Study Guide

The Nightingale

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The Nightingale Introduction

Poets love to write about birds. Poe had his raven, Dickinson knew a few things with feathers, and Yeats had a swan or two.

There's even a famous poem about birdwatching.

And, amongst the many great birds of poetry, the nightingale might just be the most popular. Keats, Wordsworth, and even Milton counted the little bird as a muse.

As did—you guessed it—our man Coleridge. Maybe the title of the poem tipped you off?

Still, this isn't really a poem about a nightingale, and it's certainly no ordinary bird. "The Nightingale" is a poem about not using a nightingale to write a poem.

Say what?

Coleridge thought that the nightingale got an unfair deal. You see, most poets liked to wax and wane about how melancholy its song sounded and how sorrowful the little creature must be. But, says, Coleridge, maybe that's just because the poets themselves were melancholy. He theorized that we project our feelings onto nature instead of really experiencing it.

He thought that poets should spend more time outside, really communing with nature, rather than imposing their verses and rhymes onto things like birds, stars, and bodies of water.

His theory struck a chord, though it wasn't exactly his first time writing about writers and the way they interact with the natural world. Coleridge was a prolific English Romantic; they loved to opine on all things natural and poetic.

"The Nightingale" was just one of Coleridge's works that came to be considered, well, pretty genius. His writing would later come to inspire many poets, including American nature-fans and poetic heavy-hitters like Emerson, Thoreau, and even Whitman.

Whew—we told you "The Nightingale" is no ordinary bird.

What is The Nightingale About and Why Should I Care?

In "The Nightingale," Coleridge argues that we humans project our emotions onto things, and that by doing so we miss out on really experiencing all the depth that nature has to offer.

Don't believe him?

Let's try an experiment. In one word, describe how the following things make you feel:

  1. A dark, rainy day
  2. The sound of a wolf howling at the moon
  3. A sunny field full of wildflowers

Chances are, your answers look something like the following:

  1. Gloomy
  2. Spooked
  3. Joyful

We all associate certain feelings with certain things found in nature. Ever wonder why most spooky stories are set at night, in a dark and lonely wood? We usually think of nighttime as lonely and scary, and daylight as hopeful and happy.

But Coleridge would argue that those associations don't have much at all to do with reality. A bird's song isn't necessarily cheerful just because we feel cheerful when we hear it. That bird could actually be having a really crummy day, or just be out looking for a mate. And a wolf howling at the moon might just be in a really great mood, despite how his howling sounds to us.

The point is: there is a lot more to nature than whatever labels we want to put on it. At the end of the day, the natural world really couldn't give a fig about us humans. Mmm… figs.

Instead, we project emotions onto nature because, well, that's just what humans do. We make it all about ourselves, all the time. Coleridge is essentially telling his fellow poets to check themselves. The natural world is bigger than their puny emotions. It just might have a life of its own to live, outside of a poem.

So consider "The Nightingale" the next time you are outside. Maybe that moonlight will make you feel just as cheerful as a bright ray of sunshine.

The Nightingale Resources

Websites

The Friends of Coleridge
Head here is you're after all Coleridge, all the time.

Coleridge's Biography
Still need more Coleridge? Check out his bio.

Searchin' for Coleridge
Here's a searchable index of his poetic works at Project Gutenberg.

Video

Can You Hear It?
Here's the poem, read aloud.

Jug Jug
The song of the (real) nightingale.

Images

The Poet
Check out the poet himself, all fancied up.

Sad Samuel
Here's another view of Coleridge. He's looking pretty sad, if we do say so ourselves.

Articles and Interviews

Intro to Coleridge
Here's a modern introduction to the not-so-modern poet.

The Nightingale in Literary History
This is academic article on the many literary appearances of the nightingale. Yes, really.

Wordsworth and Coleridge
This piece is on the (sometimes fraught) friendship between the two poets.

Books

The Poems
Want more Coleridge? How does every poem he ever published sound?

English Romantics
Come for the Coleridge. Stick around for the other English Romantics.