The Nightingale and the Rose

by Oscar Wilde

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Student Question

What lesson does "The Nightingale and the Rose" teach readers?

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When a minor English poet, Thomas Hutchinson, wrote to Wilde about "The Nightingale and the Rose," praising the Student as the archetype of the true lover, Wilde replied saying that he himself thought the student a rather shallow young man: the nightingale was the true lover, if there was one. He went on to caution against trying to find a single, definitive interpretation of the story, writing:

I like to fancy that there may be many meanings in the tale, for in writing it, and the others, I did not start with an idea and clothe it in form, but began with a form and strove to make it beautiful enough to have many secrets, and many answers

With this caveat, here is one possible lesson for readers. Oscar Wilde's aesthetic philosophy was strongly influenced by Gautier's principle of "art for art's sake." The story strongly suggests that art has to be for its own sake because the artist's immediate audience is often too insensitive and self-centered to appreciate it.

In the rose, the nightingale creates an artifact of perfect beauty, which is disdained by the Professor’s daughter, thrown away by the Student and crushed beneath a cartwheel in the gutter. If the point of her art was to please the Student or the girl he loves, her sacrifice was completely wasted. The beauty of the rose itself has to be the point.

This is reinforced by the fact that the nightingale creates another work of art which does not last as long even as the rose. This is her song, for which she does have an audience, though she never knows it:

The white Moon heard it, and she forgot the dawn, and lingered on in the sky. The red rose heard it, and it trembled all over with ecstasy, and opened its petals to the cold morning air. Echo bore it to her purple cavern in the hills, and woke the sleeping shepherds from their dreams. It floated through the reeds of the river, and they carried its message to the sea.

Perhaps, then, two of the many lessons the story has for the reader are, in the first place, the artist should think only of her art, for if she seeks to please the audience, she is bound to be disappointed, and, in the second place, you never know what the fate of a work of art will be. It may reach and inspire an audience of which the artist knows nothing.

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