The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl and the Nightingale Essay - Critical Essays

The Owl and the Nightingale


The Owl and the Nightingale

Twelfth- or thirteenth-century Middle English poem.

Generally regarded as one of the earliest and finest examples of a popular medieval literary debate, The Owl and the Nightingale takes the form of a spirited dispute between two birds on the subject of the relative beauty and merit of their songs. Comprised of approximately 2,000 lines of verse in rhymed, octosyllabic couplets, this allegorical and didactic poem is usually ascribed to Master Nicholas of Guildford, an obscure Englishman of whom very little is known outside the context of the poem. Despite this attribution, however, the question of the work's actual authorship remains uncertain and is the source of ongoing scholarly dispute. Written in a familiar, conversational style and presenting arguments based on common knowledge of the time rather than on the classics, The Owl and the Nightingale combines the characteristics of burlesque comedy, parody, traditional beast fables, and popular verse satire. The poem also features an ostensible plea by its author on behalf of the above-mentioned Nicholas of Guildford, requesting his preferment for a position as an ecclesiastical judge. Whatever its original aim might have been, The Owl and the Nightingale remains one of the most well-regarded and critically scrutinized works of Middle English literature and a delightful and intriguing poem unsurpassed within its time period and genre.

Textual History

Two Middle English manuscripts featuring The Owl and the Nightingale have survived into the contemporary era. Both date to the thirteenth century, although neither is viewed as the original. The elder of the two, labeled Caligula A. ix, is preserved at the British Museum in London. This parchment copy of The Owl and the Nightingale, bound with an unrelated prose historical account and several short poems, bears the signature of Sir Robert Cotton. A second manuscript of two quartos, one parchment and the other paper, is part of the Jesus College Collection, designated Jesus Coll. Oxon. 29. It contains a prose chronicle of English kings and several additional works of poetry on paper that postdates the parchment text of The Owl and the Nightingale by as much as two centuries. No autograph is attached, although scholars have determined that its diverse thirteenth-century contents were written by the same hand, suggesting it is the work of a copyist. Modern English translations of the The Owl and the Nightingale adapted from these texts are relatively plentiful. Among the most notable are those by J. W. H. Atkins (1922), Eric Gerald Stanley (1960), and Neil Cartlidge (2001).

Plot and Major Characters

The narrative structure of The Owl and the Nightingale is crafted to resemble—or perhaps parody—a courtroom debate. The poem opens with introductory descriptions of its principal figures, followed by an argumentative exposition of their dispute, and ending with closing comments that refer to a forthcoming, but withheld, formal judgment that might settle their conflict. The poem's plaintiff, the Nightingale, is a bird conventionally associated with passionate love in the medieval period and universally acknowledged for its beautiful song. Her disagreement with the Owl begins simply enough; the Nightingale dislikes the grave, moralistic Owl and wishes she would go away. The earnest Owl initially responds by suggesting that the dispute be settled according to the traditional show of force, a solution the delicate Nightingale quickly dismisses. Instead, the Nightingale continues her attack, claiming the obvious superiority of her voice when matched against that of the defendant. The Owl, a bird fabled to possess extraordinary wisdom, realizes that she must now protect herself verbally. This she does by asserting the virtues of her own song, which she claims can move human beings to repentance and atonement for their sins, in contrast to the Nightingale's voice, a mere source of superficial pleasure. Throughout the body of the poem, the birds trade examples and rationalizations to support their respective superiority, resorting to name-calling, sophistry, the application of verbal ruses and stratagems, and extravagant displays of wit. In the course of their dialogue, frequent references are made to the human world as the birds relate instructive or amusing anecdotes in order to prove a point or beguile the gathered spectators. Generally didactic in nature, these tales convey lessons concerning marital infidelity, human fallibility, love, sin, free will, and numerous other topics from the lofty to the mundane. As the poem proceeds, the argument descends into squabbling chaos, stimulated by the menagerie of creatures in attendance at the twilight quarrel. Having made no progress toward resolving their dispute, the Owl and Nightingale decide to heed the advice of the Wren, finally agreeing that they should appeal to an outside judge lest the clash turn violent. The Wren proposes that they petition the astute Master Nicholas, who lives in nearby Portesham, to become their mediator. To this proposition the otherwise contentious birds agree. The poem thus ends with the prospect of reconciliation, concluding, “With these words they went off, without any army and without any troops, to Portesham, and there they arrived.”

