‘What [His] Bird’s Worth’: Coleridge’s “The Nightingale” and His Birds of Different Feathers
Robert C. Koepp, Illinois College
. . . so his fame
Should share in Nature’s immortality,
A venerable thing! And so his song
Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself
Be loved like Nature!
(“The Nightingale” ll. 30-34)
IN THESE LINES from “The Nightingale; a Conversation Poem, written in April 1798,” one of Coleridge’s finest compositions of the period of his association with the Wordsworths in Somerset, the poet idealizes the individual who is capable of “Surrendering his whole spirit” to Nature. He is identifying the type of individual and the kind of poet he wishes to be. This poem marks a crucial point in the development of Coleridge’s identity as a poet and lover of Nature, for in it he intimates his hope of becoming fully attuned to the natural world and the beauties and harmonies in it, just as he has now come to realize—contrary to the claims of literary tradition, and even to the authority of Milton—that the nightingale’s song is not mournful, but actually joyful, hopeful, and vital: “A melancholy bird? Oh! idle thought!/In Nature there is nothing melancholy” (ll. 13-15).
In little more than two years’ time, since he had first written about this bird in a much more conventional manner in “To the Nightingale,” published in 1796, Coleridge clearly gained new insights into his place in the world, new understandings of who he was and what he might yet become—as a poet and as a part of the natural order responsive to and in harmony with Nature. “The Nightingale,” then, should be regarded as a significant poem of identity.
While nightingales seem to have a special appeal to Coleridge, they are not the only birds the poet has in mind. From the traditional references to the skylark in a number of his works to the more strikingly original use of the hovering, seemingly footless bird of paradise in “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge throughout his career exhibits a fascination with birds of many different feathers. The uses of the albatross in “The Ancient Mariner” have been much discussed, of course. And many other birds in his poetry, his notebooks, and his letters, fulfill a wide range of functions. The raven, rook, linnet, mountain finch, duck, swan, swallow, starling, eagle, buzzard, robin, owl, dove, wren, sea-mew, thrush, partridge, tit, peacock, pea-hen, and even ostrich and phoenix (this list is not exhaustive)—these birds bring movement and sound, song and flight, natural life and color to so many of Coleridge’s poems and other writings. But what, on the whole, is the significance of this interest? What,
one might ask, are these birds worth?
I send per post my Nightingale;
And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth,
You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.
In the well-known verse note with which he first presented “The Nightingale” to Wordsworth on May 10th, 1798, Coleridge seems to suggest that this bird, this poem—”In stale blank verse a subject stale . . .”—cannot be taken too seriously. Turning attention from the poetic ideal to an imperfect realization of the ideal, from the bird’s sublime, sweet song to its inevitable droppings, the self-deprecating poet does appear intent on lowering his friend’s expectations for the poem and for him as poet. While Hazlitt, in looking back years later on the Wordsworth-Coleridge relationship, suggested that this kind of reductio ad absurdum was merely a play of good humor between friends, some critics have come to regard Coleridge’s doggerel about “The Nightingale” as a conscious recognition of the poem’s failure, an admission that, in fact, this bird and the poetic effort which frame it are of little real value.
Setting aside the question of the worth of “The Nightingale” for a while, let us consider the significance of some of the other birds in Coleridge’s writings. Besides their literal function in the writings, birds at times appear figuratively in similes, metaphors, or metonyms, and frequently are intended to invite symbolic interpretations. Whatever their function, Coleridge’s birds are often remarkable for their particularity. Throughout his work the poet evinces a special interest in and knowledge of the individual species, so that the use of a particular bird is appropriate for the given context and the writer’s purpose. The cormorant, for instance, a waterfowl quite familiar to Coleridge, offers the perfect image for the poet as voracious reader: “a library-cormorant—I am deep in all out of the way books,” he explains to John Thelwall. And one might recall the cloud of starlings which Coleridge first observed in November 1799 and recollected at various later times in his notes: “Starlings in vast flights . . . like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition—now a circular area inclined in an Arc—now a Globe . . . some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!” The picture of these
birds is both precise and elusive—according to Holmes in his Early Visions, a fitting image “of shifting energy and imagination”—a fitting image
for the poet himself.
