Calendary Literature – May – the nightingale in literary context

May and June came and went without me getting updated my Calendary Literature this year, but I figure better late than never, right? So here I am, with the May post.

May is the month of brightening nights and of serenades being gushed romantically into the increasingly light blue of these nights, and I tried to think of a particular serenade to post here, but instead I think I’ll do a “theme”-post like the one I did for February, and the object of this theme-post shall be the world’s first and oldest serenade-singer, that is the nightingale, in literary context.


I’m sad to admit that I haven’t actually ever heard a nightingale in real life, but I have been told about the alleged beauty of the bird’s song for as long as I can remember – even back in preschool I was taught an elaborate song about a persona’s imaginative puff-the-magic-dragon-ish escape from the real world into a “happy dream-land” through the mere sound of the nightingale’s song. “Nattergal, du er lille og grå, men dine sange må vi lære at forstå!” [“Nigthingale, you are small and grey, but we must learn to understand your songs!”] the lyrics ended, somewhat pathetically, I always thought. But I guess my pre-school teacher would be proud of me if she could se me now, because this past semester I went through a great deal of trouble trying to understand the songs of the nightingale; I incidentally took two different exams on two works of literature that both, to some extent, revolved around this diminuitive little songbird. The works in question were “Laüstic” by Marie de France and “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats.


“Laüstic” means “nightingale” in ancient French, which was what Marie de France wrote in. She was something so rare as a medieval poetess and though very little is known definitely about her, researchers determine it is pretty safe to say that she moved to live at the court of Henry II in England and some point in her life and that it was here at this court that she composed the twelve narrative poems (“lais” or “lays” in old English) that have been ascribed to her. The poems are excellent and you can read nine of them, as well as Marie de France’s prologue for the lais, here in brilliant translations by Judith P. Shoaf – I very much recommend them, and in the following quotes from one of Marie’s lais, it is Shoaf’s translations, I am using. I wrote my exam paper on three of the lais; “Laüstic”, “Lanval” and “Eliduc” (a translation of “Eliduc” does not appear on the Shoaf-site, but may be found in a translation by Edith Rickert here), but my favourite among the lais will always be “Laüstic”, I think.

It’s the story of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage: Married to a man, she finds herself in love with this man’s neighbour, who returns her love. The two have an innocent, courtly affair, consisting of their looking at each other from their windows at night, and sweetly tossing little presents to each other. After a while, however, the Husband demands that his wife tell him what she’s doing out of bed every night and, supposedly reluctant to reveal her secret, the Wife tells him that “No person may be happy who has not heard the song of the nightingale”. Upon receiving this explanation, the Husband orders for glue-sticks to be set up all over the garden, and before long he calls on his wife, triumphantly showing her the trapped nightingale and saying: “Lady, where are you? Speak some word/to us! Look! I caught this bird–/Come here, now! See how my lime glue/Got him! This nightingale kept you/Awake so often, night-long, when/You should sleep in peace. Well, never again!” The Wife asks is she can have the nightingale, and the Husband brutally wrings the bird’s neck and throws it at his wife’s chest. Left to herself, the grieving Wife wraps the bird in an embroidered cloth and has a messenger bring it to her Lover. The Lover places the bird in a relic casket and brings it with him wherever he goes. His love story is soon known around the world.

courtly love

Courtly lovin’ – a knight and his dame

Is that not the best story ever? I think so. Not only is it a beautiful love story, it’s also a story about the importance and function of art. Being courtly persons by heart, the Wife and the Lover swear by the platonic and the metaphysical, but their romantic aspirations are crushed by the coarse Husband, who insists upon the physical as he turns the nightingale, which his wife attempted to make into a metaphor for her love affair, into first something as trivial and lowly as an animal, then a tragically tangible cadaver. Through the means of art, however, the Wife and the Lover retrieve the nightingale’s symbolic meaning and pass it on into the world to outlive their mortal selves with its immortal, allegorical tale. Beautiful! Whenever my demons tell me that what I’m studying is useless and I should have studied to be a doctor and have been saving lives wearing mask and gloves by now, I think of this and realize that I’m wrong. Art is never irrelevant, never un-important. And of course the nightingale is a central part of this tale. The paradox that was to be found in the song I was taught as a child, is also to be found here: The nightingale is small and grey, but its song carries a lot of weight nevertheless. If we see, as I think we should, the Wife’s explanation to her Husband than more than just a slightly humorous, bad excuse (possibly with some sexual innuendo: As Judith P. Shoaf was kind enough to bring my attention to when I asked her permission to use her translation of the lai in this post, the “nightingale” is used in a Decameron story in such a way; “the nightingale” serving as an euphemism for the male member), what she’s saying is that one has never lived if one has never ignored the inferiority, the greyness of a human life and admired the beauty of it, the way one does when enjoying the celestially beautiful song of a nightingale, allowing oneself to forget that it is simply the mating call of a lowly, grey little bird. That is the paradox of the nightingale, and that is what separates the Husband from the Wife and her Lover.

