Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Nightingale

A Nightingale Sang 

Luscinia megarhynchos

A small, modest, brown and beige bird, the nightingale, thanks to his song (for only the male sings), has inspired authors and composers from Homer to T.S Eliot and counting. So you're curious? Here's a partial list: Homer, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Ovid, Virgil, Chrétien de Troyes, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, George Gascoigne, Shakespeare, Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Beethoven, Hans Christian Andersen, Joseph Lamb and T.S. Eliot have all either mentioned the nightingale or the myth of Philomena and Procne associated with the bird. Keats's Ode to a Nightingale is the poem which first springs to mind, but to quote another particularly apt example, here is Shelley in his A Defence of Poetry:  

A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.
sheet music for Lamb's Nightingale Rag - which is attractive but bears little resemblance to a nightingale's warbling

Edmund Dulac's 1911 illustration for Anderson's tale The Nightingale (1843)

Until you have heard the bird, in the quiet of the evening, singing his heart out from somewhere in the undergrowth, (yes, another bird which nests close to the ground) you perhaps cannot appreciate the beauty of that lone, melodious, sometimes plaintive sometimes playful birdsong.

A contemporary poet, who heard the bird singing at Le Ripe, has put it this way:

Understanding Usignolo a Tuscan forest 
Ringing through the quiet dark,
I've heard a single voice 
That's entirely won my heart.

It poured from the tiny throat 
Of the classic poets' bird,
In Tuscan, usignolo,
In English nightingale.

Fifteen times on fifteen nights 
I heard him weave his joyous,
Mingled skein of sound from trills,
Whistles and gentle gurgles.

'Tis said he sings to woo, and
True, his music spins such charm
That should engage fair lady.
But why all of fifteen nights?

Perhaps his song's awry for
Courting lady nightingales,
And contains discordant notes
That escape the human ear?

Perhaps he's unattractive,
With visage less than pleasing,
Manners somewhat less than couth,
Or an attitude aloof?

Perhaps, a philanderer
Notorious, he's beyond
The pale for nightingales
Nubile seeking steady love?

Or perhaps (bleakest of all),
The territory he claims
As his is altogether
Lacking in fitting females?

Whatever the truth of that, 
For hours on end, without pause,
My dear diminutive friend
Sang his heart out fifteen nights.

Unrequited love, maybe?
Arrogance (listen to me)? 
Or a simple need to sing
No matter who hears his song?        


nightingales also sing by day but are drowned out by the competition
Here is a delightful live recording which has captured many of the variations in the nightingale's repertoire.

This extraordinary little film actually shows a nightingale singing. Although seeing the bird distracts somewhat from the beauty of his song, it reveals his 'technique', an opportunity akin to getting up close to an opera singer.

In the early 1940s a charming song called A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by Manning Sherwin) arrived on the popular music scene. Over the decades it has been performed by countless artists ranging from Vera Lynn to Rod Stewart and Twiggy. Here is Anne Shelton's timeless rendition. 

"I know 'cos I was there..." It is possible: nightingales can be urban dwellers. But when the town comes to them it can be fatal. See this recent article from The Guardian.

1 comment:

  1. The film of the nightingale singing is truly magical! Thought the poem wasn't too bad either.


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