The Owl and the Nightingale


The poem The Owl and the Nightingale was written in Middle English by an anonymous author of the twelfth or thirteenth century. It is the earliest example of “debate poetry,” in which character representatives of two natural opposites—and, in this case, characters who allegorize themselves as different parts of the Body of Christ—duke it out in verse. It provides a vernacular and entertaining complement to the formal scholastic quaestio, an example of which can be found In the article A Window into Theology’s Golden Age. The translation here is taken from the Wessex Parallel Webtexts series, edited by Dr. Bella Millett, and abridged for use in this magazine by assistant editor Esther Jermann. The complete text can be found here:

 was in a valley in springtime; in a very secluded corner, I heard an Owl and a Nightingale holding a great debate. Their argument was fierce, passionate, and vehement, sometimes sotto voce, sometimes loud; and each of them swelled with rage against the other and let out all her anger, and said the very worst she could think of about the other’s character, and especially they argued vehemently against each other’s song.

The Nightingale began the argument in the corner of a clearing, and perched on a beautiful branch—there was plenty of blossom around it—in an impenetrable thick hedge, with reeds and green sedge growing through it. She was all the happier because of the branch, and sang in many different ways; the music sounded as if it came from a harp or a pipe rather than from a living throat. Nearby there stood an old stump where the Owl sang her Hours, and which was all overgrown with ivy; this was where the Owl lived. The Nightingale looked at her, and scrutinized her and despised her, and everything about the Owl seemed unpleasant to her, since she is regarded as ugly and dirty.

“You nasty creature!” she said, “fly away! The sight of you makes me sick. Certainly I often have to stop singing because of your ugly face. My heart fails me, and so does my speech, when you thrust yourself on me. I’d rather spit than sing about your wretched howling.”

The Owl waited until it was evening; she couldn’t hold back any longer, because she was so angry that she could hardly breathe, and finally she spoke: “How does my song seem to you now? Do you think that I can’t sing just because I can’t twitter? You often insult me and say things to upset and embarrass me. If I held you in my talons—if only I could!—and you were off your branch, you’d sing a very different tune!”

The Nightingale was quite ready; she had a wide range of experience. “Owl,” she said, “tell me the truth; why do you do what evil creatures do? You sing by night and not by day, and your whole song is ‘Woe! Woe!’ You could frighten all those who hear your hooting with your song. You shriek and scream to your mate in a way that’s horrible to listen to. It seems to everyone, clever or stupid, that you’re wailing rather than singing. You fly by night and not by day; I wonder about that, and well I may, because every creature that avoids doing right loves darkness and hates light; and every creature attracted by wrongdoing likes the cover of darkness for what it does. Another thing occurs to me: at night you have very sharp eyesight; during the day you’re completely blind, so you can’t see either branch or bark. There’s a proverb which is used about that: just as is the case with the villain who is up to no good, and is so full of malicious dishonesty that nobody can escape him, knows the dark path well and avoids the well-lit one, so it is with those of your kind: they don’t care at all for light.”

he Owl listened for a very long time, and became really angry. She said, “You’re called a Nightingale, but you could better be described as a chatterbox because you talk too much. Give your tongue a rest! You think you’ve got the day to yourself. Now let me have my turn! Be quiet now, and let me speak; I’ll get my revenge on you. And listen to how I can defend myself by plain truth without verbiage. You say that I hide myself by day; I don’t deny that. And listen, I’ll tell you why, the whole reason for it. I have a hard, strong beak and good, long, sharp claws, as is proper for the hawk family. It is my wish and my desire to take after my own kind; nobody can blame me for it. It’s obvious in my case that I’m so fierce because of my proper nature. That’s why I’m hated by the small birds that fly along the ground and through thickets. They scream and squawk at me and fly in flocks against me. I prefer to have peace and quiet and sit still in my nest; because I would never be any better off if I attacked them with scolding, abuse, and insults, as shepherds do, or with bad language. I don’t want to quarrel with the wretched creatures, so I give them a wide berth. It’s the opinion of the wise—and so they often say—that one shouldn’t quarrel with fools, or compete with the oven in gaping widely. I’ve heard how Alfred once said in his proverbs, ‘Take care to avoid anywhere where there are arguments and quarrels; let fools quarrel, and go on your way!’ And I am wise, and do just that. And from another point of view, Alfred had a saying which has spread far and wide: ‘Anyone who has to do with someone who is dirty will never come away from him with clean hands.’ Do you think that the hawk is the worse for it if a crow caws at him beside the marsh, and swoops at him screaming as if she means to attack him? The hawk follows a sensible plan, and flies on his way and lets her scream.

nd another thing: you raise another point against me, and accuse me of not being able to sing, saying that my only song is a dirge, and distressing to listen to. That isn’t true—I sing harmoniously, with full melody and a resonant voice. You think that all songs sound terrible if they’re not like your piping. My voice is confident, not diffident; it’s like a great horn, and yours is like a whistle made from a spindly half-grown weed. I sing better than you do; you gabble like an Irish priest. I sing in the evening at the proper time, and afterwards when it is time to go to bed, the third time at midnight; and so I regulate my song. When I see dawn coming far off, or the morning star, I do good with my throat and call people to their business. But you sing all night long, from evening till dawn, and your song lasts as long as the night does, and your wretched throat keeps on trilling without stopping, night or day. You constantly assault the ears of those who live around you with your piping, and make your song so cheap that it loses all its value. Every pleasure can last so long that it ceases to please; because harp and pipe and birdsong all grow tiresome if they last too long. However delightful a song may be, it will seem very tedious if it goes on longer than we would like. In this way you can devalue your song; because it is true—Alfred said so, and it can be read in books: ‘Everything can lose its value through lack of moderation and restraint.’ You can glut yourself with pleasure, and surfeit makes you sick; and every enjoyment can pall if it is pursued constantly—except for one. That is God’s kingdom, which is always full of delight and always the same; even if you drew constantly on that basket, it would constantly be full to overflowing. God’s kingdom is something to marvel at, always giving and always unchanged.