While it is apparent that Coleridge’s observations of life in nature had become quite keen by 1798, largely due to his walks, conversations, and sharing of ideas about poetry with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, his use of birds indicates more than a heightened sensibility of the natural world. Indeed, as just remarked, the various treatments of birds often reveal a tendency of the poet to identify in some way with these creatures and the environments in which they exist. When Coleridge writes about birds, he is, in a sense, reflecting on his own character, identity, and place in the natural world. One might note that Byron, Shelley, and Hazlitt each saw Coleridge, in some way, as bird-like.
Coleridge’s many references to and uses of birds—literal, figurative, symbolic—are influenced by a number of factors: his strong sense of literary tradition; his early training in poetry at Christ’s Hospital under his schoolmaster the Rev. James Boyer; his reading of naturalist studies like William Bartram’s Travels Through North and South Carolina, and Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne; his close relationships with William and Dorothy Wordsworth in Somerset and in the Lake District; his own philosophical/speculative cast of mind; and his struggles for a more certain sense of identity.
Of the many instances of his conventional literary uses of birds, we might briefly consider a few examples. The skylark appears in a number of poems, such as the 1794 sonnet honoring the imprisoned Lafayette: “As when far off the warbled strains are heard/That soar on Morning’s wing the vales among;/Within his cage the imprison’d Matin Bird/Swells the full chorus with a generous song”; and in “Fears in Solitude”: “O’er stiller place /No singing sky-lark ever poised himself./ . . . O singing lark,/That singest like an angel in the clouds.” Likewise in Christabel,” in spite of all the particulars in Bracy’s description of the bird of his dream (“fluttering . . . uttering fearful moan . . . [a] distressful cry,” “swelling its neck” as the bright green snake coils about it), like the larks, this dove strikes the reader as the product of literary experience. The first nightingale poem of 1795, “To the Nightingale,” offers a most traditional treatment of this bird. Despite the poet’s claim that, unlike “many wretched Bards . . . I do hear thee . . . I have listen’d,” there is a sense that he is still ‘indoors,’ so to speak—this bird, after all, is Philomel, warbling her
“sad, pity-pleading strains.” The classical allusion establishes the validity of Milton’s assessment in Il Penseroso that the nightingale is the “`most musical, most melancholy’ Bird,” an idea which the poet in this instance is not prepared to challenge.
When Coleridge is conventional in his treatment of birds, his poetry
generally seems flat or sounds stilted, becoming what he eventually would call his ‘Gaudyverse.’ Certainly the best of his writings depict birds and other aspects of the natural world more successfully. As Jack Stillinger points out in his essay “Pictorialism and Matter-of-Factness in Coleridge’s Poems of Somerset,” Coleridge had early been warned by his schoolmaster Boyer of the problems of conventional poetic style, and over-dependence on allusion, abstraction, and poetic diction at the expense of directness, concreteness, and truth-to-life—what Stillinger termed ‘matter-of-factness.’
In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” Coleridge clearly evinces an interest in birds which is anything but conventional, an interest characterized by concrete language in description and a matter-of-fact presentation. The appearance of the rook at poem’s end is brief and might perhaps seem to be unimportant. Yet, with the description of its black wings silhouetted on the setting sun and the detail of its creaking flight imagined by the poet, the bird becomes truly distinctive, a messenger from Coleridge to his friend Charles Lamb, a link in Nature between kindred souls who understand “That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure” (l. 60). Besides the careful attention to detail in the poem, Coleridge adds a footnoted reference to naturalist Bartram’s close observations that some birds’ wings do indeed creak in flight. This suggests that Coleridge is intent on using this particular bird in a different way, and that the exact appearance and the specific auditory impressions of the creature as observed and experienced in Nature are important to the poet. There are other instances of this naturalist’s precision in Coleridge’s references to and descriptions of birds—a scientific, and, as James McKusick has contended, even an ecological interest influenced by the poet’s reading of Bartram’s Travels and White’s Natural History. Surely the care with which Coleridge details the nightingales’ activity and song in the poem of April 1798 is notable, and marks a telling contrast to his generalized treatment of this bird in the earlier nightingale poem:
‘Tis the merry Nightingale
That crowds, and hurries, and precipitates
With fast thick warble his delicious notes—
. . . many nightingales . . . far and near
In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
They answer and provoke each other’s song,
With skirmish and capricious passagings,
And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,
And one low piping sound more sweet than
Stirring the air with such a harmony—
. . . On moonlight bushes,
Whose dewy leaflets are but half-disclosed,
You may perchance behold them on the twigs,
Their bright, bright eyes, their eyes both bright
Glistening . . . .
