Study Guide

The Nightingale Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Just what does a nightingale sound like? According to Coleridge, it sounds like a "musical and swift jug jug" (60). Sure… who doesn't love the sound of a good jug jug?

    But that's not what we mean when we talk about the sound of the poem. There's a whole lot of cadence (or, rhythm) in Coleridge's wordplay, and there are a few clever sonic tricks he uses to bring it out.

    For example, try reading the following aloud:

    By sun or moon-light, to the influxes
    Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
    Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song

    Notice anything? The S sound is repeated quite a few times, at the beginning, middle, and ends of words. That, friends, is called consonance, and it gives a little lyrical lilt to the lines.

    Coleridge uses it a ton.

    That's not his only trick, though. The poet also sprinkles plenty of exclamation marks throughout the poem. For example:

    As if some sudden gale had swept at once
    A hundred airy harps! And she hath watched

    If you read it aloud, you'll notice that the exclamation mark forces you to stop and pause momentarily. Coleridge is using a caesura. Much like the way we speak in real life, the poem starts and stops, building momentum before slowing down a bit.

    One other way that this poem makes its sounds pop is through a technique called alliteration. That's a specialized kind of consonance where the beginning sounds of each word are repeated:

    'Most musical, most melancholy' bird! (13)

    All those M words add to the musicality of the language. Taken with the poem's use of consonance and caesura, we've got a poem that practically sings. And we'd say that's pretty appropriate, given its focus on the nightingale's song.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Though it begins on a bridge, musing about the night sky, the poem quickly reveals its main subject: the nightingale, a bird known for its melancholy song. John Milton, with whose work Coleridge would certainly have been familiar, frequently referenced the bird, calling it "melancholy."

    In fact, the bird's reputation is why it was chosen. With an overall argument against using nature to reflect back one's own emotions, a familiar poetic subject like a nightingale would help drive the message home.

    And though the poem frequently returns to topics like youth, the moon, and the beauty of nature, it all circles back to that nightingale and how our emotions affect the way we characterize that little bird and its song.

    All in all, it's a pretty appropriate (and literal) title, there, Mr. Coleridge.

  • Setting

    It's a lovely night and we've joined our speaker for a bit of peaceful reverie. The sun has gone down and the night sky is full of dim stars. The green moss below us (and several clues from the speaker) indicate that it's springtime. There's a castle, a nearby grove, and a body of water below us.

    And… well, those are all the clues we get. Though it's widely believed that Coleridge was addressing Wordsworth, his fellow British Romantic (which may help make sense of the castle), this much else is not overtly indicated in the actual poem.

    This, when you think about the topic, might be on purpose.

    After all, Coleridge was talking about big, universal ideas like poetry and nature. He wanted people to sit outside and examine the beauty of nature.

    That's a pretty timeless message, so perhaps he didn't want to date it by making the era clear.

  • Speaker

    We don't know the speaker's name, age, or even gender. (Most people assume it's a he and that Coleridge himself has assumed the role.) We do know, though, that the speaker cares very deeply about nature.

    In the first stanza, he invites two friends to sit with him and muse about the night sky. As they do so, a nightingale sings, which prompts the speaker to make his feelings known about how poets have treated this famous bird.

    They characterize it unfairly, he says, based on their emotions. This musing leads to a lengthier discussion on enjoying nature and youth. Just think of him as a man with a message.

    The message? We should revel in nature, rather than try to shape it to fit our poems or moods. And he's no hypocrite. He reveals that he is raising his son to appreciate the night sky, and hopes that others will learn to do so, too.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Sea Level

    No need to break out the fancy gear for this hike, Shmoopers. Though long, and written way before any of us were born, the poem is relatively clear and straightforward. Coleridge wanted it to seem conversational, rather than something that would require the use of a dictionary and tons of patience. So, despite being considered a classic, there's only one allusion and few uses of symbolism or other kinds of poetic wordplay.

    In fact, it's practically a walk in the park (er, grove).

  • Calling Card

    Transcending Tradition

    A poet who is concerned with changing the state of poetry: that's our Coleridge.

    Just check out some of his most famous works. In "Kubla Khan," a poem about a dream takes interesting twists and turns, changing its rhythm willy-nilly.

    And, though he used traditional blank verse in "This Lime Tree Bower My Prison" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he still wasn't afraid to both play with both form and subject matter.

    And that's where we wind up in "The Nightingale." In this famous poem, Coleridge presents us with something that looks traditional, but is actually anything but.

    In the end, he's not just talking about a bird. The entire poem implores us to take a deeper look before assigning meaning to anything. It also challenges us to question meaning that others (even famous poets) assign to things, especially things in nature.

    So whether it's playing with traditional form or re-thinking the subject matter, Coleridge has the same advice for poets: don't be afraid to buck tradition a little bit.

  • Form and Meter

    Blank Verse, Could Be Worse

    Ask most people what they think a poem sounds like… and they'll probably tell you that it rhymes.

    Well, not this one.

