‘The Nightingale,’ by the great Renaissance poet Philip Sidney (1554-1568), is a poem of two stanzas, each of twelve lines. The poem was published in the 1598 edition of Arcadia or Certain Sonnets. The poem was composed to the tune of a popular piece of ‘Canzone Napoletana’ or, Neapolitan Song of the time viz, “Non-Credo Gia Che Piu Infelice Amanté” (I do not believe that you can be unhappy).
In keeping with that tradition of Neapolitan songs, the poem is a monologue from a male voice, languishing and lamenting over unrequited love. Sidney has deftly blended the classical myth of Philomel, found in book 6 of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (composed in Latin, dating from 8CE), with the folk elements of the old Neapolitan music genre.
The Nightingale Sir Philip SidneyThe nightingale, as soon as April bringethUnto her rested sense a perfect waking,While late bare earth, proud of new clothing, springeth,Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making,And mournfully bewailing,Her throat in tunes expressethWhat grief her breast oppressethFor Tereus’ force on her chaste will prevailing.O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness:Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.Alas, she hath no other cause of anguishBut Tereus’ love, on her by strong hand wroken,Wherein she suffering, all her spirits languish;Full womanlike complains her will was broken.But I, who daily craving,Cannot have to content me,Have more cause to lament me,Since wanting is more woe than too much having.O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness:Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.
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In ‘The Nightingale,’ the poet exploits the myth of Philomel to demonstrate the extent of the agony of his love-laden heart by comparing it with the nightingale’s suffering.
The metamorphosed Philomel, however, can sing out her woes; but the poet’s bereavement is much more agonizing. He cannot find relief in vociferation. In the classical Greek myth and Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Philomela, the daughter of an Athenian king, was raped by Tereus, the husband of her elder sister Procne.
As Philomela defied Tereus’s order not to disclose the case of molestation to anybody, Tereus cut her tongue. Philomela managed to weave the crime on a tapestry and showed it to Procne, who took revenge upon her husband by serving him their son’s boiled flesh and fled to take shelter in the Pantheon.
They were turned into birds. Philomela became the nightingale to sing the rueful story of her life. The poet, however, undermines Philomela’s anguish by exaggerating his suffering. At the approach of the spring, the nightingale starts singing in which she pours out all her grief and grievance. But the poet has to freeze the pain of his unrequited love into perpetual silence.
The core theme that the poem ‘The Nightingale‘ harps on, is that the bruise a man has to bear deep within himself, caused by the unfulfillment of his passionate love for a lady, is unparalleled in its profundity and poignancy. Women can express their pain and predicament in concrete ways: words, in tears, in bewailing notes. But man has to tolerate the burden silently, stoically.
The pang of unrequited love, the frustration, and the burden of barren passion torment the male heart that does not find any relief in any sort of purgation.
The poem’s tone, in keeping with its theme, is melancholy. It starts on a somewhat impersonal, objective note, describing the approach of the springtime, the resuscitation of the winter-stricken earth, and the reawakening of the Nightingale’s singing spree.
From the fourth line onwards, the poem is littered with terms associated with an irreparable emotional scar. ‘Woes,’ ‘thorn,’ ‘mournfully bewailing,’ ‘grief,’ ‘plaintful sadness,’ ‘anguish,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘languish,’ ‘lament,’ and ‘wanting’ are some such words.
Another thing gets noticeable as the poem develops, the poet is completely engrossed with his own sufferings, and he is talking from a male point of view, discriminating and blatantly undermining feminine agonies. The physical and psychological trauma a raped woman has to experience and the excruciating pain of losing the tongue, the power of expression, has been belittled, only to inflate his languishment.
The line where the poet says that the woes of ‘wanting’ or ‘craving’ is heavier than “too much having” sounds unabashedly inhuman, barbaric, and male-chauvinistic.
However, it may be seen and judged from quite a different point of view. The poet is perhaps trying to console the nightingale, giving her some relief from her colossal burden of age-long tormentation, by referring to an affliction of a more intense nature.
