Both Charlotte Smith’s ‘To a Nightingale’ and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale: A Conversation Poem’ are both written in iambic pentameter, using a set strict rhythm in order to convey their message. However, in their view of the nightingale itself, they differ. Smith presents it as a ‘poor melancholy bird’1, whereas Coleridge claims that it is poets who ‘echo this conceit,’2 and that ‘in nature there is nothing melancholy’3 but man, who makes his own misery, and imagines that everything else echoes it. He ‘filled all things with himself/ And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale/ Of his own sorrow.’4 Coleridge actually seems to reject the whole purpose of Smith’s poem.
Coleridge contrasts nature and society, pointing out the stark difference between the ‘ball rooms and hot theatres’5 and the beauty and purity of nature. Charlotte Smith, on the other hand, stays largely with the natural world. Her only concession to the more cultural is the reference to the figure of poet, who she allows to give meaning to ‘the little sounds that swell thy little breast.’6 She attributes to them ‘musing fancy’7, suggesting that the poet is in fact nothing but a dreamer, lending nothing but nonsense to nature, placing her own position in a somewhat doubtful place. Indeed, Coleridge also undermines the position and role of poet, claiming that the poet ‘had better far have stretched his limbs’8 than write.
Coleridge’s version of the nightingale is a clear representation of the dreaming and fancy of poets: he speaks of a ‘castle huge’9 and decidedly romantic language: ‘moonlight bushes/ Whose dewy leaflets are but half disclosed.’10 Smith, on the other hand, uses the language of sensibility, as was common in women poets of the time. She is concerned to the most part with the feelings and emotions, and does not stray into realms of fantasy and decadence and power as Coleridge is wont to do. Instead, she maintains her stance that she, as the poetess, suffers the worse of any creature: ‘Ah, songstress sad! that such my lot might be,/to sigh and sing at liberty-like thee!’11
The alliteration of the ‘s’ in these two lines emphasise her meaning, the softer sound reminding us of peace and calm and quiet. She uses this soft fricative alliteration in other parts of her poem: ‘from what sad cause can such sweet sorrow flow.’12 None of her alliteration is plosive.
The structure of her poem is far more rigid, fitting the Shakespearean sonnet perfectly, whereas Coleridge does not follow a set rhyme scheme and occasionally deviates from the iambic pentameter where it suits his purpose, often taking the number of syllables in the line as more of a guideline than an absolute. This fits with the title of the piece, being ‘a conversation poem’. Iambic pentameter is believed to be a close representation of the natural rhythm of human speech. In addition to this, he draws the reader into his world to make it a conversational poem: it is addressed to the reader. It is to us, the readers, that he speaks, not some third person within the poem: ‘You see the glimmer of the stream beneath,’13 and even makes the reader a friend and companion: ‘Come, we will rest on this old mossy bridge.’14 This is in contrast to Smith, who speaks only to herself, or at the end of the poem, to the nightingale, although this is in more of a rhetorical manner, she views the nightingale as nothing but an animal, who cannot know the emotion of a human.
The relationship of mankind to nature is explored in both pieces, and both deem nature to be the better of the two. Smith places her own position in life as far below what she deems a ‘poor melancholy bird’15 in terms of happiness and fulfilment, since she cannot escape to ‘woodlands wild’16, nor has the nightingale ‘felt from friends some cruel wrong’17 or been made ‘martyr of disastrous love.’18 Coleridge, on the other hand, simply views mankind as inferior to nature, even a child, as yet innocent to the ways of the world ‘mars all things with his imitative lisp.’19 He hopes to make his child at one with nature, and to be a part of the natural world, believing that this is the greater asset than mere humanity: ‘And I deem it wise/ To make him Nature’s play-mate.’20 The word Nature is even capitalised by him, making it more a more important part of the poem than man, who is nothing but a ‘wretch.’21 Man cannot even comprehend nature, as demonstrated in Coleridge’s use of synaesthesia: the birdsong is described as ‘delicious’.22 Smith, perhaps, does not view nature in the same way as Coleridge, does not view it as more powerful or wonderful, but only as not having to suffer the problems of mankind, being unable to do so, and as such, a more pure thing. As such, it is perhaps the case that it is those living in nature that she believes to have a better life, and nature is only greater in its provision of such.
The gender of the poet is reflected in that of the nightingale in each piece. Charlotte Smith speaks of the ‘songstress sad,’23 giving the impression that sorrow is the preserve of all females even if she, as the human, suffers the worse in her view. Coleridge, however, puts the bird as a male, who ‘precipitates/ With fast thick warble his delicious notes.’24 This is in direct contrast to his reference to Philomela, who, in legend, was turned to either a swallow, a songless bird, since her tongue had been cut out, but later poets give her the form of a nightingale to mourn for her lost son.25 Coleridge seems to also echo this in his references to his own son, although he harks back to the greatness of nature over humanity in quieting his son in order to appreciate nature: ‘And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,/ Suspends his sobs and laughs most silently.’26 Silence is suggested in other parts of the piece: they ‘hear no murmuring’27 from the river. All but the nightingale must be silent to allow Coleridge to build his fantastical world around him, the world of castles and maidens and love and ‘so many nightingales.’28
Both of these pieces carry the same title, but yet very different messages about the natural world. Coleridge regards it as the pinnacle of all things, the true greatness, whereas Smith regards it as beautiful, certainly, but innocent, its value being that it cannot comprehend suffering as a human. Coleridge places it far above humanity, a constant aspiration, whereas Smith values human culture above nature, treats it as, perhaps, a child. Her view of childhood in this sense seems to be naivety, rather than Coleridge’s view of the beauty and purity of childhood as closer to the wonder of nature, and, as such, greater than the adult man.