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The Owl and the Nightingale

c.1189 – 1216

The Owl and the Nightingale

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  • Intro

    ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ is a poem in which two competing characters trade insults with each other. It is the earliest example in English of a popular literary form known as a verse contest. The narrator overhears an owl and a nightingale haranguing each other in a lengthy and comical debate about whose song is the more beautiful. This copy of the poem from early 13th century is written in Middle English.

     

     

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    The fashion for writing in short rhyming couplets, as shown here, was imported from 12th-century French poetry. The nightingale begins the verbal attack. Lines three to six of column two can be translated as ‘My heart sinks, and my tongue falters, when you are close to me. I’d rather spit than sing about your awful guggling.’

     

    Shelfmark: Cotton MS Caligula A.ix., ff. 233–46.

  • Transcript

    ‘Grotesque thing,’ she said, ‘fly away! I feel bad at the sight of you. Certainly I often have to stop singing because of your foul appearance. My heart sinks, and my tongue falters, when you are close to me. I’d rather spit than sing about your awful guggling.’

     

    In Middle English:

    Vnwiȝt ho sede awei þu flo

    me is þe wurs þat ich þe so

    Iwis for þine vule lete

    wel oft ich mine song forlete

    min horte atfliþ & falt mi tonge

    wonne þu art to me iþrunge

    Me luste bet speten þane singe

    of þine fule ȝoȝelinge

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