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‘Philomela fair’: the nightingale in English poetry

The nightingale, noted for its sweet singing but undistinguished looks, has a long relationship with poetry. It has inspired some of the best known and loved poets in the English language. Taking their inspiration from classical mythology they often addressed the nightingale by its Greek name ‘Philomela’. Sir Philip Sidney calls the nightingale ‘Philomela fair’ and Shakespeare speaks of her ‘mournful hymns’. The nightingale’s song is linked with human creativity and expression; in the words of Shelley: ‘A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.’ In Keats’ celebrated Ode to a Nightingale the song of the nightingale opens a door for the poet to meditate on his sorrow following the death of his beloved brother, Tom. Keats’ close friend, Joseph Severn, immortalised the poet’s fondness for listening to birdsong in his painting entitled Keats Listening to a Nightingale on Hampstead Heath (1845). The nightingale also features in the works of John Milton, John Clare and Christina Rossetti.

Nightingale (1899), William James Neatby, published in A Day with Keats, London, 1912

A Poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness, and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.

From A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays,

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Philomela (from the Greek Φιλομήλα), often given as Philomel, is the poetic name for the Nightingale and it has been used interchangeably to make an association between the bird and sorrow. This association stems from the story of Philomela in Greek myth, where Zeus turns an Athenian princess into a nightingale to save her life after a series of tragic events: rape, mutila­tion, imprisonment, murder - even cannibalism!

Queen Procne had sent her husband, King Tereus of Thrace, son of Ares the god of war, to her home city of Athens to collect her younger sister Philomela. On the journey back Tereus, unable to contain his lust, raped Philomela. He then kept her in a prison, telling the world she was dead, and cut out her tongue to ensure her silence. The resourceful Philomela managed to get a tapestry to Procne which illustrated what had happened. After her rescue, Procne took her revenge on Tereus by killing their son, Itys, and serving him in a soup to the king. When Tereus discovered that he had been tricked and the contents of the macabre meal, the shocked king pursued the fleeing sisters with his axe. On the point of being despatched by Tereus, Procne and Philomela prayed to the gods for help.

Zeus took pity on the sisters, and turned them all into birds. Philomela, who had been silenced, would sing forever as a nightingale, Procne was turned into a swallow, forever going round and round, and Tereus into a predatory hoopoe or hawk.

Like many myths there are a number of versions, but the earliest tellings of this story have been lost or only survive as fragments, leaving this as the most well known and complete version. It comes down to us from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8AD), and establishes the transformations of the characters.

An early version of transformation from human to nightingale occurs in the Odyssey. Penelope mentions the tale of Aëdon (nightingale) who mistakenly kills her own son. Zeus takes pity on her and turns her into a nightingale. Penelope interprets the myth as a warn­ing to mothers and relates it to her own concern for the safety of her son Telemachus while Odysseus has been absent fighting in Troy. This version corresponds with the mournful nature of the nightingale’s song as an expression of a mother’s grief.

Prior to Ovid, it was not Philomela who was turned into a nightingale, but Procne. It is so in Sophocles’ lost play Tereus (c. 420s BC), helpfully summarised in the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and a play on the same subject by his contemporary Philokles, parodied in Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, provides further information. Even in the much later collection of myths, the Bibliotheca (c. 1st or 2nd century AD) wrongly attributed to Apollodorus of Athens, it is Philomela who is transformed into a swallow and Procne into a nightingale, singing in remorse for her murder of her innocent son. A statue (c. 425BC), attributed to the sculptor Alkamenes in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, portrays Itys seeking refuge in his mother Procne’s intricately sculpted raiment while she prepares the knife for his murder.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story is one of over 250 transformation myths and it is through this source that Philomela was known to the Elizabethan poets, Sir Philip Sidney and Shakespeare, and those artists and writers that followed. Oscar Wilde took up the subject of the innocent boy’s death in a long poem, The Burden of Itys, where he preserves the memory of ‘That foster-brother of remorse and pain’. Ironically, for a bird so linked with female lament, it is the male nightingale that is the songbird.

Painters were also inspired by the nightingale. Apart from the celebrated image by Joseph Severn inspired by Keats’ nightingale notable are Keats’ Nightingale (2006) by Michael Wilson and Nightingale Night (1954) by Lydia Brodskaya, a gift to the British government by Nikita Khruschev and Marshal Nikolai Bulganin.

Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown, with whom he shared the house, remembered how the poet liked to sit under the plum tree in the garden to listen to the nightingale.

Keats himself and his home in Hampstead are the subject of lovely paintings such as Keats Grove, Hampstead (1955) by Sidney Horne Shepherd, which can be seen in the Burgh House and Hampstead Museum; and Backs of Houses, Keats Grove, Hampstead (1940) by Frances Macdonald. A posthumous portrait of the poet by John Severn entitled simply John Keats shows the poet writing his Ode to a Nightingale. From the open door the observer can see the garden in which the nightingale sang. Severn remarked that when he visited Keats that day he ‘was struck with the first real symptoms of sadness in Keats’ which we feel with great immediacy when reading his Ode. One word in particular, characterises the mood of the poem: ‘Forlorn!’. Influenced by the poetry of Keats, many later writers speak of the nightingale with a similar tenderness and anguish.

Keats’ friend Charles Armitage Brown, with whom he shared the house, remembered how the poet liked to sit under the plum tree in the garden to listen to the nightingale. Brown has also left a sketch of the poet in pencil (1819).

For a collection of poems about ‘fair Philomela’ see the new illustrated gift book The Nightingale in English Poetry, edited by Eugenia Russell (Bushey: Lone Fox Publishing, 2021). The Nightingale in English Poetry, 52 pages, 4 colour and 5 black and white illustrations, Dimensions: 148 x 105mm.


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