Major Themes

Combining the features of didactic poetry, fable, burlesque, and satire, The Owl and the Nightingale has tended to elude static or conclusive interpretations of theme. Nevertheless, numerous thematic schemes have been advanced to explain the main conflict within the work. Typically viewing the birds as allegorical figures, such appraisals associate the disputants with a variety of familiar oppositions: age versus youth, pleasure versus asceticism, philosophy versus art, wisdom versus passion, seriousness versus lightheartedness, or the contemplative versus the active life. Additionally, many scholars have suggested that the work makes at least some reference to the historical encounter between the traditional religious-didactic poetry of the early Middle Ages and the increasingly popular secular love poetry that began to appear around the middle of the twelfth century, as exemplified by the lyrics of the troubadours of Spain and Italy and the Minnesingers of Germany. Nevertheless, efforts to make a case for a single, overarching theme in The Owl and the Nightingale have never received wide acceptance, prompting some commentators to propose that the poem is simply a humorous representation of human contentiousness or a delightfully entertaining piece that is really about nothing at all. In the contemporary period some commentators have suggested that The Owl and the Nightingale concerns not discord but the efficacy of love. Others, recognizing the resistance of Owl and Nightingale to schematic reduction as simple emblems or allegorical ciphers, have taken a postmodern approach to poem, endeavoring to prove that the work defies any form of hermeneutic interpretation whatsoever.

Critical Reception

Owing to the broad appeal of the literary debate in the Europe of the twelfth and thirteen centuries, The Owl and the Nightingale appears to have been a relatively popular work in its own time. Within it commentators have observed references to many of the intellectual controversies of the day (albeit in a vulgarized and unsystematic manner), including such topics of debate as the nature of vice and the conflict between human freedom and God's will. The survival of only two manuscript copies of the poem into the contemporary era, however, suggests that the work fell out of favor long before being rediscovered by modern philologists. Early in the twentieth century commentators urged a reassessment of this neglected poem's merits. In the ensuing years scholars have almost universally acknowledged the artistic brilliance of The Owl and the Nightingale. In turn, many have become fascinated with the unresolved aspects of the work. Puzzling over themes and allegorical correspondences has become only one feature of critical interest in The Owl and the Nightingale. Some early commentators tackled the issue of whether the Owl or the Nightingale had won the debate, producing arguments for both sides but no consensus. Questions regarding the poem's date, authorship, and provenance—that is, its original localization and dialect—likewise remain open and final answers elusive. Traditional estimation, based on internal references to the English King Henry II, situates the composition date of The Owl and the Nightingale between 1189 and 1216 and attributes the poem to Master Nicholas of Guildford. However, external information regarding Nicholas is sparse and scholars have demonstrated that the work could very well have been written much later than presumed, possibly into the last quarter of the thirteenth century. Early linguistic analysis traced the dialect of The Owl and the Nightingale to the English counties of Dorset or Surrey, but further examination has forced researchers to expand this localization considerably. Other commentators have explored the sources and structure of the poem, noting the influence of Old French and Latin love lyrics on the work and probing its astonishing rhetorical effects as well as its melding of a variety of literary genres. With so many open lines of inquiry, The Owl and the Nightingale remains popular among scholars, especially those drawn to the very idea of contention that this unique and much-admired Middle English debate so effectively illustrates.

Principal Works

The Owl and the Nightingale: An Early English Poem Attributed to Nicholas de Guildford, with Some Shorter Poems from the Same Manuscript (edited by Thomas Wright) 1843

An Old English Poem of the Owl and the Nightingale (edited by F. H. Stratmann) 1868

The Owl and the Nightingale (edited by John Edwin Wells) 1907

The Owl and the Nightingale (translated by J. W. H. Atkins) 1922

The Owl and the Nightingale (translated by Graydon Eggers) 1955

The Owl and the Nightingale (edited by Eric Gerald Stanley) 1960

The Owl and the Nightingale; Cleaness; St Erkenwald (translated by Brian Stone) 1977

The Owl and the Nightingale: Text and Translation (translated by Neil Cartlidge) 2001


J. W. H. Atkins (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: Atkins, J. W. H. Introduction to The Owl and the Nightingale, edited by J. W. H. Atkins, pp. xi-xc. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922.

