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Owl and the Nightingale, The


The Owl and the Nightingale is a 12th-century poem generally regarded as one of the outstanding works in Middle English. It takes the form of a debate between the two birds as to which excels the other. The birds are well trained in the medieval débat tradition, and as their arguments develop, they range over many of the central intellectual questions of the century. The author never forgets, however, that the antagonists are birds, and they speak in character as they attack each other's personal habits, singing ability, and nestbuilding skill, as well as philosophical and moral outlooks. The poem is as noted for its liveliness and wit as for its rhetorical accomplishment.

It is clear, however, that the owl and the nightingale are more than mere representatives of two species of birds. Though scholars disagree upon any specific interpretation of their characters, or of their debate, the nightingale clearly stands for a joyous, the owl for a sober, approach to life. Among the most important of their topics is man's attitude toward his religion: should it be penitential or celebratory?

The birds are unable to convince one another, and agree to take their quarrel to one Nicholas of Guilford, who, we are told, is preeminent for both learning and able judgment. But the reader is left simply with the debate: the author appears to suggest that either view of life alone is partial, that both the sober owl on its stump and the playful nightingale on its branch have important things to say and make mistakes, which need correction, and that a proper tension of their attitudes contributes balance to life; resolution of the argument is less important than practical truth.

The author and the exact provenance of the 2,000-line, octosyllabic poem are unknown. It is not now generally supposed that Nicholas was the author, or that the poem was written at Guilford. The dialect is that of the southwestern part of England, and the work has importance as a philological document, as well as for its literary qualities.

Bibliography: The Owl and the Nightingale, ed. e. g. stanley (London 1960). r. m. wilson, Early Middle English Literature (London 1939) ch. 7. h. hÄssler, "The Owl and the Nightingale" und die literarischen Bestrebungen des 12. und 13. Jahrhunderts (Frankfurt a. M. 1942). h. walther, Das Streitgedicht in der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters (Quellen und Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Philologie des Mittelalters 5.2; Munich 1920).

[n. d. hinton]

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