Study Guide

The Nightingale Quotes

  • Man and the Natural World

    No cloud, no relique of the sunken day
    Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip
    Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues. (1-3)

    The poem opens with some night-sky imagery. But the way the speaker talks about the sky may be different than the way most people do. The day is described as "sunken" and the light is described as "sullen" with "obscure trembling" colors. These adjectives are pretty bleak, right? Perhaps he's trying to get us to reconsider our normal associations with daylight.

    Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
    That gladden the green earth, and we shall find (9-10)

    Our speaker sure does love his moss, trees, and growing things. Here, the earth is made happy by the rain, and the whole scene is one of springtime bliss. He echoes the green imagery throughout poem, and never challenges the way we associate spring with happiness. Perhaps the speaker just enjoys it too much to question it.

    […] and so his song
    Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself (32-33)

    After the poet spends some time in nature, argues the speaker, he'll be better able to compose a fitting ode to the natural world. He'll be a better poet who can, in turn, better nature with his words. Mankind's relationship to the natural world would then be one of mutual benefit. Sounds nice, right?

    Be loved like Nature! But 'twill not be so;
    And youths and maidens most poetical,
    Who lose the deepening twilights of the spring
    In ball-rooms and hot theatres, (34-37)

    Sigh. We guess that whole "mutually beneficial" relationship with nature is not meant to be. The speaker figures that young people and poets will always prefer to sit inside theaters or go dancing instead of spending time outside. They'll miss out on all the good stuff, he figures, like the "deepening twilights" of spring.

    Glistening, while many a glow-worm in the shade
    Lights up her love-torch. (68-69)

    Ever see a glow worm? They give off a bright, neon, colorful glow. It's a marvelous sight, but Coleridge doesn't include it just to be pretty. He mentions the actual function of the "glow": it attracts mates. So, while most humans might think it is some magical phenomena, he reminds the readers that nature has its own reasons, and they aren't the same as the ones we assign based on how nature makes us feel.

    And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
    Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently, (102-103)

    The speaker's son woke up crying with a nightmare and was comforted by the sight of the moon. He's not old enough to be afraid of nighttime. In fact, he seems to find it delightful. Is the speaker trying to say that children learn to be afraid of the dark, and that we don't naturally associate it with all things spooky and scary?

  • Art and Culture

    And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
    'Most musical, most melancholy' bird! (12-13)

    Coleridge quotes Milton here. If you've got to quote a poet, you may as well go for one considered a master. Milton clearly found the bird to be a sorrowful creature, and his verse became famous enough for others to quote. This prompts the speaker to recall the line when he hears the nightingale's song.

    (And so, poor wretch! fill'd all things with himself,
    And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
    Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
    First named these notes a melancholy strain:
    And many a poet echoes the conceit; (19-23)

    The "poor wretch" is the poet who, with a broken heart, thought the nightingale sounded melancholy. In fact, everything he heard seemed to sound melancholy. The speaker blames the wretch's mood for the popular idea that nightingales have a sorrowful song, and he blames the poets who repeated for making it a popular idea.

    Poet who hath been building up the rhyme
    When he had better far have stretched his limbs
    Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell, (24-26)

    The poet would have been better to spend time outside, says the speaker. Instead of creating rhymes indoors, the poet should lie in the grass near a brook and take it all in. Well, we guess a famous poet like Coleridge is qualified to give a piece or two of poetic advice.

    Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
    And of his fame forgetful! so his fame
    Should share in Nature's immortality,
    A venerable thing! and so his song (29-32)

    If the poets heeds his advice and "surrenders" himself to nature, forgetting his poem and his fame, he'll became part of nature's immortality. It's worthwhile, says Coleridge, to join something more eternal than oneself. Is it fame that stands in the way of the poet truly reaching their full potential?

  • Sadness

    In Nature there is nothing melancholy.
    But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
    With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
    Or slow distemper, or neglected love, (15-18)

    Sorrow "pierced" the heart of the poor wandering man. That's some strong imagery. Be it from an old grief, a bad mood, or a romantic loss, the sorrow sure did a job on this wandering fellow. Being sad can sometimes feel like taking an arrow to the chest.

    Full of meek sympathy must heave their sighs
    O'er Philomela's pity-pleading strains. (38-39)

    Poor Philomela. If ever there was someone deserving to wallow in self-pity, it's the woman who had her tongue cut out before she was turned into a bird. The poets sigh, full of "meek sympathy" over the nightingale's song, thinking of her plight. By describing their sighs as weak and soft, the speaker is indicating that they might not be very deep or sincere. They think the nightingale sings a sad song, but perhaps that's just because that's what they've read in poems.

    And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
    Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently, (102-103)

    The child's sadness is cured instantly by the sight of the moon. In fact, it makes him laugh. Does the speaker think that nature can cure sorrow? For children and poets, at least, the answer is yes. It probably couldn't hurt the rest of us to give it a chance, too.

  • Transformation

    And one low piping sound more sweet than all—
    Stirring the air with such an harmony
    That should you close your eyes, you might almost
    Forget it was not day! (61-64)

    The song of the nightingale is so harmonious that it can make the speaker forget that it's nighttime. We can assume, though, that this would only work if the listener isn't projecting their own emotions onto the song. And that, says the speaker, is difficult. Can true transformation only occur when we work towards it?

    With one sensation, and those wakeful birds
    Have all burst forth in choral minstrelsy,
    As if some sudden gale had swept at once
    A hundred airy harps! And she hath watched
    Many a nightingale perch giddily
    On blossomy twig still swinging from the breeze, (79-84)

    When the moon comes out from behind the clouds, the birds burst into song. It's so sudden that the speaker describes it as a "hundred airy harps." The grove goes from silent to a symphony, and the only person around to notice the transformation is the maiden.