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Alcuin's Nightingale

March 11th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

How does nature move, even transform, the soul? Amidst many discussions about the importance and value of the natural world, I do not think this question is considered with anything like sufficient attention.

True, we attend to how nature affects the body. Some also consider how nature affects the brain—Richard Louv’s classic Last Child in the Woods is the definitive text for that question. But what we are after here is something slightly different, less utilitarian in nature and more concerned with the ways in which nature sometimes evokes some deeper longing in us, how it almost seems to lift our self out of the body and into some other domain.

In his “Ode to a Nightingale” Keats reflects on the push pull he feels within himself as the song of that much beloved bird tries to draw him outward while other realities of life tug him back “down” as it were.

Intriguingly, another British poet, if one can call an eighth century man from York "British" that is, has also written a poem dealing with similar themes and even considering the same bird. What follows is a kind of side-by-side reading of John Keats's well-known "Ode to a Nightingale" set next to Alcuin of York's almost completely forgotten "Concerning a Nightingale."

We begin with Keats. His poem begins with him in a state of despair, though not a loud and raging despair. It is something quieter, subdued, depressed. He is pained by a “drowsy numbness.” Then he hears the bird’s song and is caught up by it for a moment, not through envy he says, but rather through simple captivation at how anything could sound so happy. And so Keats begins trying to discern what might help elevate his own spirit to a level like the bird’s: perhaps “a draught of vintage… a beaker full of the warm south,” or maybe “the viewless wings of poesy.”

The former, he seems to suggest, would take him out of the world, away from this place “where men sit and hear each other groan,” and yet it would be a kind of death itself, for the unknowing promised by wine is not unlike the unknowing of death. And so he turns away from wine. (One could perhaps also read this as a clue as to how Keats would feel about more potent drugs that some use toward similar ends, such as psychedelics. Keats wants something more than a stimulant that, to his eyes, only creates a barrier between his self and his experience.)

Yet poetry is no savior either. After several stanzas of verse chronicling the beauties of nature, “the queen-moon… on her throne,” or the “soft incense (that) hangs on the boughs,” he turns his attention back to the nightingale. And for a moment the bird’s song seems to do what neither wine or poetry alone could, drawing him again outward and into the heavens.

He is taken out of time:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
harm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

And with that word the spell breaks: The revelry of being snatched out of time, out of bodily existence altogether it would seem, is displaced by those final two syllables. It is here that Keats’s poetic powers express themselves most forcibly, I think, and yet it is tragic as well: That word “forlorn” he says lands on his ear "like a bell," it draws him back down again, taken out of the exuberant bodily absence he had enjoyed only a moment before. And so he is drawn back down to “my sole self.” Ruefully he notes that there is something deceptive about all this fanciful grasping after transcendence, she is a “deceiving elf” who cannot do as she promises, he says. And so he ends: “Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music:-Do I wake or sleep?” The elusiveness is remarkable, one of Keats's greatest moments. He keeps coming up short, yet he is unwilling to end in darkness, so even at the end he lands with a question, which is itself a way of holding out hope that the "drowsy numbness" might not be the last word.

Even so, in this instance at least, nature doesn’t quite free Keats, much as he wished that it would. (It is interesting that an artifact of human creativity seems to succeed where the nightingale did not, as one sees in his “Ode to a Grecian Urn.”) Nature promises much, for Keats, and she possesses an obvious and deeply moving beauty that seems to offer an escape from the pain of bodily life—pain Keats himself knew quite well, of course, given his lifelong ill health. But she didn’t quite deliver. Put in its most grim terms, then, the beauty of nature is tragic, something we never quite access or grasp as humans and that has the capacity to force us back down into our selves, where we can’t even quite track her song.

Now Alcuin:

Jealousy, that’s what it was. It was thin-fingered envy that nabbed you,
stealing away my delight, Nightingale, out of the broom!
Sour as my soul had become, you could fill it with honeying sweetness,
lilting it into my ears, lifting it into my heart.
Come, all you creatures with wings! Let them come from the corners of heaven
adding their grief to my own, singing the song of the muse.
Not much to look at for color, but sound that could carry my heart off:
sound with the breadth of the air poured from your throat’s little strait,
sweetness in dollops and pours and melismas, repeating, renewing,
always a song in your mouth to him who is maker of all.
Everywhere night and its terrible blackness, yet still you were singing,
voice that should still us to prayer, ornament hung on the dark.
Why should we wonder at all at the angels eternally chanting
praise to the Lord of the storm? You could sing endlessly too.

Don’t stumble over the opening line. The idea is that there was something which drew the nightingale out of the “broom” (here referring to “butcher’s broom,” a kind of shrub) because it envied the happiness of the speaker as he observed the bird. The speaker describes a “sourness” of soul, an emptiness. The coming of the bird and specifically its song is what lifts him out of it. But this isn’t where Alcuin stops. His chief thought here is not merely “the beautiful song of the nightingale lifts my spirit.” There’s more going on here.

The next four lines, starting with "Not much..." are weaker, I think, though there's a kind of breathlessness to these lines that captures the experience of trying to describe natural beauty. But then the final four lines of the poem make it, or they do for me at least. “Everywhere night and its terrible blackness, yet still you were singing.” There is something here strikingly similar to Keats’s own reflection: the song is drawing him to other places, other times. He is now considering not only his own unhappiness, his “sour” soul, but a universal darkness. And yet in that all-encompassing darkness the nightingale sings on. It doesn’t just life one’s spirits; it offers hope, a reminder of beauty that persists.

What does a Christian in the dark who is being reminded of a persisting beauty and hopefulness do? They pray, of course—and that is the very next line: “voice that should still us to prayer.” So the voice doesn’t just elevate your mood or even simply offer vague “hope.” It calls us to prayer, but not only does it call us to prayer, it still us so that we can pray. The nightingale then, like an ornament hung in the dark, lifts us toward God—perhaps it is God from which that ornament hangs.

Then the final two lines, marvelous: Alcuin presses the point in still further. The nightingale has stilled him so he can pray. Now he sees that he might pray endlessly, just as the angels. For while the angels eternal prayer might seem strange and unfamiliar to us, the nightingale’s song helps us to understand how it is that one can follow the command of St Paul: Pray without ceasing.

Alcuin’s best lines do not match Keats’s, I don’t think. There are few poets who can. Yet I find that if Keats's verse is better, I rather prefer Alcuin's world. For Keats, the bird’s song only tries to lift us into the heavens—and even there, all it would be doing is transporting the recognized, familiar self into a higher realm. But Alcuin’s nightingale is more potent, more potent because it seems more explicitly tied to God, who is himself more potent than the generalized natural beauty that Keats gives himself to.

The potency works on two levels. First, it actually does what Keats’s nightingale only attempts to do. But second, Alcuin’s nightingale seems in some way to change the speaker. The order of operations is reversed, you might say: In Keats’s Nightingale the speaker remains relatively solid and fixed and the nightingale is trying to “lift” him, as it were, and he turns out to be too heavy. But in Alcuin’s Nightingale the bird is the more solid, the speaker the more changeable—which is perhaps why the speaker can be transformed.

Luther would sometimes speak of how God’s Word is light and we ourselves are dark and opaque. The point he was making is that we often place our confidence opposite of where it should be; we regard ourselves as clear and settled and God’s revelation as wavering and uncertain and confusing when it is actually quite the opposite. Alcuin is not the poet that Keats is. But Alcuin sees something in himself and in the natural world that seems to escape Keats. And that is why Alcuin’s nightingale really does lift the speaker while Keats’s falls short.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).