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Nature ‘‘Nature’’ in Greek (physis) and Latin (natura) at first meant the nature of

something, as in Lucretius title ‘‘On the Nature of Things,’’ but it came to

stand alone, perhaps by means of phrases such as ‘‘the nature of everything,’’

to mean the universe or the natural world. In this sense Ovid mentions

‘‘nature’’ as featureless before the creation (Met. 1.6). According to late ancient

sources, the Orphics praised Physis as the mother of all, all-wise, all-ruling, and

immortal; if so, that was the first instance of ‘‘Mother Nature,’’ but the

personification was not sustained. The more ancient myths about Gaia (Earth)

must also have encouraged this personification; the Homeric ‘‘Hymn to the

Mother of All’’ begins ‘‘I shall sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all, /

Eldest of all, who nourishes all things living on land.’’ In both Greek and Latin

the words for ‘‘nature’’ and for ‘‘earth’’ (Greek gaia, ge, Latin tellus, terra) are all

feminine in grammatical gender.

A later forerunner of Mother Nature is Lucretius alma Venus (‘‘nourishing

Venus’’), whom he invokes as the goddess of the generation of life and the

muse of his poem (1.2); Spenser imitates his invocation in FQ 4.10.44--47. Statius

makes Nature a ‘‘captain’’ (dux) (Thebaid 12.642); in Claudian, Nature is the

‘‘marriage-maker’’ (pronuba) (Magnes 38). She is a fully fledged allegorical figure

in Bernard Sylvestris and Alanus de Insulis; the latters ‘‘Complaint of Nature’’

influenced The Romance of the Rose, where Nature is the mistress of Venus

forge, making new generations of living things (15975ff.). She first appears in

English poetry as ‘‘this noble goddesse Nature’’ in Chaucers Parliament of Fowls

303; Chaucer cites Alanus’ ‘‘Pleynt of Kynde’’ as his authority. Gower has

‘‘Nature the goddesse’’ (Confessio 5.5961). Spenser also refers to ‘‘mother

Nature’’ (FQ 2.6.16) and ‘‘great Dame Nature’’ with ‘‘fruitfull pap’’ that feeds

the flowers (2.2.6). Amidst the manifold meanings of ‘‘nature’’ in Shakespeare,

the ‘‘good goddess nature’’ persists (WT 2.3.104); ‘‘Nature hath framd strange

fellows in her time’’ (MV 1.1.51). But when Edmund in his first speech

announces ‘‘Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law / My services are bound’’

(Lear 1.2.1--2), we are alerted that he will not be bound by traditional duty.

Shakespeare himself, according to Gray, was ‘‘Natures darling,’’ for ‘‘To him

the mighty Mother did unveil / Her awful face’’ (‘‘Progress of Poetry’’ 84--87).

With the new feeling for nature in the literature of sensibility and

romanticism, of course, richer and less allegorical accounts of nature prevail,

but it often remains maternal, or at least feminine. Goethes Faust asks,

‘‘Where do I seize you, unending Nature -- / you breasts, where?’’ (455--56).

Wordsworth constantly refers to nature as ‘‘she,’’ and sometimes she is active

in ministering to the growth of the poets soul, the subject of The Prelude.

Earth, too, has ‘‘something of a Mothers mind’’ in the ‘‘Intimations Ode’’ (79).

Shelley invokes the ‘‘Mother of this unfathomable world’’ near the opening of

‘‘Alastor’’ (18). In his fallen state, according to Blake, Man perceives Nature as

something apart from him, often as a domineering and faithless female

whom he names Vala (punning on ‘‘veil’’): ‘‘Vala, the Goddess Virgin-Mother.

She is our Mother! Nature!’’ (Jerusalem 18.29--30). But the usual romantic view is

that nature governs our most human feelings, our imaginations, our hearts.

Dickens with typical sarcasm describes the utilitarian philosophers of

self-interest as having deduced a ‘‘little code of laws’’ as ‘‘the main-springs of

all Natures deeds and actions: the said philosophers very wisely reducing the

good ladys proceedings to matters of maxim and theory and, by a very neat

and pretty compliment to her exalted wisdom and understanding, putting

entirely out of sight and considerations of heart, or generous impulse and

feeling’’ (Oliver Twist chap. 12).

