The Frog and the Nightingale by Vikram Seth

The Frog and the Nightingale by Vikram Seth utilizes its stanzas and rhyme scheme to portray a fictional story of two animals who sing. One is a frog, and the other is a nightingale. Though the nightingale’s singing is clearly preferred by the other animals listening to the pair, the naivety of the nightingale allows the frog—who is “crass” and “bitter”—to manipulate the nightingale into misery through the very thing that the nightingale loved. Essentially, the nightingale did not approach her skill with confidence and independence, and because of this, the lesser-talented frog was able to take advantage of the nightingale, ruin the nightingale’s gift, and cause all animals within the vicinity to lose something they enjoyed in favor of something they never appreciated.

These concepts can be linked to human nature in a way that offers a moral to readers. That moral is to have confidence and grounding, because without those things, even the most talented of people could be doomed to failure and disaster. The full poem can be read here.


The Frog and the Nightingale Analysis

First, Second and Third Stanza

The first stanza deals solely with the frog’s knack for performing—or lack thereof—in that he “[c]roaked away” until “dawn,” despite the nearby animals not caring for his singing. In fact, “[o]ther creatures loathed his voice,” but the frog refused to cater to their preferences at all. Even though no animal except for the frog wanted to hear, the frog kept on singing his “crass cacophony” with confidence that he, by the account, had not earned. Rather, his singing was inflicted on the other animals despite their preferences to not hear it. This concept is solidified in the notion that the other animals fought against the process with “stones” and “sticks,” which indicates that they were literally throwing things to silence the frog, but the frog sang on without consideration.

The nightingale, however, sang so well that the other animals loved to hear it, and even the frog “[d]umbstruck sat” while the “melody” floated to his ears. So thrilled were the animals with that song that they “clapped,” “wept,” and “cheered” in reaction. Rather than throw things, they drew closer, “enraptured” by her voice.

These concepts set up the comparison between the skillsets of the two singing animals, and that basis will be the driving force for all of the stanzas to come. To understand the rest of the story, the reader must fully grasp the very basic notion that no other animal in the area wanted to hear the frog, but no noted animal complained about the nightingale’s singing.


Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Stanza

This series of stanzas contain the initial interactions between the two singing animals. This interaction occurred the night after the nightingale’s introduction, and the frog “croak[s]” just after she prepared for another performance. The notion that she paused her singing in order to acknowledge the frog speaks as much to her kindness as the detail that the frog chose to interrupt her speaks to his crudeness. In particular, this crudeness escalated when after the nightingale addressed the frog, he responded by stating he “own[ed the] tree” she sang from before diving into what are non-factual details of his typical performances. The frog claimed that he had a “splendid baritone,” but the attentive reader recognizes this as pompous boasting because the poem already established that the other animals hated the frog’s singing. Given that this statement is clearly invalid, the reader is free to doubt as well that the frog had a habit of “wield[ing] a pen” to write anything for anyone.

The naïve nightingale trusted his word though in that she sheepishly asked for the frog’s approval, even stuttering over the words with, “Did you… did you like my song?” The frog responded by offering what could have been labelled as constructive criticism about how the nightingale could improve her singing, but with the understanding of the frog’s self-absorbed personality and inflated ego, the pretension of his declarations is clear to the reader.

The pretension was not detected by the nightingale, however, as she naively took the criticism at face-value, like it was an honour “[t]hat a critic of such note” had taken the time to say anything about her singing at all. In fact, she was “flattered and impressed” that he’d had anything remotely good to say about her voice.

Once more the naivety of the nightingale is clear, and once more, that naivety is matched by the cruelness of “the heartless frog.” Knowing that she was in awe of his stance and his words was not enough for the frog, and he insulted the nightingale by insisting that claiming her song as her own was “not much to boast about.” After that big of slight, he convinced the nightingale—who the animals enjoyed hearing—to allow him to “train” her, despite the animals never having liked the frog’s voice. So naïve was the nightingale that she, without questioning the frog’s assertions, labelled him a “Mozart in disguise,” claimed the situation was a “fairy tale,” and allowed the frog to take her under his wing so much that he “charged admission” for the nightingale’s performances.

By the end of these stanzas, the too-confident and tricky frog convinced the talented but gullible nightingale to follow his direction, and what was promised to be in her benefit became a source of profit for the frog.


Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Stanza

The training began between the frog and the nightingale, and the nightingale was so convinced of the frog’s methods that she continued with his tactics until “her voice was hoarse and quivering.” In fact, the only time she reportedly had any happiness at all was when she was performing her singing to a “breathless, tilted crowd.”