(ll. 43-48; 57-69)
In this poem Coleridge does allude to Philomela and her “pity-pleading strains” and to Milton’s “melancholy bird” as he had done in the earlier nightingale poem, but he does so here only to dismiss such traditional literary treatment as artificial. Similarly, he dismisses those ‘indoor’ poets who write about Nature without actually experiencing its “influxes/Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements,” and he disapproves of those ‘poetical’ youths and maidens who “lose the deepening twilights of the spring/In ballrooms and hot theatres” (ll. 24-39).
It is clear from his notebooks that Coleridge was reading Bartram even as he was jotting down some other ideas which he would incorporate into this poem. Perhaps Bartram’s description of the Snakebird, which the poet records at some length in his notes, was a direct influence on his treatment of the nightingale:
the Snakebird with slender longest neck, long strait & slender bill,
glossy black, like fish-scales except on the breast which is cream-
coloured . . . . They delight to sit in little peaceable communities on
the dry limbs of trees, hanging over the still waters, with their wings
& tails expanded . . . . 
Interestingly, though Coleridge does not include the comment in his notebook entry, Bartram goes on to suggest how the snakebird might have become, like the nightingale, a ‘literary bird’: “I doubt not but if this bird had been an inhabitant of the Tiber in Ovid’s days, it would have furnished him with a subject for some beautiful and entertaining metamorphoses.”
There is, moreover, the influence of Dorothy Wordsworth to consider here. If the earlier “To the Nightingale” was indeed a poem written ‘indoors,’ Dorothy may well have been most responsible for taking Coleridge outside—
where naturalists naturally must do their field work—to make firsthand observations of the bird and to reflect on the effects of its flight and song. As John Livingston Lowes has written,
“It is possible, thanks to the Journals, to gain at least some intimation of what [Dorothy’s] influence was—the influence of that fugitive thing, the spoken word, so often more deeply penetrating than the printed
page. And we reckon ill, if, in our study of the blending impressions of every provenance, we leave it out.”
Entries in the Alfoxden Journal tell us of their evening walks together, and of hearing the nightingales’ song. And Hazlitt, in “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” describes how, while visiting with the Wordsworths and Coleridge at Alfoxden, “I got into a metaphysical argument with Wordsworth, while Coleridge was explaining the different notes of the nightingale to his sister . . . .” Did Hazlitt have it right? Was Coleridge explaining to Dorothy, or was she again providing him with special insights? Can there be much doubt that the “most gentle Maid” of “The Nightingale,” who knows all the birds’ notes and who seemingly has the power to draw the nightingales to her, is Dorothy herself? Perhaps this homage to “a Lady vowed and dedicate/ To something more than Nature” is Coleridge’s repayment for all he had learned from Dorothy about observing closely and listening carefully. Early in their relationship he had recognized her extraordinary abilities of perception, as he wrote to Joseph Cottle in July, 1797: “Her information various—her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature—and her taste a perfect electrometer—it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties . . . .”
However important Dorothy Wordsworth’s contributions might have been to the composition of “The Nightingale,” one must acknowledge, finally, that this is primarily a poem about Coleridge. The poet exhibits yet another interest in and use of birds—to reflect upon himself, his character, his hopes and limitations. A fair amount has been written about Coleridge’s tendencies to identify with various birds or to regard himself as exhibiting distinctive birdlike qualities or characteristics. In their biographies, Walter Jackson Bate and Richard Holmes cite most of the bird references of this kind. The poet is often whimsical, self-deprecating, or satirical in these self-reflective uses of birds—describing himself as the flightless ostrich, an awkward bustard, a “starling self-encaged.” In his poem “A Character,” a caustic response in 1825 to Hazlitt’s and others’ misconceptions of who and what he was in his earlier career, Coleridge sketched himself as a tit wrongly identified and reviled as a bat, yet ultimately attacked even by the bats, “his old nest-mates.” “Alas, poor Bird! and ill-bestarr’d—/ Or rather let us say, poor Bard!” (ll. 37-38)
In “The Nightingale” the identification with the bird is subtler, more implicit. But it is clear nevertheless that the poet aspires to the condition of the nightingale, subject to the influences of Nature (note the imagery here of the aeolian harp, the birds played upon by the breezes “like a hundred airy harps”). And both Dorothy Wordsworth and Coleridge’s son Hartley are
identified with the nightingales as well, in that they too are deeply affected, are played upon by “the influxes of shapes and sounds and shifting elements” in Nature. In understanding their relation to the natural world, Coleridge is better able to place himself in relation to them, to identify himself as friend and as father. He pays his friend Dorothy a great compliment in his characterization of her in this poem, and in the poem’s closing lines he expresses his determination to give his son every opportunity to “grow up/Familiar with these songs, that with the night/He may associate joy” (ll. 107-109).