Parallel to maternal nature is the widespread idea of the ‘‘virgin land,’’

uncultivated territory that must be conquered and ploughed by men to make

her a ‘‘motherland.’’ One root of this notion is the biblical image of Israel or

Jerusalem as the ‘‘married’’ land (Hebrew beulah): ‘‘Thou shalt no more be

termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate; but

thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth

in thee, and thy land shall be married’’ (Isa. 62.4). Too often, however,

Jerusalem plays the harlot and commits fornications with other countries

(Ezek. 16 passim). Another source may be the plot of Virgils Aeneid, where the

hero leaves a wife behind in the flames of Troy and a mistress on a pyre in

Carthage in order to conquer a destined land in Italy and confirm it by

marrying Latinus daughter Lavinia, ‘‘Miss Italy.’’ The symbolism of ploughing

enters into it, too; the word ‘‘colony’’ comes from the root in ‘‘cultivate’’ and

‘‘agriculture’’ (Latin colere, ‘‘to till’’ or ‘‘plough’’), and early American colonies

were often called ‘‘plantations’’. (See Plow.) Most national names in the

European languages are feminine in gender and have feminine allegorical

emblems: la France is symbolized by Marianne or by Joan of Arc, Britain by

Britannia (derived from Minerva), America by Lady Liberty, and so on.

The very name ‘‘America’’ is the feminine form of ‘‘Americus,’’ the Latin

form of Amerigo (Vespucci); the noun terra may have been understood but it

vanished quite early from the maps. ‘‘Virginia’’ is the perfect expression of

this symbolism, though it was named for Queen Elizabeth; John Smith calls

that colony the ‘‘blessed Virgin’’ and refers to ‘‘This Virgins sister (called New

England)’’ (New-England Trials 1.243). According to Thomas Morton in 1632, New

England herself was ‘‘Like a faire virgin, longing to be sped [made to prosper,

or made pregnant], / And meete her lover in a Nuptiall bed’’ (New English

Canaan Prologue 9--10). Blakes character Orc, who stands for the revolutionary

American colonists who claim the land, seizes the womb of the nameless

virgin who attends him and makes her pregnant (America, ‘‘Preludium’’).

Night Milton describes Night as ‘‘eldest of things’’ (PL 2.962), though in Genesis it is

coeval with day (1.5); it is ‘‘darkness’’ that precedes everything but the void or

chaos itself. Spenser calls Night the ‘‘most auncient Grandmother of all’’ (FQ

1.5.22). Both authors hearken not only to Genesis but Hesiods Theogony, where

Night is the offspring of Chaos, though she seems to follow Earth, Tartarus,

and Eros (116--23); she is the mother of Sky (Aither), Day, Heaven, the Hills, and

Sea (124--32).

Like the sun, moon, and dawn, night is portrayed in classical literature

(though not in Hesiod) as driving a chariot and team of horses. ‘‘The

darkening chariot of Night / leans to its course,’’ as Aeschylus has it in

Choephoroe 660--61 (trans. Lattimore); Euripides writes, ‘‘black-robed Night, /

Drawn by a pair, urged on her chariot’’ (Ion 1150--51, trans. Willets). Virgil has

‘‘And black Night borne upward in her chariot held the sky’’ (Aeneid 5.721).

Ovid imagines a lover appealing for more time: ‘‘O slowly, slowly run, ye

horses of night’’ (Amores 1.13.40), the Latin original of which Marlowe uses

with great poignancy in Dr. Faustuss final terrified speech: ‘‘O lente, lente

currite noctis equi’’ (5.2.152). Spensers Night has an ‘‘yron wagon’’ with double

team, two horses ‘‘blacke as pitch’’ and two brown (FQ 1.5.28); later she rides

on a black palfrey (7.7.44). Milton has ‘‘Night-steeds’’ in his ‘‘Nativity’’ ode (236).

Shakespeare several times has the night drawn by dragons (e.g., MND 3.2.379),

perhaps a confusion with those of Ceres.

