'Most musical, most melancholy' : Nightingales in Milton, Coleridge and Keats

by Jeffrey Peters
In 1973, Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence described the struggle of the Romantic poets to find a voice in a world dominated by Paradise Lost, but he did little to discuss the legacy of John Milton’s lesser poems. Just as the sun overwhelms the twinkle of distant stars, so too did the mighty epic dominate its kindred. That masterpiece, rivalled by few others in the whole of literature, has instilled in our collective memory images well-known even to those who have never attempted to read it. Yet Milton’s influence goes far beyond our dramatic Fall.
Romanticism, especially British Romanticism, emphasizes the role of contemplating nature, and it is with no surprise that the Romantic Poets would seize upon Milton’s ‘Il Penseroso’. Written sometime after Milton left Cambridge, yet not published until the middle of his career, the poem is a melancholic reflection on poetry, art, and inspiration.

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole

Il Penseroso, by Thomas Cole

Central to Milton’s poem is the image of Philomela, one of Ovid’s many tragic females who was brutally raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus, and whose tongue was cut out to keep her silent.
However, Philomela was able to notify her sister, which led to the sisters seeking revenge and Tereus, in return, trying to murder them. Subsequently, the sisters prayed to the gods for protection, and the gods answered by transforming them into birds. Although some sources disagree on who was transformed into what, Ovid’s Philomela became the nightingale, and her sorrowful tale has since been linked with evening’s approach.
But the nightingale is not just a simple image of melancholy. Like all of Ovid’s tales in the Metamorphoses, Philomela’s is a metaphor for art, and, as she is in the works of so many other Greco-Roman authors, including Virgil and Aristophanes, the nightingale inspires melancholic and self-reflecting poetry.
It is inevitable that the contemplative spirit of Milton would wander into the sorrowful strain of the nightingale. And so he describes how “the Cherub Contemplation” and “the mute Silence” come quietly as not to wake Philomela, the spirit of melancholy, who would then:

daign a Song,
In her sweetest, saddest plight,
Smoothing the rugged brow of night,
While Cynthia checks her Dragon yoke,
Gently o’re th’ accustom’d Oke;
Sweet Bird that shunn’st the noise of folly,
Most musicall, most melancholy!
Thee Chauntress oft the Woods among,
I woo to hear thy eeven-Song;
And missing thee, I walk unseen
On the dry smooth-shaven Green,
To behold the wandring Moon,
Riding neer her highest noon,
Like one that had bin led astray
Through the Heav’ns wide pathles way; (56-70)

He knows that he could easily become enraptured by the nightingale’s song, but he is also eager to avoid becoming lost in it. He is deeply conflicted and dwells on her beauty far longer than one who is immune to her temptation. It’s only by luck that he misses her song , but he is able to admire her counterpart, the moon.
Although Milton is torn at the possibility at becoming lost in nature, the Romantic Poets did not share his cautious nature. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s beautiful, yet overlooked, ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’, takes on Milton’s assessment:

Most musical, most melancholy’ bird!
A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy.
But some night-wandering man, whose heart was pierced
With the remembrance of a grievous wrong,
Or slow distemper, or neglected love,
(And so, poor wretch! filled all things with himself,
And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale
Of his own sorrow) he, and such as he,
First named these notes a melancholy strain. (13–22)

This is quite a different bird! She is the embodiment of the evening, of peace, and of contemplation most rich. She is the herald of nature that allows man to focus on the beauty around him. Yet man, in his ignorance or selfishness, attributes his own sorrow to nature.
Gone is the horror of Philomela, the rape and destruction. Instead, we are told of children who are lost in societal pleasures and who lament the coming of the evening, and it is they who tarnish the reputation of a sweet bird. She is made twice a victim by an ignorant culture, but Coleridge ensures that she and her admirers can find peace:

My Friend, and thou, our Sister! we have learnt
A different lore: we may not thus profane
Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love
And joyance! ‘Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes,
As he were fearful that an April night
Would be too short for him to utter forth
His love-chant, and disburthen his full soul
Of all its music! (39–48)

It soon becomes clear that Coleridge enjoys the tranquility of the evening and how this period allows him to connect with nature in a way that society hinders. As the poem concludes, he takes his young son Hartley out with him to look upon the moon, and he hopes:

It is a father’s tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy.—Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell. (106–110)

