As we’ve explored in our previous blogs, the nightingale has a rich and varied cultural history with man. In this week’s blog, we will explore the nightingale in creative literature and how tales have been told of this little brown bird.

Throughout history, man has been fascinated with the song of the nightingale. More often than not, the song is linked with either love or death – in some cases, it was the link between the two.

In traditional Persian literature, the nightingale is often featured with the rose. The nightingale playing the part of the lover – passionate but doomed to love in vain. The rose and its thorns symbolise that of unrequited love and infidelity. One can love the rose, but beware the spikes which pierce when held. In this Persian myth, the nightingale presses its breast in unrequited love for the flower, yet is pricked by the thorns.

This binding of a Diwan (a collection of poems by one author) is aptly covered by nightingales and roses.

This story was further explored by Oscar Wilde. In the Nightingale and the Rose the bird overhears the lament of a young man complaining that his lover will only dance with him if he has a red rose. The nightingale is moved by his sorrow and visits all the rose trees in the garden to ask for a rose. One tree tells her that the only way to create a red rose would be to create a rose out of moonlight. Then sacrifice herself by pressing a thorn into her heart, her blood staining the rose.

However in true Oscar Wilde style, the story turns dark. Seeing the student in tears and believing that his love is more valuable than her life, she carries out the sacrifice. The young man finds the rose in the morning and takes it to the object of his affection, only for her to reject him for a man who can give her jewels. The young student throws the rose in the gutter and decides not to believe in true love anymore.  

William Shakespeare often used the nightingale in his works. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet tries to persuade Romeo not to leave by saying that the birdsong they’ve just heard is that of the nightingale (a night bird) and not the morning song of the lark. There is some question over whether the reference to the nightingale song could symbolise that both are in mortal danger.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania the fairy queen tells her subjects to sing her to sleep. The fairies call on the Philomel, a name used for the Nightingale based on the Greek legend, to sweetly sing their queen to sleep. Shakespeare also recounted the Philomela myth in his most brutal of tragedies Titus Andronicus.

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