In the Greek and Roman poets there are standard features of night or

nightfall: silence, loneliness, sleep, dreams; the star-filled sky, the bright

moon; and occasionally festivities. A poem by Sappho or Alcaeus expresses the

loneliness by understatement: ‘‘The moon has gone down / and the Pleiades;

the middle / of the night, time goes by, / and I lie alone’’ (Sappho Campbell

168B). A brief description of night in Virgils Aeneid makes a similar contrast to

the sleepless Dido (4.80--81). Milton has a full description of night in Eden,

with the silence (except for the nightingale), Hesperus, and the moon (PL

4.598--609). Goethes ‘‘Wanderers Night-Song’’ beautifully evokes the peace of

night and the deeper peace to come.

Night is of course the time of unseen dangers, ‘‘nights black agents’’

(Macbeth 3.2.54), ghosts, magic, and moonstruck madness, as well as the

pursuit of love or anything else restrained by daylight. We hardly need to give

examples. Since the sun or light may stand for knowledge or insight, and ‘‘a

great cause of the night is lack of the sun’’ (AYLI 3.2.26), night is also symbolic

of spiritual error: Paul exhorts, ‘‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of

light’’ (Rom. 13.12); Dante is lost in the wood at night (Inferno 1); Spensers

Night is the mother of falsehood (FQ 1.5.27) and ignorance (Teares of the Muses

263). Night also stands for death: ‘‘I must work the works of him that sent

me,’’ Jesus says, ‘‘while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work’’

(John 9.4). Racines Olympe would be happy if her grief plunged her into ‘‘the

night of the tomb’’ (Thйbaпde 5.5.1478), while Phedre wants to flee ‘‘into the

infernal night’’ (Phиdre 4.6.1277). Shelley has ‘‘the night of death’’ (Julian 127),

though he also has ‘‘the night of life’’ (PU 3.3.172), that is, ‘‘our night’’ (Adonais

352) in this life of misery and ignorance. Poes raven seems to come from ‘‘the

nights Plutonian shore’’ (47, 98).

Night is the traditional time for meditation and study, for ‘‘burning the

midnight oil,’’ and hence for melancholy. Miltons ‘‘Il Penseroso’’ (the pensive

man) prefers the night: ‘‘let my Lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some

high lonely Towr’’ (85--86). Night poetry was much in vogue in the eighteenth

century as part of the literature of ‘‘sensibility,’’ and particularly ‘‘graveyard’’

poetry; e.g., Youngs Night Thoughts, Blairs The Grave, and Grays ‘‘Elegy,’’ which

begins where the plowman ‘‘leaves the world to darkness and to me’’ (4).

Goethes Faust meditates at night (and practices magic), and so do Coleridge

in ‘‘Frost at Midnight’’ and ‘‘Dejection,’’ and Lamartine in his Mйditations. Some

Romantics revalued night as a place of imaginative revelation: Novaliss Hymns

to the Night, and perhaps Keatss ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale.’’

See Moon.

Nightingale The nightingale has had the most spectacular career of all literary birds. It has

appeared in many thousands of poems from Homer to the twentieth century,

and even in ancient times it acquired an almost formulaic meaning as the

bird of spring, of night, and of mourning. Later, through its link to spring and

night, it also became a bird of love.

The Greeks considered the nightingale, like the swallow and cuckoo, to be a

notable harbinger of spring. A four-word fragment of Sappho sums it up:

‘‘springs herald, lovely-voiced nightingale.’’ Homer has it singing in the woods

‘‘when springtime has just begun’’ (Odyssey 19.519). In the late Latin Vigil of

Venus the goddess of spring makes the bird sing a song of love (86--88). This

tradition is repeated in Chaucers Parliament of Fowls, where the nightingale is

defined as the bird ‘‘That clepeth [calls] forth the grene leves newe’’ (351--52),

and in Draytons Endimion and Phoebe: ‘‘The Nightingale, woods Herauld of the

Spring’’ (55).

Its melodious, liquid, and variable voice made the nightingale a popular

housebird in ancient times. One of the two Greek names for it refers to its

song: aedon, ‘‘singer’’; the other, philomela, has been taken to mean ‘‘lover of

music,’’ but what mela means is uncertain (probably not ‘‘music’’).

The Greeks also heard in the nightingales song something mournful,

and imagined one of its ‘‘words’’ to be the name of a lost child; they also

imagined, wrongly, that the female of the species does the singing. Its

earliest literary appearance is in Penelopes simile for herself as Pandareos

daughter Aedon, wife of Zethos; Aedon in a mad fit killed her son Itylos

and now, changed into a nightingale, pours out a mournful song (Odyssey

19.518--23).

