How is the poem "The Frog and the Nightingale" symbolic of modern society where untalented, crafty people dominate people gifted with art?
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In "The Frog and the Nightingale," by Vikram Seth, the frog's croak annoys everyone. He croaks for pleasure—not skill. He is also not challenged by anyone else's "music." His neighbors are resigned to tolerate his noise. However, when the frog and the other members of the bog hear the nightingale's voice, we can infer that the frog knows good music when he hears it:
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
Stared towards the sumac, rapt...
And, when she had ended, clapped...
The nightingale has never had such praise, and she sings on. The next evening, however, as the nightingale prepares her "concert," the frog interrupts with a croak. She asks for his impression of her singing, and with this innocent comment, the frog realizes that he has an "innocent" before him. He says her singing was all right, but then offers criticism: it's too long and lacks force. The nightingale at first ignores him: she knows the song is her own and that alone brings her pleasure. The frog then begins to work his scam: he tell her that she could be great if she put her faith in him, for he pretends that he has more experience and talent than she, with regard to music. She is too quick to look to him for help—and he has really no desire to help.
“Did you… did you like my song?”
“Not too bad – but far too long.
The technique was fine of course,
But it lacked a certain force”.
“Oh!” the nightingale confessed.
Greatly flattered and impressed
That a critic of such note
Had discussed her art and throat:
“I don't think the song's divine.
But – oh, well – at least it's mine”…
“That's not much to boast about”.
Said the heartless frog. “Without
Proper training such as I
- And few others can supply.
You'll remain a mere beginner.
But with me you'll be a winner”…
Being uncertain of herself, the nightingale agrees to bow to the frog's "superior" expertise. The frog begins to "train" the bird to do what she already knows—better than he knows, but she lacks self-confidence. At first she is fine, singing to receptive audiences while the frog charges a fee, but she is not overly happy and neither, really, is the frog. As he notices all the prominent people in the audience (including the ladies with their "jewels"), the author notes:
And the frog observed them glitter
With a joy both sweet and bitter.
The frog wants his share of the profits, but his ego will not allow his "competition" to thrive—he continually criticizes her until she grows unhappy, and her music is uninspired.
Day by day the nightingale
Grew more sorrowful and pale...
Till the birds and beasts grew tired
At a voice so uninspired
And the ticket office gross
Crashed, and she grew more morose...
And to sing into the night
All alone gave no delight.
There are two issues in this poem. In a narrow context, it is about the "young" artist who, rather than being encouraged by another artist, is discouraged and unnecessarily "corrected." In time, the "emerging" artist becomes unhappy and not only suffers insult, but loses joy in his or her craft.
In a broader sense, this is often how people act toward others. They push around other weaker people, who soon believe the uncharitable things the insecure bully has to say. One must always ask what motivates a critic; and one must have faith in his or her own gifts, depending on an inner voice rather than the skewed, fearful perceptions of someone who imagines a rivalry at every turn.
One of the difficult truths that the poem brings out is that talent is not the only requirement for success. There is a component of understanding how to develop success. Talent is certainly needed, but it is not the only requirement for success. One can establish such artistic standards of purity and call this “untalented.” Yet, the reality is that all artists that seek success covet an end where some level of shrewd talent and a sense of manipulation, to get others to do what you want them to do, are required. The frog understands this and recognizes that his talent may not be to the level of the nightingale, but he must preserve what he has in order to continue his success. This is, and might always have been, the standard of success. We know this to be true today. If we examined the current 50 most successful singing acts or individuals today, it would be evident that there would be individuals on that list who are on there for reasons other than artistic talent. Whether this is salesmanship, cornering the market with well-connected individuals’ assistance, or through simple luck, the reality is that not everyone who is a success is talented. We might criticize the frog for this, and he truly is repugnant for what he does. However, the frog is not driven by artistic purity. He simply wants to hold his share of the marketplace, and seeks success. Whether we wish to refer to this as sadness at the state of art and artists or accept this as part of the price of fame, the frog, and many other artists, represent this.
Akannan has hit the nail on the head when he says, "One of the difficult truths that the poem brings out is that talent is not the only requirement for success." Further, I would say that it is a sad day when any artist finds out that he/she might have art as a "hobby" but is actually a "teacher" by trade, ... a sad day when we finally understand that what is considered "important" in any marketplace is what "sells," and not what is truly "good."
Personal anecdote: My sister has a Masters in Fine Arts (which is the highest degree anyone can get in the art of printmaking), oh and she harbors a definite disdain for these "folk artists" who actually make a living from their art. Likewise, I know folk artists (even a few of our local ones here that do chainsaw art) who laugh off these "starving artists" who insist on higher education.
In my opinion, be you a frog or a nightingale, ... mutual respect is key.
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