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Altercacio inter filomenam et bubonem: The owl and the nightingale
attributed to Nicholas de Guildford
Þe niȝtingale bigon þe speche
In one hurne of one breche,
And sat up one vaire boȝe –
Þar were abute blosme inoȝe –
In ore vaste þicke hegge,
Imeind mid spire and grene segge.
Ho was þe gladur vor þe rise
And song a vele cunne wise.
Bet þuȝte þe dreim þat he were
Of harpe and pipe þan he nere,
Bet þuȝte þat he were ishote
Of harpe and pipe þan of þrote.
The nightingale began the argument in the corner of a clearing, and perched on a beautiful branch – there was plenty of blossom around it – in an impenetrable thick hedge, with reeds and green sedge growing through it. She was all the happier because of the branch, and sang in many different ways; the music sounded as if it came from a harp or a pipe rather than from a living throat.
Ac þu singest alle longe niȝt
From eve fort hit is dailiȝt,
And evre leist þin o song
So longe so þe niȝt is long,
And evre croweþ þi wrecche crei
Þat he ne swikeþ niȝt ne dai.
Mid þine pipinge þu adunest
Þas monnes earen þar þu wunest
And makest þine song so unwurþ
Þat me ne telþ of þar noȝt wurþ.
Evrich mur3þe mai so longe ileste
Þat ho shal liki wel unwreste;
Vor harpe and pipe and fuȝeles song
Mislikeþ ȝif hit is to long.
But you sing all night long, from evening till dawn, and your song lasts as long as the night does, and your wretched throat keeps on trilling without stopping, night or day. You constantly assault the ears of those who live around you with your piping, and make your song so cheap that it loses all its value. Every pleasure can last so long that it ceases to please; because harp and pipe and birdsong all grow tiresome if they last too long. However delightful a song may be, it will seem very tedious if it goes on longer than we would like.
The Owl and the Nightingale
is a Middle English poem detailing a debate between an owl and a nightingale as overheard by the poem's narrator. It is the earliest example in Middle English of a literary form known as debate poetry (or verse contest).
Nicholas of Guildford is mentioned several times in the text as the man best suited to judge which bird presents the strongest argument. His character never actually makes an appearance, and the poem ends with the debate unresolved and the owl and nightingale flying off in search of Nicholas. Critics tend to agree that the most likely reason for the mention of Nicholas of Guildford in the poem is because he is the author. But there is no firm evidence to support such an identification and no certain trace of the existence of any Nicholas of Guildford, priest of Portesham, beyond the text itself.
There are two known manuscripts of
The Owl and the Nightingale
: ff. 156-68, Jesus College, Oxford, MS. 29 and ff. 233-46 of British Museum M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX. Both are bound together in collections of other works. They are both estimated to have been written in the latter half of the 13th century and copied from one earlier exemplar which is now lost.
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