It may be that the Greeks, listening to two prominent birds of early spring,

were struck by the contrast between the tuneless chattering call of the

swallow and the beautiful song of the nightingale, and so a different story

arose about Procne, daughter of Pandion of Athens and wife of Tereus of

Daulis (Thrace), and her younger sister Philomela. As Ovid tells it centuries

later (Met. 6), Tereus rapes Philomela, tears out her tongue so she cannot

speak, and confines her in a hidden cottage; she contrives to weave a message

on her loom and send it to her sister, who rescues her. Together they take a

horrible revenge on Tereus by killing his son by Procne, Itys, and serving him

to his father for dinner. As the furious Tereus pursues the sisters, they both

turn into birds, which Ovid does not name: one flies into the woods

(presumably a nightingale), the other flies to the roof (presumably a swallow);

Tereus becomes a hoopoe.

Ovid does not say which sister flew where, but presumably the tongueless

one becomes the swallow. His vagueness may reflect a long-standing conflict

in the myth, since philomela, if it is taken to mean ‘‘lover of music,’’ is a poor

name for the songless swallow, but if the nightingales song sounds mournful

then it should be she who has lost a son. There are variants where Tereus cuts

out Procnes tongue, but it is always Procnes son who is killed, so Philomela

would be singing a mournful song for her nephew. In any case, sometimes (as

in Aristophanes) Procne is the nightingale.

This tale, in its Ovidian form, became very popular. In Medieval lyrics in

several languages Philomela or Philomena replaces native words for nightingale.

Chaucer tells part of the story in The Legend of Good Women and it recurs

throughout Shakespeares Titus Andronicus. T. S. Eliot makes use of it in The

Waste Land. When Keats compares the silent Madeline to a ‘‘tongueless

nightingale,’’ however (Eve of St. Agnes 206), it is doubtful if we are to think of

Philomela and her tragedy.

In Greek drama a simpler version prevailed. The chorus of Aeschylus

Agamemnon compares Cassandras wild lament on the brink of her murder to

the nightingales clamor for Itys; Cassandra responds by saying she longs for

the nightingales fate, happier than her own (1140--49). The chorus of

Sophocles Ajax imagines the mother of Ajax grieving over her son more

violently than the nightingale (621--31). The chorus of Euripides Helen invokes

the nightingale to sing mournfully with them over Helens fate. (See also

Sophocles, Electra 107--09, 147--49, 1077ff.) Seneca imitates Greek tragedy when

his Octavia asks what nightingale could sing her song of sorrow (Octavia 914).

Perhaps because of the Athenian provenance of the Philomela myth, the

nightingale came to be called the ‘‘Attic bird’’ (Propertius 2.20.5--6; Milton,

PR 4.245--46; Gray, ‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ 5).

After three millennia of poetic nightingales Darıo could claim ‘‘The same

nightingales sing the same trills, / and in different tongues it is the same

song’’ (‘‘The Swans’’ 7--8), but a survey of human tongues gives a different

impression. Aristophanes comedy The Birds (737--52) gives the song as ‘‘tio tio

tio tiotinx’’ and ‘‘totototototototototinx,’’ which do not sound very mournful,

but in a ‘‘tio’’ or ‘‘ito’’ Greeks heard the name Itys. Whether mournful or not,

‘‘tiotinx’’ is much more accurate than the conventional sound in English

poetry since the Renaissance, ‘‘jug jug,’’ which resembles the call of the

nightjar. The medieval German poet Walther von der Vogelweide has the bird

cheerfully sing ‘‘tandaradei!’’ (in ‘‘Under der linden’’), but later German poets

heard sadness in the sound, which they made into ‘‘zuruck’’ (‘‘back’’) or ‘‘zu

spat’’ (‘‘too late’’). Provencal poets do not record its voice, but in Old French it

is ‘‘oci’’ or ‘‘ochi,’’ which sounds like the verb for ‘‘kill,’’ whence its connection,

in a few poems, with vengeance. According to Fitzgerald, Omar Khayyam

imagines it saying ‘‘Wine! Wine! Wine! / Red Wine!’’ (22--23).

