Study Guide

The Nightingale

The Nightingale Summary

It was a dark and stormy night… just kidding, Shmoopers. It's a dark and quiet night, and the speaker welcomes his friend and her sister to join him on a bridge overlooking a green bit of nature, where they begin chatting about the night sky.

A nightingale interrupts their chat with its melancholy song. But wait, says the speaker. Who decided that it sounds melancholy? Nature is never melancholy, he argues. It all just depends on the mood of the person who is listening.

In fact, he goes on to say, everyone would benefit from spending more time in nature, really experiencing it, rather than projecting their current feelings onto it. He then recounts a story about a pretty grove where a maiden makes nightly visits to listen to the birds. In a fairy-tale-esque twist, he says that, every time the moon comes out, the grove turns into a chorus of songs.

At the end of the night, the speaker bids everyone (including the nightingale) farewell, but not before reminiscing how his son came to associate nature, and especially the night sky, with joy. He hopes that his son will always enjoy the night sky, even if most people seem to associate night with gloom and doom in the same way they associate the nightingale's song with sorrow.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-4

    No cloud, no relique of the sunken day
    Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip
    Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues.
    Come, we will rest on this old mossy bridge!

    • The day is ending, and we are going to sit on a bridge and… um, think about it.
    • The speaker calls the day "sunken" and says it has left no relic ("relique") of itself anywhere.
    • Sounds kind of like a shipwreck, right? Comparing the day to a shipwreck is a good example of figurative language. Shipwrecks aren't normally a good thing, so it's safe to assume that this hasn't been the best day ever.
    • The light is fading pretty quickly. Using imagery, Coleridge gives us a glimpse of the light, a "long thin strip," but it has already faded into darkness by the time we make it to the bridge.
    • It's dark.
    • Notice the wordplay here? The speaker describes fading light as "sullen," and says there are no "obscure" or "trembling" hues.
    • There's definitely a particular tone being established. It sounds like the speaker isn't in the best mood.
    • Something else is being established: the poem's meter.
    • Say what? Well, count the syllables in these first four lines, and you'll notice that there are the same number of syllables in each line.
    • And that's not all: those syllables are called feet and they can vary based on where the emphasis is placed.
    • Because of the particular type of feet, and the number in each line, the poem's meter is what's called "iambic pentameter."
    • Confusing? No worries. Head over to "Form and Meter" for a complete breakdown

    Lines 5-8

    You see the glimmer of the stream beneath,
    But hear no murmuring: it flows silently
    O'er its soft bed of verdure. All is still,
    A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,

    • The speaker addresses us in the second person; we are right there, in the dark, sitting with him.
    • The stream under the bridge is quietly "flowing" over the green plants below.
    • We get more visually-appealing imagery here: the "verdure" (plants) are "soft" and the water is "glimmering." Oh, and the night is "balmy" and the stars are "dim."
    • Our speaker's really painting quite a picture. Coleridge is definitely a fan of imagery.
    • Compared to the four lines above, the scene is quite peaceful.
    • Has the speaker's mood improved because of this peaceful moment in nature? Let's read on…

    Lines 9-12

    Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
    That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
    A pleasure in the dimness of the stars.
    And hark! the Nightingale begins its song

    • Vocab alert: "Vernal" means "springtime." It definitely sounds like the speaker's mood is improving.
    • The poem asks us to think about spring rain and how it "gladdens" the earth.
    • There's definitely been some repetition of the color "green" so far in the poem. With the color's associations with life and growing things, we can bet that the poet didn't do it on accident.
    • There's also a little bit of consonance, or repetition of consonant sounds going on here. "Gladdens" and "green" are a specialized example called alliteration.
    • This repetition adds some rhythm to poetry (and to rap music, too). So does enjambment, or breaking up phrases over multiple lines. It adds a bit of flow.
    • Dance on over to "Sound Check" for more.
    • Back to our nighttime reverie: the speaker also asks us to find pleasure in the night sky, even if the stars are dim.
    • It sounds like everyone is feeling pretty blissed out right now.
    • And then we hear the call of the nightingale

    Lines 13-15

    'Most musical, most melancholy' bird!
    A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
    In Nature there is nothing melancholy.

    • Did you hear all those M sounds? That's more alliteration coming at you. "Most," "musical," and "melancholy" echo throughout these three lines. Try not to get your tongue too twisted.
    • Allusion alert: Line 13 references John Milton's Il Penseroso. (Check out "Shout-Outs" for a whole list of allusions.) Although Milton is one of the most famous poets of all time, the speaker isn't too into the way the ol' guy describes the nightingale.
    • He says that nothing in nature is melancholy.
    • But then, why do so many people associate the nightingale's song with sorrow?

