The Owl and the Nightingale Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.