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The Nightingale by Sir Philip Sidney

“The Nightingale” appears in Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella series. This poem, like other poems of Elizabethan literature, speaks specifically on a speaker’s heartache. It contrasts a lovelorn one’s hidden pain that gets aroused by the sweet yet lamenting song of the bird. He tries to portray there is more just cause to lament in contrast to the mythical pain of Philomela, turned into a nightingale by Olympian Gods. Sidney admits that Philomela was in grave distress. However, now, in the month of spring, it can sing the sweetest songs. While he is pierced by the “thorn” of love in the spring symbolizing life and rejuvenation.

  • Read the full text of “The Nightingale” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of The Nightingale by Sir Philip Sidney


Summary

“The Nightingale” is a song of a speaker whose heart pains deep for unrequited love. It aches and makes Sidney’s poetic persona sicker. While the nightingale’s song increases his distress. The poem begins with a reference to the month of April when the nightingale sings beautiful songs amidst the rejuvenating nature. It seems to the speaker as if nature is mournfully bewailing the bird’s woes. The nightingale, representing the mythical figure Philomela, sings out her woes. However, the speaker says that there is a “juster cause” to complain in comparison to long-faded pain.

Furthermore, Sidney alludes to the story of Tereus who oppressed Philomela out of sheer lust. He compares his present state to her, now transformed into a nightingale. According to him, he has more cause to lament his own pain. He is in pain not for having too much, but for too much craving for the lady he wants.

Structure & Form

Sidney’s “The Nightingale” has a song-like structure. It contains two stanzas ending with a four-line refrain. Each section of the poem consists of twelve lines. The rhyme scheme of the poem ABABCDDCEEFF. So, the first four lines contain an alternative rhyme scheme. The following four lines have a closed rhyming pattern. While the last four lines form two rhyming couplets. The following stanza has the same rhyming pattern.

Sidney composed this poem in iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter alternatively with hypermetrical lines. The lines having eleven syllables contain five iambs and those having seven syllables contain three iambs. The unstressed syllable at the end of a line is considered a hypermetrical foot.

Let’s look at the scansion of the first stanza to understand how the meter works.

The night/-ing-ale,/ as soon/ as Ap/-ril bring/-eth

Un-to/ her rest/-ed sense/ a per/-fect wak/-ing,

While late/ bare earth,/ proud of/ new cloth/-ing, spring/-eth,

Sings out/ her woes,/ a thorn/ her song/-book mak/-ing,

And mourn/-ful-ly/ be-wail/-ing,

Her throat/ in tunes/ ex-press/-eth

What grief/ her breast/ op-press/-eth

For Te/-reus’ force/ on her/ chaste will/ pre-vail/-ing.

O Phi/-lo-me/-la fair,/ O take/ some glad/-ness,

That here/ is just/-er cause/ of plaint/-ful sad/-ness:

Thine earth/ now springs,/ mine fad/-eth;

Thy thorn/ with-out,/ my thorn/ my heart/ in-vad/-eth.


Poetic Devices

Sidney makes use of the following poetic devices in this poem.

  • Personification: In this poem, Sidney personifies the nightingale as a singer of woeful songs. Besides, in “While late bare earth, proud of new clothing, springeth,” the earth is personified.
  • Allusion: There is an allusion to the myth of Philomela and Tereus in this poem.
  • Metaphor: In the phrase “a thorn her song-book making”, the poet uses the terms “thorn” and “song-book” as metaphors. Readers can also find a number of personal metaphors in this piece.
  • Apostrophe: It occurs in “O Philomela fair, O take some gladness”.
  • Refrain: The last four lines are used as a refrain. It reiterates the main idea of this poem.
  • Antithesis: In the lines, “Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;/ Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth”, Sidney uses this device. Here, the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas emphasizes the speaker’s mental state.


Themes

The main theme of “The Nightingale” is heartache. It also taps on the themes of love, lust, spring, music, and suffering. This poem is all about the heartache of a speaker who is in eager wait for his beloved. It seems the person he loves has not accepted his love. As the days pass by, it increases his longing for the lady and the pain of waiting. From the second stanza, it seems that the speaker is rejected by the lady. Besides, he takes recourse to the heart-wrenching story of Philomela in order to portray the similarity between them. The themes of love and lust also appear in the allusion to this myth of Philomela.

