The Nightingale by Sir Philip Sidney (1595)
Summary of The Nightingale Or
PhilomelaThe Nightingale is one of the famous poems of Sir Philip Sidney. The poem is based on book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses which tells us the tale of Philomela who was raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus. Philomela and Procne were the daughters of King Pandion of Attica. Procne married Tereus of Thrace, even though he lusted after Philomela. Sooner or later, Tereus raped Philomela and reduce out her tongue to silence her. She, but, wove the tale into a tapestry that she despatched to her sister. Procne then killed her son and served him for dinner to Tereus. The girls fled, pursued through Tereus, but the gods turned them all into birds: Procne has become a nightingale, Philomela a swallow, and Tereus a hoopoe.
Analysis of Philomela Or The Nightingale
If you are not familiar with the story of Ovid, it is in his Metamorphoses, originally written in Latin dating from 8 CE. Here’s a brief synopsis: Tereus, married to Procne, rapes Philomela who was Procne’s sister. When Philomela Threates to expose him, he cuts her tongue out and locks her hostage. She can’t speak, but she learns to weave, so she weaves a tapestry that explaining her ordeal that she smuggles out to her sister. The tale is not happily finished, however. In reality, Procne and Philomela are murdering Procne’s only son and feeding him to Tereus, to exact their revenge. The women then run and turn themselves into birds as they escape.
The violence against Philomela is first against her body, and then against her voice. The voice of Philomela is the most serious threat to Tereus. After Tereus rapes Philomela, she exclaims,
I’ll shed my shame
And shout what you have done. If I’ve the chance,
I’ll walk among the crowds: or, if I’m held
Locked in the woods, my voice shall fill the woods
And move the rocks to pit. This bright sky
Shall hear, and any god that dwells on high!
There’s no mistake here about the power Philomela has. Her power is her voice— her protest to be quiet. The voice of Philomela is not just the words she cords together, but her ability to speak, speak out and expose Tereus for the vile man he is. Her voice will be powerful enough for even the gods to hear. She will use her voice to “shed[ her] shame.” Shame that she was forced upon her with sexual violence by Tereus. The same shame that all usually all the harassed and assaulted women witnessed. The shame that many of these women are pushing deep down into that place between the belly and the ribcage where it sits, festers, gnaws. But Philomela is going to shed that shame because she has her voice at that moment. Tereus will not get away with what he has done: he won’t shame her. He won’t control her.
But Tereus—the Ovidian equivalent of Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump—can’t allow Philomela to hold on to her power, and thereby, her voice. So, he does what all men in his position do: he strips away her power; he silences her. To silence Philomela, Tereus doesn’t gag her; he doesn’t wall her up behind thick stone. No, Tereus silences Philomela in a brutal act of aggression: he “seized / Her tongue with tongs and, with his brutal sword, Cut it away.” Tereus literally cuts out Philomela’s tongue. This egregious act of violence is a literalized metaphor for the violence done to women’s voices over the centuries, and especially, as we’re seeing, today. The women, though, like Philomela, have begun to reclaim their voices, reclaim their power. In Ovid, Philomela, “wove a clever fabric, working words / In red on a white ground to tell the tale / Of wickedness.” Though Philomela can’t physically speak, she can tell of Tereus’ “wickedness.” So, she weaves the red words into a narrative—her narrative. Philomela now controls her story—a heartbreaking and violent story—and one that Philomela alone can tell. Through her narrative, Philomela regains her voice. Her power. Her agency.