In Praise of Light Summer Reading

Paul Louis Oudart, "French Nightingale"

Paul Louis Oudart, “French Nightingale”

Here’s an enjoyable summer fable by my father, who was a French professor. In this poem, the heaviness and earnestness of the classical languages have given way to the lightness of the romance languages—which I suppose could be seen as analogous to serious literature giving way to beach reading.

Tereus is the Thracian king who in Greek mythology raped his sister-in-law Philomela and then pulled out her tongue and held her captive so that she couldn’t expose him. After an act of revenge which involved Tereus’ wife discovering the crime and serving up their son for dinner, Philomela was turned into a nightingale. The nightingale in the poem isn’t anywhere near so tragic as she chooses to read the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir and whistle tunes from a popular French opera.

Or maybe the poem is about how women’s lives becomes a lot less tragic–a lot less Greek–once they embrace feminism and become empowered. The sad story of Manon Lescaut becomes an opera comique from la belle époque.

Anyway, enjoy the poem as you sink into your summer reading:

The Romantic Nightingale

By Scott Bates

A Nightingale I know
Has learned to speak
Romance Languages
She has forgotten Greek

And although she still sings in the middle of the night
Like Homer
And still detests Tereus
With all her might

I find her now in hedgerows
Of a summer’s day
Reading Simone de Beauvoir
Or whistling Manon by Massenet.

Further thoughts: I’m already beginning to think that I’ve misinterpreted the poem. Now I’m wondering if it’s a poem about a rape survivor, especially after hearing a segment on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes yesterday. The show was about how there is an epidemic of sexual assaults on college campuses, so much so that that one expert said that, if a college doesn’t acknowledge that date rapes are occurring, then it is covering them up.

Anyway, from that point of view, Simone de Beauvoir is helping with the recovery process as Philomela is venturing out into the world. The singing in the middle of the night sounds as though she is still having nightmares, and she hasn’t forgotten what happened to her. But she has found a way to move on.

But if that’s what the poem is up to, then “Romantic Nightingale” seems to sound a false note. The poem sounds too light for the subject matter, which is what threw me off about it. So I’m still not sure.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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