Rijte cunde: Nature and preferment in The owl and the nightingale



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Texas Tech University


Interpretations of The Owl and the Nightingale have generally fallen into two categories: those which read it as an allegory of either political, religious or intellectual issues, and those which read it as a burlesque of some aspect of human nature. The nearest consensus among recent analyses seems to be that the poem is a satire involving debate and birdlore motifs; that, unlike other debate poems, allegorical interpretations are difficult to substantiate because the poem makes no extended allusions to contemporary issues; and that the most likely purpose of the poem is an appeal for the preferment of Nicolas of Guildford. Critical argument over theme, however, has been nearly as vitriolic as the debate between the two birds, partly because of the poem's apparent lack of thematic unity. Hume, who has provided a convenient review of previous interpretations and of weaknesses associated with each, summarizes the problem caused by this lack of unity: "No one, in fact, has been able to extract from the birds' squabbles a single issue which would give the poem a plausible raison d'etre. This state of affairs exists because there is no meaningful subject; the birds' debate is pointless" (127).



Owl and the nightingale