cover image The Owl and the Nightingale: A New Verse Translation

The Owl and the Nightingale: A New Verse Translation

Simon Armitage. Princeton Univ, $19.95 (152p) ISBN 978-0-691-20216-7

Delivered in a spirited iambic tetrameter, Armitage’s translation of “a quarrel that continues for the better part of eighteen hundred lines of verse, in a style or genre sometimes described as ‘comic debate poetry,’ ” brings to life a dispute between its eponymous creatures. It’s one of the earliest literary works in Middle English, whose date of composition remains unknown, and its rhyming couplets give the poem (and the fighting) a steady rhythm, capturing moments of unexpected philosophical depth as well as bawdy hilarity. Neither bird is above physical insults, as the nightingale declaims: “Your coal-black eyes are weirdly broad” and “You roost by day & fly by night/ which proves that something isn’t right.” The owl accuses the nightingale of “witter[ing] like an Irish priest.” These quarreling creatures often quote King Alfred (“Those mixing with a filthy kind/ shall never leave the dirt behind”), though the owl occasionally imparts even wiser adages, “For as a rule, a thing that pleases/ rankles if it never ceases,” “treachery becomes disgrace/ when played out in a public place.” The facing Middle English text provides a foray for the curious, and Armitage’s introduction expertly sets up this singular work. (Apr.)