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”The Nightingale” by Sir Philip Sidne and Amy Clampitt’s by Syrinx

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  • Pages: 10
  • Word count: 2330
  • Category: Poems

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Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Nightingale and Amy Clampitt’s poem Syrinx are two very different poems. The Nightingale is a poem based on the mournful song of a bird, as it expresses grief and pain: ‘And mournfully bewailing/ Her throat in tunes expresseth/ What grief her breast oppresseth.’ (lines 5-7) Whereas the Syrinx is a poem based on how the sound of words, have no real meaning and are simply just sounds. The Syrinx can also be defined as a water reed which prohibits birds from singing: ‘syrinx, that reed/ in the throat of a bird,’ (lines 7-8) The abrupt stop at the end of the line, is a technique used by Amy Clampitt, to make the reading of the line feel like choking on the words, like a reed in a birds throat would cause. Therefore there are many comparisons and contrasts between the two poems, thus in order to examine what these are I am going to look at the use of rhyme, imagery, diction, structure and metre in each of the poems to try to identify the similarities and differences between the two.

The Nightingale is divided into two stanzas of equal length, whereas Syrinx is divided into two stanzas of equal length, then a final short verse paragraph. The effect of this is to highlight that The Nightingale is a very regular poem, where Syrinx is a very irregular poem. It is as if Amy Clampitt teases the reader by making the first two stanzas of equal length, then throws in another couple of lines at the end. This therefore highlights her desire to make the poem seem irregular. This difference in regularity can also be seen through the metre of the poems. The Nightingale is mainly iambic pentameter throughout, with hypermetrical stresses on each of the last words in each line. The effect of this is to make the poem flow better and lead on to the next line, whereas Syrinx is extremely irregular switching between iambic and trochaic regularly. This switch in metre throughout the poem acts as a technique to again frustrate the reader. The tone of each poem is greatly affected by the contrast in layout and metre. The Nightingale seems to flow much better, giving the effect that reading the poem, is like listening to a mournful song. Syrinx on the other hand is very difficult and frustrating to read.

The Nightingale also seems a more personal poem as it is written in the first person, whereas in Syrinx Amy Clampitt seems to be addressing her listeners and just uses: ‘we’ (line 10) once. Therefore this gives The Nightingale a more deep and meaningful tone, where Syrinx has a very controversial tone. Also not only is the metre and layout of Syrinx irregular, But Amy Clampitt’s over use of enjambement only serves to slow the reading of the poem: ‘what ails it, the aeolian/ syrinx, that reed.’ (lines 6-7) This not only makes the poem appear fragmented but is used as a device to slow the tone of the poem so that the reader can value the sound of the words.

In both of the poems the difference in regularity is further expressed through the use of rhyme. The Nightingale has a regular rhyme scheme of ABABCDDC this serves to make the poem flow better as if making it appear some what musical. There are also a lot of heroic couplets present; they appear emphatic on words which are the antithesis of each other, for example: ‘O Philomela fair, O take some gladness/ That here is juster cause of plaintful sadness.’ (lines 9-10) Therefore this helps to understand the meaning of the poem, as if the song of the Nightingale is sad searching for some gladness. Syrinx however, has no real rhyme present. This again serves to add to the irregularity of the poem. It could be argued that in fact there is some half rhyme used by Amy Clampitt, for example: ‘Like the foghorn that’s all lung/ the wind chime that’s all percussion.’ (lines 1-2) However, it is as if it needs to be forced out again frustrating the reader. It also depends on how you pronounce the words, this links to the meaning of the poem. Amy Clampitt through her use of all these irregularities and emphatic use of half rhyme appears to be trying to put across a message to the reader. That it is important how we pronounce words and sometimes how words sound can mean more than their actual meaning.

With regards to subject-matter, both poems have a historical and literary background. In Greek mythology Syrinx was a nymph chased by an amorous god called Pan. In The Nightingale, according to classical mythology, Philomela was raped by her brother in law, Tereus, who then tore out her tongue so that she could not reveal his crime. Therefore both poems seem to have some roots in the subjection of females to the threat of rape by overbearing males and therefore lose their voice literally but also with regards to personal freedom. However, The Nightingale and Syrinx appear to have two very different meanings. The Nightingale is an incredibly meaningful poem in the sense that the words chosen and the regularity in the structure help express great grief and emotion. The first line can be seen as a reference to Christianity: ‘The Nightingale as soon as April bringeth.’ (line 1) This is because April represents the beginning of Spring and the end of winter. Winter represents darkness and the Nightingale was a bird that sang with increasing joy as dawn represented by Spring approached. This made it a symbol of the Christian soul singing in the darkness of this world, joyfully anticipating the arrival of Christ, it’s light. Therefore the speaker could be trying to inform us of the Nightingales desire to rid themselves of this grief and find Christ.

However, it can be argued that the language used in The Nightingale is more archaic than that of the Syrinx. Therefore the later mention of a thorn: ‘Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.’ (line 12) Could be seen as a biblical reference to Christ and the crown of thorns. This image of a thorn represents pain not just physical but emotional. As if the speaker possibly Philomela’s sister, feels betrayed by Philomela, like how Jesus was betrayed by the Jews. Therefore the speaker does not just refer to the imagery of a sharp thorn causing great physical pain. Instead the mention of a thorn is as a biblical reference symbolising betrayal and emotional pain, which creates strong imagery as to the grief and anguish the speaker is suffering.

