Sir Philip Sidney (1595) "The Nightingale," widely considered one of the best of Sir Philip Sidney's short poems, appears in the second part of his Defense of Poesy. It is based on a popular song of the time, "Non Credo Gia Che Piu Infelice Amante." Also known by the title "Philomela," the poem is based on the story of Philomela in book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Philomela and Procne were the daughters of King Pandion of Attica. Procne married Tereus of Thrace, though he lusted after Philomela. Eventually, Tereus raped Philomela and cut out her tongue to silence her. She, however, wove the story into a tapestry that she sent to her sister. Procne then killed her son and served him for dinner to Tereus. The women fled, pursued by Tereus, but the gods turned them all into birds: Procne became a nightingale, Philomela a swallow, and Tereus a hoopoe.
The richness of the rhyme in this poem is indicative of its basis on an Italian piece, as are the musicality and continuity of the phrases. The innovation in this piece lies in Sidney's comparison of himself to Philomela as he explores sexual dynamics, voice, self-expression, and the English tradition of male stoicism. This is accomplished through both words and rhythm.
Sidney establishes the mood instantly: "The nightingale, as soon as April bringeth / Unto her rested sense a perfect waking . . . / Sings out her woes" (ll. 1-4). April is a month of juxtapositions: Winter has ended and summer is approaching; destructive rain falls alongside generative sunshine; life is beginning even as some ends. Similarly, Philomela's rape features juxtapositions, too—death of the girl and birth of the woman; end of innocence and beginning of experience—as demonstrated: "Her throat in tunes expresseth / What grief her breast oppresseth" (ll. 6-7). Acknowledging the terrible act that has led to this moment—"For Tereus' force on her chaste will prevailing" (l. 8)—Sidney then promptly inverts the tale. The audience should not feel pity for Philomela; rather, they should
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feel sorry for Sidney: "o Philomela fair, o take some gladness, / That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness" (ll. 9-10).
Initially commiserating with Philomela, Sidney then berates her for vocalizing her pain when he himself cannot. Philomela, Sidney claims, at least can express her sadness through song and thus purge herself of it, but he, as a man, must suffer in silence. With her song, he claims, "Thine earth now springs," but as he can say nothing in his situation, "mine fadeth" (l. 11). He ends the first stanza by underscoring her emotional release through song and his own emotional strain in silence: "Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth" (l. 12). At this point, it becomes clear that this poem is not only a retelling of the Philomela myth and a clever parody of a popular song, but is also in part a criticism of the social mores dictating that a woman may express her emotions openly while a man may not. It also refers to the popular belief that certain songbirds sang their most beautiful song immediately before their death, caused by plunging their breast onto a thorn.
In the second stanza, Sidney continues his diatribe against Philomela's vocalization of her experience, flippantly observing that "Alas, she has no other cause of anguish / But Tereus' love, on her by strong hand wro-ken, / Wherein she suffering, all her spirits languish; / Full womanlike complains her will was broken" (ll. 13-16). Indeed, Sidney almost seems to be implying here that Philomela did not mind things as much as she claims, but rather is making use of her position as a woman to claim she has been wronged, therefore maintaining her own innocence and chastity in the face of the act committed. In other words, she could enjoy physical love without social consequences, something permitted to no man in polite society.
Sidney then continues on with his own side of things, claiming, "I, who daily craving, / Cannot have to content me, / Have more cause to lament me, / Since wanting is more woe than too much having" (ll. 1720). These lines clearly reveal the difference between the sexes: Women see sexuality as an onerous duty forced upon them, while men see it as something desired but rarely achieved.
Sidney embraces the male perspective: Women are cruel torturers who tease men with their allure but then protest when men pursue them, unfairly exploiting the woman's generally acknowledged right to voice her emotions and causing men to suffer in agonized silence at their cruel behavior. By making use of the classic Philomela myth, he indicates that this sort of behavior and these tensions between the sexes have been going on since the beginnings of civilization, and the tongue-in-cheek parody of a contemporary Italian love song allows him to express this highly vitriolic point of view in a fashionable and nonthreatening manner via a recognizable, enjoyable form that allows the whole thing to appear innocuous. He is able to air his views safely in the guise of a poetry-writing exercise. Sidney may claim again in the second stanza that Philomela has a voice and he has none, that "Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth; / Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth" (ll. 23-24), but the poem itself is his song, and Philomela, a mere myth now dead and gone, has nothing more to say on the matter. Sidney has therefore cleverly won his argument and had the last word.
Recent gender criticism has examined the implications of Sidney's gender role swapping—something he occasionally does in the SoNNETs as well, while feminist critics have looked at his views of rape. Contextualized within early modern society, Sidney's views are not surprising; however, they still validate the false perception of women as commodities and lustful.
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