In this conversation poem, Coleridge is the speaker and the two people he addresses, and who are the silent listeners of the poem, are William Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth. Dorothy was William’s sister, but in the poem, Coleridge refers to Dorothy as his sister as well. Coleridge, William and Dorothy have gone to sit by a stream on a mossy bridge at nighttime. The three are simply observing the beauty of nature at night and Coleridge brings their attention to the singing of a nightingale. Coleridge explains to his two companions how the nightingale came to be known as a melancholy bird. He supposes that a broken-hearted man wandered through the woods one night and upon hearing the bird’s song, the man projected his own emotions upon Nature and the nightingale and “made all gentle sounds tell back the tale/ Of his own sorrow.” Coleridge remarks on the absurdity of calling anything in nature melancholy. Likewise, he expresses his disdain for how “many a poet echoes the conceit” of making nature representative of dark human emotions in poetry. Coleridge claims that if such poets took the time to observe and absorb the beauty of their natural surroundings, then they would create poems that reflect nature’s loveliness. However, Coleridge doubts that most poets will ever have such an experience, since most young men and women entertain themselves indoors on the most beautiful nights. In contrast to the majority of young people, Coleridge tells William and Dorothy that they three have a true appreciation for nature and they “may not thus profane/ Nature’s sweet voices, always full of love/ And joyance!” Likewise, Coleridge and his companions can interpret the Nightingale’s song as joyous and not as melancholy.
Coleridge then describes to his two companions a grove by an abandoned castle in which a large number of nightingales flock at night. He vividly describes the joyous sounds of the birds’ songs, such as “murmurs musical” and an onomatopoeic “swift jug jug” that resembles the actual sounds the birds make. According to Coleridge, the sounds of the nightingales in this grove are so beautiful that if a person were to close his eyes, he would feel that he is dreaming. Coleridge notes that he is not the only person who listens to the beauty of these nightingales’ songs. He has seen a young woman who lives near the castle come to the grove to watch and listen to the birds as well.
Finally, Coleridge tells his friends that they “have been loitering long and pleasantly” and that it is time to head home and to say farewell to each other and the nightingale. Before the companions part, Coleridge remarks how much his infant son would love the nightingale’s song. Coleridge explains how he has instilled a love for nature in his son and that he “[deems] it wise/ To make him Nature’s play-mate.” He claims on a night when his son had trouble sleeping, the infant calmed down after gazing at the moon. Coleridge wishes for his son to grow to love the nightingale’s song, so “that with the night/ He may associate joy” and not believe the common association between nature and melancholy.
One of the most important elements of “The Nightingale” is Coleridge’s conveyance of his friendships with William and Dorothy Wordsworth. For instance, in “Coleridge the Revisionary: Surrogacy and Structure in the Conversation Poems,” Peter Barry notes how Coleridge uses the lord of the abandoned castle, the maiden who listens to the nightingales and the nightingales themselves as metaphorical representations of the poet’s personal and literary relationships with the Wordsworths: “The great Lord and the gentle Maid are clearly in some sense avatars of William and Dorothy, and the nightingales which ‘answer and provoke each other’s song’ are Coleridge and Wordsworth, often writing for each other, working on common themes, sending each other poem’s for comment” (614).
The theme of man and nature as separate entities in “The Nightingale” mirrors the speaker’s sentiments in “Dejection: An Ode.” In “The Nightingale,” Coleridge expresses disdain for the poets who project their own feelings onto Nature. If humans are responsible for their own souls and emotions - as is held in “Dejection” - and we can’t hold nature responsible for creating our happiness, then by the same token we shouldn’t expect nature to have to possess our sadness as well.
Similar to “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge once again expresses his desire to instill a love for nature in his young son. According to Timothy P. Enright in “Sing, Mariner: Identity and Temporality in Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale,’” the poet “peremptorily decides to equate his son with nature because that would not only elide the issue of imitation, but render both him and his son unlike the ‘wandering Man’…who roam[s] apart, allied to something out if nature” (498). Coleridge could also have such a determination to teach his son to love nature because the poet associates the innocence and happiness of childhood with the beauty and innocence of nature. In other words, because Coleridge considers the unhappy parts of his latter boyhood and his young adulthood to be the period in which he was confined to the city and longed for the countryside, the poet thinks that a child can only be happy if he is surrounded by the beauty of nature.
This contrast between Natural joy and urban sorrow is addressed in the title-bird of the poem. The speaker quotes another's view that the nightingale is a "most musical, most melancholy bird" but then immediately declares this an "idle thought!" To him, "In nature there is nothing melancholy." In fact, the nightingale's song should make all Nature lovelier, and itself/Be loved like Nature!" However, the speaker realizes that in the popular conception of the bird, this will not happen; since "youths and maidens most poetical" insist on finding their delight in the "ball-rooms and hot theaters" of the city, the nightingale's song will seldom be heard. When it is heard, it will be a reminder that the night draws to a close and therefore be a sign of sorrow to the young people, rather than the harbinger of Nature that it is meant to be.
Coleridge/the speaker rejoices, however that his friend (William Wordsworth) and that friend's sister (Dorothy Wordsworth) have "learned a different lore." They will not be fooled into adopting the attitudes of others, but will instead appreciate the nightingale and all of Nature as it should be properly appreciated. To this end he directs their thoughts (if not their steps) to a "grove/Of a large extent, hard by a castle huge," invoking both Nature and a longing for the past at the same time. Of that ancient place, the speaker remarks that "never elsewhere in one place I knew/So many nightingales." Rather than bow to the melancholy perspective on the single nightingale's song, Coleridge insists the trio surround themselves with a multitude of nightingales in order to get the full effect of their joyful warbling.
Coleridge ends by bidding farewell both to the nightingale ("O warbler!") and to the Wordsworths ("And you, my friends!"), juxtaposing the two as he would juxtapose all of mankind and Nature. He returns home to his "dear babe," whom he reflects (as in "Frost at Midnight") will hopefully have a greater appreciation for Nature than even his father does. He intends to imbue in his son a love of all things natural, to "make him Nature's playmate" so that he will be a more whole human being, much more conscious of the beauty around him than those aforementioned youths whose only beauty is in one another's eyes.