In Coleridge’s ‘conversational’ poem, ‘The Nightingale,’ he seems to ramble on about a bird, but because of the Romantic that he is, there is more to this poem than meets the eye!

nightingale

Introduction

‘The Nightingale’ is a three-stanza poem with a conversational style. In this poem, Coleridge demonstrates his love for nature and rural life over the city and more modern conveniences, and by doing so, he stays true to his Romantic ideas. ‘The Nightingale’ was a part of Lyrical Ballads, a group of poems by both Coleridge and Wordsworth that was published in 1798. In this lesson, we will highlight certain parts of the poem in an effort to analyze Coleridge’s main themes.

Stanza One

In stanza one, Coleridge establishes the setting of the poem. As the speaker, he is addressing companions who are accompanying him on a walk. He invites his friends to ‘(c)ome’ and ‘rest on’ an ‘old mossy bridge!’ He goes on to say, ‘You see the glimmer of the stream beneath, (b)ut hear no murmuring: it flows silently.’ Coleridge is masterful at creating imagery. Already, we feel that the invitation is extended to us, and we see the quiet stream.

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It is a still, warm evening, and the stars are dim. It is at this point that the nightingale begins singing. Nightingales do sing during the day, but their songs are most strong at night. Coleridge pokes fun at the idea that the nightingale is known as a ‘musical’ and ‘melancholy’ bird, and says that ‘In Nature there is nothing melancholy.’ This statement truly defines Coleridge’s attitude toward nature. Nature is practically worshiped by writers like Coleridge. It is a sanctuary.

Coleridge blames a depressed person, someone who was wrapped up in his own sadness, for attributing the nightingale’s song to a melancholy tune. He then states that poets have assumed that nightingales sing sad songs without taking the time to go out into nature and listen to the birds. Then, in listening, the poet should lose himself and become one with nature.

However, Coleridge realizes that the lure of the city with its theaters and symphonies is a greater attraction than a song-filled wood.

Stanza Two

Here, Coleridge starts by including his companions, calling them ‘friend’ and ‘sister,’ and vows not to ‘profane’ the nightingale by calling its song anything less than ‘joyous.’ He says that he and his companions are different in their understanding of nature. To Coleridge, everything pure and good is found in nature, and nature is a teacher for mankind.

Coleridge tells a small story of an abandoned castle surrounded by a grove with ‘tangling underwood.’ In this grove, several nightingales live and sing to each other. They (s)tir . . . the air with such a harmony, (t)hat should you close your eyes, you might almost (f)orget it was not day.’ Their eyes are described as ‘bright’ and ‘full.’ In this, Coleridge is showing the nightingale to be healthy and happy, whole.

He then switches gears to tell the story of a ‘maid’ who often walks near the abandoned castle, listening to the nightingales sing. Her home is nearby, and Coleridge praises her character. She has observed that when clouds cover the moon at night, the birds stop singing, but when the moon is visible once more, they ‘burst forth’ with song. He finishes this section, describing a nightingale on a branch that is swinging in the breeze as being ‘tipsy Joy.’ The bird, in metaphorical terms, is literally joy itself.

Stanza Three

The final stanza of the poem is a benediction, a ‘farewell’ to both the nightingale and to the friends who have spent the evening with Coleridge. But the ‘strain’ of the beautiful song pulls Coleridge back. It is at this point that Coleridge shares how his little child responds to the nightingale. Remember that children, like nature, are central to Romantic beliefs in that they are pure souls. It is as if his child has a special connection and communication with nature.

His little one lifts his hand to his ear, with one finger raised, as if to say, ‘Keep listening.’ Coleridge then remembers one time when his baby was fussy, and he took him outside and showed him the moon. The child was immediately calm and happy.

Coleridge now gets to the heart of things by saying, ‘But if that Heaven (s)hould give me life, his childhood shall grow up (f)amiliar with these songs, that with the night (h)e may associate joy.’ It is these last words that tie the poem up in a neat theme, ‘that with the night (h)e may associate joy.’

Lesson Summary

Some birds sing at night, certainly nightingales do, and their song, according to Coleridge, is robust and happy. Perhaps we can deduce that there is a deeper meaning here, that there is joy, even in the ‘nigh,’ or difficult times, of our lives.

‘The Nightingale’

Overview
Stanza 1: This represents Coleridge’s attitude towards nature; he feels that nature is a sanctuary that is worshiped by the romantic writers.
Stanza 2: The nightingale’s song is joyous and reflects Coleridge’s feeling that everything pure and good is found in nature, and that nature is a teacher for mankind.
Stanza 3: This section is a farewell benediction to the poet’s friends as well as the nightingale.

Learning Outcomes

As you expand your understanding of Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale,’ you will feel able to:

  • Provide background details about ‘The Nightingale’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • Explain the symbolism of the bird, the song and the moon