    In fact, many of the most famous poems of all time, even those considered classics, don't rhyme. Everybody from Frost to Eliot eschewed traditional rhyme schemes for less… restrictive wordplay.

    That doesn't mean that an unrhymed poem can't have form, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find it.

    Take a look at the following lines:

    And hark! The Nightingale begins its song,
    'Most musical, most melancholy' bird!
    Try reading that first line out loud. It should sound something like this:

    And hark! The Nightingale begins its song,
    That repeating pattern (daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM) is called iambic pentameter. Let us explain. Each two-syllable pair is called a foot. In this case, the line's foot that is made up of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. That kind of pairing, friends, is called an iamb. And because each line has five iambs, the poem's meter is iambic pentameter (penta- meaning five).

    Whew. But wait, there's more:

    The poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, which is an even more specialized metrical form known as blank verse.

    It's a style that mimics the way people speak, and that's why famous poets like Shakespeare and Milton were such fans.

    There's one more key element to making sure blank verse sounds natural: enjambment, or breaking up a sentence in order to carry it over multiple lines. Check out the following example:

    But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
    With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
    Or slow distemper, or neglected love,

    See how the sentence moves from line to line? Enjambment keeps the poem moving fluidly, like a conversation.

    In fact, it moves so fluidly, you may not even have noticed the carefully crafted form. In that way, this choice of meter is totally appropriate. The whole point of the poem is that poets are wrong for imposing their feelings onto the natural world. Form-wise, this poem uses an understated form—no rhyming or over-the-top rhythms—to draw us back to the main focus: the natural world itself. Tricky guy, that Coleridge.

  • The Night Sky

    It's a bird. It's a plane. No wait—yeah, it's just bird. It's hard to see with all this night going on.

    The poem begins and ends with the night sky. In lines 1-3, the speaker muses on the lack of light and clouds present. That's our first indication that this poem takes place largely at night. But it's less about what isn't there than what is. Lines 8 and 11 mention the dim stars that overlook the scene.

    These stars, and the other "shifting elements" in lines 27-28, are of utmost importance to the speaker. He wishes that poets and youths would spend more time communing with them. Though they might not appreciate the night sky, the birds do. In line 80, for example, the birds in the grove burst into song when the moon emerges from beneath clouds.

    As the poem ends, this revelry in celestial sights continues, when the speaker recalls how his son was comforted by seeing the moon. He hopes that his son will always associate the night sky with good things.

  • Nature's Greenery

    Like the inside of our college dorm fridge, green things are growing all over the place in this poem. They're doing it in a good way here, though. Our dorm fridge was a whole lot grosser—trust us.

    In lines 6-8, moss and "verdure" cover the area below the bridge, and then earth is described (pretty literally) as green. In line 26, more moss grows, and in 36 we finally see why: it's spring. The poem describes an April night (according to line 46) and the speaker makes no bones about the opportunities green things afford young people and poets.

    We should bask in the greenery, he says, and learn to really appreciate nature.

    The wild and untamed grove is full of "grass and king-cups" in line 54, and it is here that the young maiden happily connects with the immortality of nature.

    Enjoying nature leads to joy, he argues, and the color green symbolizes this joy.

  • The Nightingale and Its Song

    The nightingale is the Christina Aguilera of the bird world. Whether it's the lament of a brokenhearted young man or the joyful tune of nature's reverie, the nightingale's song weaves through the night.

    The speaker first mentions the "melancholy" associations with the bird's song in line 12. He then goes on to explain that whoever first decided it was a sorrowful noise must have been suffering from a personal sorrow. Later in line 29, a nightingale of Greek myth, Philomela, makes an appearance, singing a sad song.

    But, says the speaker, that isn't how every nightingale feels.

    A "merry" nightingale sings in line 44 and again in lines 83-85. As the speaker says goodnight to the bird at the end of the poem, he reminds us that we bring our own emotions to the song it sings, and that nature is far more complex than we might be giving it credit for.

    And it isn't just about one bird's song. The nightingale is a symbol for anything we apply our own emotion to in a way that is perhaps unfair. Who says a nightingale isn't singing a happy song?

  • Youth and Childhood

    Youth plays a key part in unlocking the true poetry of nature, argues Coleridge.

    Throughout the poem, poets and young people are often described as one in the same. In the first stanza, "youths and maidens most poetical" receive a hefty dose of advice from the speaker, and their dancing- and entertainment-loving ways are the source of some sadness.

    Later, the speaker's own child enters the poem. In line 99, he awakes from a nightmare and cries. When the speaker takes him to see the moon, the child is comforted so much that he stops crying and even laughs a little.

    With this final image, the speaker reiterates his hopes for his child and for the youthful poets: that they might learn to associate joy with nature. Or rather, he hopes that they won't unlearn this joy as they age.

    • Steaminess Rating


      We've got maidens talking to birds and a moon that makes a baby smile. This one is as clean as a cartoon fairy tale. Romantics didn't necessarily always get romantic (not the way we usually use the word today, anyway).

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References:

      Greek Mythology References:

      • Philomela, woman turned into a nightingale in Ovid's Metamorphoses (39)