    Lines 16-18

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

    • The speaker continues with that thought:
    • It isn't the bird's song that's melancholy; it's the person listening to it.
    • If someone is wandering around with a broken heart, they'll probably think anything sounds melancholy.
    • He doesn't just say "broken heart," though (cliché, much?). He compares the heartbreak to having an arrow pierce the vital organ.
    • Ouch—that probably would make a nightingale's song sound pretty dreary.
    • That's the speaker's argument: our moods affect the way we experience nature.

    Lines 19-22

    (And so, poor wretch! filled 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.

    • The speaker feels bad for the poor, heartbroken dude.
    • The dude can't even experience things as they are. He makes everything about his own sorrow.
    • Even "gentle sounds" sound sad to the guy.
    • It sounds like a real drag.
    • The speaker argues that this phenomenon is the reason people thing a nightingale sounds sad. We are putting our own emotions into the bird's noises.
    • It was probably someone experiencing this type of sorrow that first named the nightingale melancholy.
    • We guess everyone else just took his word for it.

    Lines 23-26

    And many a poet echoes the conceit;
    Poet who hath been building up the rhyme
    When he had better far have stretched his limbs
    Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell,

    • Poets are also guilty of projecting their emotions onto nature, says the speaker.
    • Poetry term alert: a conceit is a kind of metaphor that compares two very different things.
    • In this case, he's saying that melancholy feelings and a nightingale's song are very different, but poets often use one as a stand-in for the other.
    • He goes even further to say that poets spend more time writing about nature than actually experiencing it.
    • It'd be better for them to sit outside and stretch in a nice "mossy" area.
    • But why? Read on, gang.

    Lines 27-30

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

    • We are still talking about the poet here.
    • The speaker says it'd be good for him to sit out in the sunlight or under the moonlight and pay attention to the things around him
    • What things? He's referring to the shapes, sounds, and "shifting elements"—nature, basically, in all its forms.
    • He wants the poet to really notice these things.
    • And he also wants him to "surrender" himself to what he experiences.
    • If the poet does this, he'll forget about trying to write a poem to get famous. He'll instead gain something more valuable. Cold hard cash, maybe?

    Lines 31-34

    Should share in Nature's immortality,
    A venerable thing! and so his song
    Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself
    Be loved like Nature! But 'twill not be so;

    • If the poet abandons his spirit to nature, he'll be able to share in nature's immortality.
    • Say what?
    • Basically, nature keeps on going, ignoring mortal things like poems and fame. So joining in with nature will make the poet part of this immortal world, too.
    • His poems will be better, too, says the speaker; they'll make nature "lovelier" by their words.
    • And they'll be as loved as nature is.
    • But it won't ever happen, says the speaker. The poet won't ever abandon himself totally.
    • Why not? We're left hanging on that, for now…

    Lines 35-38

    And youths and maidens most poetical,
    Who lose the deepening twilights of the spring
    In ball-rooms and hot theatres, they still
    Full of meek sympathy must heave their sighs

    • Young people who write poetry will spend their time dancing and going to the theater instead of communing with nature, and thus will "lose the deepening twilights of the spring."
    • Here, we finally get the whole spring thing. It's a symbol for youth.
    • The speaker says they'll totally miss out on some very awesome nature-stuff.
    • This means they won't understand nature very well, but will still pretend to—with "mock sighs" and half-hearted sympathy.
    • The poets will think they have a deep understanding of things like bird songs or sunsets, but because they don't know nature, they don't really get it.

    Lines 39-42

    O'er Philomela's pity-pleading strains.
    My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
    A different lore: we may not thus profane
    Nature's sweet voices, always full of love

    • Another Allusion Alert: Philomela is a character from Greek myth.
    • In the myth, she's a young woman who gets turned into a nightingale.
    • Here, the speaker says that the young people and the poets will pretend to understand the song of the nightingale. Because they don't commune with nature, though, they won't be able to really hear it.
    • They'll think the song is full of sorrow and pity, when really, it's "always full of love."
    • He also addresses his company. We now know that he's sitting with his friend and his friend's sister.
    • Many believe his friend meant to stand for the poet Wordsworth, who also wrote a poem about a nightingale.
    • See? We told you the nightingale was a popular subject.

    Lines 43-45

    And joyance! 'Tis the merry Nightingale
    That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
    With fast thick warble his delicious notes,

    • Nature's songs are full of joy, too.
    • Here the speaker describes the nightingale as "joyous."
    • This contrasts with how the poet and the heartbroken young man describe the song.
    • They found it sorrowful.
    • Why? Like the speaker said, it's because that's the mood they were in.
    • The speaker also describes the song as if it were a chocolate milkshake. Coleridge sure doesn't skimp on the adjectives. "Thick" and "delicious" are two of many, many adjectives in the poem.

