The Nightingale and the Rose


tremontiI still can’t forget one particular answer that former Minister of The Economy Giulio Tremonti, only a few years ago, gave the journalists who wanted some elucidations about the cuts in the state budget, which, as usual, concerned education, school, culture. In a country with such artistic heritage, everybody would expect the Government to raise funds, for example, to help prevent the inexorable degradation of the many archaeological sites scattered around the country just like Pompei, rather than decrease the number of the archaeologists or those who work in those sites. The Minister gave the journalists a stern, cold look and with his arrogant French “r” said: “Culture has never fed anybody“; and he went away, leaving the audience speechless.

Could he be blamable? After all even Benjamin Franklin in his essay titled “Advice to a Young Tradesman“(1748) had said : “Remember that time is money“. He actually didn’t mention the word culture anywhere. That’s why, when nineteenth century artists  understood that materialism had definitively contaminated with its values the contemporary society, they couldn’t but choose to re-define their role and tasks. What was the point of keeping on with the effort of educating to sensibility an ignorant, indifferent, arrogant audience? What for? Hence they decided to turn their backs to their public and cease any attempt of didactic or moralizing effort. They openly rejected the vulgarity of the contemporary world and refused to conform, finding a safe shelter in that exclusive place where taste and beauty ruled and Théophile Gautier‘s  “Art  for art’s sake” became their motto.

the-nightingale-and-the-roseThe story of “The Nightingale and the Rose” iby Oscar Wilde is the proof that their choice was sound. That nightingale should have followed their example and fly away to reach that shelter, rather than feeling compassion for the tears of a Student and stop to give her help. The Student seems desperate, because he is in love with girl who would accept to dance with him, only if he brough her red roses; but unfortunately it’s winter and there is no chance to have roses of any colour at that time of the year. At this point the nightingale makes the greatest error of her life. She mistakes him for a “true  lover” and therefore worthy of her help.

nightingale_and_the_rose_by_malimalia-d4mn4y7She flies from bush to bush and when eventually she finds the one which might give red roses, she is told that winter has chilled its veins and it would have no roses at all that year. But there is still a way. The nightingale can make the rose out of her music singing all night long, but her blood will make the rose red, the blood that will flow away piercing her heart with a thorn of the bush.The nightingale/artist decides to sacrifice her life for the happiness of the boy. It is amazing to see how the Student, who actually stands as symbol of the insensitive, materialistic society, is from the beginning to the end of the story totally unaware :  “The Student looked up from the grass, and listened, but he could not understand what the Nightingale was saying to him, for he only knew the things that are written down in books”. The nightingale/artist doesn’t speak a language intelligible to man.  Even when the Student opens the window and finds the beautiful rose, he thinks it is only “a wonderful piece of luck” and prefers to ponder if that rose could have a Latin name, rather than reflecting on why that rose was there.

000571890That rose had cost the life of the nightingale/artist. It was her masterpiece. It had a supreme value, the value of art. Will it be understood? When the boy meets the girl she refuses to accept the rose as “the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers” (she must have been Marilyn Monroe’s forerunner, after all diamonds are girl’s best friends). The rose didn’t serve the boy’s cause, but it is beautiful so beautiful that it must have a Latin name, will the Student keep it with him? The fate of the rose is shocking: the Student “ threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it”. So, what is the function of art? “All art is quite useless“, Wilde would answer. Well, isn’t it exactly what Tremonti had said?

Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.”

Charles Baudelaire, L’Albatros


30 thoughts on “The Nightingale and the Rose

  1. A shocking fate for sure! I don’t pretend to know a great deal about art however I should hope it is not all run over by cart wheels. Such a well written post.

  2. Sardonic Wilde missed the point which emerged from his story that, for a while, that world was a better place for the existence and sacrifice of the nightingale and the existence and beauty of the rose, and that both therefore had eternal value.

    • Without humans to appreciate it this intrinsic beauty counts for nothing — far from wasting its perfume on the desert air the rose’s only natural function is to propagate, not exist for humans to admire is eternal value.

      No, the minister has missed the point. All creatures have a culture but humans have the ability to express their appreciation of that culture in detail and that for many they would die to maintain it, even die without it — food or no food. The minister is more than a philistine, he is a fool — even in concentration camps art and music and story sustained life and spirit and hope.

  3. Incidentally, Stefania, I was interested in your comment on the minister’s “arrogant” French “r”. I have a passable French accent but cannot, as a result, manage Italian “r”s. My Italian teacher said that in Italy pronouncing “r” the French way would make me sound sophisticated, but I can see that in a different context that would instead sound arrogant!

