Song and Poetry: On Poets and Nightingales

Welcome to the third student post on 18th Century Literature and media. After last week’s dramatic reproduction of an 18th century theatre experience, we shall now descend into the realm of Song and Poetry.

Ode to a Nightingale – John Keats

The nightingale’s song served as an inspiration for many poets

The romantic poet John Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale  in 1819 after enjoying a nightingale’s song in his garden. This event lead him to compose this ode in the spirit of the romantic era. In order to fully understand the poem, one needs to know two things. Firstly, as Keats had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, he resorted to opiates as a method to alleviate his pain. This biographical fact echoes in the poem, where his numbness caused by opium and alcohol is reflected in the initial stanzas. Secondly, the nightingale is not “just” a bird. Keats, as well as the other poets that will be discussed here, allude to Greek mythology in which Philomela – a princess of Athens – transforms into a nightingale to escape the anger of Tereus.

( In book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela’s tragic story is outlined. King Tereus, who was married to Philomela’s sister Procne, showed too much interest in his sister-in-law. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, Tereus rapes Philomela, cuts her tongue out and hides her in a shed on top of a mountain. One year later, Philomela’s sister Procne, presuming Philomela has been dead all this time, receives a fabric that confirms Philomela is still alive and also contains a representation of all the harm that has been done to her sister. Procne releases her sister without Tereus knowing, both determined to punish Tereus. They kill the son Procne had with Tereus and fed his corps to the king.  When Tereus founds out the deceit, he tries to pursue the two sisters, unable to catch either one of them given that, while they are running from him, they transform into a nightingale and a swallow. Ovid mentions at the end that both birds will be forever marked with the murder they committed by having their breast covered with bloodstained feathers.)

In Ode to a Nightingale he links the story of Philomela with the bird by describing the nightingale as a “light-winged Dryad of the trees”. Later on in the poem, the reader will see the resemblance between Philomela’s tragic story and Keats’ perpetual pains. Further on in the first stanza, Keats compares his personal drug abuse with the effect of poetry in general. His poetic hallucinations initially rhyme with his personal drug experiences. The flush that drugs or drinking provides level with Keats’ empirical understanding of what a poem should accomplish.

John Keats (1795-1821)

With admiration for the extensive happiness and freedom of the nightingale in the opening stanza of the poem, the mind of the poet slips into a kind of identical happy state. At first sight he appears to reach this mental state by means of alcohol, only he does not. Verse 19 clearly stipulates “that I might drink, and leave the world unseen.” The state he is in is comparable to the effect of drinking too much or taking drugs for that matter, which he alludes to in verse 2 and 3: “as though of hemlock I had drunk, Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains”. Notwithstanding the fact that he clearly knows what these drugs can do, for Keats, his poetry is an alternative way to “leave the world unseen”, and therefore a means to forget his personal issues.

The third stanza indicates his desire to escape reality for a while by embarking on an imaginary journey with the nightingale. He wishes to forget the disadvantages of the human condition in this world, like disease, fading beauty and death.

In the next stanza, he directly points out that he has completed his journey by means of poesy instead of reaching for sedatives. Keats makes this clear by rejecting the image of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, whose chariot is drawn by leopards. Turning away from drugs and alcohol, poetry becomes his only beacon in the darkness of human suffering.

The fifth stanza shows us a glimpse of Keats’ imaginative power to create new worlds through words. These impressions of nature seem so truthful that we can imagine that specific portrait of nature, but being ill and not being able to go outdoors, this description is purely imaginary. Keats could only “guess”(verse 43) at the empirical experience of being physically in nature itself.

Returning in the following stanza to the scene of Keats listening to the nightingale singing its song in its natural habitat, he expresses his desires to die while enjoying the nightingale’s song; he is ready to leave this world in this moment of perfect happiness.