    Lines 46-49 

    As he were fearful that an April night
    Would be too short for him to utter forth
    His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
    Of all its music!

    • The "he" the speaker refers to is the nightingale, whose song he calls a "love-chant."
    • This again contrasts to the way we might interpret the bird's song.
    • Like the speaker says, humans often think it sounds melancholy.
    • The nightingale sings with urgency. He has a lot to say.
    • In fact, says the speaker, the bird is really unburdening his whole soul.
    • This is kind of like what poets try to do with each poem, right?
    • So, is the nightingale working as a symbol for a poet, or for the things that inspire a poet?
    • You make the call, Shmoopers.
    • Notice that the iambic pentameter stops with line 49?
    • This signals the end of the first stanza. It's on to stanza two.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 49-54

    And I know a grove
    Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
    Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
    This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
    And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
    Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.

    • Yes, though there is a line break, we are technically still on line 49. Coleridge just cuts it in half to signal the start of a new stanza.
    • Now, the speaker tells us about a grove near a castle. It's uninhabited and overgrown with trees, grass, and flowers.
    • It also hasn't been trimmed or pruned it awhile. It's pretty wild.
    • We can bet that the speaker prefers the grove to be wild rather than tamed by humans. After all, he wants to experience nature in its natural state.

    Lines 55-60

    But never elsewhere in one place I knew
    So many nightingales; and far and near,
    In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
    They answer and provoke each other's song,
    With skirmish and capricious passagings,
    And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,

    • This grove has more nightingales than any other place the speaker has visited.
    • They hang out in the thick forest or fly over the grove, singing to each other.
    • Despite being seen as a sorrowful bird, they have many moods.
    • The speaker says they "skirmish" or briefly (and probably playfully) fight, and behave capriciously (unpredictably).
    • He really wants us to consider the birds' real life, which is often overlooked because of their song.
    • By describing their songs as "murmurs," he reminds us that they exist not to entertain humans, but as a means of communication.
    • What sounds like "jug jug" to our ears is actually a complex language.
    • Trivia alert: "Jug jug" will later appear in one of the most famous poems of all time, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
    • We guess that this is a pretty influential poem, despite it having a few stern words for poets.

    Lines 61-64

    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! On moonlight bushes,

    • Amongst all the bird songs in the grove, one sound is sweeter than the rest.
    • Guess whose it is?
    • The speaker describes it with flourish: the creature's song makes the grove fill with harmony.
    • If you close your eyes, he says, you'd think it was still daytime.
    • Here, he's associating daylight with pleasant feelings.
    • Or at least, he's saying that most people would make that association.

    Lines 65-69

    Whose dewy leaflets are but half-disclosed.
    You may perchance behold them on the twigs,
    Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright and full,
    Glistening, while many a glow-worm in the shade
    Lights up her love-torch.

    • The creature making the beautiful noise sits on twigs.
    • We can assume, then, that it's a bird, and it's probably not a stretch to assume it's the subject of this poem (the nightingale).
    • Coleridge describes their eyes as "bright" not once, not twice, but three times in one line.
    • Did our poet just run out of vocabulary?
    • Or is he trying to say, by emphasizing how strangely bright their eyes are, that the nightingales are almost unnatural, or other-worldly?
    • The speaker did reference the immortality of nature earlier, so maybe that isn't a stretch.
    • While the nightingales sing, glow worms do their thing nearby.
    • And their thing is glowing. Coleridge calls this glow their "love torch."
    • Say what?
    • He's right: glow worms use their colorful glow to attract mates.
    • But most people would just walk by and think, "How pretty."
    • By referencing the real nature of glow worms, he again reminds us that nature doesn't just exist as a reflection of our feelings.
    • There's a whole lot of other stuff going on.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 69-74

    A most gentle Maid, Who dwelleth in her hospitable home
    Hard by the castle, and at latest eve
    (Even like a Lady vowed and dedicate
    To something more than Nature in the grove)
    Glides through the pathways; she knows all their notes 

    • Coleridge again uses a line break to split up a single line and signal a stanza change.
    • A "gentle maid" who lives near the castle comes to wander in the grove.
    • She's coming for more than just the nature. She seeks something…
    • And she's been there many times before, it seems. She knows all the notes that the birds sing.
    • It sounds like a nature-loving lady who'd get along with our speaker quite well.

