To truly understand the significance of the function of the nightingale in Romantic poetry, it’s necessary to look at its history with not only the English, but the contemporary world at the time of the eighteenth century, and the ecological explanations on why this particular, yet incredibly common, bird was chosen as the poetic token for the Romantic era.
In the eighteenth century, Not much was understood about this common migratory Old World bird; in fact at the time no one understood where this 6 ½ inch long bird traveled to during the winter months; what was known was that the birds always returned, without fail, to England in mid-April (McKusick 37). According to James McKusick in The Return of the Nightingale, there were two prime theories on where these birds went: one was that the birds migrated somewhere to the south; the second theory was, that instead of migrating, the birds hibernate- but where it was not clear (37). Some believed the birds found homes in hollowed trees, and brushes near lakes; only recently nightingales have been tracked migrating 3,000 miles to West Africa.
In ancient Greek, the word “nightingale” translates into “poet” or “night singer”- which plays particular significance to the bird itself, not only in actual life but in poetic representation as well. The nightingale is known as being a nocturnal creature, but they are known to sing both at night and during the day; each nightingale’s song is distinct, no two nightingale’s song is ever alike; the melody is completely individualized and differs day-to -day, moment to moment, based on a particular spontaneous mood or feeling (McKusick 34). What is important to note, however, is that only the male nightingale...
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...ne of a host of contradictions that outline Keats’s poem.
Like “On the Departure of the Nightingale”, the flight of the bird also symbolizes the removal of the song, and the loss of the creative force for the poet; the nightingale is free to escape from a world of decay and death, while the poet is forced to suffer in it.
Doggett, Frank. "Romanticism's Singing Bird." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 14 (Autumn, 1974): 547-61.
Feldman, Paula R. British women poets of the Romantic era: an anthology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2000. 68, 683.
McKusick, James C. "The Return of the Nightingale." The Wordsworth Circle 38 (Winter/ Spring 2007): 34-38.
Whiting, George W. "Charlotte Smith, Keats, and the Nightingale." Keats-Shelley Association of America 12 (Winter, 1963): 4-8.
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