird of the night, the owl, perhaps in imitation of the parsing contests in which trainee lawyers sought to prove themselves. The nightingale accuses the owl of inspiring gloom with her doleful call, but the owl insists that she is merely encouraging men to reflect on their sins, whereas the nightingale's merry song is more likely to inspire lust:

"And by my song I teach all men
They’d better turn their backs on sin,
And warn them against evil ways
Lest they be fooled for all their days;
Far better weep a while before
Than burn in hell forevermore! "

The Owl and the Nightingale, Jesus College Oxford MS 29, ff165-168. Photo: Jessefawn (licensed under CCA).

The Owl and the Nightingale, British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A IX ff233-246. Photo: Jessefawn (licensed under CCA).

In an anonymous poem written some decades later, the song of the nightingale is associated with romantic love, but inspires in the poet bittersweet memories of a happier season, spent in the company of a lover since lost:

 "When the nyhtegale singes,
    The wodes waxen grene,
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes
    In Averyl, Y wene ;
Ant love is to myn herte gon
    With one spere so kene,
Nyht ant day my blod hit drynkes
    Myn herte deth me tene."

The full poem, read by Eleanor Parker, can be heard here.

In John Milton's Sonnet to the Nightingale, written in 1632 or 1633, the bird's song inspires hope in the heart of the lover, and is contrasted, not with the owl, but with the cuckoo, a symbol of infidelity and cuckoldry.

"O NIGHTINGALE that on yon blooming spray
Warblest at eve, when all the woods are still,
Thou with fresh hopes the Lover’s heart dost fill,
While the jolly Hours lead on propitious May.
Thy liquid notes that close the eye of Day,
First heard before the shallow cuckoo’s bill,
Portend success in love. O if Jove’s will
Have linked that amorous power to thy soft lay,
Now timely sing, ere the rude bird of hate
Foretell my hopeless doom, in some grove nigh;
As thou from year to year hast sung too late
For my relief, yet had’st no reason why.
Whether the Muse or Love call thee his mate,
Both them I serve, and of their train am I."

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, written in 1798, the poet, perhaps drawing on the Medieval tradition, first perceives the nightingale as a "most melancholy bird," but then insists that "In nature there is nothing melancholy";" that such associations are always our own impositions:

"My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature's sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! 'Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music!

The full poem, read by Tom Vaughan-Jones, can be heard here.

My various novels feature a number of bird species (the stone-chat, the skylark, the tree-creeper) which, even during the course of my own lifetime, have become less common than they once were; as well as a few (the peregrine falcon, the barn owl, the great bustard - for which even Thomas Hardy held out little hope) which, thanks to the efforts of the RSPB and similar organisations, seem to be on their way back from the brink. Perhaps what is truly melancholy, after almost a thousand years of cultural associations, is not the song of the nightingale, but the thought that it might ever cease to be heard. "Thou was not born for death, immortal bird," wrote John Keats:

 "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."

On which note, I leave the last word to the bird itself.

The Nightingale. Photo: Frebeck (licensed under CCA).


Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at He is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. I loved this post. What beautiful poems you shared. (I've loved Keats' Ode to a Nightingale). Sadly, I have never heard that bird, although I would love to.

  2. Loved the post Mark. Shared on FB and Twitter!


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