The penultimate stanza is the classical example of an ode. The poet praises the universal and immortal character of the nightingale’s song , which can be interpreted as a metaphor for poetry . However, poesy does not carry the same meaning to everyone. Rather, it is open to multiple interpretations, while retaining its beauty.  According to Keats, poetry creates new and better worlds.

The fantastic journey he started by giving himself over to the imaginative power of the nightingale’s song in the third stanza, ends abruptly at the beginning of the last stanza. Keats is torn away from the nightingale’s song by stumbling over his own expression of thoughts. By ending the previous stanza with the word forlorn, his thoughts are pulled back to his current writing activity. In the process of this event, the nightingale flies away and will inspire someone else with its song.

Finch and Cowper

Anne Finch (1661-1720)

Apart from Keats, there have been other poets who have been inspired by the nightingale’s song. One of these is Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, who was a maid of honour at the court of king James II when she first developed an interest in poetry. Finch’s view on the nightingale differs greatly from Keats’, which has been discussed above. Firstly, the bird needs its freedom in order to sing, just as poets cannot be hampered by formal restrictions. Secondly, both poets and nightingales produce their best song when burdened by some form of pain. This belief originates in the myth of Philomela (explained above), whose plumage at her breast is as red as blood. The myth does not say anything about the bird pressing its breast against a thorn while singing its song, but this tragic image of the nightingale hurting itself enforces the idea that Philomela will have to live with the harm that was done to her. The nightingale relives Philomela’s pain by paining itself to be able to sing her pain. In his work The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature, Lee A. Ritscher tells us that:

[W]hen Sidney describes the narrator’s pain of unrequited love in “The Nightingale,”(c. 157-1581) he contemplates the rape of Philomela and her post-rape fate. Sidney’s narrator tells of the return of nightingales to the English countryside and focuses attention upon the myth that the nightingale presses her breast against a thorn as a reminder of Philomela’s pain.”

In the same way, Finch underlines that a poet needs some form of pain in order to be able to write to his fullest potential. An interesting note here is that, according to Ritscher, the pressing of the breast against a thorn was not included in Ovid’s version of the myth, but was added at a later date and serves as a way to remind Philomela that the pain of being raped was not so bad after all. As a group of aspiring literature students, we seem to disagree with Ritscher’s interpretation. Rather than reprimanding herself and showing herself the true meaning of pain as opposed to the pain of being raped, we believe that Philomela uses the thorn as a way to voice her pain, much like a romantic poet, or as Wordsworth put it, through “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility”.

In Finch’s poem, there is an interesting interaction between song and poetry. First of all, Finch tries to merge the two concepts. She is asking the Muse for help in order to produce poetry that is fitting to the nightingale’s song. However, she soon realizes that she cannot achieve perfect harmony. She tries to solve this problem by turning to division, which is a musical technique of dividing each note of a melody into shorter, fast-moving notes. Coincidentally, the nightingale is the master of this technique, often using it in its song, and Finch is once again outstripped. This results in a jealous outburst and even a self-reflective moment of doubt on the part of the poet. The lines “Cease then, prithee, cease thy Tune; / Trifler, wilt thou sing till June?” can be interpreted in different ways. Finch is either asking the nightingale to stop singing because she can never achieve such perfection with her poetry, or she is referring to herself and doubting her own qualities as a poet. If we take this into account, we can conclude that the nightingale does not have the same soothing effect on Finch as it has on Keats.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

In Cowper’s poem, the nightingale again undertakes the role of a soothing measure, but on a different level than in Keats’s poem. Since William Cowper was a fervent evangelical Christian, the nightingale becomes a messenger from a divine being, maybe even God himself. It brings the promise of better days during a time of hardship. If we apply this on the poet, this could mean that the nightingale’s song brings inspiration to a poet who may be stuck in a writer’s block. The divine being in question could then become one of the muses.

The nighingale’s song has inspired many a poet. Its tradition in myth associates the song with unutterable pain yet at the same time, provides comfort in the promise of better days.


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