Line-by-Line Critical Analysis

Lines 1-5

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,

Sir Philip Sidney’s poem “The Nightingale” begins with a reference to the month of spring. Sidney personifies the bird and captures its reaction in April. The chilling winter made its senses numb. In the cajoling heat of spring, its senses rejuvenate. It is described as a “perfect waking” for the nightingale. So, its inactivity during winter is compared to sleeping.

While the earth that became bare in winter is now proud of her new clothing of vegetation. Nature also springs alongside the nightingale. It seems to the speaker as if nature sings out the woes of the bird.

In the next part of this line, Sidney uses the term “thorn” as a symbol. It represents the pain of the nightingale. Philomela, a figure in Greek mythology, was turned into a nightingale by Olympian Gods. Sidney alludes to this mythical character through the reference to the nightingale.

Philomela sings her woeful story through her song. Her heartache acts as an inspiration in her “song-book”. Here, the “song-book” is a metaphor of the bird’s sad songs. Those songs mournfully bewail her tragic destiny.

Lines 6-8

Her throat in tunes expresseth

What grief her breast oppresseth

For Tereus’ force on her chaste will prevailing.

Sidney describes how Philomela (depicted as a nightingale) expresses her grief through her tunes in the following lines. Her songs portray the grief that oppresses her heart. By listening to her songs, the poet thinks Tereus’ force still prevails on her “chaste will”. In the quoted phrase, the poet uses a transferred epithet. The adjective “chaste” applies to the pronoun “her” instead of her “will”. Through this reference, the poet depicts Philomela’s chastity.

In these lines, Sidney hints at the rape of Philomela by her sister’s husband Tereus. Later, she obtained her revenge of him and was incidentally turned into a nightingale. Tereus’s cruelty had such an impression on her will that it still pains deep. She expresses this pain through her monotonous melodies.

Lines 9-12

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 last four lines of the first stanza are directly addressed to fair Philomela. Sidney’s speaker says her to be glad as he is in more distress than her. He describes his pain as “juster” than the cause of her “plaintful sadness”. The phrase “plaintful sadness” refers to Philomela’s complaining and sad songs. According to the speaker, his case is more grave and pathetic than Philomela’s story. She can express her pain in the rejuvenating spring.

In his case, everything around him is starting to fade even though nature is filled with springing with colors. This juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas is meant for emphasizing the speaker’s pain. In the last line, he reiterates the fact that Philomela is relieved of the “thorn” by avenging the misdeed caused to her chaste will. Whereas, the “thorn” of his life inserted into his heart. It now aches and makes his mind wearier. Here, the “thorn” of the speaker stands for loneliness, hopelessness, and pain of unrequited love.

Lines 13-16

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.

In the following section of “The Nightingale”, Sidney’s persona ironically comments on Philomela’s cause of anguish. According to him, she has no other cause to lament but Tereus’ lustful love for her body. Indeed, his strong hands had wreaked havoc on her mind and body. It resulted in her suffering. Gradually, her spirits languished. At one point, her will was totally broken as none heard her “Full womanlike complains”.

In this section, Sidney presents an important idea concerning the nature of his speaker’s pain and that of Philomela. The hurts of Philomela was somehow originated from love. It can be physical yet it is a desire that originates from the darker side of the heart. In her case, her pain is caused by this darker kind of love. No matter what, the essence of love is present in her tragedy. While, in the speaker’s case, he suffers for the complete absence of love, be it physical or mental.

Lines 17-20

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.

The speaker daily craves love. He does not have any source of hope to satiate her lonely, aching heart. Therefore, he has more causes to lament his own condition instead of Philomela’s tragedy.

In the following line, the poet uses an epigram that is going to stick with the readers for a long time. Here, he says that the strong desire for a thing makes one sadder than having too much. What does it mean?

