Study Guide

The Nightingale Stanza 1

By Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.