Medieval Nightingales (11th July)

Peckham's nightingale
Historiated initials from John Peckham’s Philomena, The Hunterian Museum, Special Collections, MS Hunter 231 (U.3.4)

Next meeting: 11th July 2017 / Room 2.46 / 3-5pm

The long history of the nightingale in European literature spans from Homer to T.S. Eliot, and over the course of this history, the meanings attributed to the bird have varied greatly. The nightingale’s most notable feature is its song and this evolved a myriad of meanings in vernacular literature over the course of the medieval period. The variation in interpretations (which has included springtime, the poet or poetic muse, and romantic or sexual love) has been described by Albert R. Chandler as showing ‘how sentiment and imagination vary with the nationality, epock, and individuality of the writer’. [1]

In The Odyssey, the earliest poetic appearance of the nightingale, the bird’s song is heard as Penelope speaks of the grief that catches her when she is left alone and awake at night. Penelope interprets the nightingale’s song as being that of Pandareus’ daughter, lamenting her son Itylus, whom she killed by mistake. This story then survives in its most complete and well-known form in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as the story of Philomela. The violence of the Ovidian myth has provided one explanation for the nightingale’s song often being described as a lament; however, according to Wendy Pfeffer, the significance of the Philomela myth to the medieval world was limited to ‘bequeath[ing] to medieval Europe the word “Philomela” as a synonym for “luscinia”, the classical Latin word for nightingale.’ [2]

It was not until John Gower’s retelling of the Ovidian myth as part of his Confessio Amantis in the late fourteenth-century that the sisters’ transformation into birds was expanded. Gower interpreted the nightingale’s song once more as a lament, but for a lost virginity rather than a murdered child. His nightingale sings, “O why, O why ne were I yit a maide?” and rejoices in her new avian form, as it means a respite from the shame:

“Ha, nou I am a brid,

Ha, nou mi face mai ben hid:

ThoghI have lost mi Maidenhede,

Schal noman se my chekes red.”

(Confessio Amantis, ll. 5985-8)

Elsewhere, the nightingale appeared often in the lyrics of the Provencal troubadours, though as a motif it was rarely developed upon and in the few lyrics where the bird does have a clearly identifiable function, it is either a messenger or representative of the poet himself. Among the Carmina Burana, there are twenty-one poems in the Benedictbeueren manuscript that reference the nightingale. In these, it is primarily as a harbinger of spring that the bird is recognised, although it also appears as either a symbol of love or an incitement to love. One poem in particular within the Carmina Burana associates the song of the nightingale in the early evening with sexual intercourse, which links to the image of the nightingale as a sexual motif as suggested in The Owl and the Nightingale.

Overview of the texts

  • The Owl and the Nightingale is an anonymous Middle English poem and is the earliest English example of verse contest, featuring a debate between the two birds on their flaws. It survives in two manuscripts, ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Library M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX, both of which have been dated to the late thirteenth century. The poem itself is thought to date from between 1189 to 1216, this due to the prayer for the soul of King Henry at lines 1091-2: ‘Þat underyat þe king Henri: Jesus his soule do merci!’ Throughout the poem, the birds reference a Nicholas of Guilford as a worthy judge and all-round excellent person and the poem ends with the pair flying to find Nicholas so he can settle their debate once and for all.
  • John Peckham’s Philomena has been called one of the greatest of the thirteenth century. Surviving in over thirty manuscripts, it is the first broadly popular poem known to have used the nightingale to represent the Passion of Christ and represents a culmination of elements taken from both Old French and Latin religious verse. The nightingale is said to represent the Christian soul as it meditates on the history of mankind, from Creation through to Redemption. At each hour, the nightingale sings a different song to relate another piece of Christian history, culminating at the hour of Nones and the Crucifixion when the song reaches its crescendo and the bird dies.
  • Two Nightingale Poems by John Lydgate show two separate attempts at engaging with the religious nightingale tradition. The first, ‘The Nightingale’ is loosely based upon Peckham’s Philomena and while it follows the same seven-part structure of a prologue, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and an epilogue, it differs significantly from Peckham in addressee, interpretation, and conclusion. The second, ‘A Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ is a dream vision, in which an angel instructs the poet-narrator on the true meaning of nightingale’s song. After having thought it symbolic of Venus and Cupid, the angel repeatedly insists, ‘Thyn aduertaence is gouerned wrong’ (l. 57) kand explains the nightingale actually sings in praise of pure love by grieving the suffering of Christ. This second poem ends abruptly and was seemingly abandoned.
  • ‘Laüstic’, a Breton lai by Marie de France, survives only in a single manuscript, known as Harley 978. It is the shortest of the texts we will be looking at and the only European example. The nightingale here represents adulterous love, as a young woman uses the excuse of listening to the song of the nightingale to explain her presence at the window to see her lover. The death of the nightingale at the hands of the cuckolded husband signals the end of the illicit communication between the lovers, and Michelle Freeman has suggested it to symbolise the cutting out of Philomela’s tongue in the Ovidian myth.[3]

Topics for discussion

  • How do we read Lydgate’s efforts to engage with the nightingale tradition? Is he convincing in his arguments? Consistent?
  • In ‘The Nightingale’, Lydgate describes himself as a translator of Peckham’s work. How effectively does he engage with his source material? Can ‘The Nightingale’ be better described as anything other than a translation?
  • Is ‘The Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale’ what we expect from a dream vision?
  • How do the extracts from ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ portray the nightingale? What themes arise that we don’t see elsewhere?
  • Given the portrayal of the nightingale in ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’, why might John Peckham have felt the bird suited a religious retelling?
  • How is the nightingale used in ‘Laüstic’? How is this different to the English nightingale traditions seen in the other texts?
  • How relevant are the classical myths in relation to the vernacular nightingale traditions that emerge in the text? Is the recurrence of the name “Philomena” as name for the nightingale significant?
  • Which of the interpretations of the nightingale’s song is most convincing? Do any of them supersede the others?

References

[1] Albert R. Chandler, ‘The Nightingale in Greek and Latin Poetry’, The Classical Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2 (1934), p.78.

[2] Wendy Pfeffer, The Change of Philomel The Nightingale in Medieval Literature (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1985), p. 2.

[3] Michelle A. Freeman, ‘Marie de France’s Poetics of Silence: The Implications for a Feminine Translatio’, PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5 (1984), p. 869.

Further reading

A Short Analysis of The Owl and the Nightingale

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