Appendix 10. "The Nightingale and the Rose" by Oscar Wilde.

The story, which first appeared in a collection of five short stories entitled The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), opens thus:

"She said that she would dance with me if I brought her red roses," cried the young Student; "but in all my garden there is no red rose."

From her nest in the holm-oak tree the Nightingale heard him, and she looked out through the leaves, and wondered.

"No red rose in all my garden!" he cried, and his beautiful eyes filled with tears. "Ah, on what little things does happiness depend! I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine, yet for want of a red rose is my life made wretched."

"Here at last is a true lover," said the Nightingale. "Night after night have I sung of him, though I knew him not: night after night have I told his story to the stars, and now I see him. His hair is dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are red as the rose of his desire; but passion has made his face like pale ivory, and sorrow has set her seal upon his brow."

"The Prince gives a ball to-morrow night," murmured the young Student, "and my love will be of the company. If I bring her a red rose she will dance with me till dawn. If I bring her a red rose, I shall hold her in my arms, and she will lean her head upon my shoulder, and her hand will be clasped in mine. But there is no red rose in my garden, so I shall sit lonely, and she will pass me by. She will have no heed of me, and my heart will break."

"Here indeed is the true lover," said the Nightingale. "What I sing of, he suffers–what is joy to me, to him is pain. Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold."

So, the Nightingale flies around the garden to look for a red rose, but there isn’t one to be found – only white and yellow roses. Not only that, but the red rose bush beneath the student’s window has been withered by the winter frosts, so it will have no flowers in the coming year. But the withered bush explains to the Nightingale that there is a way it can be revived, but at a cost:

"If you want a red rose," said the Tree, "you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart's-blood. You must sing to me with your breast against a thorn. All night long you must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine."

Though the Nightingale knows that it will kill her, she nevertheless flies back to the Student to tell him that he will have his red rose after all, but only on condition that he will be a true lover, “for Love is wiser than Philosophy.” But the Student does not understand her, “for he knew only things that are written down in books.” The story continues:

And when the Moon shone in the heavens the Nightingale flew to the Rose-tree, and set her breast against the thorn. All night long she sang with her breast against the thorn, and the cold crystal Moon leaned down and listened. All night long she sang, and the thorn went deeper and deeper into her breast, and her life-blood ebbed away from her.

By dawn, a perfect red rose had been formed, but the Nightingale was dead. The story continues:

And at noon the Student opened his window and looked out.

"Why, what a wonderful piece of luck!" he cried; "here is a red rose! I have never seen any rose like it in all my life. It is so beautiful that I am sure it has a long Latin name"; and he leaned down and plucked it.

Then he put on his hat, and ran up to the Professor's house with the rose in his hand.

The daughter of the Professor was sitting in the doorway winding blue silk on a reel, and her little dog was lying at her feet.

"You said that you would dance with me if I brought you a red rose," cried the Student. "Here is the reddest rose in all the world. You will wear it to-night next your heart, and as we dance together it will tell you how I love you."

But the girl frowned.

"I am afraid it will not go with my dress," she answered; "and, besides, the Chamberlain's nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers."

"Well, upon my word, you are very ungrateful," said the Student angrily; and he threw the rose into the street, where it fell into the gutter, and a cart-wheel went over it.

So the Student went home to read a book of Philosophy, declaring, “what a silly thing Love is.”

The image of the Nightingale and the Rose has given rise to at least two cover illustrations for Wilde’s Fairy Tales, and of course to numerous illustrations of the story itself (see Gallery 7A, Folder 2.) Wilde’s short story was also, interestingly, the source of inspiration for a variety operatic works and ballets. (As a parallel to this, Rimsky Korsakov’s song “The Nightingale enslaved by the Rose”, written in 1866, took its inspiration from a poem by Alexei Koltsov, written in 1831.)

I have been unable to discover exactly where Wilde got the inspiration for this charming short story of his. Like so many of his contemporaries, Wilde had a fascination for the orient. As Thomas Wright notes in his book Oscar’s Books (2008), he was “profoundly fascinated by all things Japanese” and had a fantasy image of himself in Japan “drinking amber tea out of a blue cup….while gazing at a landscape without perspective.” Again:

“He adored ‘Oriental’ poets, such as Omar Khayyam, for their ability to blend ‘philosophy and sensuousness…simple parable or fable and obscure mystic utterance.’ Wilde especially loved to read ‘wise Omar’ in Fitzgerald’s poetical translation but also enjoyed the ‘strange purple and fresh amethyst’ of Justin McCarthy’s 1889 prose version. In November 1894 he purchased an anthology of Persian poetry called Flowers from a Persian Garden, which had been done into English prose by W.A.Clouston. In the same month he also bought E. Arnold’s Indian Poetry, which contains an English rendition of an Indian version of the Old Testament ‘Song of Songs’.” (p.128)

Clouston, incidentally, recounts (p.42-4) the tale of “The Nightingale, the Rose and the Ant”, a variant on the basic story of “The Nightingale and the Rose”, but this was first published in 1890, two years after his own short story, and so cannot be the source of inspiration for it. As for FitzGerald’s translation of Omar, in a letter to Louis Wilkinson, dated 20th March 1899, Wilde referred to it as “a masterpiece of art.” (see The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (1962), p.787.) The quote about the “strange purple and fresh amethyst” of McCarthy’s prose translation was a comment made by Wilde in a letter to McCarthy – whom he knew well enough to address as “Dear Justin” – written in mid-May 1889. (See More Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis (1985), p.82-3.)

Though it is not clear from what source Wilde learned the details of the legend of the Nightingale and the Rose, it is certainly true to say that, by the time he used it, it had long been familiar to the reading public through many well-known literary sources. Thus, to cite but three examples mentioned in chapter 9 of the main essay: William Beckford, in his novel Vathek (1786), wrote of how “the nightingale sang the birth of the rose, her well-beloved, and, at the same time, lamented its short-lived beauty”; Thomas Moore, in his poem Lalla Rookh (1817), wrote: “What is it to the nightingale, / If there his darling rose is not?”; and, most famous of all, Byron, in The Giaour (1813), wrote of “the Rose o'er crag or vale, / Sultana of the Nightingale.”