Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Early Transition English > The Owl and Nightingale
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XI. Early Transition English.

§ 13. The Owl and Nightingale.


The Owl and Nightingale which represents another line of literary revolt, has come down in two MSS., one dating from the first, the other from the second, half of the thirteenth century. Of the two MSS. the earlier (Cotton MS.) is the more trustworthy; the scribe of the other has frequently omitted unimportant monosyllabic words, regardless of scansion, besides having altered inflexional endings and made sundry substitutions in the matter of diction; such alterations are clearly revealed in riming positions. The authorship is a matter of conjecture; Nicholas of Guilford, a cleric of Portisham (Dorset), who is mentioned thrice in the poem, is supposed by some to have been the writer, but the objections to this view are that the allusions are all in the third person, and that lavish praise is showered on his name. On the other hand, since the poem aim incidentally at ruging the claims of Nicholas to clerical preferment, the end may have justified the means and may account for the unstinted praise as well as the anonymous character of the work. But the name of John of Guildford must also be mentioned. He is known to have written some verse about this period, and, since the common appellation implies a connection between the two, it may have been that he was the advocate of Nicholas’s cause. On internal and external evidence, the poem may, approximately, be dated 1220. The benedictionpronounced upon “King Henri” (11. 1091–2) clearly refers to Henry II; but the borrowings from Neckam make an earlier date than 1200 impossible. The mention of a papal mission to Scotland (1. 1095) may refer to the visit of Vivian in 1174, or to that of cardinal Guala in 1218. The poem was probably written before the year 1227, for at that date the regency ceased, and, with Henry III reigning, the benediction would be ambiguous, not to say ominous. As regards sources, no direct original has been found; the poem embodies the spirit as well as the structure of certain Old French models without being a copy of any one. There are certain details, however, which appear to have been found; the poem embodies the spirit as well as the structure of any one. There are certain details, however, which appear to have been definitely borrowed, and of these the most interesting is the nightingale episode (11. 1049–62). It is narrated at length in Marie de France’s lai, Laustic (c. 1170), as une aventure dunt le Bretun firent un lai and before the closeof the century it appeared in a balder from in Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum. Its subsequent popularity is attested by its frequent reappearances in both French and English. The episode, as it appears in The Owl and Nightingale, is due partly to Marie de France, partly to Neckam. There are further details in the poem which are reminiscent of Neckam’s De Naturis Rerum, while the description of the barbarous north (11. 999 ff.). is possibly based on a similar description in Alfred’s translation of Orosius. The structure of the poem is of a composite kind. The main elements are drawn from the Old French dèbat, but there is also a proverbial element as well as Bestiary details, which, though slight in amount, give a colouring to the whole. Of the various kinds of the Old French dèbat, it is the tençon in particular upon which the poem is modelled, for that poem, unlike the jeu-parti has no deliberate choice of sides; eachopponent undertakes the defence of his nature and kind. And, in addition to the general structure, the poet has borrowed further ideas from this same genre, namely, the appointment of judge, suggested by the challenger and commented upon by his opponent; the absence of the promised verdict; the use of certain conventional figures of the Old French dèbat, such as le jaloux (cf. 11. 1075 ff.), la mal marièe (cf. 11. 1520 ff.), and the adoption of love as the theme of the whole. The proverbial element is derived from the lips of the people, and, of the sixteen maxims, eleven are connected with the name of Alfred. In representing his disputants as members of the bird world, and in interpreting their habits to shadow forth his truths, the poet has adopted the methods of the Bestiary. His use of the motive is, however, so far untraditional in that the nightingale, unlike the owl, did not appear in the ancient Physiologus   26
  The main significance of the poem has been subjected to much misconception. Its ultimate intention, as already stated, seems to have been to suggest to English readers a new type of poetry. To the medieval mind the poetic associations to the nightingale were invairably those of love; according to her own description, her song was one of “skentinge” (amusement), and its aim was to teach the nobility of faithful love. She is, however, induced to emphasise (11. 1347-1450) the didactic side of her singing, in order to meet more successfully her dour opponent; but the emphasis is merely a passado in a about of dialectics, and, further, no inconsistency is involved with her own statement, “And soth hit is of luve ich singe,” when mention is made of the ignorance of the barbarous north concerning those love-songs, or of the wantonness at times induced by her passionate music. Her dignified defence of love (11. 1378 ff.), moreover, finds a counterpart in many products of the contemporary school of love-poetry. The owl, on the other hand, unmistakably mistakably represents a poet of the religious type. Her doleful notes and the essentially didactic character of her songs, her special chants at Christmas, and her duties of bestowing comfort, are all in keeping with her own description of herself when she says:
       
