The Nightingale (Philip Sidney poem)

The Nightingale (Philip Sidney poem) Character List


The poem is written from the perspective of a first-person speaker. The speaker narrates the story of Philomela/the nightingale in order to create a point of contrast for his own experience. While Philomela has suffered rape, and now cries out in woe as a nightingale, he directly addresses her twice ("O Philomela fair"), telling her that she should take comfort in his story. Although she has been violated, he insists that his pain is worse. While her thorn is “without”—while she is able to express her anguish—his thorn is “within”—he is not. In the second stanza, he specifies the cause of his pain. He craves love on a daily basis, but he is unable to find contentment. To modern readers, his statement that a man’s erotic longing is worse than a woman’s rape will read as callous. And, as his complaint takes the form of a poem set to song, the reader is also left to wonder: is it true that he is unable to express himself?

Philomela /the Nightingale

The mythical character Philomela appears in the poem in the form of a nightingale. We receive her perspective only from the speaker’s outside vantage point. From his perspective, she turns her grief over her rape into song. Her main source of anguish is her rape, and the speaker considers her response “womanlike,” diminishing her pain. He argues that her position is improving as she is able to express herself, and as her world is bursting into spring.


Tereus appears as the source of Philomela’s pain. It is stated that he forced himself on Philomela, but the speaker also describes this act of force as “love” that succeeded in breaking her will. To modern readers, it will likely seem immoral and callous to call rape a forceful act of love.