Anonymous (ca. 1189-1216) The Owl and the Nightingale is a Middle English poem (see Middle English poetry) of 1,794 lines, written in the late 12th or early 13th century. There are two extant manuscripts containing the poem, both from the late 13th century, but internal evidence suggest it was written a good deal earlier, since references in the text to the late King Henry suggest it must have been written between Henry Il's death in 1189 and Henry Ill's taking the throne in 1216. It is a debate poem in which the solemn owl disputes with the spirited Nightingale over their relative value to humankind.
The poem is comic, depicting the self-important owl as melancholy, severe, and quick-tempered, and the lighthearted Nightingale as sanguine but shallow. The two argue about a variety of random subjects, though they never probe very deeply. It is possible that the poem is an allegory in which the owl represents the contemplative life and the Nightingale the active life; or perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, the birds represent philosophy and art, or the preacher and the minstrel, or (the most popular interpretation) love poetry and religious poetry. Indeed, the characters touch on all of these subjects in the poem, but never with any depth or apparent seriousness.
What stands out more than any particular theme is the character of the two debaters. They are more interested in self-aggrandizement and in personal attacks against each other than in any serious ideas. The Nightingale calls the owl ugly, and the owl accuses the Nightingale of being scrawny. Each attacks the other's sanity and cleanliness. The owl complains that all the Nightingale can do is sing, while she, the owl, can do many things. In particular, she boasts of her practical contribution of exterminating mice in barns. The poem's narrator seems to come down ultimately on the side of the owl, though it is just as possible that he, like the Nightingale herself in the end, is simply impressed by the Owl's egoism and self-importance. In that case, the poem may simply be a satire of human contentiousness.
The debate concludes without a clear victor, and the birds fly off to present their case to someone named Nicholas of Guildford to judge. Some readers have assumed that Nicholas was the author of the poem, others that he was the author's patron (which would explain his flattering characterization in the poem as a man of learning and accomplishment). Still others have suggested that the poem was written in order to be presented to Nicholas by an anonymous clerical friend of the poet's, or by the nuns of Shaftesbury Abbey, a possibility that would be consistent with the poem's southwest dialect. But there is no critical consensus about Nicholas of Guildford's connection to the text, or about the poem's authorship in general. We do know that the bird debate was to become a popular subgenre of Middle English poetry, so that the inspiration for the later Thrush and the Nightingale (late 12th c.), Thomas Clanvowe's Cuckoo and the Nightingale (ca. 1400), and perhaps Geoffrey Chaucer's The Parliament of fowls, probably came ultimately from The owl and the Nightingale.
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