The Owl and the Nightingale

The Owl and the Nightingale

Parlindungan Pardede

Universitas Kristen Indonesia

The Owl and the Nightingale is a debate poem of 1794 lines in octosyllabic couplets, probably written between 1186 and 1216 by an unknown author. It has come down to us in two different manuscripts of the second half of the 13th century (Holtei, 2002).

The narrator overhears a debate between a serious owl and a gay nightingale during a summer night. The debate follows the rules of the scholastic disputations, as they were held in the law schools and universities. Both contestants use every device of medieval rhetoric to prove that they are of the highest use to mankind. During the debate they touch upon nearly every topic of contemporary interest: hygienic habits, looks, prognostication, the proper modes of worship, music, confession, papal missions, ethics and morals, happy marriage and adultery, and so on. The nightingale stands for the joyous aspects of life, the owl for the somber; there is no clear winner. In the end, when the owl is about to lose her temper and physically threatens her opponent, they decide to go off to state their cases to one Nicholas of Guildford living in Portesham, Dorset, whom some modern critics believe to be the author of the poem.

The Owl and the Nightingale reflects rapid changes taking place in England in the beginning of the Middle English Era. The changes, mainly caused by the arrival of the Norman soon after the Norman Conquest. Many French came and lived in England. They introduced England to French, better architecture, progress in painting and music, and development in education (as indicated by the fact that not long after the Norman Conquest, the University of Cambridge and Oxford were established). Whether the English people liked it or not, the new way of life brought by the Norman affected the English people’s way of life. The owl represents those who preferred to keep the old way of life, and nightingale stands for those who welcome the new way of life.


Pardede, Parlindungan. (2008). An Introduction to poetry analysis. Jakarta: FKIP-UKI

Holtei, Rainer (Ed.). (2002). The owl and the nightingale. Retrieved on March 2, 2011 from


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