Oscar Wilde is likely the most famous British writer associated with Aestheticism, a late 19th-century movement that championed "art for art's sake." In contrast to those who argued that the arts should address social issues or impart moral lessons, the Aesthetics contended that art's sole purpose was to be beautiful. This question about the nature and role of art forms the backdrop to "The Nightingale and the Rose," with the Nightingale and the Student embodying opposite sides of the debate.
Other than perhaps her selflessness, the Nightingale's defining characteristic is her beautiful voice, which she uses largely as a means of bringing pleasure to others; when the Oak-tree, for instance, requests one final song to remember the Nightingale by, she willingly complies, with a "voice…like water bubbling from a silver jar." Furthermore, to the extent that the Nightingale's songs are "about" anything, they are about ideals rather than reality. Rather than singing about her own love (or any particular pair of lovers), the Nightingale sings about love in wholly abstract terms, using stock figures like "a boy and a girl" to trace a path from young love to passionate love to love that survives death. This idealism further underscores the link between the Nightingale's art and Aestheticism, since her songs have no obvious real-world application.
The Student, by contrast, believes that art should "do" something. In fact, he criticizes the Nightingale's song precisely because he sees it as useless and meaningless, saying that the Nightingale cares only about "style"—a common critique of Aestheticism. He even goes so far as to say her art is "selfish," presumably because it has no tangible impact on the world around her. This, of course, is untrue in a literal sense, since the Nightingale's song produces the red rose the Student will present to the girl. Still, it is tempting to agree with the Student's rejection of the Nightingale's song as doing no "practical good." The girl, after all, rejects the rose, and neither she nor the Student understand or appreciate the sacrifice the Nightingale has made. At the very least, the Nightingale's philosophy of art would appear to be misguided.
Digging deeper, however, it is clear that the Student's views on Aestheticism are being satirized. By the end of the story, Wilde has revealed the Student's "love" to be shallow and self-involved, which casts doubt on his claims about being able to recognize true "feeling" in art. Meanwhile, the description of the Nightingale's death reveals the intrinsic value of her art and actions. It is not simply that her songs are beautiful, but that, by sacrificing herself for love, the Nightingale makes the ideal love she sings about a reality in the world. Ultimately, then, the story suggests that art is self-justifying, because the artistic process itself embodies the ideals of art.
Art and Idealism ThemeTracker
Art and Idealism Quotes in The Nightingale and the Rose
Here at last is a true lover…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 as dark as the hyacinth-blossom, and his lips are as red as the rose of his desire.
If you want a red rose…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.
She has form…but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. 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. Still, it must be admitted that she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.
Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.
What a wonderful piece of luck…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.