“And you reproach me with a further point, that I have poor eyesight, and say that because I fly by night I can’t see in daylight. You’re lying! It’s obvious that I have good eyesight, because there’s no darkness so thick that my sight is obscured. You think I can’t see because I don’t fly by day; the hare lies low all day, but nevertheless he can see. If hounds run towards him, he dodges away at top speed, and turns sharply down very narrow paths, and keeps his tricks ready, and hops and leaps very fast, and looks for ways to the wood. His eyesight wouldn’t be up to this unless he could see really well. I can see as well as a hare, even though I stay hidden all day. Where brave men are at war, and travel everywhere, and overrun many countries, and do good service at night, I follow those brave men, and fly at night in their company.”

The Nightingale kept all this in her mind, and considered for a long time what she might say to follow it; because she could not refute what the Owl had said to her, since what she said was true and accurate. And she regretted that she had let the argument get so far, and was afraid that her answer would not be effectively delivered. But nevertheless she spoke out boldly; because it is wise to put on a brave show in front of one’s enemy rather than giving up out of cowardice, since someone who is bold if you take to flight will run away if you don’t lose your nerve; if he sees that you’re not cowardly he’ll turn from a boar into a barrow-pig. And therefore, although the Nightingale was nervous, she made a bold speech.

wl,” she said, “why do you behave like this? In winter you sing ‘Woe! Woe!’ You sing like a hen in snow—everything that you sing comes out of misery. In winter you sing sullenly and gloomily, and you are always dumb in summer. It’s because of your wretched malice that you can’t be happy with us, since you practically burn up with resentment when our good times arrive. You behave like a mean-spirited man: every pleasure displeases him; complaining and scowling come easily to him if he sees that people are happy; he would like to see tears in everyone’s eyes; he wouldn’t mind if whole troops of men were fighting each other hand-to-hand. You do the same for your part; because when deep snow is lying far and wide, and every creature is miserable, you sing from evening to morning. But I bring every delight with me; every creature is glad on my account, and rejoices when I come, and looks forward to my arrival. The flowers begin to open and bloom, both on the trees and in the fields. The lily with her fair complexion welcomes me, I’ll have you know, and invites me with her beautiful appearance to fly to her. The blushing rose, too, springing from the briar, tells me to sing a joyful song for love of her. And so I do, night and day—the more I sing, the more I can—and serenade them with my singing, but even so, not for too long. When I see that people are happy I don’t want them to feel overloaded; when what I’ve come for is done, I go back, and it’s sensible for me to do that. When men’s thoughts turn to their sheaves, and the green leaves begin to fade, I travel home and take my leave. I don’t care for the deprivations of winter; when I see that harsh weather is coming, I go home to my own country, and am both loved and thanked for having come and done my task here. When my work’s finished, should I stay on? No! why should I? After all, anyone who stays on for a long time when they’re not needed is neither clever nor sensible.”

ell me now, you miserable creature,” said the Owl, “do you have any use apart from having a musical voice? You’re no good for anything apart from knowing how to warble, because you’re small and weak and your coat of feathers is scanty. What good do you do for humanity? No more than a wretched wren does! Nothing useful comes from you, except that you make as much noise as if you were mad; and once your twittering is finished, you don’t have any other skill. Alfred the wise said (quite rightly, since it’s true), ‘Nobody is loved or valued very long for their singing alone,’ because someone who doesn’t know how to do anything but sing is good for nothing. You’re just a useless creature; there’s nothing to you but twittering. Your coloring is dark and dull; you look like a little sooty bundle. You aren’t pretty, you aren’t strong, you aren’t broad, you aren’t tall. You’ve missed out completely on good looks, and you haven’t done much good either.”

wl,” the Nightingale said, “you ask me if I can do anything apart from singing in summertime, and bringing happiness far and wide. Why are you interrogating me about my skills? My one skill is better than all of yours; one song from my mouth is better than everything your kind was ever able to do. And listen! I’ll tell you why: do you know why man was born? For the bliss of the kingdom of heaven, where there is always the same level of singing and rejoicing; everyone who has any idea of what is good aspires to that. That is why there is singing in Holy Church, and clerics compose songs, to remind people of where they are destined to be, and to remain eternally, so that they shouldn’t forget the joy, but think about it and obtain it, and understand from the singing in church how delightful the bliss of heaven will be. Clerics, monks, and canons in good communities get up at midnight and sing about the light of heaven, and country priests sing when the dawn breaks. And I help them as far as I can; I sing with them night and day, and they are in better spirits because of me, and more willing to sing. I give people a preview of the future for their good, to give them comfort, and encourage them to pursue the song which is eternal. Now, Owl, you can sit there and wither away; this isn’t just warbling; I’m prepared to agree that we should go to judgment before the Pope of Rome himself.”

“Fine, let’s go and visit him,” the Owl said, “because our judgment is ready and waiting there.”

“Let’s,” said the Nightingale; “but who will read our pleas, and speak in the presence of our judge?”

“I’ll give you satisfaction in that,” said the Owl, “because I can repeat it all, beginning to end, word for word. And if it seems to you that I’m going astray, you can object and make me stop.”

With these words they set off, till they came to Rome; but I can’t tell you any more about how they succeeded with their judgment.