251. The Owl and the Nightingale (c.1280)

“No one is honoured very long merely because he sings a song”   page 201

A heated debate between a nightingale and an owl over their own merits versus their opponent’s vices. My copy is included with two other religious themed poems (Cleanness, and St. Erkenwald) in a Penguin Black Classic edition translated by Brian Stone (to be read later)

Thoughts : This was very easy to read, and very amusing to boot.

The nightingale describes the owl as ugly, with filthy habits; and a killjoy who is only content with others’ suffering. The owl responds with attacks on the nightingale’s frivolity, pleasure seeking and leading innocents to give in to lustful urgings.

The owl turns the nightingale’s jeers on her love of dismal winter (and therefore dislike of summer and joyful celebrations), by claiming she stays beside men and women and consoles them in times of adversity while the nightingale carelessly flits off to sunnier climes. The nightingale retaliates by claiming that the owl’s boasting of the gift of prophecy which she uses to try and warn people of impending doom is a result of practising witchcraft. Neither owns responsibility for the results of their songs : the wife who cuckolds her husband after listening to the tunes of love sung by the nightingale, the human who does not heed the owl’s warnings.

There are many other arguments slung back and forward : the owl’s chicks foul their own nests, the nightingale nests near human privies, the owl eats horrid mice and frogs, the nightingale eats spiders and beetles, etc., but it reads quickly and entertains greatly as the reader listens to each argument.

The argument finally ends with both birds flying off to put their cases before a devout man, Nicholas of Guildford, to settle the issue. (For my money, the owl wins!)

The editor provides an introduction which aligns the nightingale with courtly love, while the owl is the personification (birdification?) of the Church. While they are certainly drawn as frivolous versus seriousness, pleasure seeking versus pious wisdom, the deeper allegory does not prevent the poem from being a lot of fun.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

The nightingale’s opening gambit is an assault based on the owl’s appearance, attacking the owl’s lack of prettiness in both body and voice, which only shows her own shallow nature

“Monster!” she cried, “Away! Fly off!”

Simply to see you’s quite enough

to make me lose the urge to sing.

You’re such an ugly, evil thing”            page 182

The owl’s defence that she sings at night to mark the canonical hours of prayer (and not all day and night to mindless excess like her opponent) was quite clever, and serves to link the owl to the church and worship

“I sing at eve when song is due,

Give utterance at bed-time too.

And then at midnight once again

And lastly lift my glad refrain

When I see rising from afar

In light of dawn the morning star”      page 192

compared with the results of the nightingale’s trilling which the owl claims is responsible for countrywide mindless rutting

“In summer peasants lose their sense

And jerk in mad concupiscence.

Theirs is not love’s enthusiasm

but some ignoble churlish spasm.

When having achieved its chosen aim,

leaves their spirits gorged and tame,

The poke beneath the skirt is ended

And with the act, all love’s expended.”     page 200

Bacchus would be proud.

Personal rating: Very enjoyable. 9/10.

In the years 1280-1289:

  • The Mongol wave starts to falter, with Japan crushing an attempted invasion in 1281, and Annam and Champa (Vietnam) repulsing them, 1287-88
  • Welsh prince Llewellyn ap Gruffyd is killed fighting Edward I’s English forces, 1282 ; Edward begins building castles (Harlech, Caernarvon) to subdue locals, 1283
  • Alexander III, King of Scotland dies 1286, succeeded by his niece Margaret, the Maid of Norway, then aged 3. She dies en route to Scotland, age 7, possibly of food poisoning, on Orkney in 1290. Poor wee mite.

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978. 

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