Nearly all brief allusions to the nightingale in Greek and Latin poetry

mention its beautiful voice, its mournfulness, its presence in early spring,

and/or its invisibility, hiding among thickets or leafy trees. Moschus in his

‘‘Lament for Bion’’ mentions ‘‘nightingales complaining in the thick foliage’’

(9); Catullus vows ‘‘I will always sing strains of mourning, as under the thick

shadows of the branches sings the Daulian bird bewailing the fate of Itylus’’

(65.12--14). By describing a nightingale weeping all night long (Georgics

4.511--16), Virgil gave an impetus to the association of the nightingale, as its

English name also implies, with night. (The ‘‘-gale’’ is from Old English galan,

‘‘sing.’’ Its Latin name, luscinia, may mean ‘‘singer at twilight,’’ though more

likely ‘‘singer of grief,’’ as Varro argued in Latin 5.76.)

The nightingales nighttime provenance is well established in English

poetry -- it is stated, or overstated, by Christina Rossetti: ‘‘A hundred thousand

birds salute the day: -- / One solitary bird salutes the night’’ (‘‘Later Life’’ 20). It

is often paired with the lark as its opposite; the most famous of such pairings

comes in Romeo and Juliet 3.5, which begins with a debate between the young

lovers, the morning after their first night together, over whether it is the

nightingale they have just heard or the lark.

Milton calls it the ‘‘wakeful Bird,’’ which ‘‘Sings darkling, and in shadiest

Covert hid / Tunes her nocturnal Note’’ (3.38--40), and ‘‘all night tund her soft

lays’’ (7.436), among eight appearances in Paradise Lost. Perhaps because night

is the time of lovers, Milton also stresses the amorous quality of the song:

‘‘She all night long her amorous descant sung’’ in Eden, while Adam and Eve

‘‘lulld by Nightingales imbracing slept’’ (4.603, 771). His first sonnet, ‘‘O

Nightingale,’’ claims that its songs ‘‘Portend success in love,’’ as opposed to the

cuckoo, ‘‘the rude Bird of Hate.’’ Combining love with the traditional mournfulness,

Milton calls the bird ‘‘love-lorn’’ in Comus (234), as if it is her mate she

has lost, not her child.

Any bird that sings might well become a metaphor for a poet (as the swan

did), but the nightingale came to do so as early as Hesiod. In Works and Days

(202--12) Hesiod tells a fable about a hawk who has a nightingale in his grasp;

the hawk calls his prey an aoidos, the usual term for bard or minstrel in

Hesiod and Homer; the implication is that Hesiod is himself a nightingale in

a world of dangerous hawks (predatory lords). (See also Theognis 939.) Plato

imagines the soul of the poet Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale

(Republic 620a). Theocritus calls Homer the ‘‘Chian nightingale’’ (7.47). It is a

frequent conceit in Troubadour and Trouvere (Provencal and Old French)

poetry that the poet is like a nightingale, which incites him to sing and

reminds him of his unhappiness in love; the same is true among the German

Minnesдnger. One medieval tradition adds that they stop singing when love is

fulfilled. The Troubadour tradition, incidentally, does not seem to draw much

from the classical tradition: often the birds are male, and often they are

happy.

 

In devotional literature the bird sometimes represents the soul, as it does

in John Peachams Philomena: ‘‘You should know that this bird is the figure / Of

the soul who puts all its effort into loving God’’ (45--46, trans. Baird and Kane).

Milton, in the first passage quoted above (PL 3.38--40), compares himself to

the nightingale, who like him sings in the dark. Keats alludes to this passage

in his famous ‘‘Ode to a Nightingale,’’ where he compares, or rather contrasts,

himself with the invisible bird whose singing overwhelms him. In his Defence

of Poetry, Shelley writes, ‘‘A Poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and

sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men

entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved

and softened, yet know not whence or why.’’ ‘‘Of Philomela and the poet,’’

Lamartine claims, ‘‘the sweetest songs are sighs’’ (‘‘Adieux a la Poesie’’ 34--35).

Mandelstam laments his incurable disease of poetry-writing: ‘‘there is no

hope / For heart still flushed / with Nightingale Fever’’ (‘‘Clock-Grasshoppers

Song,’’ trans. Hingley).