“Ode to a Nightingale”

John Keats is approximately six centuries younger than Marie de France and unlike the French emigrant poetess we know all sorts of things about Keats. For instance, we know that he studied to become a doctor once and how’s that for interesting? Here is a man who actually could have stood there, with his mask and his gloves (provided that they used such sanitary equipment back then. I honestly don’t know if they did, but I have a nagging feeling that they didn’t and vaguely remember reading some gruesome statistics about the death at childbirth from that period. Shudder.), saving lives, and yet he chose to be a poet. It’s not surprising that his poem about the nightingale should feature the same paradox that his medieval colleague touched upon, as I believe it does.

The presentation I did about Keats’s nightingale ode this semester was on the subject of the theme of aesthesia/syn-aesthesia as themes in the odes; what I found was that the persona’s senses are shut off gradually (“a drowsy numbness pains/my sense” ) as he listens to the song of the Nightingale, only to be mixed together in a kind of synaestesia towards the middle of the poem (rhyming the gradually more fantastic and oxymoronic imagery of the poem: “magic casements, opening on the foam”), and then to have his senses separate and function again in the end.

I was greatly inspired by Jack Stillinger’s chapter “Imagination and Reality in the Odes” in his book The Hoodwinking of Madeline (very recommendable for further reading). Stillinger’s main thesis in this chapter is that medicine-trained Keats did not lose himself into some Kingdom of Imagination through his odes, as much as he explored such a kingdom and then returned to the real world, wiser from the experience. My study of Keats’s ode was, then, to determine how this two-way ticket tour of Keats’s was illustrated through his persona’s use of senses throughout the poem.

The nightingale becomes the catalyst for this spiritual/intellectual journey. It is the song of the nightingale that makes the poem’s persona aware of this “drowsy numbness” of his senses, and, even more interestingly, the poem depicts to a large degree the persona’s attempt at fixing the nightingale, much like the Husband in “Laüstic”. The persona goes on a nightingale-hunt, trying to fully capture the beautiful capacity of the nightingale’s song, through imaginary kingdoms, or kingdoms of the past (the Greek mythological realms of “Lethe”, the “Dryad” and “Hippocrene”, the lost “Provencal” realm, the old-testament realm that “Ruth” represents, and the fanciful, fairytale realm of the “Queen-moon” and her “starry Fays”), and willingly losing his senses to the point where he almost longs for death, as the ultimate sense-duller (“…for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death”). Except, as illustrated, once again, by the movement described by Stillinger, such a movement out of reality and life and into imagination and death would not bring him any closer to the nightingale. He would be a lifeless “sod” and oblivious to the beautiful song, and the “faerylands” are only imaginary and thus “folorn”. Like biblical Ruth, he will have to resign himself to the melancholy enjoyment of the nightingale from afar, and accordingly, the persona sets the nightingale free in the last stanza, following its course “Past near the meadows, over the still stream,/up the hillside”, and accepting his perception of the nightingale not as a purely abstract phenomenon, a metaphor, and not just as a mortal bird, but as something in between those two.

I won’t venture to draw some kind of conclusion about the nightingale in literature based on these few examples, but I do find it interesting the way the nightingale seems to trigger our perception of imagination. I guess it’s the paradox of the bird that’s so hard for us to get past: There it is, this bird, so plain and grey and humble-looking, and with a pencil-like neck that we could snap between our fingers if we wanted to – and yet it’s capable of such beauty. And that invokes in us such a unnerving sense of eternity, and how it passes on long after we’ve been given up by well-meaning doctor’s hands. And the fact that the beauty of a bird’s song on a late Spring evening is something swift and flightly and obscure and impossible to fix, however much we might want to. As Homer Simpson would probably put it: Lousy, lovable bird…! 


One response to “Calendary Literature – May – the nightingale in literary context

  1. I have always loved Robert Bridges’ poem on ‘Nightingales’ a little more. I felt that the pathos the birds bring into the poem a more powerful force than sheer wonder.

    Since I am not learned about the allegories and fner nuances, I usually depict each poem with an image, a fact, a comment, just like I did ‘nightingales’ here…

    That is also how I located your post…:-)

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