The poem, ‘The Nightingale,’ is divided into two stanzas of equal size, both containing twelve lines, each of which ends in the same pattern, with a quatrain echoing each other and sounding like an elegiac refrain.
In the structural pattern, metrical arrangement, and in the rhyme-scheme, the poem bears obvious marks of indebtedness to the Petrarchan sonnets and the two specific forms of Italian poems, called ‘madrigal,’ a form of secular vocal music, flourished in the Renaissance period and ‘villanella’, lyrical poems with repetitive lines and using only two rhymes throughout.
The first four lines of each stanza have an alternative rhyme scheme (ABAB). The following four lines are in a closed rhyming pattern (CDCD), and the last four lines are actually in two rhyming couplets (EEFF).
This semblance in the rhyme patterns of both stanzas and along with the repetition of the last four lines of the first stanza in the second one, gives the poem a song-like structure. The metrical arrangement of the poem is not so complicated. The governing measures are iambic pentameter and iambic trimester, alternatively with hypermetrical lines, having an unstressed syllable at the end of a time. For instance:
|The(U) night(I)||i(U) ngale(I)||as(U) soon(I)||as(U) Ap(I)||ril(U) bring(I)||eth(U)|
The first line is in iambic pentameter, hypermetrical, i.e., it has five iambic feet (in each foot, the unstressed syllable is followed by the stressed syllable), and one unstressed syllable is left at the end of the line, and the fifth line-
|And(U) mourn(I)||full(U) ly(I)||be(U) wail(I)||ing(U)|
…is in iambic trimeter, hypermetrical.
Figures of Speech
Different figures of speech have been used in this poem.
- Personification: In the third line of the poem, ‘earth’ is personified as she is said to have been ‘proud of new clothing.’ The human feature of being proud of something is imposed on ‘earth,’ and hence, it is an instance of personification.
- Metaphor: In the third line of the poem, the word ‘clothing’ symbolizes the vernal verdancy with which the bare earth is covered when the dreary period of winter is over. Thus ‘clothing’ is the metaphor for the greenery of spring. In the fourth line, the term ‘song book’ is another metaphor.
- Allusion: In the third line, that stands for the storage of musical notes. The poet alludes to the theme of resurrection; with the approach of April, the earth ‘springeth’; here is the allusion to the Persephone-Ceres myth of ancient Greece and, at the same time, to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which took place in April. Moreover, the entire poem is built on the myth of Philomela-Tereus-Procne.
- Archaism: There is a litter of archaic words in the poem that add to the sentimental tone of the poem and also to its musical nuance. ‘Bringeth,’ ‘expresseth,’ ‘thine,’ ‘thy,’ and ‘hath’ are some random picks.
- Transferred Epithet/ Hypallage: In the eighth line of the poem, there is the term ‘chaste Will’ that may be taken as an instance of transferred epithet or hypallage because the adjective ‘chaste’ should have been used to epithetize a woman, not her will.
- Inversion: The expression ‘my thorn my heart invadeth’ is an instance of inversion as the usual syntactical structure (‘my thorn invadeth my heart’) has been inverted.
- Apostrophe: The poet has used the figure of speech called ‘apostrophe’ in addressing the nightingale as ‘O Philomela fair’ in line number nine and line number twenty-one.
- Antithesis: In both stanzas, the last couplets are patterned antithetically: two contradictory ideas are balanced within the span of a single line; “Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth”;
- Refrain: The verbatim echo of the last four lines of the first stanza and the end of the second stanza may be considered a refrain that adds to the musical cadence of the poem.
History of the Poem
Sir Philip Sidney, like other poets, authors, and artists of the Elizabethan Age, was a product of the Renaissance milieu. Sidney was intrinsically a Renaissance man who championed the distinguishing facets of the Renaissance spirit.
First to mention was his keen interest in exploring and exploiting the classical myths of ancient Greece and Rome. The myth of the Greek princess Philomela, her sister Procne and the lustful brother-in-law Tereus fascinated him too immensely, and so, he used it in the poem ‘The Nightingale.’