[In the following excerpt, Atkins surveys the form, structure, and themes of The Owl and the Nightingale, appraising its effectiveness as allegorical verse and summarizing its outstanding stylistic features.]


The type of literature to which The Owl and the Nightingale belongs, namely, the debate, was one which was specially characteristic of the 12th and early 13th centuries. Together with the Chansons de geste, the fabliaux and the Provençal...

(The entire section is 14297 words.)

R. M. Lumiansky (essay date October 1953)

SOURCE: Lumiansky, R. M. “Concerning The Owl and the Nightingale.Philological Quarterly 32, no. 4 (October 1953): 411-17.

[In the following essay, Lumiansky argues that the author of The Owl and the Nightingale was Nicholas of Guildford, who probably crafted the poem to showcase his talents and secure preferment as a judge.]

In his 1907 edition of The Owl and the Nightingale, John Edwin Wells observed that this poem had “received much less attention than it merits.” Wilhelm Horn in 1925, reviewing Atkins' edition of the poem, took occasion to mention the imminent appearance of two more editions of the same piece, and maintained with...

(The entire section is 2937 words.)

John Gardner (essay date winter 1966)

SOURCE: Gardner, John. “The Owl and the Nightingale: A Burlesque.” Papers on Language and Literature 2, no. 1 (winter 1966): 3-12.

[In the following essay, Gardner views The Owl and the Nightingale as principally a comic, rather than an allegorical, poem that depicts a fundamental desire on the part of its main figures to win their debate rather than to discover truth.]

Though few critics would deny that The Owl and the Nightingale has comic passages, no one has pointed out in print that the whole poem is a comic burlesque, didactic only insofar as comedy is intrinsically didactic.1 It is of course hard to talk about humor: one is...

(The entire section is 4241 words.)

Joan Carson (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Carson, Joan. “Rhetorical Structure in The Owl and the Nightingale.Speculum 42 (1967): 92-103.

[In the following essay, Carson evaluates The Owl and the Nightingale as an example of deliberative oratory designed to emphasize the intellectual and rhetorical merits of its presumed author, Nicholas of Guildford.]

The various interpretations of the debate in The Owl and the Nightingale have given rise to more differences of opinion than exist between the protagonists of the poem. Comment has been voiced with more accord, however, upon the question of the poem's being a plea for preferment for Nicholas of Guildford. On the basis of “the...

(The entire section is 6026 words.)

Constance B. Hieatt (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Hieatt, Constance B. “The Subject of the Mock-Debate between the Owl and the Nightingale.” Studia Neophilologica 40 (1968): 155-60.

[In the following essay, Hieatt describes The Owl and the Nightingale as a “gentle satire” on a broad range of subjects both serious and mundane, suggesting that the work avoids any specific conclusions in order to remain a light, humorous parody of lively debate.]

The meaning of The Owl and the Nightingale is a subject on which many critics have voiced opinions, but on which no two appear to agree. Wells felt that it is “beneath all didactic”,1 and, while he was not entirely clear as to what it...

(The entire section is 2125 words.)

Richard E. Allen (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Allen, Richard E. “The Voices of The Owl and the Nightingale.” In Studies in Medieval Culture III, edited by John R. Sommerfeldt, pp. 52-58. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1970.

[In the following essay, Allen discusses the The Owl and the Nightingale in terms of aesthetic differences between the songs of the two birds and their personification of the tension between progressive and traditional artistic forms.]

The anonymous debate of about the year 1200 called The Owl and the Nightingale is a remarkable poem, and not the least remarkable thing about it is the fact that although everyone who has dealt with the poem seems to...

(The entire section is 3570 words.)

Kathryn Hume (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Hume, Kathryn. “Intellectual and Religious Interpretations” and “Historical and Political Interpretations.” In The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics, pp. 51-83. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975.

[In the following essays, Hume presents evidence to refute any purely allegorical interpretation of The Owl and the Nightingale, whether it be intellectual, religious, historical, or political.]


What is The Owl and the Nightingale really about? In 1948 Albert C. Baugh denied that the poem was ‘anything more than a lively altercation between two...

(The entire section is 12506 words.)

Constance B. Hieatt (essay date fall 1976)

SOURCE: Hieatt, Constance B. “A Full Length Study of The Owl and the Nightingale.Mosaic 10, no. 1 (fall 1976): 147-50.

