This article provides a complete line by line summary of the poem the frog and the nightingale by Vikram Seth. Do take the grammar quiz at the end of this article.
Once upon a time, under a sumac tree in Bingle Bog, a frog sang the night long, every night, in a horrendous voice. The forest animals were distraught and at their wits end. They tried stopping his crass ‘Minstrelling’ with sticks and stones, insults and bricks but to no avail. In sheer dismay they cried for divine intervention. To all this, the frog remained impassive and resolute, intent on airing his heart’s glad ‘elation.’
One night, when in the sky hung a pale moon, a nightingale perched on the sumac tree and sang entrancingly into the night. The creatures of the bog were held in thrall by its exquisite melody. The frog listened, dumbstruck; and all stared at the tree in delight. At the end came clamorous applause. While the nightingale serenaded her song, ducks swum and herons waded close to her and a lonely loon sobbed.
Then came calls for more singing:
“Bravo!” “Too divine!” “Encore!”
Brand-new to such a standing ovation, the nightingale sang on, never pausing till dawn. Needless to say, the frog was appalled and threatened by the Nightingale’s sudden appearance. He was jealous too, of how the animals’ exalted in her sweet voice. But he had cunning and was a shrewd businessman.He decided that she would have to be destroyed.
The following night, the Nightingale spread her wing a little, and closed an eye with the twitch of her tail and a shake of her head. Gently, she cleared her throat to sing. No sooner did she begin than she was stopped in mid- song by the bullying frog. He tells her boastfully that he owns the sumac tree and has been performing for years. He informs her that he is a famous critic as well as a singer who can sing in a booming baritone.
The diffident bird is impressed by the self-important frog. She asks him timidly whether he liked her singing. To this the frog condescendingly replies that her voice is not all that bad, but it wants more force. In fact her technique is good but her song is a little too long.
The Nightingale, gratified by the summation of her talent by a famous critic, defends her song saying that it may be not be heavenly but it is certainly her ‘own’ and therefore unique. The hardhearted frog threw cold water on the ‘originality’ of her song. He argued that originality didn’t stand a chance without technique, so the Nightingale had nothing to be proud of. Craftily, he remarked that she should be trained first or lag behind, as a mere beginner. The nervous Nightingale was downcast.
The frog, hinting that under his tutelage she would be a big hit, offered his guidance for a small fee that would not hurt her.
The naïve bird was shyly flattered, by this attention and advice from whom she thought was a talented singer and music critic. Lacking in confidence and true discernment, she gushed that the frog with his croaking voice, was a Mozart come to teach her.
Under the patronizing frog, the Nightingale sang her heart out and became famous throughout the forest. The frog charged for tickets and earned from her performances. He felt both sweet and bitter as he pocketed his cash—sweet because of the money coming in and bitter because the Nightingale’s lovely voice was so applauded by one and all.
Even the aristocratic members of the bog were present at the Nightingale’s concerts. There was the Earl of Duck, the Owl of Sandwich and the Coot of Monte Cristo amongst other distinguished personalities. The ladies attended, bejeweled with glittering crowns.
The frog now starts her training in earnest. He has made her sing in the pouring rain for hours. Her voice now hurt, and she was shivering in the cold. Still he made her sing through the night. He insisted that she should sing faster and louder like him and follow the fashion of the times if she wanted to be famous. Under such harsh non-stop training and criticism, the Nightingale lost her beautiful voice and her singing became uninspired and mechanical.
The animals stopped coming to listen and she grew sorrowful and pale. She had gotten used to the fame and cheering and it no longer delighted her to sing alone in the forest. The stony hearted frog scolded her for not singing well enough. The dwindling audiences made him lose money. He reminded the poor bird that she still owed him sixty shillings, so she should look sharp and pull up her socks.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
The scared Nightingale, sick, tortured and anguished tried to puff up and sing once more but she burst a vein and died.
The shrewd frog is dismissive of the Nightingale:
“I tried to teach her,
But she was a stupid creature –
Far too nervous, far too tense.”
Once again he assumes his unrivaled position in the bog, in his ‘fog horn’ voice.Thus the moral of the story is never to trust a frog. To do so is to be an imbecile.
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