The Nightingale

Original Text: 
The Poems of S. T. Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1844): 167-70.
A Conversation Poem. April, 1798.
1No cloud, no relique of the sunken day
2Distinguishes the West, no long thin slip
3Of sullen light, no obscure trembling hues.
5You see the glimmer of the stream beneath,
6But hear no murmuring: it flows silently,
7O'er its soft bed of verdure. All is still,
8A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,
9Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
10That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
11A pleasure in the dimness of the stars.
12And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
14A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought!
15In nature there is nothing melancholy.
16But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
17With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
18Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
19(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
20And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
21Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
22First named these notes a melancholy strain.
25When he had better far have stretched his limbs
26Beside a brook in mossy forest-dell,
27By sun or moon-light, to the influxes
28Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements
29Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song
30And of his fame forgetful! so his fame
31Should share in Nature's immortality,
32A venerable thing! and so his song
33Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself
34Be loved like Nature! But 'twill not be so;
35And youths and maidens most poetical,
36Who lose the deepening twilights of the spring
37In ball-rooms and hot theatres, they still
38Full of meek sympathy must heave their sighs
41A different lore; we may not thus profane
42Nature's sweet voices, always full of love
43And joyance! 'Tis the merry Nightingale
44That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
45With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
46As he were fearful that an April night
47Would be too short for him to utter forth
49Of all its music!
50                                And I know a grove
51Of large extent, hard by a castle huge,
52Which the great lord inhabits not; and so
53This grove is wild with tangling underwood,
54And the trim walks are broken up, and grass,
55Thin grass and king-cups grow within the paths.
56But never elsewhere in one place I knew
57So many nightingales; and far and near,
58In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
59They answer and provoke each other's song,
60With skirmish and capricious passagings,
62And one low piping sound more sweet than all---
63Stirring the air with such a harmony,
64That should you close your eyes, you might almost
65Forget it was not day! On moon-lit bushes,
66Whose dewy leaflets are but half disclosed,
67You may perchance behold them on the twigs,
68Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright and full,
69Glistening, while many a glow-worm in the shade
70Lights up her love-torch.
71                                            A most gentle Maid,
72Who dwelleth in her hospitable home
73Hard by the castle, and at latest eve
74(Even like a Lady vowed and dedicate
76Glides through the pathways; she knows all their notes,
77That gentle Maid! and oft, a moment's space,
78What time the moon was lost behind a cloud,
79Hath heard a pause of silence; till the moon
80Emerging, hath awakened earth and sky
81With one sensation, and these wakeful birds
82Have all burst forth in choral minstrelsy,
83As if some sudden gale had swept at once
84A hundred airy harps! And she hath watched
85Many a nightingale perched giddily
86On blossomy twig still swinging from the breeze,
87And to that motion tune his wanton song
88Like tipsy joy that reels with tossing head.
89   Farewell, O Warbler! till to-morrow eve,
90And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
91We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
92And now for our dear homes.---That strain again!
94Who, capable of no articulate sound,
95Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
96How he would place his hand beside his ear,
97His little hand, the small forefinger up,
98And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
99To make him Nature's play-mate. He knows well
101In most distressful mood (some inward pain
102Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream---)
103I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
104And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
105Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
106While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
107Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!---
108It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven
109Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
110Familiar with these songs, that with the night
111He may associate joy.---Once more, farewell,
112Sweet Nightingale! Once more, my friends! farewell.

Notes

4] The reader does not find out to whom the "we" refers until later in line 40. The ambiguity results in an inclusive gesture, inviting the reader into the "conversation" of the poem. Back to Line
13] The quotation is from Milton's "Il Penseroso," line 62. Coleridge's note for this line reads: "This passage in Milton possesses an excellence far superior to that of mere description. It is spoken in the character of the melancholy man, and has therefore a dramatic propriety. The author makes this remark, to rescue himself from the charge of having alluded with levity, to a line in Milton." Back to Line
23] These lines are remarkable for the importance they place on the unknown, "night-wandering" man over Milton and other great poets. Back to Line
24] There is an echo here of Milton's "Lycidas," lines 10-11:
Who would not sing for Lycidas? he knew
Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme.
Lofty "rhymes" (i.e. poems), typical of Milton and other earlier poets, are being rejected by Coleridge's poem. Back to Line
39] In Greek legend, Philomela was a princess of Athens. Her sister's husband, Tereus, raped her and cut out her tongue. She, her sister, and Tereus were all turned into birds by the gods to prevent Tereus from murdering the sisters. In earlier versions of the story, Philomela is turned into a swallow while her sister, Procne, is turned into a nightingale. In later tradition, Philomela is turned into a nightingale. Back to Line
40] The friend is almost certainly William Wordsworth, and the sister is Wordsworth's sister, Dorothy. The use of "our" instead of "your" to characterize Dorothy is another example of an inclusive gesture in the poem. Back to Line
48] disburthen: an older spelling of disburden. The word "burthen" (occassionally "burden") is sometimes used to mean the refrain of a song. Back to Line
61] The phrase "jug jug" has been used in literature since at least the sixteenth century as an imitation of part of the nightingale's song. Back to Line
75] The Maid is being compared, tacitly, to a nun---or possibly to a Druidic priestess. Back to Line
93] Coleridge's baby, Hartley, was born in September 1796: he was about nineteen months old at the time Coleridge composed this poem. Back to Line
100] The evening star is the planet Venus, named for the Roman goddess of love. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1798
Publication Notes: 
Lyrical Ballads
RPO poem Editors: 
Marc R. Plamondon
RPO Edition: 
2005
Rhyme: 
Form: