The Nightingale (Philip Sidney poem)

The Nightingale (Philip Sidney poem) Study Guide

"The Nightingale" by Sir Philip Sidney is a poem comprised of two twelve-line stanzas at a time when Italian meter and form were first entering the English literary tradition. Published in a 1598 folio of Sidney’s poems, Certaine Sonets, the poem was initially set to the tune of a well-known Neapolitan song, “Non credo gia che pui infelice amanate” (“I don’t believe that you can be unhappy”). It takes inspiration from both the meter of Petrarchan sonnets, and from several Italian madrigali and villanelle, two forms of poems with repeating lines.

In this two-stanza, 24-line poem, the speaker addresses the mythical character Philomela who has been turned into a nightingale after her rape by her brother-in-law. The speaker observes that Philomela/the nightingale is turning her pain into song. He then contrasts her pain with his own, arguing that he suffers even more than she does because, while she is able to express her pain, he must suffer his silently.

Sidney’s adaptation of English meter to Italian songs in this poem and others is credited with enriching and enlivening a poetic tradition that was, before the 16th century, stale. Sidney is better known for his long sonnet sequences Astrophil and Stella than for individual poems such as “The Nightingale,” but it is nonetheless a representation of intense interest in and adaptation of Italian verse forms and meter to English language verse.