He has rewritten the tale to inspire his son to pursue nature. It is optimistic in its fullest.
‘The Nightingale’ also completes a rejection of Philomela and the “melancholic” nightingale started in Coleridge’s ‘To a Nightingale’. In the earlier poem, the narrator seeks comfort in his wife:

How many wretched Bards address thy name,
And hers, the full-orb’d Queen that shines above.
But I do hear thee, and the high bough mark,
Within whose mild moon-mellow’d foliage hid
Thou warblest sad thy pity-pleading strains.
O! I have listen’d, till my working soul,
Waked by those strains to thousand phantasies,
Absorb’d hath ceas’d to listen! Therefore oft,
I hymn thy name: and with a proud delight
Oft will I tell thee, Minstrel of the Moon!
‘Most musical, most melancholy’ Bird!
That all thy soft diversities of tone,
Tho’ sweeter far than the delicious airs
That vibrate from a white-arm’d Lady’s harp,
What time the languishment of lonely love
Melts in her eye, and heaves her breast of snow,
Are not so sweet as is the voice of her,
My Sara – best beloved of human kind! (7-24)

It seems from this earlier work that Coleridge was that “night-wandering man,” and he transforms the story of the nightingale completely to overcome his own deep seated feelings about nature. Yet the nightingale is still able to draw out the thoughts of the listener, which is a sweeter type of melancholy.
Although Coleridge’s nightingale poems were often over looked by modern audiences, they were known by his contemporaries. As Coleridge biographer Rosemary Ashton explains, the use of the nightingale to frame a meditation on nature inspired John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. This was not a coincidence; the pre-eminent scholar Walter Jackson Bate, in his biography of Coleridge, describes a meeting that took place between the two poets on 11th April 1819 in which the two briefly discussed nightingales and poetry, among other topics. It was only a few weeks later that Keats composed ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem that both embraced and rejected aspects of Milton’s and Coleridge’s claims. Gone are all references to Philomela, and it seems that the nightingale’s tune is a source of pain, because the narrator longs to experience the tranquility expressed in its song:

Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thine happiness,—
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease. (5–10)

That tune seems to obliterate his ability to think, producing the opposite effect of Milton’s inspirational song. Yet, the narrator is drawn into a meditation on nature itself, and it is through this emptying of the self that the narrator is soon filled with the poetry necessary to join the bird:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! (31–35)

This new realm is a contradictory state that is akin to death yet full of life, similar to the vibrant paralysis described in Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. His senses transform as darkness overwhelms him and the imagination creates a new paradise. He yearns to join with nature, to unite with the bird, but he cannot because he is mortal.
Keats embraces Coleridge’s separation of Philomela and the nightingale, and he seems to denounce the Ovidian possibility of mankind ever becoming an immortal part of nature. It is that realization that draws him back to reality. The nightingale is like a siren, leading the sensitive to their doom in the realm of imagination, but the narrator is able to pull back before he has gone too far:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades (71–75)

Keats warns in Lamia, “Real are the dreams of Gods”, which implies that only the gods can experience the realm of dreams as if it were real. Mortals are bound by the needs of life, and we cannot dwell in a land of imagination forever. Yet there is a part of us that desires more.
The nightingale is nature’s temptress, the enrapturing beauty that can be experienced in this world. However, it is a melancholic bird because we know that we can never join it in its immortal song. The pain we feel is the pain of our own immortality. We see the magnificent beauty of nature surround us, yet we, humans, are forever kept apart from it. Milton, Coleridge, and Keats all speak in regard to poetry, imagination, nature, and melancholy, yet each reveals his own anxieties: to Milton, the nightingale represents the temptation to dwell too strongly on melancholy; to Coleridge, the nightingale is blamed for humanity’s failings and is superior to us; and to Keats, the nightingale represents the desire to abandon this life and embrace nature most fully.
These three great poets, along with many others, took up the subject of the nightingale to discuss the heart of their poetic practice. For all of their similarities, their individual rejection of the Philomela myth couldn’t be more different. They recognize that there is great beauty to be found in great suffering, but they also know the consuming destruction that must come as a result. Ironically, Milton, Coleridge, and Keats obtained a form of immortality, but it was through their mastery of poetry instead of a union with nature. In the end, their song is still heard by many, just like that sweet, sorrowful tune of the nightingale that once enraptured them.
Jeffrey Peters is a columnist, writer, and researcher based out of Jeff PetersAnnapolis, Maryland. He has a Master’s in Western Classics and is finishing his PhD in English Literature, specializing in the British Romantics, at Catholic University of America.