Updated: Dec 14, 2019
It is said that Coleridge's greatest achievement was William Wordsworth. There is some truth to this. But he was also a great poet in his own right. In Lyrical Ballads he and Wordsworth changed English sensibilities (and American) completely. While Wordsworth was the greater poet, Coleridge was the greater philosopher. It is Coleridge's insights as a critic which encapsulates English Romanticism.
In this poem published in 1798, he not only conveys a new style of sensualness but also critiques the literarati before him. It is a truly Literary poem in that it is very aware of the literature that came prior.
The Nightingale opens with Colerdge painting a picture of a nighttime scene with friends. They sit on a "mossy bridge," where they will think on nature. Then, almost on cue, "the Nightingale begins its song." This bird causes him to reflect on the writers of yore. Men who wrote that the nightingale's song was a melancholy one. To which Coleridge replies "A melancholy bird? Oh idle thought!"
He goes on to convey a completely different way to approach our experience of knowledge, learning, nature and literature.
If you have ever wanted to truly experience the grandeur of nature and man in nature, this is a good poem to get you started.
The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
No cloud, no relique of the sunken day
Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip
Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues.
Come, we will rest on this old mossy bridge!
You see the glimmer of the stream beneath,
But hear no murmuring: it flows silently.
O'er its soft bed of verdure. All is still.
A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,
Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
A pleasure in the dimness of the stars.
And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
'Most musical, most melancholy' bird!
A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
In Nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain.
And many a poet echoes the conceit;
Poet who hath been building up the rhyme
When he had better far have stretched his limbs
Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell,
By sun or moon-light, to the influxes
Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
And of his fame forgetful! so his fame
Should share in Nature's immortality,
A venerable thing! and so his song
Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself
Be loved like Nature! But 'twill not be so;
And youths and maidens most poetical,
Who lose the deepening twilights of the spring
In ball-rooms and hot theatres, they still
Full of meek sympathy must heave their sighs
O'er Philomela's pity-pleading strains.
My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature's sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! 'Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music!
And I know a grove
Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales; and far and near,
In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
They answer and provoke each other's song,
With skirmish and capricious passagings,
And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,
And one low piping sound more sweet than all
Stirring the air with such a harmony,
That should you close your eyes, you might almost
Forget it was not day! On moonlight bushes,
Whose dewy leaflets are but half-disclosed,
You may perchance behold them on the twigs,
Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright and full,
Glistening, while many a glow-worm in the shade
Lights up her love-torch.
A most gentle Maid,
Who dwelleth in her hospitable home
Hard by the castle, and at latest eve
(Even like a Lady vowed and dedicate
To something more than Nature in the grove)
Glides through the pathways; she knows all their notes,
That gentle Maid! and oft, a moment's space,
What time the moon was lost behind a cloud,
Hath heard a pause of silence; till the moon
Emerging, a hath awakened earth and sky
With one sensation, and those wakeful birds
Have all burst forth in choral minstrelsy,
As if some sudden gale had swept at once
A hundred airy harps! And she hath watched
Many a nightingale perch giddily
On blossomy twig still swinging from the breeze,
And to that motion tune his wanton song
Like tipsy Joy that reels with tossing head.
Farewell! O Warbler! till tomorrow eve,
And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
And now for our dear homes.That strain again!
Full fain it would delay me! My dear babe,
Who, capable of no articulate sound,
Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
How he would place his hand beside his ear,
His little hand, the small forefinger up,
And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
To make him Nature's play-mate. He knows well
The evening-star; and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!
It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy. Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell.
Hues - Color or shade
Murmuring -soft, low or distinct sound produced by a person or group of people
speaking quietly at a distance.
Balmy - Pleasantly warm
Vernal - Of, in or appropriate to spring
Melancholy - A feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.
Conceit - excessive pride in oneself; or, personal opinion.
Venerable - accorded a great deal of respect, especially because of age, wisdom or character.
Warble - (of a bird_ sing softly and with a succession of constantly changing notes
Capricious - given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.
Minstrelsy - the practice of performing as a minstrel
Minstrel - Medieval singer or musician
From line 18: ‘Distemper’ - depression; mental disorder or disturbance.
From line 39: Philomela - poetic name for the nightingale, derived from the Greek myhas thin which Philomela having been raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who also cut out her tongue, was turned into a nightingale.
Line 41: Lore - Lesson or teaching
Line 60: Jug Jug - The traditional representation of the nightingale’s call
Aeolian Harp - a fashionable stringed instrument, whose notes were produced by the breeze blowing across the strings.
EXAMPLES OF NIGHTINGALES IN PRE-COLERIDGIAN POETRY
That nightingale, who now melodious mourns
Perhaps his children or his consort dear,
The heavens with sweetness fills; the distant bourns
Resound his notes, so piteous and so clear;
With me all night he weeps. . .
This is the tradition inherited by Charlotte Smith (“Poor melancholy bird, that all night long/Tell’st to the moon thy tale of tender woe”), Mary Robinson (“Sweet Bird of Sorrow!”). Christina Rossetti seems to recognize the imposition of human meaning on the nature of birdsong when she writes: “I shall not hear the nightingale/Sing on, as if in pain.” The recognition comes in the delicate phrase “as if.” With characteristic alacrity, Heine inverts the tradition by calling out:
If the nightingales knew how ill
And worn with woe I be,
They would cheerily carol and trill,
And all bring joy to me.