After twilight, the speaker, the speaker’s friend, and the friend’s sister sit and rest on an “old mossy bridge,” beneath which a stream flows silently. Hearing a nightingale’s song, the speaker remembers that the nightingale has been called a “melancholy bird” and thinks that such an assignation is ridiculous: While a melancholy human being might feel that a natural object expresses his present mood, nature itself cannot be melancholy. The speaker regrets that so many poets have written about the “melancholy” song of the nightingale, when they would have been better off putting aside their pens and simply listening to this natural music.
The speaker tells his companions that they are not like those “youths and maidens most poetical,” for to them, nature’s voices are full of love and joy. He says that he knows of a neglected grove near a huge castle, which is visited by more nightingales than he has ever heard in his life; at night, they layer the air with harmony. He says that a “most gentle Maid” has been known to walk through the glade. Sometimes, the moon passes behind a cloud, and the nightingales grow quiet, but then it comes out again, and they burst forth into song.
The speaker bids “a short farewell” to his companions and to the nightingale but says that were the bird to sing again now, he would still stay to listen. Even his infant child, he says, loves the sound and is often soothed by the moonlight. The speaker hopes his son will learn to associate nighttime with joy. Then, he again bids farewell to his friends and the nightingale.
“The Nightingale” is subtitled “A Conversation Poem” and is an example of Coleridge’s use of blank verse—unrhymed lines in iambic pentameter—to approximate the register of natural speech. Coleridge’s poetry is never as speech-like as Wordsworth’s, simply because Coleridge often favors musical and metrical effects over unadorned explication; however, “The Nightingale” is one of his most Wordsworthian poems, both in form and in theme.
One of several Conversation Poems written by Coleridge during the last part of the 1790s, “The Nightingale” is in many ways similar to “Frost at Midnight,” and in it, Coleridge again visits the characteristically Wordsworthian themes of childhood and its relationship to nature. As in “Frost at Midnight,” the success of “The Nightingale” depends on its evocation of a dramatic setting—in this case, the mossy bridge where the speaker and his friends (clearly modeled on Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy) rest and the grove where the nightingales sing. Moreover, both poems utilize a language of immediacy (“And hark! the Nightingale begins its song!”) to create their scenes, and both rely on a central metaphor—in this case, the nightingale and its song—to impart their ideas about nature. Also like “Frost at Midnight,” the poem’s conclusion witnesses the speaker turning his discussion to his young son and expressing his desire to see the child grow up among the objects of nature, which will instill an essential joy in him. In fact, “The Nightingale” is almost the social version of the solitary “Frost at Midnight”—while the one shows the speaker musing alone, the other shows him holding forth to companions; while the one is concerned with the mute frost and the silent moon, the other celebrates the melodious, expressive song of the nightingale.
The most important thematic idea of this poem is that nature should not be described as an embodiment of human feelings—that is, the fact that a melancholy man seems to recognize his own feelings in the song of the nightingale does not mean that the nightingale’s song is melancholy. “Philomela’s pity-pleading strains” (a reference to the Greek myth that describes the nightingale as a transformed maiden) is not, for Coleridge, an accurate way to describe the nightingale’s song; instead, nature has its own “immortality,” and to project human feeling onto that immortality is to “profane” it.
Nature is essentially joyous and should inspire joy; it must not be made to serve simply as a screen upon which all of human feelings are indiscriminately projected. It is this lesson that Coleridge hopes to instill in his child; those poets who describe the nightingale as melancholy have yet to learn it. (The phrase quoted by Coleridge’s poem as representative of these unenlightened poets—”most musical, most melancholy”—comes from Milton’s Il Penseroso, though Coleridge later emphasized that he never intended to impugn Milton’s poetry.)