Thrush and the Nightingale, The


Thrush and the Nightingale, The
(ca. 1275)
   The Thrush and the Nightingale is a MIDDLE ENGLISH poem from the last quarter of the 13th century. Written in the West Midlands, the work is a DEBATE POEM in which the two birds argue the merits of women. As such, it is of the same “beast debate” genre as the earlier OWL AND THE NIGHTINGALE and CLANVOWE’s 14th-century Cuckoo and the Nightingale.
   The poem is made up of 32 six-line stanzas, rhyming aabccb. The a and c lines are tetrameter (four feet), while the b lines are trimeter (three feet). The Nightingale may be chosen as advocate of one point of view because of her conventional association with love or, as Owen and Owen suggest (1971, 271), her connection, in medieval BESTIARIES, with motherhood and thus the tender aspects associated with women. The Thrush is chosen, perhaps, because the beauty of its song rivals that of the Nightingale, making him a worthy opponent. The first line of the poem, “Somer is comen with love to towne” (Owen and Owen 1971, 272), echoes the well-known HARLEY LYRIC, LENTEN IS COME WITH LOVE TO TOUNE. As in that poem and conventionally in medieval poetry, the return of spring is harbinger of new thoughts of love. The poem’s speaker, having introduced the idea of love, abruptly introduces the poem’s subject: He once heard two birds arguing—the Nightingale contending that women are admirable, the Thrush that they are despicable.
   Until the end of the poem, it seems a kind of love debate: The Thrush, apparently male, sounds like a wronged lover who wants nothing more to do with women. And for most of the debate, the Thrush has the best of the argument. Each of his points is supported by a concrete example—Adam and Samson, led astray by wicked women, along with Alexander, Gawain, and Constantine. The Nightingale defends women by discussing general “female” nurturing qualities, and seems to be getting the worst of the argument until the end, when she gives her single culminating example, the Virgin Mary. The poem shifts from a love poem to a religious one. As the epitome of comfort and nurture, the Virgin trumps all of the Thrush’s negative examples, and he admits defeat, vowing never again to disparage woman, after which he leaves the forest in shame and a kind of self-imposed exile.
   The poem is fairly close in style to conventional French and Latin debate poems, in which arguments are given in self-contained stanzas. The sentiments expressed are quite conventional. The poem has often been compared with The Owl and the Nightingale, and it is possible that the earlier poem influenced The Thrush and the Nightingale. However, as Gardner points out (1971, 266), the later poem has “no connective narrative, few personal touches, and no humor”—all significant characteristics of The Owl and the Nightingale. It seems likely that the relationship between the two poems is not as close as was once thought.
   Bibliography
   ■ Gardner, John. The Alliterative Morte Arthure, The Owl and the Nightingale, and Five Other Middle English Poems: In a Modernized Version with Comments on the Poem and Notes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
   ■ Owen, Lewis J., and Nancy H. Owen. Middle English Poetry: An Anthology. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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