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To the Nightingale by William Cowper



We may like to believe our consciousness is imperturbable, but even the strongest amongst us feels a winter during spring. We are beaten down and saddened by pain and loneliness (a form of emotional pain).

Poetry often cannot solve one's problems, but it can be a salve. It can make you feel better, wake up your spirit, and build your emotional reservoirs.

But only if you know how to read.

Below is my reading of this poem. I've included the poem by Cowper is below that my recordings. It is my claim that you do NOT need any specialized knowledge, training or experience to work with great poems. To unlock them requires two things: a dictionary and your mind.

Lastly, at the very bottom is my synopsis of the poem. If you need my guidance, read that. Eventually, whether you are a high school drop out or a PhD in literature, you will be able to understand great poetry.

William Cowper

To the Nightingale which the Author Heard Sing on New Year's Day 1792

WHENCE is it, that amaz'd I hear From yonder wither'd spray, This foremost morn of all the year, The melody of May? And why, since thousands would be proud Of such a favour shown, Am I selected from the crowd, To witness it alone? Sing'st thou, sweet Philomel, to me, For that I also long Have practis'd in the groves like thee, Though not like thee in song? Or sing'st thou rather under force Of some divine command, Commission'd to presage a course Of happier days at hand? Thrice welcome then! for many a long And joyless year have I, As thou to-day, put forth my song Beneath a wintry sky. But thee no wintry skies can harm, When only need'st to sing, To make ev'n January charm, And ev'ry season Spring.



The poet is a true romantic, sitting in winter and lamenting the harsh and severe English winter. When, amidst the withered spray (snow) he hears the melody of may (springtime).

Cowper is shocked that he of all people can hear this lovely Springtime song. He's just a miserable lonely loser sitting in winter, why him?

AH! Perhaps, the nightingale is his compatriot, the miserable Philomel; she too lived a miserable life and yet became a nightingale with a beautiful song in her heart. With that song, she could cheer all of mankind.

Maybe this winter song is predicting a happy year to come, where misery is not the only thing on the menu. If that's the case, I'm more than happy to hear her sing and perhaps she can give me a song to get me through the winter. You will be my minstrel, my inspiration, oh Philomela! No winter can stop you, no misery of human or natural world can make you sad. All you need is your song and in singing, you turn every dreary January into budding spring!

Stanza 1:


1) Whence - From what place or source

2) Yonder - At some distance

3) Wither'd To what place or state (possibly meaning Whithered Weather, a play on words, no?)

Synopsis of Stanza: From where is this amazing song I hear coming from? It sounds as though it comes from the place in my mind, and makes me think of the best time of year, May.

Cowper seems to be stressing the state that the poem puts him in. The song transports him from the foremost morn (another pun? MOURN?) and to the melody of may.

Stanza 2:

No Unknown Words.

Synopsis: The poet then asks (the gods?) why all the men in the world, men who would proudly accept the honor of hearing this song, not be selected? Why was he, Cowper selected? He and he alone from everyone?

Stanza 3:

Unknown Words:

Philomela - Turned into a nightingale while being pursued by Tereus, who raped her.

Synopsis: Sing to me, Philomel, for I too have practiced singing in the groves, as you have. Though I have not reached your level of mastery, I wish to sing like you.

Stanza 4:

Unknown Words:

1) Commission'd - Instruction, command, or duty given to a person or group of people.

2) Presage - Predict

OR: "Be a sign of warning that something (usually bad) will happen)

Synopsis: Are you singing by with of some natural power who commands you to predict that this new year will bring happier days?

Stanza 5:

No Unknown Words

Synopsis: If so, I welcome you three time! I've had a bad run at this life, with so much misery for years on end. Hearing you today sing a song that I wish to sing myself. It makes me want to sing even beneath this gloomy winter sky.

In other words, he has a song in his heart, but could not voice it beneath this winter sky. Not till he heard the beautiful nightingale.

Stanza 6:

No Unknown Words

Synopsis: You can't be harmed by winter because of your song. My life has been winter, but I take inspiration from your song. All you require for spiritual nourishment is your own song and with it, you make dreary January charming and turn every season into spring.