This “tilted” concept and the notion that “the sumac tree was bowed” give physical representations of the off-balance and askew situation that occurred between the nightingale and the frog. She had the talent, but the frog continued to “scold her” and insist that she keep practicing “[t]ill [her] voice, like [his grew] stronger.” Once more, the very basic elements of the first stanzas need to be revisited: The frog did not sing well, but the nightingale did. There was no reason for the nightingale to endure the frog’s cruelty or to try to mold her voice to match his when she was the one the animals wanted to hear, but the nightingale was too quick to trust the frog’s claims and criticisms. The frog profited from that fault of the nightingale, though the nightingale would have been “happier” without the frog’s cruel methods.

One further concept that notes how much sway the frog had over the nightingale, despite the nightingale being the source of his money, is that he told the nightingale that she had to do better—though the narration gives no indication that at this point the animals had grown tired of her—because she “still owe[d him] sixty shillings.” What this means is that the nightingale was being punished, ridiculed, and criticized by a frog who did not possess her level of talent, and not only had the nightingale been convinced of his words and tactics enough to put up with his ridicule, she had also been persuaded into believing that she “owe[d]” him money for his cruel tactics.

It cannot be overstated that, despite the frog insisting she “must make [her] public happier,” no evidence surfaces to hint that the animals had begun to enjoy her singing any less, or any more for that matter. Given how “enraptured” they had been at her pre-frog singing, it is doubtful that their appreciation could have escalated too much higher than that level. Essentially, no information is given in these stanzas to indicate the frog’s helping hand was actually helpful to the nightingale, and if such was the case, all other animals would have been “happier” without his interference. The nightingale could have sung without the tyranny, and the “public” could have enjoyed her performances without paying. Because of the nightingale’s lack of confidence in her own skills, as well as her being so easily swept into the frog’s lies, the only being who increased in stature from this setup was “the heartless frog.”


Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Stanza

Stanza 11 summarizes the key components of the previous series of stanzas since the narrator admits to the nightingale’s unhappiness—she “[g]rew more sorrowful and pale” with her “tired song”—as well as the “public[‘s]” since they became so unhappy with the performances that they stopped coming to the shows as much. Once this happened, and only then, did the frog show a passionate reaction to the nightingale’s singing since his money flow had slowed. Whereas the nightingale was sad at the lesser audiences because she had grown “addicted [t]o the applause,” the frog became angry and lashed out at the nightingale. Again, irony rears its head in that it was the frog’s pressure on the nightingale that wore her down to lose that crowd, but the frog still unleashed his frustration on her, regardless, by calling her “[b]rainless” and pushing her until she “died.”

The irony of the situation escalates further as the frog explained his interpretation of events in a way that technically did mirror the nightingale’s flaws—specifically, that she was “too prone to influence” and did not realize that “the song must be [her] own.” Since the frog was the one to “influence her” and convince her that her “song” was not good enough, his reflection and what he “tried to teach her” is invalid. The only way, essentially, that he could have taught these things rests in the notion that he taught her by experience that such a strategy did not work. The problem was not that “she was a stupid creature,” but that she was gullible and unconfident enough to fall for the frog’s persuasion.

It is unclear if this whole scenario was a setup by the frog to end the competition that the nightingale brought him in regard to singing in the forest. Evidence throughout the poem does offer elements that could argue in favor of that concept, like how the frog showed up after her first performance to force himself into her singing strategy, and how he was noted to have felt “a joy both sweet and bitter” at her performance. If he were “bitter,” it would make sense for him to sneak his way into her performance so early in the poem. The most critical piece of evidence of this possibility could be in the final two lines of the poem when “the foghorn of the frog [b]lared unrivalled through the bog.” His rival was gone, and he could sing without nearby animals wishing for the nightingale instead. It is very likely that such was his plan all along, though that notion is hypothesis.

What is certain though is that the nightingale would have been successful—in fact, had already been successful—without the frog’s assistance, but she naively believed his words and unconfidently accepted his criticism. By caving into those flaws, she failed herself and her audience, but gave the frog what he might have wanted all along. In like manner, humans can falter and fail if they are led by naivety and a lack of confidence, so to happily succeed, people should be sure of themselves and be grounded in the right guiding details.


About Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth has explored various types of writing, including poetry and works that are for travelers, and he has penned a number of books that have gained notoriety. He was born in India, and has won several awards over the course of his career, such as the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize. His works extend from the 20th century into the 21th century, and his skills at his craft have made him a notable name among the literary world.

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