Secondly, as the Renaissance man nourishes and nurtures a strong spirit of humanism and individualism, the poet inflates, highlights, and almost glorifies his own tormentation.
Thirdly, in attempting such an exaggerated glorification of his own personal grief, Sidney plays the role of an iconoclast, hitting at the ‘piety’ and the legendary intensity of the sorrow of Philomela. Sidney goes to make it nothing but a sentimental issue, essentially feminine, that Philomela suffers.
Such colossal woes only for having ‘too much’ of ‘love’ from a male admirer. The ‘bewailing’ note of the hopeless princess-turned-bird is nothing but an excess of feminine sentimentalism.
Thus, the mantle of the somber and grave texture of the myth, wrapping up the indescribable physical pain and psychological pang, is torn apart by Philip Sidney. The Greek myth or the Ovidian Saga- both are brought down to the level of the ordinary, to the level of common human experience. Here the humanist Renaissance poet is seen in a glimpse- though from an altogether different angle.
The nightingale, as soon as April bringeth
Unto her rested sense a perfect waking,
While late bare earth, proud of new clothing, springeth,
Sings out her woes, a thorn her song-book making,
And mournfully bewailing,
Her throat in tunes expresseth
What grief her breast oppresseth
For Tereus’ force on her chaste will prevailing.
O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,
That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness:
Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;
Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.
The poem begins with the nightingale; and as soon as we start to steer our eyes through the next few lines, it becomes crystal-clear that the poet is not talking about a particular species of bird; rather, he is alluding to the hapless dame of mythology, the wretched Philomela, turned into a nightingale, to trill out her woes in her melancholy tunes.
The poet starts describing the bird’s spring- schedule for starting her song anew; the nightingale’s grief that remains ‘oppressed’ or suppressed in her breast through the winter springs up as the rejuvenating April approaches to drape the bare earth with vernal verdancy.
The tune, juxtaposed with the gaiety of the rejuvenated earth, is ‘mournful.’ The poet now focuses on the ‘thorn’ that pinches her and compels her to ooze out the pang in the stream of pensive notes.
Now he alludes to the Philomela-Tereus-Procne myth that Ovid explores in his “Metamorphoses” and explains that such plaintive notes are streaming out from the bird’s throat because she cannot forget Tereus’ brutal onslaught on her virginity.
Here the poem takes a turn as the poet veers the focus to his personal grievance by comparing it with Philomela’s agony. He apostrophizes the bird and soothes her by saying that she is at least luckier than the poet, who can not uproot the thorn of agony from his heart by turning it into wailing notes. The poet categorically points out some discriminating factors to weigh and balance his and the nightingale’s woes.
The nightingale’s earth now springs into a renewed vivacity with the approach of spring, whereas the poet’s earth fades and decays without the least hope of regeneration and rejuvenation. Moreover, the scar in the poet’s heart is a more soring one, as it has ravaged him from within, invading his heart, whereas the nightingale’s bruise is only an external one; her physique has been molested, and the tormentation can even be translated into a vociferated expression.
Alas, she hath no other cause of anguish
But Tereus’ love, on her by strong hand wroken,
Wherein she suffering, all her spirits languish;
Full womanlike complains her will was broken.
But I, who daily craving,
Cannot have to content me,
Have more cause to lament me,
Since wanting is more woe than too much having.
O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,
That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness:
Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;
Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.
In zooming on his burden of woe, the poet continues undermining Philomela’s predicament in the second stanza too. In doing that, he even goes to attenuate the implication of the loathsome crime Tereus committed, in raping Philomela and subsequently cutting her tongue, by referring to it as ‘Tereus’ love.’
He tries to establish that Philomela’s anguish was caused by a feat of excessive love, expressed in a most violent, virile manner by Tereus. It is sheerly her feminine nature that makes Philomela complain of her afflictions in such an exaggerated fashion.
