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30 january 2022

In all the years I've been traveling to Europe, I have never seen or even, at least knowingly, heard a nightingale. I've heard nightingales plenty on the Internet. As recorded on many a webpage, nightingale song is raucous and annoying. Nobody would write an ode to an Internet nightingale.

Though most real-nightingale poetry is rapturous, there have been dissenting written opinions. Bethan Roberts, in Nightingale, cites Edward the Confessor "annoyed by the songs that interrupted his devotions" (56), and praying that the birds might never again be heard in his vicinity.

Even Roberts, who admits that she wrote this book out of her own rapture at hearing nightingales (18), acknowledges that the song of the nightingale can be ecstatic and sublime without always being mellifluous. Nightingale song is difficult to describe and impossible to analyze. In 1832, John Clare tried (128):

Chew chew chee chew chee
chew – cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
up chjeer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug

wew wew wew – chur chur
woo it woo it tweet tweet
tweet jug jug jug
But that doesn't get us very far. More successful was David Hindley, in the 1990s, who played nightingale songs at slow speeds to reveal things that the human ear could not perceive in real time. While praising Hindley's as the best investigation of what makes nightingale song distinctive (144-45), Roberts also says that his effort "only serves to transform it into something alien and less like itself" (122).

An opening chapter talks about nightingale natural history and a concluding one covers current conservation attempts in England, where the bird has nearly disappeared since the second world war. Most of Nightingale discusses literary and musical transformations of the bird's song; these chapters are exemplary essays on a long cultural tradition. Hindley made the most systematic effort to engage nightingales in his compositions, but many others have tried, from Beethoven to Messiaen. Their efforts tend to be impressionistic (even those of Messiaen, who was a very precise listener) – simply because transposing this bird's song into the conventions of Western music proves impossible. The nightingale does not observe rhythms or scales that fit into our notation or match the resources of our instruments or our own voices.

In literature, though there are many pre-Keatsian nightingales, John Keats "did something to the nightingale" (Tim Dees; qtd. 88). John Clare, again, didn't care for what Keats did:

as it is the case with other inhabitants of great citys [Keats] often described nature as she … appeared to his fancys & not as he would have described her if he had witnessed the things he describes. (90)
Still, no poet writing after Keats' ode could escape its echoes. Ted Hughes "wasn't sure if he'd ever heard a nightingale" (105) but by Hughes time, when nightingales were getting rarer, you no longer needed to hear one; you could just read John Keats.

In the most famous (human) nightingale song, the one by Eric Maschwitz and Manning Sherwin where the bird sings in Berkeley Square, the whole point is that the nightingale isn't there. By 1939, the song's date, the bird had long since flown from central London, and even from Keats' Hampstead Heath. But of course if you're perfectly willing to swear that you heard a nightingale, nobody can prove you wrong. You can hear one in your head just by summoning Keats. Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

So too with the most famous nightingale in Shakespeare, the one that Juliet insists is in a nearby "Pomgranet tree." It was "the Larke," after all, "no Nightingale," as Romeo prosaically observes. Several other Shakespearean nightingales are conventional enough, but Roberts notes another famous reference, in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia expresses no great opinion of the bird and wonders, if nightingales sang by day in the context of the cacophony of daytime birdsong, whether anybody would take particular notice of them.

Roberts, Bethan. Nightingale. London: Reaktion, 2021.