"The Nightingale" is a poem based on book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which tells the story of Philomela, who was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus. In order to silence Philomela, Tereus cuts off her tongue. Philomela tells the tale to her sister, Procne, by weaving it out on a tapestry (thus turning her pain into art). Philomela and Procne try to flee, but are followed by Tereus. This story ends when the gods turn the three of them into birds: Procne into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe. In Sidney’s poem, the speaker imagines Philomela as a nightingale lamenting her rape at the beginning of Spring. (Importantly, in nature, female nightingales have no song). In doing so, he contrasts her ability to express her sadness with his own.
In stanza 1, the speaker narrates the nightingale’s experience as spring begins: in early April, she wakes up from the slumber of winter and finds the formerly barren world in the “proud new clothing” of spring blossoms. Despite the external world’s beauty, the nightingale cries out, turning her pain over her rape by Tereus into song. In line 9, the speaker addresses the nightingale/Philomela, telling her to “Take some gladness” in the fact that her sadness is not as great as his. While the world around her is waking up into spring, his world is fading. This is because she is able to externalize her pain (her “thorn”) into song, while the speaker must keep his inside.
In stanza 2, the speaker states that the nightingale/Philomea is sad only because Tereus has imposed his will on her by force of strength. Her complaints of being raped and overpowered are “womanlike,” in contrast to the speaker’s (manly) complaints. The speaker in fact suggests that he has more cause to complain: he suffers from unfulfilled romantic and sexual longing or “wanting,” which is worse than “too much having” (in Philomela’s case, having unwanted sexual intercourse). The final four lines of stanza two repeat the final four lines of stanza one, once again stating that Philomela has less cause for lamentation than does the speaker.
"The Nightingale" begins with a 12-line stanza that can be understood as an octet followed by a quartet. The first eight lines comprise one sentence and introduce the nightingale's song. For the first seven lines, the poem seems to be entirely about a literal nightingale who sings a sad song at the beginning of spring. After the “rest” of winter, she wakes up to an earth “proud of new clothing,” the green shoots and blossoms of spring. Amidst this beauty, she makes her "thorn" or pain into a "song-book," a repertoire of sad tunes. The first four lines of this octave feature a mostly regular iambic pentameter (with an extra unstressed syllable at the end of each line) and an ABAB rhyme scheme, thus mirroring the beauty of the nightingale’s song.
Lines 5-8 break from the pentameter meter, featuring three lines of tetrameter (also with an extra unstressed syllable at the end of each line), followed by line 8, which features irregular hexameter. Furthermore, the rhyme sceme switches to BAAB. These lines metrically and topically break from the regular beauty of spring, more fully expressing the anguish of the nightingale’s “mournful,” grief-filled song as well as revealing its cause: rape by Tereus. Line 8 thus reveals that the nightingale in this poem is not any ordinary nightingale, but the mythical character Philomela, who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus.
While the first octave of the stanza focuses entirely on the nightingale/Philomela, the final quartet compares her plight to the speaker's. The speaker uses apostrophe to directly address Philomela, instructing her to “take gladness” that it could be worse: her world is brightening, and she is able to express herself, whereas the speaker's world is growing more desolate, and worse, he is unable to turn his grief outward. The speaker uses the symbol of the thorn to represent pain and grief: Philomela’s is outwardly visible, while the poet’s is internal. Lines 9-12 are metrically irregular, alternating between pentameter and hexameter, as well as featuring a third new rhyme scheme, CCAA. Their metrical form mirrors the poet’s inner turmoil.
The second stanza is similar in form to the first, featuring twelve lines; in fact, the first four lines have the same meter and rhyme scheme as those of the first stanza. While it builds on stanza one, it also has variations in meter and rhyme that mark a turn, especially a greater focus on the speaker than on the nightingale/Philomela. Like lines 1-4, lines 13-16 make up one sentence, and feature an irregular pentameter rhythm and ABAB rhyme scheme. They return to the myth of Philomela, in particular stating that Tereus’ forced “love” is the only cause of her grief. The rape has caused her to suffer and her spirits to “languish” and grow weak. He considers this response “womanlike,” implying that a man would bear his suffering differently.
In lines 17-20, the speaker returns to the same meter as lines 3-8, moving from tetratemeter to hexameter. They feature a CDDC rhyme scheme, and do not share any end rhymes with lines 13-16. They thus emphasize the speakers’ internal discord, as well as the difference in character between his pain and Philomela’s. Here, the speaker describes the source of his pain in the most detail: he daily “craves” and “wants” something that Philomela has had too much of—”love” as he calls it, or sex. He is unable to find satisfaction, which he considers worse than Philomela’s experience of rape.
Lines 21-24 repeat likes 9-12 word-for-word. Repeating these lines has two effects. First, it echoes their message once again: the speaker’s fate is worse than Philomela’s, and she should take solace in the knowledge that she could have it worse. However, by repeating them once again, the speaker also emphasizes that his poem itself is a kind of song, complete with a refrain. Although he complains that he is unable to sing out his woes as does Philomela/the Nightingale, he seems to be doing just that. As the female nightingale in actuality has no song, the speaker has revealed himself to be both hypocritical and callous.