A summary of one of the first great English poems
A man overhears two birds, an owl and a nightingale, engaging in a heated debate about a range of topics, arguing over their respective songs, each other’s appearance, the follies and weaknesses of humankind, even the lack of toilet training skills evinced by the owl. This might almost be a modern children’s story – an obscure work of nonsense literature by a forgotten contemporary of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll perhaps – but in fact it’s a short summary of an 800-year-old poem, and one of the first great poems to be written in English. This post is a brief introduction to the poem in question: The Owl and the Nightingale, an anonymous medieval poem written in octosyllabic couplets and comprising nearly 1,800 lines, dating from around AD 1200.
That final claim – that The Owl and the Nightingale is one of the first great poems to be written in English – requires some qualification. Beowulf is older, but the Old English in which it was written seems closer to German than to modern English. The Owl and the Nightingale was written during a watershed in English literary history, following the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the introduction of French words into the Germanic language spoken by the Angles and Saxons who had settled in England prior to the Conquest. It is, in short, the first great poem written in Middle English, the language which Geoffrey Chaucer would later use.
Chaucer often seems remote from us: he was writing some two centuries before Shakespeare, after all. But the author of The Owl and the Nightingale was writing two centuries before Chaucer. It really was a very long time ago. At least, in one sense. The world of medieval ecclesiasticism and scholasticism – the world to which the poem belongs – seems remote from our modern world of secular values and institutions. Yet The Owl and the Nightingale is only around thirty generations back in human history – which, when viewed that way, isn’t so very remote after all. (Most of us can count back some four generations in our lifetimes, to great-grandparents who were born around a century before we were. Indeed, to get back to the time of Shakespeare only requires a leap of around fifteen generations.)
Indeed, like Chaucer’s Middle English, the English of The Owl and the Nightingale is recognisable to us, just about:
ICH was in one sumere dale,
in one suþe diȝele hale,
iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niȝtingale.
Þat plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aiþer aȝen oþer sval,
& let þat [vue]le mod ut al.
This can be rendered into more modern English as follows (we quote from Brian Stone’s excellent translation):
It happened in the summery heart
Of a secret vale’s most hidden part,
I heard an Owl and Nightingale
Disputing on a mighty scale;
Most keen and strenuous the debate,
Now gentle, now in furious spate.
And each against the other swelled,
Each her spleen and ire expelled …
The Owl and the Nightingale is often described as a debate poem, but in fact it’s a curious hodgepodge of various genres and traditions: the lyric, bestiary, fable, and something called the ‘lai‘, a form of French narrative poem dealing with adventure or romance. The two (female) birds which are the main characters in the poem, the owl and the nightingale, have been interpreted and analysed in a range of ways: some critics have suggested that their argument is a version of a poets’ slanging match (known throughout history as ‘flyting’, where poets hurl insults at each other in an attempt to demonstrate their verbal superiority), or a debate about religious attitudes to sin, or even – in the perhaps fanciful but enticing theory of Anne Baldwin – a comic dramatisation of the row between King Henry II and Archbishop Thomas Becket in the 1160s. We cannot know for sure: The Owl and the Nightingale remains an allegory without a clear meaning, whose precise targets or subjects have been lost in the mists of medieval history.
Most scholars believe that The Owl and the Nightingale was composed between 1189 and 1216, based on a reference to a ‘King Henry’ who was clearly dead when the poem was written. The Henry referred to was most probably King Henry II, who died in 1189; the poem was probably composed after this date but before 1216, when King Henry III came to the throne (thus rendering the reference to ‘King Henry’ in the poem ambiguous, without further explanation). However, some scholars believe that the poem may refer to King Henry III and therefore date from after 1272, when that King Henry died. This view is plausible too, and the truth is that, after such a long time, it’s difficult to ascertain for sure whether the poem belongs to the late twelfth (or early thirteenth) century or the late thirteenth century.
However, it’s compelling to think that a poem such as The Owl and the Nightingale belongs to the time of Richard the Lionheart and King John, the period of English history with which we associate Robin Hood and which led to the drawing-up of Magna Carta in 1215. Who the author of the poem was remains a mystery; it might be the ‘Nicholas of Guildford’ who is mentioned in the poem – a man whose wild youth has given way to wisdom and calm in maturity – but if this is so, who the historical Nicholas of Guildford was is itself a mystery. The name is only known to us because it appears in the poem.
This short introduction to the poem is designed to stimulate further discussion and analysis of its language and content. Has anyone studied The Owl and the Nightingale at university, or read it as part of their devotion to, and love of, medieval literature? We’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you’d like to read the poem, we recommend this very cheap modern translation from Penguin: The Owl and the Nightingale/ Cleanness/ St Erkenwald. It includes Brian Stone’s translation of The Owl and the Nightingale, the beginning of which we quoted above.
Image: The Owl and the Nightingale. British Museum, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46 (picture credit: Jessefawn, 2013), Wikimedia Commons.