The Nightingale and the Rose

I love Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.” I always have, since forever.1 You can read it here on Project Gutenberg if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

I read it very differently now, obviously, than I did in elementary school. Like, I can kind of remember being all, “The Student is bad!” But now of course I wonder if we are to be laughing at the Student, or at the Nightingale. It’s the Nightingale who throws her life away on love. Not even on her own love, but on the existence of love at all:

“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” cried the Nightingale, “and Life is very dear to all. It is pleasant to sit in the green wood, and to watch the Sun in his chariot of gold, and the Moon in her chariot of pearl. Sweet is the scent of the hawthorn, and sweet are the bluebells that hide in the valley, and the heather that blows on the hill. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”

She’s actually the only character who fares badly in this story. In The Happy Prince God intervenes and pretty clearly establishes the moral. In this story, the rose she gave her life for gets tossed aside. Everyone else kind of just shrugs it off: the student goes back to studying, the girl goes with another guy. And even when the Nightingale is telling the student all the wonders of love, he doesn’t understand her; he doesn’t speak bird.

I kind of thought it would ruin the tale and my uncritical-veering-into-critical reading of it to look too deeply into what the hell Wilde was up to in this. But I’m me, so of course I went to JSTOR.

So, enjoy that. But do read it first.

  1. Shockingly, my illiterate little brother does not remember this book that we’ve had since the beginning of consciousness. But he DOES remember the forever-classic The Biggest Pumpkin Ever.