A secondary tradition has it that nightingales press a thorn against their

breast to keep awake so they might lament all night. Shakespeares Lucrece

speaks to the bird: ‘‘against a thorn thy bearst thy part / To keep thy sharp

woes waking’’ (Lucrece 1135--36); according to Sidney she ‘‘Sings out her woes, a

thorn her song-book making’’ (‘‘The Nightingale’’ 4). Marvell seems to be

alluding to this tradition in ‘‘Upon Appleton House’’ 513--20, and Oscar Wilde

builds on it in his story ‘‘The Nightingale and the Rose.’’

The thorn motif goes back to sixteenth-century French poetry, which seems

to have taken it from Arabic or Persian poetry, where the (male) nightingale

or bulbul sings to the (female) rose until it blooms in the spring; he sometimes

presses his breast against a rose thorn to ease his pain while singing.

Fitzgerald in his version of Omar Khayyam indicates the Persian origin of the

motif, the ‘‘divine / High piping Pehlevi [Persian]’’ in which ‘‘the Nightingale

cries to the Rose’’ (21--23). In the early eighteenth century Mary Wortley

Montagu introduced the ‘‘bulbul’’ to English readers with a translation of a

Turkish love poem by Ibrahim Pasha, while Thomas Moore and Byron were

among the first to put one in their poems: in Lalla Rookh (1.280) and in The

Bride of Abydos (1.288 and 2.694; see also Byrons The Giaour 21--31). In the

opening of Epipsychidion Shelley calls his beloved a nightingale and likens his

poem to a rose: ‘‘soft and fragrant is the faded blossom, / And it has no thorn

left to wound thy bosom’’ (11--12).

Ignoring the tradition that the bird sings a lament, some poets since the

Middle Ages have made the nightingale an emblem of love. Ronsard has a

nightingale court his beloved (Odes 4.22). Thomas Randolph imagines a

nightingale singing in Elysium, where ‘‘The soules of happy Lovers crownd

with blisses, / Shall flock about thee, and keep time with kisses’’ (‘‘On the

Death of a Nightingale’’). On a pair of young lovers, Byron comments, ‘‘there

was no reason for their loves / More than for those of nightingales or doves’’

(Don Juan 4.151--52). ‘‘The nightingale,’’ Hugo recalls, ‘‘sang like a poet and like

a lover’’ (‘‘La Fˆete chez Therese’’ 79--80). For the most part, however, melancholy

remains the birds dominant note, though the melancholy might be due, of

course, to lost love.

Coleridge wrote a pair of nightingale poems that ought to have put an end

to nightingale poems. In ‘‘To the Nightingale’’ he begins: ‘‘Sister of love-lorn

Poets, Philomel! / How many Bards . . . / . . . How many wretched Bards address

thy name.’’ He then quotes Miltons line about ‘‘Philomel’’ in Il Penseroso, ‘‘Most

musical, most melancholy,’’ as if to debunk it, but follows tradition himself in

saying ‘‘Thou warblest sad thy pity-pleading strains.’’ Three years later in ‘‘The

Nightingale’’ he again quotes the Milton line and even quotes his own phrase

‘‘pity-pleading strains,’’ but this time he refutes the idea that nightingales are

melancholy. ‘‘In Nature there is nothing melancholy,’’ and we owe to an

anonymous unhappy ‘‘night-wandering man’’ the idle thought that nightingales

are sad; ‘‘And many a poet echoes the conceit.’’ This argument was not

original with Coleridge. Socrates said that ‘‘no bird sings when it is hungry or

cold or distressed in any other way -- not even the nightingale or swallow or

hoopoe, whose song is supposed to be a lament’’ (Plato, Phaedo 85a). Keats

seems to be responding to Coleridge when he makes his nightingale happy,

singing with no thought of death or other human woes, but he seems nonetheless

to project such woes when near the end he imagines the bird singing

a ‘‘requiem’’ or ‘‘plaintive anthem.’’

Despite Coleridge, more nightingale poems continued to get written, such

as Matthew Arnolds ‘‘Philomela,’’ Wildes ‘‘The Burden of Itys,’’ and Robert

Bridgess ‘‘Nightingales.’’ In France a notable example is Verlaines ‘‘Le

Rossignol,’’ where the weeping nightingales languishing voice evokes

memories of his absent beloved.