Since wanting is more woe than too much having from The Nightingale
“Since wanting is more woe than too much having” Quote from The Nightingale

When one has “too much” with him, it comes up with several challenges. Having more than the needs creates tension in a person’s life and increases the burden. On the other hand, the idea of craving is more woeful than a luxury. The desire to have a thing that is either difficult to achieve or impossible to get only increases the heartache.

Lines 21-24

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 last four lines of this stanza are repeated for the sake of emphasis. They are also used as a refrain. Through these lines, Sidney points at the fact that his speaker needs special attention. The pain of Philomela is in no way similar to that of the speaker. He has already lost hope that is depicted through the term “fadeth”. Alongside that, he cannot get rid of the pain caused by the “thorn” of love. However, Philomela gets rid of it through her songs.

Historical Context

According to scholars, “The Nightingale” is a song of the Stella series. It appears in the 1598 edition of Arcadia. The poem was written in the tune of “Non credo giàche piu infelice amante.” In this poem, Sir Philip Sidney alludes to the Elizabethan sisters’ tragedy.

The Myth of Philomela, Procne, & Tereus

Philomela, Procne, and Tereus
Philomela, Procne, and Tereus

The mythical story can be found in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The sisters, Philomela and Procne were daughters of Pandion I, King of Athens and Zeuxippe. Procne was married to Tereus of Thrace. However, Tereus was lustful for Proce’s sister Philomela. Later, in the story, Tereus raped Philomela, mutilated her tongue, and abandoned her in the cabin.

As she could not tell of her physical and mental injuries, she wove a tapestry depicting her story and had it sent to Procne. Procne, being incensed in revenge, killed her son by Tereus, Itys. She served her son as a meal to her husband. It made Tereus angry and he was after the sisters’ lives. But, all three were transformed into birds by Olympian Gods.

  • Tereus became a hoopoe. In some versions of the myth, he was turned into a hawk.
  • Procne became a swallow.
  • Philomela became the nightingale. However, the female nightingale could not sing.


Questions & Answers

How did Sir Philip Sidney express his feelings through a nightingale?

Sidney expresses his feelings of distress, loneliness, and heartache after listening to the woeful song of the nightingale. Spring comes with its vivid colors and musicality. In contrast to that, the poet seems to be more discouraged by the rejuvenating beauty. The colors of his life have faded away and the “thorn” of love pains him deep.

What is “Tereus’ love” in the poem “The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sydney?

It is a reference to the myth of Tereus and Philomela. In this phrase, Sidney is ironically comparing Tereus’ lust with love. It is a reference to the physical passion, devoid of the purity of love.

Why is the nightingale singing in the poem “The Nightingale”?

The nightingale, a metaphorical reference to Philomela, sings as the season of spring cheers its senses. Spring encourages her to sing her pain out. It sings of her tragic story of being raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus.

Who is the titular nightingale in Sidney’s poem?

The nightingale is a reference to the Greek mythical figure, Philomela. She was transformed into a female nightingale that cannot sing. As she lost her tongue, God made her a female nightingale.

Who is the addressee in the poem “The Nightingale”?

The addressee in the poem is fair Philomela. Sidney refers to the nightingale representing the mythical character.

Which month of the year is referred to in the poem “The Nightingale”?

In the first line of the poem, Sidney refers to the month of April or the season of spring.

What does it mean to “bewail” in “The Nightingale”?

This word appears in the phrase “mournfully bewailing”. The term “bewail” means to express great regret and sadness about something.

What does the nightingale symbolize?

The nightingale in the poem symbolizes grief and heartache.

What is the main theme of “The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sidney?

The main theme of Sidney’s poem concerns the heartache of a speaker, a victim of unrequited love. It explores this theme by alluding to the mythical story of Philomela.


Similar Heartache Poems

  • “My True Love Hath My Heart” by Sir Philip Sidney — This piece by Sidney is about the pain two lovers shared in order to make their love complete.
  • “The Orphan Girl” by Henry Derozio — This sad story explores the loneliness, distress, and mental agony of an orphan girl.
  • “Sita” by Toru Dutt — This heart-touching poem centers on an episode of Sita’s second exile and how it makes the poet sad.
  • “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton — This poem reflects the mental state of a speaker who is on the verge of suicide.


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