Have you ever heard a cackle of birds high up in the tree tops? Crows, an unlikely songbird, will often gang-up on an owl in order to annoy it so much that it will move on, away from their neighboring nests. Though owls make excellent rodent reducers, a benefit for humans, they like to feast on the babies of songbirds.
Owls will invade a crows nest, take their young, and eat them. In this way, the owl can abide as a constant pestilence to the treetop songbirds. You can see, therefore, why it's completely understandable for the owl and the songbird to hold court, each contemptuously berating the other for their vile existence.
The Owl and the Nightingale
Thus is the context for the medieval poem The Owl and the Nightingale. The poem is the "earliest example in English of a popular literary form known as a verse contest." What is a verse contest? It is represented in the poem as the narrator overhears a comical debate between an owl and a nightingale about who's song is more beautiful. The poem is written in Middle English, but you can find worthy translations on the web, or just buy this.
The Nightingale does not like the moralistic and grave Owl. The Owl, who listens to the Plaintiff with puffed chest and supreme arrogance, suggests the two settle the matter as is in harmony with their nature: by force. But the Nightingale does not fall for it, knowing the hawkish features of the Owl would rip it to shreds.
The Owl's solution is met with more sophistry from the Nightingale, who, along with the Owl, begins to exchange demeaning quips and name-calling. In efforts to prove their points, the fowl reference the human world, touching on issues of marital infidelity, human infallibility, free will, love, and sin. The debate careens into a chaotic harangue, spurred on by the cackling avian spectators.
Here's one exchange, to whet your whisle. The Nightingale says:
Grotesque thing,’ she said, ‘fly away! I feel bad at the sight of you. Certainly I often have to stop singing because of your foul appearance. My heart sinks, and my tongue falters, when you are close to me. I’d rather spit than sing about your awful guggling.’
The owl waited until it was evening; she couldn't hold back any longer, because she was so angry that she could hardly breathe, and finally she spoke:
'How does my song seem to you now? Do you think that I can't sing just because I can't twitter? You often insult me and say things to upset and embarrass me. If I held you in my talons---if only I could!--and you were off your branch, you'd sing a very different tune!'
Fortunately, the Wren suggests they employ the services of a mediator lest the debate spiral into violence. So, they off to Poresham to inquire with Master Nicholas, the recommended mediator.
We Are All Dirty Birds
Because I often fall into rabbit holes during my research, I've surveyed some scholarship on this poem, and it's fascinating. Delightfully, both C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield's names appeared in several discussions. Lewis, in fact, quoted the poem directly in a letter dated July 4, 1955 to Alastair Fowler.
Fun facts aside, the "moral of the story," as it were, is not universally agreed upon, though most will acquiesce to the notion that the poem serves as comical commentary on the contentious nature of human beings.
Interesting, this word "contentious." When someone is contentious they are usually causing a heated argument. It has Latin and French origins, which we might translate striven: to struggle of fight vigorously against. Of course we can see "strife" there as well: anger or bitter disagreement over a fundamental issue.
I work from my front porch often. My front yard is basically a wood. The Pileated Woodpeckers, Finch, Bluebirds, Cardinals, Hummingbirds, Hawks, and Owls are all present--and a few I don't even recognize. The Owls often stir a raucous. I watch from the porch, the cacophony of flight and feathers, as the cackling debate ensues.
I am quick to point out the demise of popular rhetoric, be it the public square or the religious circle. But how quickly the words of François Fénelon sting me:
"One is very imperfect, when one is so impatient with the imperfections of others."
Beauty in rhetoric, our speech, our writing, our interaction, demands deference, not impudence. Max Lucado recently made internet waves with his reflection on decency. We agree with Lucado's sentiments because we desire a culture governed by virtue rather than vice. But we, in our commentary of others, should be careful we do not remove culpability. Such a culture begins with individual decisions made by individual people, daily. (And certainly we should demand such from our leaders.)
I will either heckle the Owl, rip the Nightingale to shreds, or seek another path. Which will it be?
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.