    • She is right. The French “r” in Italian may sound sophisticated but also snobbish sometimes as in Mr Tremonti’s case. His French “r” had become the joke of many comedians, in fact.

  4. I had no idea this was an Oscar Wilde story… I’d been exposed to “The Nightingale and the Rose” before but only in a completely changed religious version for kids to perform, where the nightingale is Jesus. Wow.

  5. Wilde´s Story “The Nightingale and the rose” is so sad, meaningful and beautiful… I loved that you brought it back to us here Stefy…
    As to Tremonti´s answer: “Culture has never fed anybody“ I guess there are some semblances with Wilde´s idea of “L´Art pour l´Art ” (“All art is quite useless“)..
    Beautiful excerpt on Baudelaire´s poem too …
    Congratulations on this outstanding post.
    Cheers & best wishes, Aquileana 😉

  6. I found brilliant that the famous american term “Time is money” which is very true, came from the cool founding father Benji. That was nice.

    In a way the Minister is right, don´t get mad now, but yes, culture has never fed anybody. Artist, in general what they do is really to put out writings,paintings, sculputures of whatever that can make you think about such and such or laugh or disconnect for a while from the real world, but at the end the money goes to the artist that´s the one who is being fed.

    But again I can argue that culture feeds knowledge and the more knowledge the better chances you have to be well fed. So I guess it´s both. The Minister was partially right.

  7. It is a beautiful story!! But I cannot find the comparison with the Keats’s work. The last day of school you told us that we could find it on your blog, where can I find it?
    Happy New Year!
    Cordeschi 5G

    • Hi Carolina, if I tell you that the nightingale represents “the artist” and the rose “art”, what would your conclusion be?
      P.S. Check the original message. “Lei” in English is translated with you. It sounds rude, I know, but this is how it works. Have a great New Year. 🙂 Teach

  8. Which is the role of the artist for Oscar Wilde? He is the creator of beautiful things, just like he wrote in the first line in ”The Picture of Dorian Grey”. The role of the artist is perfectly respected by the Nightingale in ”The Nightingale and the Rose”, one of his most important works. The bird can be compared as in artist, it creates beautiful music, and we know that for the members of the esthete movement music is the best form of harmony that men can create, where feelings and emotions are exalted more easily and with so much power. In this short story the bird creates through it’s song a beautiful rose, in order to help the boy conquere his lover. This is why we can compare the Rose and the Song to art, because they are those beautiful things created by the Nightingale, just like when the artist creates a beautiful poem. At the end of the story, the student failes and he does not convince the girl to go to the dance with him. She actually decides to accept the invitation by a man who gave her real jewels. This part of the work reflects perfectly the Utilitarian philosophy of the age, where everything is judged by their practical utilities. This is why both students represent us, they represent society where people are not able to appreciate simple things that are very big instead. People can’t understand, this is why John Keats created a social barrier between him and the readers. The artists don’t want to waste their time trying to be appreciated, just like the Nightingale did sacrificing itself to help the student, with no result. Art is useless. This is why we can consider this short story a manifest of aestheticism.

  9. Wilde says, in the preface of Dorian Gray, the artist is the creator of beautiful things. This role is respected by the nightingale in the Nightingale and the Rose, a short story of Oscar Wilde. in this work the nightingale can be compared to the artist. the bird, thanks to his sacrifice, creates a beautiful red rose, which is given to the student who represents us. We , as students, do not understand the beauty of art but we remain focused only to material goods. so the rose can be compareded to the art because the bird creates a beautiful thing while the artist creates a poem. in the continuation of the story the student does not understand the effort made by the bird for the creation of the rose, he can not understand how it is possible that the rose is outside of his window. the students still can not bring the girl to the dance. She goes to the dance with another boy, who gave him the jewels. This part of the story reflected the utilitarian philosophy, based of all practical value. So both students represent society,they do not appreciate the simple things, but they see the utility of things. The artist, however, unlike the nightingale does not waste his time doing appreciate his creation but he believes that people can not understand his creation. Oscar Wilde comes to the conclusion that art is quite useless. So this story can be seen as a manifesto of aestheticism.

  10. “All art is quite useless”… I don’t think so. Better “art for art’s sake” but it is not useless. Maybe art’s purpose is not to make money, but i think that art improves people, it makes them more sensitive and more human than machine. We need art to escape from our world whether we like it or not, because sometimes everyone needs to leave the commons days and commons times. So we just enjoy it, to get pleasure and to see a beautiful thing which lives forever (lives in the slow time). But the great thing is that we make this beautiful things even if we are not perfect as it! So art is not useless, maybe useless for some economic purposes, but not useless for us, for humans.

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