Nightingales, Philomel

Teisai Hokuba, Roses and bamboo with nightingale
Teisai Hokuba, Roses and bamboo with nightingale

Philomela was a female character in Greek mythology, daughter of King Pandion I of Athens and Zeuxippe. She was the sister of Procne, who married King Tereus of Thrace.

On the fifth year of their marriage, Procne asked her husband to go to Athens and bring Philomela back, as the two sisters hadn't seen each other for a long time. Tereus agreed and went to Athens, where Pandion I told Tereus to take care of her, as if he were her father. However, on the way back to Thrace, Tereus gave in to his lust for Philomela and raped her. He then threatened her not to say anything to her sister, but Philomela was defiant, angering him. So, he cut off her tongue and abandoned her. When he returned to Thrace, he told Procne that Philomela had died.

Philomela, however, although unable to speak, managed to weave the crime onto a tapestry and brought it to her sister. When Procne found out what had happened, she killed her son Itys, boiled him, and served him to Tereus. Unaware, Tereus ate the meal, and he only found out when Procne and Philomela presented the severed head of Itys to him. Tereus grabbed an axe and started chasing the two sisters, who fled and started praying to the gods. The gods answered their prayers and turned all three of them into birds; Procne into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe.

Now his bellow
Was as homicidal
As it was anguished.
He came after them and they
Who had been running seemed to be flying. 

And suddenly they were flying.
One swerved
On wings into the forest,
The other, with the blood still on her breast,
Flew up into the eaves of the palace.
And Tereus, charging blind
In his delirium of grief and vengeance,
No longer caring what happened -
He too was suddenly flying.
On his head and shoulders a crest of feathers,
Instead of a sword a long curved beak -
Like a warrior transfigured
With battle-frenzy dashing into battle. 

He had become a hoopoe.
Mourned in the forest, a nightingale.
Lamented round and round the palace,
A swallow. 

From Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid 1997 based on Ovid, Metamorphoses Book VI


Luscinia megarhynchos (CL Brehm, 1831)
Family: Passeriformes > Muscicapidae

Many people have heard of Nightingales, but how many people in this day and age have actually encountered them?

Thanks to its almost legendary song, references to the Nightingale pepper our culture. However, this species is declining in both numbers and range, and is now only found in a small area of southern and eastern England during the breeding season. The reasons for this decline are thought to encompass the degradation and loss of the scrubby woodland habitat upon which Nightingales depend to breed, including by browsing deer.

Tracking and ringing studies have taught us that Nightingales winter in the humid zone of West Africa, and arrive back in the UK to breed in April. Males sing at night until paired up, after which time their famous song is limited to dusk and dawn. Females lay one to two clutches a year, before birds depart for Africa in late summer. Nightingales are secretive, with cryptic brown plumage, meaning their song is definitely the best way to find them.

British Trust for Ornithology

The mythology and the ornithology seem to be in tension. The story of Philomela emphasises her suffering. She laments wordlessly (her tongue having been cut out) in the song of the nightingale into which she has been metamorphosed. Yet female nightingales are not singers. The attractive song of real nightingales is a mating call by males, interpreted by most poets as an expression of ‘love’. Most poetic responses to the song of the nightingale embrace this tension – the song is at the same time a lament, an expression of loss and pain, as well as a declaration of love and joy.

The vast majority of the Schubert song texts which refer to nightingales were written by the so-called ‘poets of sensitivity’ (Dichter der Empfindsamkeit) in the mid 18th century. These writers (Hölty, Matthisson, Kosegarten, Salis-Seewis, Stolberg etc.) were more interested in the effect of nature on the human heart than in nature itself, so the focus of their poems is the sympathetic response of the listener (or the sympathetic reader) to the external phenomena evoked in the verse.

Hölty’s Die Mainacht is a very clear example of this. The poet / reader hears the song of the nightingale as the voice of domestic contentment. Alongside a devoted pair of turtle doves, these birds only accentuate the solitude and yearning of the human who encounters them:

Wann der silberne Mond durch die Gesträuche blinkt,
Und sein schlummerndes Licht über den Rasen streut,
Und die Nachtigall flötet,
Wandl' ich traurig von Busch zu Busch.

Selig preis ich dich dann, flötende Nachtigall,
Weil dein Weibchen mit dir wohnet in einem Nest,
Ihrem singenden Gatten
Tausend trauliche Küsse gibt.

Überhüllet von Laub girret ein Taubenpaar
Sein Entzücken mir vor; aber ich wende mich,
Suche dunklere Schatten,
Und die einsame Träne rinnt.

