The Flight of the Nightingale: From Romans to Romantics

Kevin Patrick Milewski


This paper evaluates the resilience of the myth of Philomela and the symbol of the nightingale in poetic tradition from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the early Romantic poetry of Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Poets have long depended upon natural life to demonstrate characteristics of human emotion and activity, for animal species remain similar generation by generation, but simultaneously act autonomously. The myth of Philomela’s metamorphosis into a nightingale draws upon the natural characteristics of the bird, and to reference it implies very specific connotations. By explicating the primary source poetry, I draw immediate connections between references to the myth while in order to highlight the prevailing variations in metonymic function. Using critical commentary of classical scholars of Ovid and poetic scholars of the Romantics, I utilize the shift of the nightingale from Ovid’s bird of repressed grief to the Romantic’s one of natural joy. With the shift, I seek to extrapolate two understandings from the nightingale’s mythological symbolism. Why use the nightingale as a symbol, and what can differences in the perception of the nightingale from the Romans to the Romantics tell us about their respective views of nature? Incorporating the conversation of gender differences and rape, I acknowledge the male dominance of the myth as well the symbolism of song and speech in conveying message, stemming from Philomela’s loss of her tongue. Bridging the gap between the Greek myth, the Roman story, and the Romantic reinterpretation, the common metaphor of the nightingale is a common ground for reading the natural perception of nature through poetry.


Nightingale, Romans, Romantics, Ovid, Keats, Coleridge

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