See Cuckoo, Lark.

Noon see East and west

Number To the ancients, as well to many moderns of a mystical bent, numbers had

meanings beyond their mathematical characteristics. The Pythagoreans

developed a whole cosmology based on the interrelations of small numbers,

in particular the ratios of string lengths underlying the musical intervals.

Both the Hebrews and the Greeks used their alphabet as their written number

system, with the result that words acquired numerical values. In Greek, for

example, the letters in iesous (Jesus) sum to 888, a number notable not only

for its repetition but because eight seemed significant in the life of Jesus (he

was in Jerusalem eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter, for example), it can

stand for the Eternal Sabbath after a seven-day week, and is the first perfect

cube (23). Similarly 666, the famous ‘‘number of the beast’’ of Revelation 13.18,

can be derived from the Hebrew spelling of nero caesar, though it is only fair

to point out that different manuscripts of the text give 616 and 665. (666 is

also the Pythagorean ‘‘triangle of the great tetractys,’’ that is, the sum of all

the numbers from 1 to 36 (or 62.) If 888 is a perfect number, then 666,

appropriately enough, is an imperfect number, for it falls below the Hebrew

measure of time just as 888 surpasses and ‘‘completes’’ it.

Seven, of course, is crucial in western number sense. As it is the number of

days in the Hebrew week, it memorably structures the first chapter of Genesis

as well as the whole of the Book of Revelation, the beginning and the end of

the Christian Bible. There are seven visible ‘‘planets’’ in the original sense: the

Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They give their

names to the days of the week in the Romance languages and, converting five

corresponding gods or goddesses, in the Germanic languages (e.g., Wodan was

identified with Mercury, so Wodans Day (Wednesday) is French mercredi). As for

time, seventy is the traditional biblical lifespan, though it is sometimes stated

in a way that disguises its ‘‘sevenness’’: ‘‘the days of our years are threescore

and ten’’ (Ps. 90.10). The Greeks also found seven significant, and one of them,

Hippocrates (or Pseudo-Hippocrates), wrote a treatise called ‘‘On the Sevens,’’

in which he declared sevens to be everywhere: seven seasons, seven strata of

the cosmos, and the like. Thomas Manns The Magic Mountain is filled with

sevens: seven chapters, seven main characters (one named Settembrini), seven

years spent in the sanatorium from 1907 to 1914, and so on. So is Malcolm

Lowrys Under the Volcano, which begins and ends at seven oclock and rings

changes on threes and fours, triangles and quadrangles, as well as on fateful

sevens.

There is no space in this volume to discuss all the interesting symbolic

numbers that appear in literature, such as the ‘‘pentangle’’ on the shield of

Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (619ff.). Instead we shall mention

a few cases of what has been called ‘‘numerical composition’’ or

‘‘numerological composition,’’ the division of literary works into parts whose

lengths correspond to significant numbers and ratios. The oldest and simplest

case is the division of both the Iliad and the Odyssey into twenty-four books,

corresponding to the number of letters in the Attic Greek alphabet after the

fourth century bc; Virgil reduced the books to twelve in his Aeneid, and twelve

books became standard for epics thereafter (e.g., Paradise Lost). Dantes Divine

Comedy is structured almost obsessively on the number three: the three major

divisions or cantiche each have thirty-three canti or cantos except the first, the

Inferno, which has an additional introductory one, giving one hundred in all;

each canto is made of a varying number of tercets or terzine of three lines;

each line has eleven syllables, so each terzina has thirty-three; stitching the

tercets together is a rhyme scheme called terza rima, where each rhyme except

the first and last in the canto occurs three times. The entire work, then,

foreshadows its culminating vision of the Trinity. A more ingenious example,

not explicated until recently, is Spensers Epithalamion, a poem about the day

of his wedding; its twenty-four stanzas correspond to the hours, sixteen of

them in daylight, eight in darkness (hence it is set at the summer solstice); its

365 long lines match the days of the year; and its sixty-eight short lines seem

to be the sum of the four seasons, the twelve months, and the fifty-two weeks.

Many other candidates for numerological structures have been offered by

scholars, some of them plausible, others obscure or far-fetched.