Wann, o lächelndes Bild, welches wie Morgenrot
Durch die Seele mir strahlt, find ich auf Erden dich?
Und die einsame Träne
Bebt mir heißer die Wang herab.

Whenever the silver moon gleams through the undergrowth
And strews its slumbering light over the grass,
And the nightingale sings like a flute,
I wander sadly from bush to bush.

On those occasions I consider you blessed, fluting nightingale,
Since your little wife lives with you in one nest,
To her singing spouse
She gives a thousand cosy kisses.

Covered over by foliage, a pair of doves is cooing
Their devotion in front of me; but I turn away and
Look for darker shadows,
And the single tear runs [down my cheek].

When, oh smiling image, which, like dawn
Is shining through my soul, when shall I find you on earth?
And the single tear
Feels hotter as it trembles down my cheek.

Hölty, Die Mainacht (D 194)

Similarly, Hölty’s Seufzer (D 198) explains how the same sound can sound both joyful and sad, depending on who is listening:

Die Nachtigall
Singt überall
Auf grünen Reisen
Die besten Weisen,
Daß ringsum Wald
Und Ufer schallt.

Manch junges Paar
Geht dort, wo klar
Das Bächlein rauschet,
Und steht, und lauschet
Mit frohem Sinn
Der Sängerin.

Ich höre bang
Im düstern Gang
Der Nachtigallen
Gesänge schallen,
Denn ach, allein
Irr ich im Hain.

The nightingale
Sings everywhere
On green branches
The best tunes
Which resound around the wood
And resound around the river bank.

Many a young couple
Goes there, where clearly
The little brook murmurs,
And they stand there and listen
In a delighted mood -
They listen to the singer.

I am uneasy when I hear
On the gloomy path
The nightingale's
Songs resound;
For oh! I am on my own
As I roam around and go astray in the grove.

Hölty, Seufzer (D 198)

Schiller inverts this perception in Lied (D 284). Here the speaker claims that now she has found love she can understand the song of the nightingale for the first time. Nature, which had formerly been a mystery, suddenly makes sense since subjective emotion allows the speaker to grasp objective reality:

Es ist so angenehm, so süß,
Um einen lieben Mann zu spielen,
Entzückend, wie ein Paradies,
Des Mannes Feuerkuss zu fühlen.

Jetzt weiß ich, was mein Taubenpaar,
Mit seinem sanften Girren sagte,
Und was der Nachtigallen Schar,
So zärtlich sich in Liedern klagte;

Jetzt weiß ich, was mein volles Herz
In ewig langen Nächten engte;
Jetzt weiß ich, welcher süße Schmerz,
Oft seufzend meinen Busen drängte;

Warum kein Blümchen mir gefiel,
Warum der Mai mir nimmer lachte,
Warum der Vögel Liederspiel
Mich nimmermehr zur Freude fachte:

Mir trauerte die ganze Welt,
Ich kannte nicht die schönsten Triebe.
Nun hab ich, was mir längst gefehlt,
Beneide mich, Natur - ich liebe!

It is so pleasant, so sweet,
To play about with a beloved man,
It is delightful, like a paradise,
To feel the man's fiery kiss.

I now know what my pair of doves
Were saying with their gentle cooing,
And what the flock of nightingales
Was lamenting so affectionately in their songs.

I now know what my full heart
Was bothered by on endlessly long nights.
I now know what a sweet pain
It was that often pressed, sighing, on my breast.

Why no little flowers appealed to me,
Why May never smiled on me,
Why the birds' song performances
No longer stirred up any joy in me:

The whole world was mournful for me,
I did not know the most beautiful impulses.
I now have what I was lacking for so long,
Envy me, nature, I am in love!

Schiller, Lied (D 284)

It is rare, though, for any of Schubert’s poets to emphasise the joy inherent in the love heard in the song of the nightingale. They tend to stress the agony and the pain in Philomela’s song:

Doch mahnt das Lied der Nachtigall
An seine Welt das weiche Herz,
In aller Wonne weckt ihr Schall
Den tiefsten Schmerz, der Liebe Schmerz.

But the song of the nightingale offers a reminder
Of its world to the soft heart. -
Its song, with all its happiness, awakens
The deepest agony - the agony of love!

Schober, Mondenschein (D 875)

* * * * *

Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen?
Ach, sie flehen dich,
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich.

Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen,
Kennen Liebesschmerz,
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz.

Can you hear the nightingales singing?
Oh, they are beseeching you
With the sweet notes of their laments,
They are interceding with you on my behalf.

They can understand the longing of the breast,
They are familiar with the pain of love,
With their silver notes they stir
Every sensitive heart.

Rellstab, Ständchen (D 957/4)

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