When you hear a nightingale’s song, what comes to mind? The nightingale’s song is high-pitched and very cheerful. However, deeper insight into literary tradition shows that it’s not all air and cake. A more sinister part of the nightingale is revealed. Nightingales can be a harbinger of death, the grim reaper’s companions.
The Symbolism of Nightingales
There is no other bird written about more in Western literature than the nightingale. The nightingale is a theme throughout English literature, from the Middle Ages to the long 18th century. From the Ancient Roman poet Ovid, all the way to John Keats, the nightingale seems to be a positive symbol of renewed hope and the coming of spring. However, when one feels that something is too good to be true, it usually is. It also has a more sinister undertone of death, since nighttime is like a little death. Nightingales are synonymous with the loveliness of the night, melody, death, loss, and sorrow.
Nightingales in Ancient Roman Literature
English literature’s Neoclassical movement drew from classical references. We see the nightingale in the myth of Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, where Philomela tragically turns into a nightingale after having been raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband, Tereus. Philomela is a name that stuck with Anne Finch, who called one of her friends Philomela.
Medieval Representations of Deadly Nightingales
About a millennium later, in Medieval English literature, we see the archetypal nightingale again in “The Owl and the Nightingale,” a debate poem. This poem describes the vehement debate between the two birds, in which the nightingale insults the owl’s mournful singing. To this, the owl replies that she is trying to have men repent of their sins while the nightingale’s song makes men inclined to lust. “The Lay of the Nightingale,” written by Marie de France, shows how the nightingale’s melancholy song captivated a young woman and kept her awake all night. Her lover brutally murdered the nightingale. From these ancient and medieval works, we can deduce that nightingales were associated with both lust and inevitable tragedy. In fact, later on, the early modern writer Milton often called nightingales a lover’s bird.
But why is the nightingale associated with love and loss? Romantic love, like all things, carries the risk of loss. Romantic love is very fleeting. Though it can mature into agape love that is more substantial and durable, the nature of romantic attraction is doomed not to last.
Shakespeare’s Sorrowful Nightingale
How was the nightingale portrayed in the Renaissance? The nightingale’s song flickers through the day and night. It usually sings in the spring, from April to early June. Spring is a celebrated archetype of nature that represents joy, invigoration, revelations, and rebirth. Shakespeare’s sonnets celebrate the season’s vivacity, but the nightingale turns the sonnet on its head. Listen to the dissonant lines within this Shakespearean sonnet:
“As it fell upon a day
In the merry month of May,
Sitting in a pleasant shade
Which a grove of myrtles made,
Beasts did leap, and birds did sing,
Trees did grow, and plants did spring;
Every thing did banish moan,
Save the nightingale alone:
She, poor bird, as all forlorn,
Lean’d her breast up-till a thorn
And there sung the dolefull’st ditty,
That to hear it was great pity”
(The Passionate Pilgrim, XXI,
Here, Shakespeare perfectly captures the literary archetype of the nightingale. A nightingale’s cries interrupt a lovely spring day. The usual songs of nightingales in nature are not sorrowful. Thus, it seems that Shakespeare’s sonnet is imbued with the literary allusion of the nightingale, not necessarily the true nature of the nightingale itself. The nightingale’s tainted image of love and loss deeply contrasts with the greenery of spring.
The Universal Nightingale of Death
Since the nightingale sings in the spring, one would think that the nightingale represents joy, but its songs at night represent something more sinister and tragic. The nightingale is associated with love and loss throughout many cultures, whether it be Greek, Roman, or English literature and beyond. In Greek mythology, the nightingale was known as the Bird of Hades. Even in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Nightingale,” the nightingale’s song saves the king’s life, who was near death.
The dual nature of the nightingale’s song reminds us of the multifaceted nature of life’s beauty. If there was no death or suffering, life would lose its meaning. The very things that bring us joy also bring us grief when they are gone. Our greatest blessings can also be our most tragic affliction. Romantic love brings us the most loss and grief. For example, an elderly widower who loses his wife knows that his wife brought him the most joy in his life, but her death is the most tragic event that has happened to him.
Modern Interpretations of Nightingales
This is perfectly described within the Romantic era. Keats’s nightingale is more neoclassical in that it, too, represents death. In Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” the theme is that nothing can last–not beauty, not amorous love, not even one’s life. “Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes, / Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.” Keats sees the nightingale as immortal because it lives through its song. However, the nightingale eventually flies away, leaving Keats with a sense of loss and the hard belief that nothing does last.
However, the nightingale can also be a more positive image, especially since it brings spring with it. Anne Finch’s “Ode to a Nightingale” espouses a positive view of the nightingale, praising its natural musical capacity and intelligence and reflecting upon the sorrowful state of the human mind. Finch’s problem, then, is not the nightingale itself, but rather the lack of human inspiration in her poetry. Why can she not write as fluidly and effortlessly as the nightingale sings? Why is it so hard for her to write verses while the nightingale spurns its tune without a second thought?
The Importance of the Nightingale Today
We’ve explored the themes of the nightingale in the literature of the past, but what does this mean for us today? We learn and apprehend from the experiences of the great writers of old, in that we need to experience and appreciate life’s complexity; whether it be a beautiful renascent endowment of new spring, or the fleeting nature of desire. The springtime is certainly a time to enjoy life’s new blessings, but it is also a time to celebrate that we were given a chance to experience them instead of clinging to them.
The nightingale’s song only lasts in the spring, and just like every other animal, nightingales have a short lifespan. Its mortality reminds us, too, of our own mortality. With this in perspective, all the trivial matters we worry about in our lives will become dust, and so will our money and fortune. The nightingale’s cheery song, tainted and haunted by the great writers of the past, reminds us that beautiful things do not last.
However, like Anne Finch, we can be inspired to dedicate ourselves to our craft. Do we still read Anne Finch today? Yes. Shakespeare’s humanistic view is that the wisdom of the greats lives on, and that people will read his writing in the centuries to come. So, keep contributing to humanity. You may not live forever, but the work that you do will live for the rest of humanity.
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