Syrinx on the other hand, presents a different view of the meaning behind a bird’s song than The Nightingale. Amy Clampitt has made it clear in her poem Syrinx, that she is not interested with metre and rhyme. Instead she has purposely made her rhyme, metre and layout all irregular to emphasise that a bird’s call can mean nothing at all. The Nightingale focuses on a deep meaning behind a bird’s song. However, Syrinx focuses on the fact that a bird’s call is meaningless, yet it is the sounds that are important. The first three lines express this:

Like the foghorn that’s all lung,

The wind chime that’s all percussion,

Like the wind itself, that’s merely air (lines 1-3)

Here we see the speaker trying to highlight that sometimes sounds are only sounds and have no other meaning. Like wind that is merely air, voice and songs are merely sounds. This presents an opposite view to that of The Nightingale, as the Nightingale’s song is said to represent deep sorrow and anguish. Where Syrinx simply looks at how sometimes things really are what they seem to be.

Therefore Syrinx is a poem that looks at how sound really is just sound and nothing more:

Be saying: is it o-ka-lee

or con-ka-ree, is it really jug jug,

is it cuckoo for that matter? (lines 13-15)

Here we see the speaker placing emphasis on the sounds of words as they struggle to understand what the bird is saying. They then go on to support my argument that Syrinx is a poem about how the sounds of words may have no order or meaning to them and are simply just sounds as they say it is:

much less whether a bird’s call

means anything in

particular, or at all. (lines 16-18)

Therefore the speaker is trying to highlight the fact that a bird’s call is made up of completely arbitrary sounds and have no real meaning. This is further expressed at the beginning of the second stanza where the speaker states that: ‘Syntax comes last, there can be/ no doubt of it: came last.’ (lines 19-20) Thus we envisage the speaker telling us that these sounds are only sounds. Syntax the organization of words to represent meaning, is said to come last, therefore the speaker is placing emphasis on the fact that the sounds of words are only sounds with no deeper meaning.

However, The Nightingale contrasts greatly from the poem Syrinx, as it is a poem with a deep meaning behind it. This becomes clear as the poem progresses and the speaker tells us that the bare earth is proud of new clothing: ‘While late bare earth, proud of new clothing, springeth,’ (line 3) This is metaphorical of the Nightingales situation, because the bare earth represents the grief the Nightingale has suffered. However, the new clothing represents Spring and a new beginning for the Nightingale. Spring is also a time of love, the Nightingale with its beautiful night song is recognised as the bird of love. The Nightingale’s link with lovers and the night makes it a perfect symbol of those who would die for love. The speaker expresses this desire for love: ‘Since wanting is more woe than too much having.’ (line 20) Therefore the speaker, who could possibly be Philomela’s sister, is basically expressing her desire for companionship and love again. The first stanza seems to represent the speaker telling us of the pain and anguish Philomela has suffered. The second stanza sees the speaker tell us that what Philomela has suffered is over now however, their suffering still continues:

But I, who daily craving, Cannot have to content me,

Have more cause to lament me, (lines 17-19)

Therefore we envisage how the speaker feels that what Philomela has experienced and suffered is nothing compared to their experience. The monosyllabic rhyme and repetition of the word ‘me’ places emphasis on the fact that the speaker wants us to sympathise with them. The speaker says that their cause is greater than that of Philomela to lament, possibly because she is experiencing the death of love.

As we progress in our reading of the poem, unlike in the poem Syrinx it becomes clear that the last four lines of the first stanza are repeated again at the end of the second stanza. Also there is a reversed foot from iambic to trochaic at the beginning of the line: ‘O Philomela fair, O take some gladness,’ (line 9) This helps indicate the point of repetition but also places emphasis on the ‘O’ and prepares us for the importance of the last four lines. We here again how the speaker feels that Philomela is lucky compared to them and should take some gladness because: ‘ That here is juster cause of plaintiful sadness/ Thine earth now springs, mine fadeth;’ (lines 10-11) Here again we see the speaker use Spring as a reference to a new beginning for Philomela.

However, the speaker is still suffering and has no new beginning as their earth fades. The last line I feel is the most important of the poem: ‘Thy thorn without, my thorn my heart invadeth.’ (line 12) I feel this line highlights that the speaker could be Philomela’s sister, as she describes that Philomela is now without thorn. I feel thorn represents pain and anguish and the speaker is once again saying how Philomela may have been raped yet it is over now and she is no longer in pain. However, when the speaker then says, ‘my thorn my heart invadeth.’ We picture Philomela’s sister telling us that her pain has come from her own blood. That her sister Philomela has ruined her marriage and invaded her heart leaving an eternal pain of heart break.

In summation, Sir Philip Sidney’s poem The Nightingale and Amy Clampitt’s poem Syrinx represent two very contrasting views. The Nightingale is a very well ordered poem; it is laid out in two stanzas of equal length and has a regular rhyme scheme and metre. This all helps emphasise the deep and meaningful song of the Nightingale as it expresses grief and anguish. However, Syrinx is a very irregular poem, it is laid out in two equal stanzas with a final short verse paragraph and it has no rhyme or predominant metre. This is all emphatic of the meaning behind the poem, that a bird’s song has no real meaning it is just a set of sounds and nothing more. However, despite this, both poems have links to classical mythology, as well as both being about birds and their songs. Both poems also seem to have some roots in the subjection of females to the threat of rape by overbearing males. Hence they lose their voice literally but also with regards to personal freedom.


Primary Texts

Ferguson Margaret, Jo Salter Mary, Stallworthy Jon, Syrinx, The Norton Anthology Of Poetry, (London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2005) (Fifth Edition) p.1614-1615

Ferguson Margaret, Jo Salter Mary, Stallworthy Jon, The Nightingale, The Norton Anthology Of Poetry, (London: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2005) (Fifth Edition) p.211

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