Anne Finch’s “To the Nightingale” is an ode to a Muse, which is represented by the nightingale. The poem is written in a series of rhyming couplets that provides it a singsong rhythm throughout, which is appropriate for its subject. When emphasizing the merits of being a nightingale, the speaker articulates the difficulties of being a human poet, subject to judgment by his critics. In “To the Nightingale”, though the narrator recognizes the significance of the nightingale and even bestows upon it affirmative adjectives such as “sweet” and lofty titles like “harbinger of spring” (line 1), he knows the limitations of the bird as a poet.
The first four lines indicate the admiration of the speaker for the nightingale. “This moment I attend to praise” (line 3) refers to the moment in which the nightingale will sing to announce the coming of spring. The speaker wishes to be as free with expressing himself, like the nightingale. As the line “Free as thine shall be my song” (line 5) indicates, he believes that as a human being, his singing is more restricted by his audience. On the other hand, the nightingale sings according to its nature, whether or not it pleases anyone.
There is no fear of being ridiculed, or anxieties about not being praised. Moreover, the beauty of the nightingale’s singing is in its freedom: “Poets, wild as thee, were born/ Pleasing best when unconfined/ When to please is least designed/ Soothing but their cares to rest” (lines 7-10). These four lines may also suggest that the speaker is hoping to experience the same “unconfined” performance. Indeed, if the nightingale is his muse, he is inspired by its sheer autonomy and being true to itself. Some artists need their personal pain in order to produce depth of feeling.
An artist who is experiencing problems while composing sad ballads will create genuine emotion which will be felt by their audience: “Cares do still their thoughts molest/ And still the unhappy poet’s breast, /Like thine, when best he sings, is placed against a thorn” (lines 11-13). The three lines, however, may also signify the other way around – that when at his best, a poet may experience loneliness brought by success. The next few lines incorporate gold as a metaphor for the beauty and the effect of the nightingale’s song, after praising the sweetness of it.
“Canst thou syllables refine/Melt a sense that shall retain/Still some spirit of the brain” (lines 18-20). The words “refine” and “melt” elucidate the worth of the nightingale’s song. It can create something equivalent to gold, which consequently leaves a mark in the listener’s mind. The poem starts to change its tone by line 21. The speaker seems to expect more out of the nightingale, by asking it to change its note. He further commands “let division shake thy throat” (line 22), longing for the joyous varying and fluttering of the golden voice.
At this point, the human poet, though still admiring the singing bird, becomes aware of discontent within himself. The lovely song may not have changed its tune for some other listener, but for the narrator it has in some way for he says “cease then, prithee, cease thy tune” (line 26). He even calls his muse “trifler”, or someone who takes nothing seriously by being a constant dreamer. “Wilt thou sing till June” (line 27), he asks. He previously tags the nightingale as a “harbinger of spring”. He then wonders if it will continue its singing even when summer is near.
It is as if the nightingale has been given an obligation to announce spring, and when that obligation has been fulfilled there is no need to keep on going. The speaker has started to question inspiration and leans toward practicality. The speaker believes that there is too big a difference between a nightingale and a human poet; he has stopped dreaming about attempting to recreate the singing of a nightingale through human voice. “Thus we poets that have speech/ Unlike what the forests teach” (lines 30-31). To ease this discouragement, he lifts the human advantage of being able to speak.
“If a fluent vein be shown/That’s transcendent to our own/ Criticize, reform, or preach/ Or censure what we cannot reach (lines 32-35). Nevertheless, he discerns what he is trying to do; he can identify the human trait of disparaging a talent or a quality that he cannot achieve for himself. “To the Nightingale” explores the dilemma of exploring a dream and aiming to reach its zenith without any thought of its limitations and consequences, and of choosing practicality and realistic aspirations. The poem achieves a light, song-like rhythm which prevents it from being completely dreary even at its despondent but sensible end.