Summary of The Nightingale and the Glow-worm by Cowper
About the poet:
William Cowper was born on November 26th, 1731, in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England. The poet’s mother died when he was six and Cowper was sent to Dr. Pittman’s boarding school, where he was routinely bullied. In 1748, he enrolled in the Middle Temple in order to pursue a law degree.
In 1765, he moved to Huntingdon and took a room with the Rev. Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Unwin died in a riding accident in 1767 and Cowper and Mary Unwin moved together to the town of Olney in 1768. They were not separated until her death in 1796. While at Olney, Cowper became close friends with the Evangelical clergyman John Newton; together they co-authored the Olney Hymns.
In 1773, Cowper became engaged to Mary Unwin, but he had an attack of madness. He had terrible nightmares, believing that God has rejected him. In spite of periods of acute depression, the following years were marked by great achievement as a poet, hymn-writer, and letter-writer. His first volume of poetry, Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple was published in 1782 to wide acclaim.
Cowper’s major work was undertaken when Lady Austen complained to Cowper that he lacked a subject. She encouraged him to write about the sofa in his parlor. The Task grew into an opus of six books and nearly five thousand lines.
Cowper’s attention to nature and common life along with the foregrounding of his personal life prefigured the concerns of Romantic poets such as Wordsworth. William Cowper died of dropsy on April 25, 1800.
About The Nightingale and the Glow-worm:
“The Nightingale and the Glow-worm” by William Cowper is said to have been published on 31st March 1832 in the Penny Magazine.
The setting of The Nightingale and the Glow-worm:
The 1st and 2nd stanza of this poem is set in a village in the English countryside. That village is in the very lap of nature and many hawthorn trees go there. A Nightingale cheers the villagers with its song. A glow-worm is also to be found nearby. Although the Nightingale wants to eat the glow-worm at first, later it is convinced that creatures of the earth should not harm each other. The 3rd and 4th stanzas of this poem are set in the human world as a whole. In this world, there are warring factions. But the poet wants those factions to learn about mutual respect from the nightingale and the glow-worm.
Stanza-wise Summary of The Nightingale and the Glow-worm:
The poem consists of 4 stanzas. The 1st stanza is made up of 14 lines. The 2nd stanza is made up of 12 lines. The 3rd stanza is made up of 8 lines. The 4th stanza is made up of 4 lines. Hence, the entire poem consists of 38 lines in total.
A Nightingale that all day long
Had cheered the village with his song,
Nor yet at eve his note suspended,
Nor yet when eventide was ended,
Began to feel, as well he might,
The keen demands of appetite;
When looking eagerly around,
He spied, far off upon the ground,
A something shining in the dark,
And knew the glow-worm by his spark;
So stooping down from hawthorn top,
He thought to put him in his crop;
The worm, aware of his intent,
Harangued him thus right eloquent:
In this stanza, the poet describes how a nightingale had been singing all day and had cheered up all the inhabitants of a nearby village in the process. When evening came, the nightingale had still not stopped singing. However, around the time that evening fell away into the night, the nightingale began to feel the pangs of hunger. So the Nightingale started looking around for something to feast on. Suddenly his eye fell upon a spark on the ground. The nightingale knew at once that he had sighted a glow-worm. It looked down from the top of the hawthorn tree on which it was perched and made up its mind to gobble up the glow-worm in one go. By this time, the glow-worm had also become aware of the nightingale’s presence and it could sense that the nightingale was about to eat it. In an attempt to save its own life, the glow-worm began to lecture the nightingale.
‘Did you admire my lamp,’ quoth he,
‘As much as I your minstrelsy,
You would abhor to do me wrong,
As much as I to spoil your song,
For ’twas the self-same power divine
Taught you to sing, and me to shine,
That you with music, I with light,
Might beautify and cheer the night.’
The songster heard his short oration,
And warbling out his approbation,
Released him, as my story tells,
And found a supper somewhere else.
In this stanza, the poet describes the glow-worm’s speech and the effect it had on the nightingale. The glow-worm asked the nightingale whether it like the way the body of the glow-worm sparkled. In addition to this, the glow-worm also praised the nightingale’s singing. Then the glow-worm told the nightingale that it would hate to put an end to the nightingale’s song, and conversely, the nightingale should not harm his glowing body either. The reason for this mutual respect is that the same God had created both the glow-worm and the nightingale and endowed each with their unique ability. The God who had taught the nightingale to sing had also taught the glow-worm to shine. This very God had provided each of them with such special talents that they might spread beauty and cheer in the world. After hearing this speech, the nightingale also agreed with the points made by the glow-worm. As a result, it let the glow-worm go and had something else for supper.
Hence jarring sectaries may learn,
Their real interest to discern:
That brother should not war with brother,
And worry and devour each other,
But sing and shine by sweet consent,
Till life’s poor transient night is spent,
Respecting in each other’s case
The gifts of nature and of grace.
In this stanza, the poet says that warring factions ought to learn a lesson from the tale of the nightingale and the glow-worm. They should learn that they are all the children of God and hence they are brothers. Therefore, they should not fight against one another. They should not cause any kind of trouble for one another in fact. Instead, they should live together in harmony so that they make the most of this life. Life is short, and so they should waste time on hatred and war. They should respect one another for the talents that God has given each of them. This mutual respect should be the basis of a loving relationship.
Those Christians best deserve the name,
Who studiously make peace their aim;
Peace, both the duty and the prize
Of him that creeps and him that flies.
In this stanza, the poet says that only those persons who value peace should be called Christians. For the nightingale and the glow-worm, peace is both their duty and the prize that they get for all their efforts. It should be the same way between fellow men, according to the poet.