Go back to article: Capturing the song of the nightingale

The owl and the nightingale

The conversational characteristics of the Nightingale broadcasts with Harrison’s cello were compared with the earlier conversational forms of print. Just before the first broadcast, a cartoon in Punch (Punch, 1924, p 355) picked up on this by referencing a literary form known as debate poetry (or verse contest); specifically a twelfth/thirteenth century Middle English poem called The Owl and the Nightingale (in which they trade insults). The narrator overhears an owl and a nightingale haranguing each other in a lengthy and comical debate about whose song is the more beautiful, with the nightingale beginning the verbal attack, ‘My heart sinks, and my tongue falters, when you are close to me. I’d rather spit than sing about your awful guggling’.

The Punch cartoon features the nightingale (proudly) announcing, ‘I was broadcast last night.  Great fun!’ with Owl (not to be outdone) countering, ‘Ah!  I’ve been approached to supply the hoots for a Scottish concert.’  In addition to the comment on the jealousies and one-upmanship the nightingale’s newfound celebrity might provoke among other birds, the panel above the cartoon of nightingale and owl portrayed the BBC ‘boffins’ setting up their outside broadcast equipment. This received mention in the Irish Times in May just after the broadcast. ‘Not long since, a humorous artist designed a picture representing the operators of the Company setting up their instruments for the very object which has now been carried into effect, not in jest but happy earnest’ (‘Philomel’, 1924).

Perhaps inevitably, ‘bookish’ owl and ‘tuneful’ nightingale can also be considered as characterisations of the wider print versus radio debate. In a chapter of his 1924 book Broadcast over Britain entitled, ‘The Fears of Mediaevalists’, Reith wrote:

I believe it has been proclaimed that broadcasting will encourage contentment with superficiality; that both as direct and indirect result of wireless, there will be less reading and close application to study; the direct result will presumably be from the fact that time is occupied in listening; the indirect result might arise from so much being brought concentrated and “tinned” to hand. Even the broadcasting of the song of the nightingale evoked one or two such diatribes. (Reith, 1924a, p 129)

One of the most insightful comments on the initial broadcast came from a correspondent of the Daily Record & Daily Mail, who pondered what the great poets would have thought had they stumbled upon the party of BBC radio engineers stalking the nightingale with a microphone. ‘These men with their microphone, their valves, their condensers, inductances, and all the prosaic implements of the broadcasting business, were taking immensely practical steps towards fulfilling the poets’ own dream – that everyone might come to appreciate the beautiful things of life’ (‘Philomel Calling’, 1924). The observation retrieves the romanticism advocated by Oscar Wilde’s essay ‘The Decay of Lying’, which concludes:

And now let us go out on the terrace, where “droops the milkwhite peacock like a ghost,” while the evening star “washes the dusk with silver.” At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets. (Wilde, 1894, p 54)

Figure 11

Black and white poster advertising the Nightingale Festival at Foyle Riding depicting an angel holding an injured nightingale

An angel weeps over a blinded nightingale in a poster for a 1933 Nightingale Festival

Following a Nightingale Festival, on 14 May 1933, a special nightingale concert was performed by Beatrice Harrison and broadcast by the BBC to draw attention to the plight of the nightingales, whose numbers were decreasing due, in part, to many of them being caught and sold as pets. The conclusion of the evening was aptly described in an article in The Times, ‘It was the screech of an owl that silenced the nightingale’s song’ (‘A Nightingale Festival’, 1933). 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150402/008