Study Guide

The Nightingale Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    Want to take a walk out under the moonlight? "The Nightingale" will suit you just fine. Coleridge's lines are thick with nature imagery, from mossy groves to twigs with birds singing to glow worms giving off their bright light. Oh, and we can't forget the moon and stars. But it is mankind's use of nature to suit his own needs that concerns the poet, who tells us to go out and experience the greenery before writing a poem about what it feels like. The elements of nature play a part in reminding the reader to experience the way things really are, and not just stay inside their head all day.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why does the poem begin by describing what the night sky lacks? What adjectives does it use to describe these missing elements, and what effect do they have on the way you think of them? Is this normally the way they are described?
    2. How, according to the speaker, do people usually describe the nightingale's song? What does that say about the typical human attitude towards nature?
    3. What does the speaker say we should do, rather than go to the theater or go to dances? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Nice try, speaker, but calling the nightingale's song "merry" is making the same assumption as calling it "melancholy."

    A poet doesn't have to sit in nature to write about it. At the same time, it's kind of hard to describe the smell of grass or the crunch of fallen leaves from your desk.

  • Art and Culture

    The best art, says the speaker of "The Nightingale," is produced in conjunction with nature. He advises all the poets of the world to spend a great deal of time outside, taking it all in. He also advises against assuming that the song of a bird corresponds with the emotion the poet might be feeling. Instead, he says that the only way to make eternal work is to become close to the immortal natural world. But, the speaker laments, this isn't the way most poets will live, and thus, their art will never reach immortality. Too bad for them.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What is the speaker's objection to calling the nightingale "melancholy?" What does it have to do with poetry?
    2. What does the poet have to do to make his work immortal? Why?
    3. What role does the myth of Philomela play in the poem?
    4. Why do you think Coleridge references Milton?

    Chew on This

    Since it's produced by people, art is always about people—first and foremost. Coleridge's speaker is barking up the wrong tree in this grove.

    To make art, the poem tells us, one must first fully understand their subject.

  • Sadness

    Historically speaking, the nightingale is the Debbie Downer of poetry symbols. The song of the nightingale is often equated with melancholy, sorrow, and just all-around bad times. But, argues the speaker of "The Nightingale," that's only a reflection of the listener's mood. The speaker imagines a poet suddenly remembering a source of grief or heartbreak upon hearing the nightingale's song and deciding that it was a melancholy noise. But is the nightingale itself sad? That, argues the speaker, cannot be discerned by just its song, which could just as easily be joyful. It is only the sadness of mankind that is being reflected when poets call an element of nature "melancholy." We self-centered humans project our sadness onto all sorts of things.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. What causes the poet to equate the song of the nightingale with sadness?
    2. How does the speaker describe the sunlight and clouds at the beginning of the poem? Could this indicate his own emotions?
    3. What cures the sadness of the child? What does the speaker hope for the child in the future?

    Chew on This

    Human sadness is the real problem here. It makes us more inclined to see the rest of the world as sad, too.

    Actually, there is something inherently sad and lonely about the natural world, especially at night time. Don't go blaming the poets for pointing it out, Coleridge.

  • Transformation

    Several instances of transformation occur in the poem. When someone surrenders their spirit to nature, argues "The Nightingale," they turn into a better artist. All it takes is spending some quality time outdoors. Later, the emergence of the moon transforms the grove into a symphony of bird songs. In both instances, the transformation is caused by everyday things—nothing supernatural here. The transformation, then, comes from within, and it happens when we learn to look at things with fresh eyes.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. How does nature transform mankind into something immortal?
    2. Can it do the same thing for mankind's art? How?
    3. What transformations in the grove does the night sky cause? On whom or what do they have an effect?
    4. How is the child soothed by the moon? Does looking at the moon change his mood, or does his mood change the way he (or the speaker) looks at the moon?

    Chew on This

    This poem is right. Nature transforms man into something immortal.

    How does one "surrender their spirit" to nature? It's a great line in a poem, but it's actually not possible for human beings to do that.