Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Poets and Poems: Simon Armitage and "The Owl and the Nightingale"

The Owl and the Nightingale
 is one of the most famous poems to have emerged from medieval England. The story is straightforward. Two birds, a nightingale and an owl, face off across a clearing. The nightingale starts an argument that seems les an argument and more a stream of invective and insults aimed at the common owl (emphasis on “common”). The owl, taken aback by the verbal assault, gives back in kind, but she also seems to argue a more reasoned response. 

While reading this poem, it’s difficult not to imagine the two birds individually sporting colors of blue and red, one arguing from an elitist position and the other from that of the commoner. The only thing the nightingale doesn’t call the owl is “deplorable,” but you get the idea. Both birds make their arguments from Christian teaching; both constantly violate that teaching in how they argue. The nightingale, however, recognizes the merit in much of what the owl is saying, but is determined to yield no ground. The poem ends with both flying off to have the argument settled once and for all by Master Nicholas.


It’s the earliest example of debate poetry, sometimes called a verse contest, in Middle English. We know that the poem bears both Anglo-Saxon and French influences, which places it after the Norman Invasion of 1066. The poem is comprised of 1,800 lines written in iambic tetrameter, the most common poetic meter in English.


But from that point, the poem’s provenance gets murky. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

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