Ich wisse men mid mine songe
That hi ne sune[char] nowiht longe. 26 
As to the writer’s personal attitude, he inclines rather to the side of the nightingale. The virtues of the religious school clearly emerge in the course of the debate; yet it cannot but be felt that the poem embodies “a new spirit of opposition to monastic training” 27  only, the contending spirit was the erotic theme and not the secular priest.
  27
  From the literary point of view the poem forms an interesting contrast with the works of the earlier period. The Old English embroidered diction is replaced by a mode of expression less redundant, more unpretending, more natural. Words are no longer artifically arranged, but follow the order of thought. The similes employedin the place of earlier metaphor are of a colloquialcharacter, effective in their unexpectedness; and the dawn of humour is surely at hand when the owl in her bitterness exclaims to the nightingale,
       
[char]u chaterest do [char] on Irish preost 28 ;
or when the nightingale hurls back the happy retort,
[char]u singest so do[char] hen a-snowe. 29 
Moreover the illustrations made use of are no mere reprints of orthodox scenes, they reflect country life and the life of the people which, in modern times, Hardy and Barnes were to illuminate. Freshness and originality, is, however, carried at times to excess in the vituperations in which the disputants indulge, when crudity and naked strength seem virtues overdone. Most interesting, on the other hand, are the signs of an appreciation of the softer side of nature. It was the wilder aspects of nature which had appealed to the earlier school. The present poet saw beauty in the gentle arrival of spring, with its blossoming meadows and flower-decked woodlands, as well as in mellow autumn with its golden hues and fallow tints. The nightingale paints a couple of dainty word-pictures when she describes her coming and going. Upon her arrival, she sings,
        Bop[char] in treo and ek on mede, [char] lilie mid hire faire wlite Wolcume[char] me, [char]at [char]u wite, Bit me, mid hire fair[char] bleo [char] ich shulle to hir[char] fleo. [char]e rose also mid hire rude, [char]at cume[char] ut of [char]e [char]ornewude, Bit me [char]at ich shull[char] singe,
[char] blostme ginne[char] springe and sprede
Vor hire luve, one skentinge. 30 
Her departure takes place amid other scenes:
       
Hwan is ido vor hwan ich com,
Ich fare a[char]en and do wisdom:
Hwane mon ho[char]ep [char] of his sheve, And falewi cume[char] on grene leve,
Ich farë hom and nime leve
Ne recche ich no[char]t of winteres reve. 31 
Nor is the poem devoid of appreciation of dramatic situation and dramatic methods. The debate is brought to a dramatic climax by the appearance of the wren and his companions, while considerable skill is shown in the characterisation of the two disputants. Brief interludes are introduced for the sake of relief and variety: they also add slight touches by the way to the character sketches. Between the lines may be caught, here and there, glimpses of contemporary life. The festival of Christmas with its carol-services, the laus perennis of cathedrals and monasteries, and the daily servicesof the parish priest, the rampant injustice in the bestowal of livings, the picture of the gambler and the tricks of the ape, all help to give historical setting. The verst is modelled on French octosyllabics, and the earlier staccato movement gives place to a more composed rhythm. As a rule, the rimes are wonderfully correct, and it is instructive to note that the proportion of masculine to femining rimes is that of 10: 37. This fact is interesting in connection with Charucerian work, where the fondness for the feminine form, which is less pronounced than in the present poem, has been ascribed to Italian influences. It is obvious that no such influence is at work here; nor can Old French models have suggested the form, the masculine rime being there preferred. It must have arisen from native riming exigencies. Iambic lines had, necessarily, to end with accented riming syllables: but, since the English accent fell on the root syllable in all cases where the riming word was of two syllables, the second would become a sort oflight ending and go to form a feminine rime. The poem is, therefore, one of many-sided interest. Its permanent value lies in its oft-sounded note of freedom, in its metrical innovations, its discarding of the artifical for the natural, its grasp of new methods, its new ideals and in the daring suggestion it makes in connection with love. And, finally, it must be confessed, the poet had travelled well. Though full of appreciation for a foreign literature, he has not changed “his Country Manners for those of Forraigne Parts”; he has “only pricked in some of the Flowers of that he had Learned abroad into the Customes of his owne Country.” And in this way more than one of our poets have since that day written.
  28

Note 26. Li. 927-8. wisse direct sune[char], sin [ back ]
Note 27. Courthope, History of English Poetry vol. I, ch. IV. [ back ]
Note 28. L. 322. [ back ]
Note 29. L. 412. a-snowe in the snow. [ back ]
Note 30. LI. 437-46. Wlite beauty. bit bids. rude, ruddy, colour. Skentinge piece for amusement. [ back ]
Note 31. LI. 453–8. ho[char]p, takes thought. nime leve take my leave. reve plunder. [ back ]

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  Layamon’s Brut  
 
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