The Owl and the Nightingale

What is The Owl and the Nightingale about?

The Owl and the Nightingale is one of the earliest substantial texts to be written in Middle English and it is also one of the most charming. The poem describes a debate between two birds overheard by a narrator – the scenario is a humorous piece of avian mud-slinging as the birds quarrel, not always good-naturedly. The text is characterised by its comic exuberance and colloquial language. The characters of the owl and the nightingale are clearly drawn. As Neil Cartlidge observes, the owl is ‘pious, sober and pessimistic’, while the nightingale is ‘irreverent, light-hearted and optimistic’. The two birds cover a number of topics, including love, marriage, nesting habits and manners, but they mainly dispute which of the two of them is the superior beast.

When was The Owl and the Nightingale written, and who wrote it?

The work is dated to 1189–1216, on the basis of what appears to be a reference to Henry II: ‘þat underyat þat king Henri: / Jesus his soule do merci’ [‘King Henry heard about that / Jesus have mercy on his soul’]; however, it could be that this is a reference to Henry III.

Although it is anonymous, at the end of the poem the birds decide to defer the judgement of their debate to one Nicholas of Guildford, a parish priest living in the village of Portesham in Dorset. This embedded reference may suggest that he was the author or someone known to the author.

Either way, the poet appears to have been well educated. He or she probably had a rhetorical education, as the poem uses many of the tools of rhetoric. Dialectics (also called logic) were part of what was called the ‘Trivium’, a trio of three key subjects of the liberal arts taught in universities. The Trivium comprised dialectics, rhetoric and grammar. Yet, although the poem is indebted to the world of rhetorical debate, it is nonetheless also colloquial and informal.

Form and sources

The poem is written in octosyllabic couplets, a form commonly found in French poetry of the period, such as the work of Marie de France.

The text is indebted to no one single source, but shows the influence of French debate poetry and also the English bird-debate tradition, exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. As well as this, it makes frequent use of proverbs and fables. More generally, the poem is indebted to the bestiary tradition. Bestiaries were medieval texts which used stories about the nature of animals for a moral purpose.

Alan of Lille (c. 1128–1202/03), a French theologian and poet, wrote that ‘Everything in the world is for us like a book, a picture and a mirror’. Although the poem isn’t a work of ornithology – it isn’t a mirror of the real characteristics of an owl or a nightingale – it is a charming picture of some lively and at times bad-tempered debate.

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