Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose

In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.

Poet, dramatist and wit Oscar Wilde had a decided taste for fairy tales, even in some of his most mundane work. His play The Importance of Being Earnest, for instance, ends with a scene that could be lifted straight from any of a hundred stories of children lost at birth eventually found by parents, if with more than a touch of Wilde’s mockery: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Take that, all of you abandoned and kidnapped fairy tale princes and princesses!

But his mockery could not hide his genuine love for the genre. He indulged this love in two collections of fairy tales: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and The House of Pomegranates (1891). “The Nightingale and the Rose,” a response to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale,” is in the first. Wilde admired the way Andersen used his fairy tales to critique society—something Wilde himself would do in his own tales—but profoundly disagreed with Andersen’s depictions of sacrifice and with Anderson’s preference for the natural over the manufactured and artificial. His own tale takes a decidedly different approach.

As the story opens, a young student is bemoaning his fate. Without a red rose, he will not be able to dance with a certain young girl. Alas, his garden does not have a single red rose, so he will have to spend the following night alone and forlorn. Nearly everyone who has known or been a dramatic teenager is nodding along with this, but dude, I gotta tell you: if a girl won’t hang out with you because of your garden issues, you need to find another girl. Or, failing that, a flower seller. Granted, as a Student (the capitalization is Wilde’s, not mine) he is presumably Without Funds, something also hinted at the end of the tale, when some very unkind comments are made about his shoes.

Anyway. A nearby Nightingale, hearing all this, is considerably more impressed than I am. To be fair, this is not, I must note, a very observant Nightingale: not only does she fail to realize that the young Student’s tendency towards Overdramatics, or the Girl’s tendency to be ever so slightly superficial, but she—the Nightingale, that is—has also completely failed to realize the color of two of the three rose bushes in the garden where she has a nest and has been apparently living for some time. She also admits to barely knowing the Student, even though she lives in his garden and he seems to be the type who indulges in Overdramatics in the garden on a frequent basis, so, really, she should. I’d love to feel sorry for this bird, but I can’t help but think that her singing has addled her powers of perception just a touch.

The other birds in the garden tend to agree with me that the Student is kinda ridiculous. The bird, however, has a Romantic Soul, so she decides to see if she can acquire a red rose for the Student. You were warned, bird! The first two rosebushes in the garden point out, with some justification, that they are the wrong color; the third rosebush just notes that he’s had a very bad winter—we can all understand—and thus, he can only produce a rose if the nightingale feeds him her heart’s blood, dying for the rose as she sings.

The Nightingale, who, if you failed to notice, is not the most practical sort, decides that love is worth this kind of sacrifice, and instead of, say, flying out to find a nearby flower seller or even another garden—really, Nightingale and Student, try thinking a bit—she presses herself against one of the rose bush’s thorns, and sings.

Spoiler: this does not go well.

As with Andersen’s original tale, “The Nightingale and the Rose” can be read in many ways: as Wilde’s recognition that art requires sacrificing something, along with his observation that such sacrifices often go unappreciated; as a possible comment on how some of his own works had been received up until this point (I feel many writers and artists can sympathize); as a warning to artists of every type that their audiences might not know, let alone appreciate, what is needed to create a work; and Wilde’s rather cynical thoughts on love, and the folly of sacrificing beauty—the song of a nightingale—for that love. Not to mention an acknowledgement that for some people, money will always remain more important than art, and a suggestion that just maybe, killing yourself, or even just bleeding, for your art is not going to pay off in the end.

Above all, however, the tale reads as a rejection of the argument that art—musical or otherwise—can fundamentally change anything, and a rejection of the thought that artists should devote themselves to creating a work capable of transforming something else—perhaps especially something as fragile as a heart. In Andersen’s tale, the nightingale’s music transforms a court and chases away Death. In Wilde’s tale, the Nightingale’s song, for all its beauty and power, can create a rose—that is, art—and even force the moon to listen, but the final result, the rose, has no power at all. It’s a demonstration of Wilde’s overall philosophy of “art for art’s sake”—that is, his belief that art does not have, and does not need to have, a moral or utilitarian role. Wilde’s work certainly does not lack ethics, but he had no interest in writing the social and moral critiques composed by his contemporaries.

Musicians and artists alike responded positively to the tale: “The Nightingale and the Rose” was to inspire several ballets, operas, paintings and one short film, none of which Wilde ever saw. Wilde went on to respond to another story of Andersen’s, “The Little Mermaid,” with “The Fisherman and his Soul,” published in The House of Pomegranates (1891). A need to make money, however, drove him to focus less on fairy tales and more on his very successful plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1894), and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest. (1895). A sixth and earlier play, Salome, initially banned from the stage on the grounds that it featured Biblical characters, was finally produced in 1896.

By then, Wilde’s affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury, had led Wilde into first a libel case against Queensbury and then Wilde’s arrest for sodomy and imprisonment from 1895 to 1897. After this, Wilde went into an impoverished exile in France, where he composed poetry, but no more fairy tales, until his death in 1900.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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