Sunday 19 May 2019

The Owl and the Nightingale

'An hule and one niȝtingale...':
the beginning of this poem in BL Cotton Caligula A IX, f. 233

A quick break in a long blog silence to link to my latest History Today column, which can be read online here. It's about the Early Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale, and if it whets your appetite to read this lively, spirited poem, there's a longer introduction to it and a full translation of the text on this site.

The Owl and the Nightingale is very quotable, and I've posted little snippets of it here before, including extracts from the nightingale's (self-congratulatory) celebration of spring and the owl's (also self-congratulatory, and very hypocritical) praise of peace and solitude. Here's a bit more, in which the owl defends her own song, and attacks the nightingale's.

ȝet þu me seist of oþer þinge,
And telst þat ich ne can noȝt singe,
Ac al mi rorde is woning
And to ihire grislich þing.
Þat nis noȝt soþ; ich singe efne
Mid fulle dreme and lude stefne.
Þu wenist þat ech song bo grislich
Þat þine pipinge nis ilich.
Mi stefne is bold and noȝt unorne;
Ho is ilich one grete horne,
And þin is ilich one pipe
Of one smale wode unripe.
Ich singe bet þan þu dest:
Þu chaterest so doþ on Irish prost;
Ich singe an eve a riȝte time,
And soþþe won hit is bedtime;
Þe þridde siþe a middelniȝte,
And so ich mine song adiȝte.
Wone ich iso arise vorre
Oþer dairim oþer daisterre,
Ich do god mid mine þrote
And warni men to hore note.
Ac þu singest alle longe niȝt
From eve fort hit is dailiȝt,
And evre leist þin o song
So longe so þe niȝt is long,
And evre croweþ þi wrecche crei
Þat he ne swikeþ niȝt ne dai.
Mid þine pipinge þu adunest
Þas monnes earen þar þu wunest
And makest þine song so unwurþ
Þat me ne telþ of þar noȝt wurþ.
Evrich murȝþe mai so longe ileste
Þat ho shal liki wel unwreste,
Vor harpe and pipe and fuȝeles song
Mislikeþ ȝif hit is to long.
Ne bo þe song never so murie
Þat he ne shal þinche wel unmurie
ȝef he ilesteþ ure unwille.
So þu miȝt þine song aspille;
Vor hit is soþ, Alvred hit seide,
And me hit mai ine boke rede,
“Evrich þing mai losen his godhede
Mid unmeþe and mid overdede.”
Mid este þu þe miȝt overquatie,
And overfulle makeþ wlatie;
An evrich mure3þe mai agon
ȝif me hit halt evre forþ in on,
Bute one, þat is Godes riche
Þat evre is swete and evre iliche.
Þeȝ þu nime evere of þan lepe
Hit is evre ful bi hepe.
Wunder hit is of Godes riche
Þat evre spenþ and ever is iliche.

A free and very loosely rhyming translation (for a closer prose translation see this page):

You accuse me of another thing,
And claim that I cannot sing,
That all my voice is wailing
And to hear a horrid thing.
That isn't true; I've a steady voice,
Which makes a loud and lovely noise.
You think that every song is grim
That isn’t like your chirruping!
My voice is bold, not weak at all;
It is like a mighty horn,
And yours is like a pipe
Of one little weed unripe.
Compared to you, my singing's best:
You chatter like an Irish priest!
I sing in the eve at the proper time,
And again when it is bedtime;
At midnight is my third time,
And that's how I my song align.
When I see, rising up afar,
The daybreak or the morning star,
My singing does a useful deed
And tells people where they ought to be.
But you sing all through the night,
From evening til it's daylight,
And carry on with your one song
As long as ever the night goes on.
Your wretched throat just croaks away,
And doesn't stop by night or day.
With a raucous din your pipings fill
The ears of people wherever you dwell,
And you give your song to so many
That no one counts it worth a penny.
Every pleasure may last so long
That in the end it stops being fun;
For harp and pipe and birdsong
Displease if they go on too long.
However delightful a song is,
It comes to seem very tedious
If it goes on longer than we want -
And thus you throw away your song!
For it is true, Alfred said it,
And you can read in books about it:
‘Any thing may its value lose
Through immoderation and overuse.’
Of good things you can have too much;
To stuff yourself makes for disgust;
And every pleasure can pass away
If it all goes on in the same way,
Except for one: the kingdom of God,
Which is ever sweet and ever as good.
Whatever you take from that store,
It only overflows the more.
O marvel of the kingdom of God,
Ever giving, ever just as good!

The combination here between outright rudeness (not only to the nightingale but to Irish priests!) and a somewhat serious moral reflection at the end is characteristic of this irreverent poem. And the description of the nightingale's song - a vanishing sound these days, and not something anyone now can hear often enough to find it excessive and tiresome - has some nicely observed details.