Furthermore, like the birds Coleridge longs to sing with the assurance that “In Nature there is nothing melancholy,” and to share this joyful certainty with others through his poetry. With this new sense of poetic purpose comes a freedom to write in a direct and forthright manner, in a ‘conversational’ style marked by—in the words of G.M. Harper—“poignancy of feeling, intimacy of address, and ease of expression.” The poet can now treat life as he himself finds it rather than according to dictates of literary tradition or convention. In a letter to his brother George written shortly before this poem, Coleridge offers the following notion of what he might do as a poet: “I love fields & woods & mountains with almost a visionary fondness—and because I have found benevolence & quietness growing within me as that fondness has increased, therefore I should wish to be the means of implanting it in others . . . .” This is not the poet as pantheist; rather, Coleridge here speaks as one who, through his own recent experience in Nature, has gained a fundamental understanding of the salutary influences in Nature which are conducive to benevolence, to a better human nature. Surely Coleridge has attained self-realization here—a new sense of identity—understanding how important it will be henceforth to center himself in Nature as a man and as a poet.
We return to the question raised by Coleridge concerning the value of “The Nightingale.” What is ‘this Bird’ worth? Did the poet write that humorous verse about the poem as an admission of its failure? Or was the rhyme simply a clever way to signal identification with the bird? It may be that Coleridge was not sure what his effort was worth at the time he wrote the poem, but he clearly thought well enough of “The Nightingale” to include it in 1817 in Sibylline Leaves, and to place it, perhaps significantly, between two of his finest ‘Meditative Poems in Blank Verse,’ “To William Wordsworth” and “Frost at Midnight.” “And so his song/Should make all Nature lovelier, and itself/Be loved like Nature!”—this is the poet Coleridge aspired to become, and this poem, “The Nightingale,” the song he hoped to sing.
 Earl Leslie Griggs, ed., Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1956-71) I, 244.
 Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (New York: Viking, 1990), 198-199.
 See, for instance, Timothy P. Enright’s “Sing, Mariner: Identity and Temporality in Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale,’” Studies in Romanticism 33 (Fall 1994): 481-501.
 Griggs, CL, I, 260.
 Kathleen Coburn, ed., Coleridge’s Notebooks (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), I, 582 4.1.
 Holmes, 253-254; see also George Whalley, “Coleridge’s Poetic Sensibility” in Coleridge’s Variety: Bicentenary Studies, ed., John Beer (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975), 1-30.
 For particular instances of this, see Francis à Court in an Autumn 1996 Coleridge Bulletin essay, “Coleridge as a Bird,” 67-71.
 Jack Stillinger, “Pictorialism and Matter-of-Factness in Coleridge’s Poems of Somerset,” The Wordsworth Circle 20 (1989): 62-8.
 James McKusick, “Coleridge and the Economy of Nature,” Studies in Romanticism 30 (Spring 1991): 375-392.
 Notebooks, I, 222 G.218.
11 William Bartram, Travels and Other Writings, ed. Thomas P. Slaughter (New York: Library of America, 1996), 125.
 John Livingston Lowes, The Road to Xanadu (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1927), 173.
 Found in Hazlitt on English Literature, ed. Jacob Zeitlin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1913), 295.
 Griggs, CL, I., 330-331.
 Walter Jackson Bate, Coleridge (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), esp. 41, 58, 111; Holmes, Early Visions, 130, 193, 253-4; also Whalley’s “Coleridge’s Poetic Sensibility.”
 G.M. Harper, “Coleridge’s Conversation Poems,” in English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. M.H. Abrams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 191.
17 Griggs, CL, I, 397.