I was profoundly moved by Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose.” The tale is at once haunting and exquisite: in a moonlit garden, a nightingale impales herself on the thorn of a rose, willingly enduring a slow and torturous death in the name of love. In my opinion, the tale serves as a poetic tribute to the power of love, art, and music.
In the tale, Wilde dramatizes the tension between passion and reason. On the one end, we have the Nightingale, who acts a prototype of love. From the very beginning, we understand that there is something special about this Nightingale, that she is more than any mere bird. Profoundly wise and sage-like, she possesses a deep appreciation for human love and will do anything she can to ensure its protection. The Nightingale’s selflessness immediately manifests itself in her attempt to help the lovesick student find a red rose. To procure a rose for the boy, the Nightingale must sing all night long and then impale herself on the rose’s thorn. She heroically agrees to carry out the morbid ritual, declaring, “Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?” (Wilde 263). Through such valiant, unselfish words, the bird emerges as something of a tragic martyr, willing to endure death in the name of love.
In the end, however, reason reigns over passion, as suggested by the student’s devolution from hopefully romantic to cynical academic parallels. At the beginning of the tale, the student is wistful and starry-eyed, his heart filled with the innocent, clumsy love of an adolescent. Sitting in a moonlit garden, the student ruefully muses aloud, “Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched” (Wilde 261). Here, he boldly renounces his schooling—deeming rational thought the meaningless jargon of academics and “wise men”—and asserts his allegiance with the simple beauty of the “red rose,” which stands for true, pure love. Soon, however, the force of reason proves too strong for the student to resist. By the tale’s conclusion, the boy, disillusioned by his lover’s rejection of him, carelessly discards the Nightingale’s red rose in the street. With an air of cynical defeat, he retreats into a solitary existence of “dusty” books and education, sighing that love is “quite unpractical, and, in this age to be practical is everything” (265).
By flinging the Nightingale’s red rose into the street, the Student resigns from his duty as a disciple of love and returns to the ranks of scientists and philosophers. As readers, we are to see the boy as naïve, frustrating, and ultimately foolish. Wilde, it seems, is commenting on mankind’s futile quest for knowledge. In man’s attempt to p ursue science and “truth,” the more important things in life, such as love, are carelessly tossed aside. This phenomenon, whereby love becomes engulfed by reason, is a tragic event, as tragic as the image of the broken Nightingale, lying dead in the grass with the last notes of her haunting song reverberating in the night.
I searched the web for a bit of further insight into the tale. Many sources mentioned that Wilde was a key figure in the aesthetic movement, which exalted the doctrine of “art for art’s sake”—creating art for its intrinsic value, divorced from any external moral function. Clearly, Wilde injected many of these ideals into this particular tale. For example, on page 256, the boy’s statement that the Nightingale’s notes “do not mean anything, or do any practical good” stands in direct contradiction to the principles of aestheticism (Wilde 265). Failing to recognize any discernable meaning in the song, the Student thinks it must be worthless and amateur. His teachings have conditioned him to vigorously analyze works of art, reducing something that was one whole and beautiful into scientific, sterile pieces.
However, the beauty of the Nightingale’s song is not that it has meaning, but rather that it abounds with passion and feeling. The song possesses an almost transformative quality; it causes a fragrant rose to unfurl in the middle of the moonlight-infused garden. The tragic notes rise and fall in the cold morning air like the incantation of a spell, holding the world breathless, if only for a moment. As the last of her blood begins to seep out, the Nightingale delivers one final, passionate burst of music, and suddenly the world stops, enchanted—the moon, even, “forgets the dawn, and lingers on in the sky” (264). Through this lovely language, Wilde nods to art’s inherent power. Although the science-minded boy fails to grasp the beauty of the song, the song elicits a powerful, noticeable response in nature, a realm that has not been tainted by science or reasoning. Thus, Wilde's "The Nightingale and the Rose," which is saturated with allusions to the aesthetic movement, dramatizes the tension between reason and passion in society and adopts the stance that passion, although grossly undermined by modern society, is more important.