The term ‘chaste will’ that occurs in the first stanza is mentioned once more here; the poet minimizes Tereus’s offense as only an onslaught on Philomela’s ‘chaste will’ that was ‘broken’ by Tereus’s vehemently passionate love attack. The Greek myth or the Ovidian story does not however, tell us whether Philomela took the vow of chastity, and here we are reminded of St Philomela, a 13-year-old Greek princess (291-304 AD), who took the vow of chastity and suffered martyrdom to keep it up.
However, the poet’s logic is queer, whereas Philomela suffers because of having ‘love’ too much; he pines for the same, though his craving is never fulfilled. Thus, he magnifies his own suffering, the agony of unrequited love, almost nullifying Philomela’s grief and grievance. The last four lines of the stanza are a verbatim repetition of the last four lines with which the first stanza comes to its end. Thus, reiteration, on the one hand, emphasizes the logic the poet wants to establish and, on the other, serves as a refrain to add to the musicality of the poem.
About Sir Philip Sidney
Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) was one of the most prominent litterateurs of Elizabethan England. While dedicating “The Shepherds Calendar” to Sidney, Edmund Spenser referred to him as “the noble and virtuous gentleman most worthy of all titles both of learning and chivalry.” Sidney was the perfect embodiment of the Renaissance ideal of ‘gentleman ship’; a poet, critic, an entirely erudite scholar, diplomat, and courtier, he was an epitome of knighthood.
His “Astrophel and Stella,” a splendid sonnet cycle, has a wide range of influence upon contemporary poets and the posterity, including Daniel Drayton, Fulke Greville, Spenser, and even Shakespeare. He, along with Wyatt, Surrey, Spenser, and Shakespeare, immensely contributed to the new poetic genre called ‘sonnets’ that had been imported from Italy, where it flourished in the pen of Petrarch in the 14th century. In his “Defence of Poesie,” Sidney retorts against the Puritan objections to fictitious elements in literature in a series of arguments drawn mostly from the Italian humanist critics.
The nightingale starts singing her woes when April approaches, after the dreary days of winter, to drape the bare earth with vernal verdancy and to reawaken the grief lying dormant in the nightingale’s ‘song-book,’ i.e., the store-house of music.
The nightingale’s grief refers to the agony of the myth of Philomela, who was raped by Tereus, her sister’s husband. Tereus cut Philomela’s tongue and tried to silence her so that she could not disclose the crime to anybody. Subsequently, Philomela is turned into a nightingale who sings out her grief. This grief is referred to as oppressing the nightingale’s breast.
In Greek myth and Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” Tereus was a Thracian king who married Procne, the elder daughter of Pandion, the king of Athens. Tereus desired Philomela, the younger sister of Procne, and raped the hapless girl, entirely against her will, to keep her virginity untouched and immaculate. Thus, Tereus ravished the girl’s physical purity and also the purity of her will of chastity.
The poet craves the love of a lady but in vain. The name of the lady is not mentioned, but this unrequited love pricks the poet as a thorn invading his heart. This frustration ails the poet so much that he considers his grief a ‘just a cause’ of ‘plaintful sadness.’
The nightingale, in the poem ‘The Nightingale,’ signifies the agony and the ache of the bruised heart of an innocent girl who was raped by her sister’s husband and whose tongue was cut off by the same person.
In the poem ‘The Nightingale,‘ the obsession that Tereus shows in the name of love, which can be too brutal to rape an innocent girl and even cut her tongue off, is termed as ‘Tereus’s love.’
In Greek mythology, Philomela, the daughter of Pandion, the great king, was raped by her elder sister’s husband, Tereus. To silence Philomela, the king cut her tongue. Philomela, however, embroidered every titbit of the offensive act on a tapestry and showed it to Procne, her elder sister. In a fury, Procne killed their son and boiled his flesh, and served him to the father. Then they flew to the Olympian gods to save their lives. Philomela was turned into a nightingale who, in springtime, sings of her misery.