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Nightingale or Toad anyone?


The Nightingale has to be one of the most celebrated birds in poetry and song – we'll come to the toad by and by – so one approaches this over-poeticised bird with a certain caution.

But it was when I heard it for real, I have to say I could understand why it's inspired so many poets and composers. The nightingale doesn't come to us here in Devon, so it was extra special for me to hear it outside my daughter's house in Essex.

I was struck by the flow of the song, its sudden silence and then resumption; the power and urgency.  Perhaps that's why we attribute of all sorts of emotion to this bird's song.

But, at the end of the day – or night – it's just a bird singing.

Still, I found myself, well if not exactly inspired, at least moved to make my own response, to write a poem.

The Song of the Nightingale

Time for a moment’s pause in my performance.

Silence can speak as strong as utterance –

restraint produces passion in the gaps –

the gaps between the bars where I was caged

so that you could hear me sing. My song

was worth a slave – a present for an Empress

Agrippina. Ever since, your poets

as if songbirds, have sung of all the love

and loss, the joy and sadness they feel

is mine. I have no need to press

my breast against a thorn, or argue

with owls.  No, I’ll go on singing

up on the Heath, even in city square,

and leave it to you to throw the gate

wide open, break the heart that's yours

not mine, cage your music in bars and clefs,

or play the cello in the night – you can

find your feelings while I the nightingale

resume the song that's uniquely mine.

As you might predict, even a little research into this wonderful bird readily produces an outpouring of myths and associations.

For example, the various stories about thorns.

Shakespeare (in Lucrece) followed the traditional idea that leaning against a thorn was necessary to keep the bird awake to sing through the night. But Sir Thomas Browne explained that the occasional thorn or two represented no more than the inevitable prickles of various plants that had gone to make up the nest, along with an additional suggestion that the nest had been placed in a thorny place 'where serpents may least approach her.'

There's a whole lot more.  My friend John*  alludes to quite a few in his painting above.

There's Berkeley Square, Beatrice Harrison playing her cello in a duet with one (which happened to be faked), mythic arguments with an owl, Keats, lots more Shakespeare... it goes on and on, after all of which you probably won't feel like pursuing the Agrippina story**.

But when all's said and sung, the song is truly and uniquely beautiful, even if all that emotion comes from the listener, not the bird.

Hey, I almost forgot the toad.

It was just that a poet friend said that every poet has written a toad poem, so it must outrank even the nightingale as a poetic subject. 

And yes, I've written one.

Well, at least the toad doesn't sing.

Toads and their poems can wait for another time.

                                            Keats listening to a Nightingale, by Joseph Severn

*John @

** Cocker and Mabey quote Pliny's story that a noted performer could sell in Rome for as much as the price of a slave; one remarkable white bird was said to have changed hands for 6000 sesterces, and given to the Empress.


  1. Thank you - I heard one the other morning (briefly) near here. Lovely to read you.


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