spring’s messenger, the lovelyvoiced nightingale
I wish I’d been on the street in Madrid on that night in 1934 when Pablo Neruda, who was then Chile’s consul to Spain, told Miguel Hernández that he had never heard a nightingale. It is too cold for nightingales to survive in Chile. Hernández grew up in a goatherding family in the province of Alicante, and he immediately scampered up a high tree and imitated a nightingale’s liquid song. Then he climbed up another tree and created the sound of a second nightingale answering. He could have been joyously illustrating Boris Pasternak’s notion of poetry as “two nightingales dueling.”
I once told this story to the writer William Maxwell, and he said that learning how to sing like nightingales in treetops ought to be a requirement for poets. It should be taught, like prosody, in writing programs. The Romantic poets might have agreed: Wordsworth called the nightingale a creature of “fiery heart”; Keats inscribed its music forever in his famous ode (“Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!”); John Clare observed one assiduously as a boy (“she is a plain bird something like the hedge sparrow in shape and the female Firetail or Redstart in color but more slender then the former and of a redder brown or scorched color then the latter”); and Shelley declared:
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.
The singing of a nightingale becomes a metaphor for writing poetry here, and listening to that bird—that natural music—becomes a metaphor for reading it.
One could write a good book about nightingales in poetry. It would begin with one of the oldest legends in the world, the poignant tale of Philomela, that poor ravished girl who had her tongue cut out and was changed into the nightingale, which laments in darkness but nonetheless expresses its story. The tale reverberates through all of Greco-Roman literature. Ovid gave it a poignant rendering in Metamorphoses, and it echoed down the centuries from Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus) to Matthew Arnold (“Philomela”) and T. S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”).
One of my favorite poems about “spring’s messenger” is by Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine fabulist, who may never have heard a nightingale, and yet, through poetry, had a lifelong relationship with the unseen bird.
To the Nightingale
Out of what secret English summer evening
or night on the incalculable Rhine,
lost among all the nights of my long night,
could it have come to my unknowing ear,
your song, encrusted with mythology,
nightingale of Virgil and the Persians?
Perhaps I never heard you, but my life
is bound up with your life, inseparably.
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The symbol for you was a wandering spirit
in a book of enigmas. The poet, El Marino,
nicknamed you the “siren of the forest”;
you sing throughout the night of Juliet
and through the intricate pages of the Latin
and from his pinewoods, Heine, that other
nightingale of Germany and Judea,
called you mockingbird, firebird, bird of mourning.
Keats heard your song for everyone, forever.
There is not one among the shimmering names
people have given you across the earth
that does not seek to match your own music,
nightingale of the dark. The Muslim dreamed you
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in the delirium of ecstasy,
his breast pierced by the thorn of the sung rose
you redden with your blood. Assiduously
in the black evening I contrive this poem,
nightingale of the sands and all the seas,
that in exultation, memory, and fable,
you burn with love and die in liquid song.
(translated by Alastair Reid)
Copyright © 2006 by Edward Hirsch
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