"In Nature There Is Nothing Melancholy"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: In addition to the many poems by Wordsworth that appeared in Lyrical Ballads (1798), which marks the beginning of the English Romantic Movement, there were only two by his friend and collaborator, Coleridge: "The Ancient Mariner," and "The Nightingale," along with fragments of an unpublished drama Osorio. The revised edition of 1800 contained a preface by Wordsworth, stating the creed of the romanticists. Breaking with neoclassical theory, they stood for nature worship and–under the influence of Rousseau and Wordsworth's sojourn in France–democracy, and the common man with his simple, natural language. In "The Nightingale," Coleridge speaks to William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, and tells them about his infant son, whom he intends to make "Nature's playmate." The baby loves the nightingale's song and the evening star, and once the poet hushed him by taking him to the orchard where he could see the moon. For Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was supposed to supply nature poems, and Coleridge to deal with the supernatural and exotic, but in this poem, except for a reference to the mysterious ruins of a castle in an unkempt forest, Coleridge writes about nature. He begins with a description of evening and the sinking sun, and suggests that the hikers rest on an old mossy bridge, amid the stillness. The spring shower has ended, and the stars can be dimly seen. This is the hour to hear the song of the nightingale, which Milton called "most musical, most melancholy." Coleridge, however, protests that it is really a merry bird, hurrying to fill an April night with delicious notes, as if fearing that dawn would soon appear. Its reputation for melancholy came from some unhappy person who transferred his sorrows to the song of the nightingale; and poets, instead of enjoying the sunshine beside a brook, echoed this idea until everybody came to believe that nightingales were melancholy. There is nothing melancholy in nature unless man makes it so.

And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
"Most musical, most melancholy" bird!
A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!
In Nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain.
And many a poet echoes the conceit; . . .