    Lines 75-80

    That gentle Maid! and oft, a moment's space,
    What time the moon was lost behind a cloud,
    Hath heard a pause of silence; till the moon
    Emerging, hath awakened earth and sky
    With one sensation, and those wakeful birds
    Have all burst forth in choral minstrelsy,

    • The speaker describes a moment when the night sky appears to be moon-less.
    • The moon is actually just behind a cloud.
    • When it emerges, all the birds start singing in unison, like a chorus.
    • It isn't just the birds that respond. The speaker says the whole earth and all of the sky wake up when the moon emerges.
    • Hmm—waking up and singing aren't two activities that we usually associate with nighttime.
    • That's probably because we aren't birds.
    • Coleridge is reminding us that there's a whole world of activity when the sun goes down.

    Lines 81-84

    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,

    • The speaker is still describing the chorus of birds, this time comparing them to the sound of harps.
    • Harps are generally associated with angels.
    • So, he is again using some celestial imagery while talking about nature.
    • Remember, that he also called nature "immortal."
    • So, is nature his idea of heaven? He was a British Romantic, after all.
    • The maiden is still in the grove, and she notices a giddy little nightingale sitting on a twig.
    • Communing with animals? She kind of sounds like a Disney princess.
    • In fact, there is something mythical about her.
    • Remember that Philomela, referenced earlier, was a nightingale… but she began as a woman.
    • Is this, perhaps, Philomela in human form?
    • Your guess is as good as ours, but there's a good chance that Coleridge wanted you to at least consider the parallels.

    Lines 85-86

    And to that motion tune his wanton song
    Like tipsy Joy that reels with tossing head.

    • "Wanton" can mean playful, or it can be something a little more sexual.
    • Whatever the nightingale is up to, though, he's happy about it. His song is described as joyful and "tipsy."
    • Or is that just another assumption we humans make, based on our own feelings?
    • That kind of assumption is what the speaker has been warning against this whole time.
    • Hmm… hypocrite much there, Mr. Speaker?
    • Remember, though, that people usually think the nightingale sounds melancholy. Perhaps the speaker is trying to indicate that, though the song may sound sorrowful, the creature singing it may be in an entirely different mood.
    • Or, like the glow worms, the creature may just be trying to mate.
    • Whatever the case, this happy image serves to contrast the way the heartbroken man in the first stanza categorized the nightingale's song.

    Lines 87-90

    Farewell, O Warbler! till to-morrow eve,
    And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
    We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
    And now for our dear homes.—That strain again!

    • It's time to go. The speaker bids us goodnight (after he bids the nightingale goodnight).
    • He'll be back tomorrow, though.
    • He doesn't seem to get bored with the night sky.
    • It's been fun, he says, but it's time to go home.
    • But, before we can leave, the nightingale sings again.

    Lines 91-95

    Full fain it would delay me! My dear babe,
    Who, capable of no articulate sound,
    Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
    How he would place his hand beside his ear,
    His little hand, the small forefinger up,

    • He's happy to let the song delay him a little.
    • It reminds him of his child, who it too young to be able to speak but tries to imitate the bird's song.
    • He doesn't do a great job of imitating the beauty of the song (he's a baby after all), but he sure tries.

    Lines 96-100

    And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
    To make him Nature's play-mate. He knows well
    The evening-star; and once, when he awoke
    In most distressful mood (some inward pain
    Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream—)

    • The speaker thinks it's a good idea to have his child enjoy nature.
    • Why? Well, he's spent a lot of time telling us that nature is eternal, that communing with nature brings joy.
    • Naturally he'd want that for his children.
    • The speaker spends a lot of time outside with his child, and so the child is used to seeing the night sky.
    • We guess somebody gets to stay up past his bedtime.
    • Once, the child woke up after a bad dream. He calls infant dreams "strange" and… well, we'll just have to take his word for it.

    Lines 101-105

    I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
    And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
    Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
    While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
    Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!—

    • The speaker took his son to the orchard outside in order to calm him down.
    • It worked. When the child saw the moon, he stopped crying.
    • He started to laugh, even.
    • The speaker describes his eyes as glittering in the moonlight—like father, like son.

    Lines 106-110

    It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven
    Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
    Familiar with these songs, that with the night
    He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
    Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell.

    • Here, he directly calls nature "Heaven."
    • Communing with nature, then, is how he communes with holy things.
    • He wants his son to grow up familiar with nature, and he wants his son to love it the way he does.
    • He also wants his son to associate night with joy, rather than sorrow or anything else we might normally associate it with.
    • Question: when do we set most of our spooky stories?
    • Answer: nighttime.
    • For Coleridge, this association seems unfair. He's arguing that it's no more gloomy or spooky than daytime, and it's just our emotions that make it seem one way or the other.
    • He says a final goodnight, to the nightingale and to us…
      ….at least until tomorrow night.