[In the following essay, Hieatt reviews Kathryn Hume's The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics, praising this work as a systematic updating of contemporary scholarly debate on the poem.]

That Kathryn Hume's book on The Owl and the Nightingale1 is the first full length study of the poem may come as a surprise to two rather different groups, those who wonder why anyone would bother to write a book about a work from such an early period in our literature that it is likely to attract only a few advanced...

(The entire section is 1652 words.)

Judith Perryman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Perryman, Judith. “Lore, Life, and Logic in The Owl and the Nightingale.Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 14, no. 2 (1984): 97-109.

[In the following essay, Perryman explores the debate in The Owl and the Nightingale by focusing on the traditional characteristics associated with these birds, their respective methods of argumentation, and the poem's overall concern with contention, arbitration, and judgment.]

The early thirteenth-century Middle English work The Owl and the Nightingale, the first of a number of bird debates in English, is an outstanding and interesting poem, none the less because there has been so much...

(The entire section is 5009 words.)

J. Eadie (essay date December 1986)

SOURCE: Eadie, J. “The Authorship of The Owl and the Nightingale: A Reappraisal.” English Studies 67, no. 6 (December 1986): 471-77.

[In the following essay, Eadie suggests that The Owl and the Nightingale may have been written by a woman and that the poem is mainly concerned with love and the theme of separated lovers.]

It seems today to be fairly generally accepted that the interesting early Middle English poem, The Owl and the Nightingale, was written by one Nicholas of Guildford, and that his objective in writing the poem was to impress his ecclesiastical superiors with his worth and so gain preferment in the Church.1 Among...

(The entire section is 3667 words.)

Françoise Le Saux (essay date October-December 1987)

SOURCE: Le Saux, Françoise. “Song and Harmony in The Owl and the Nightingale.Etudes de Lettres 4 (October-December 1987): 3-9.

[In the following essay, Le Saux maintains that The Owl and the Nightingale offers “a lesson on the nature of harmony and love” rather than a depiction of “discord and contentiousness.”]

The theme of song is at the heart of the Middle English debate poem The Owl and the Nightingale. It is the main cause for contention between the two birds, and the poet explicitly states that song is the principal issue of the debate:

& hure & hure of othere[s] songe
Hi holde plaiding suthe...

(The entire section is 2598 words.)

R. Barton Palmer (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Palmer, R. Barton. “The Narrator in The Owl and the Nightingale: A Reader in the Text.” Chaucer Review 22, no. 4 (1988): 305-21.

[In the following essay, Palmer analyzes the function of the narrator in The Owl and the Nightingale, examining how the poem eludes interpretation.]

The appearance of Kathryn Hume's full-length study of the difficulties of interpretation posed by the Middle English Owl and the Nightingale has effectively silenced what had been, for the last three decades or so, a lively (if chaotic) debate over the meaning of the poem. Since Hume's persuasive debunking of a wide variety of previous hermeneutic claims in 1975,...

(The entire section is 6734 words.)

Monica Brzezinski Potkay (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Potkay, Monica Brzezinski. “Natural Law in The Owl and the Nightingale.The Chaucer Review 28, no. 4 (1994): 368-83.

[Suggests that “the legal system which grounds the arguments of the Owl and the Nightingale is a theoretical one, that of natural law."]

The Owl and the Nightingale, as enigmatic as it is amusing, has occasioned disagreements among its readers almost as lively as the squabbles between the two birds. A chief point of contention concerns the poem's relation to contemporary legal practice. For the birds employ a legal vocabulary, plead in alternating speeches as was the practice in medieval law courts, construct their arguments...

(The entire section is 7514 words.)

Alan J. Fletcher (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Fletcher, Alan J. “The Genesis of The Owl and the Nightingale.The Chaucer Review, 34, no. 1 (1999): 1-17.

[In the following essay, Fletcher proposes a new theory regarding the date, place, and authorship of The Owl and the Nightingale.]

To the cannibalizing of books there is no end. This is so self-evidently true that it needs no extensive demonstration here, but one particular instance, which concerns either the early Middle English poem of The Owl and the Nightingale, or its congener, has generally eluded critical notice, and thus deserves some attention.

No one knows exactly when The Owl and the Nightingale was...

(The entire section is 8811 words.)