A Student has received a promise from his beloved. She will dance with him at the Prince's ball if he will only bring her a red rose. But there are no red roses anywhere, and the Student mourns his fate. He is overheard by a Nightingale who often sings of love, and she pities this Student and his breaking heart.
The Nightingale exclaims about the preciousness of Love as the Student continues his lament. The other creatures in the garden, the Green Lizard, the Butterfly, and the Daisy, do not understand why the Student weeps. The Lizard even thinks the whole matter ridiculous, but the Nightingale flies off in search of a red rose.
She asks two Rose-trees, but their roses are white and yellow. When she finally finds a Rose-tree that grows red roses, the Tree tells her that it has no roses to give, for it has been damaged by the frost and storm. The Nightingale asks if there is any way for it to grow another red rose, and the Tree tells her that there is, but she must sacrifice herself. A thorn must pierce her heart, and she must give the Tree her very blood.
The Nightingale faces a difficult decision. Her life is a high price to pay for a rose, but she is willing. She sings to the Student and tells him to be happy and to be a true lover. The Student cannot understand her, for he knows nothing but what he has read in his books. In fact, he ironically thinks the singing bird is all about mere form and style, that she is selfish like all artists and cannot "do any practical good."
The Nightingale returns to the Rose-tree and begins to sing as she allows the thorn to pierce her breast. A rose blooms, but it is not yet red. As more and more of the bird's blood flows into the Tree, the rose becomes a beautiful crimson. Finally, the bird sings one final "burst of music" and falls dead.
In the morning, the Student discovers the rose and takes it to his beloved. She, however, is not impressed. The rose will not match her dress, and it is not nearly as valuable as the jewels another suitor has promised her. She breaks her promise, and the Student throws the red rose into the street and returns to his books, turning his back on love.