Owl and the Nightingale

Copyright (c) the British Library Board (Cotton MS Caligula A.ix., ff. 233–46).

In the early thirteenth century, poetry was only just beginning to be written in English. The first poets to write in the vernacular were therefore engaged in an innovative project: they were forging a poetic syntax and founding styles that would form the basis of the burgeoning English tradition. Written more than a century before Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Owl and the Nightingale, here beautifully read by Harriet Smith Hughes, is an example of the creativity of these early poets, interpreting and repurposing the established forms of Latin and French verse. It is the earliest example in English of the popular verse contest form. Below is an edited excerpt: the two birds debate whose song is better, then fly off to Nicholas of Guildford to decide the verdict. Some scholars believe that this mysterious figure may be the poet’s patron, or indeed the poet himself.

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