The Frog and the Nightingale by Vikram Seth
An allegory written by the Indian poet and novelist Vikram Seth, The frog and the Nightingale is a poem focused towards young readers with the view of educating them to beware of exploitation and to trust in their own selves in the recognition of their own strengths. The poem was originally composed in 1994 and published by the Evergreen Publications. Due to the poem’s rich moral lesson, it has been adopted in several school textbooks.
The poem can be interpreted in many ways: it can be perceived as a piece shedding light on the exploitation of talent and genius; or it can be said to be a lesson on the choice of company; a discourse on self-confidence, or even a critique on trust. Beyond these fundamental moral teachings, the poem also focuses on the nature of art and artist, appreciation of genius and the struggle to maintain a set standard.
The Frog and The Nightingale: Poem Explanation
Once upon a time a frog
Croaked away in Bingle Bog
Every night from dusk to dawn
He croaked awn and awn and awn
The poem begins on a narrative with the classical stock phrase ‘Once upon a time’ to engage the audience in the fairytale of the poem from the very start. We are introduced to a frog who is shown croaking in a Bingle Bog. A Bingle Bog is a marshy and muddy place around the roots of a tree. The frog croaked without stopping from evening to the morning, throughout the night. The poet says that the creature croaked “awn and awn and awn”. On one hand it suggests the croak of the frog, while on the other hand the poet might suggest the simple relentlessness of the frog’s croaking with sounds similar to the words “on and on and on”. This can be regarded as a clever word play.
Other creatures loathed his voice,
But, alas, they had no choice,
And the crass cacophony
Blared out from the sumac tree
At whose foot the frog each night
Minstrelled on till morning night
The other creatures did not like the frog’s singing, though they had no choice but to listen to him throughout the night. The frog’s ‘crass cacophony’, that is, his rough unpleasant and crude mixture of sounds were heard by all the inhabitants of the sumac tree. And so, the frog sang like a minstrel at the foot of the sumac tree every night.
Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks.
Insults or complaints or bricks
Stilled the frogs determination
To display his heart’s elation.
Nothing could stop the frog from singing. Even when stones and sticks were thrown at him he persisted. No pleading or insults or complaints had any effect on him. The frog was full of determination and keen on displaying his feeling through his voice and so he sang without the least care for the world. Although the frog is the antagonist of the poem, a good quality we see here is the quality of determination.
But one night a nightingale
In the moonlight cold and pale
Perched upon the sumac tree
Casting forth her melody
Dumbstruck sat the gaping frog
And the whole admiring bog
Stared towards the sumac, rapt,
One night a nightingale perched on the sumac tree at whose foot the frog used to sing night after night. In the moonlight, sitting on the tree, she started singing in a melodious and dulcet voice. Nightingales are song-birds and their voice is very melodious. This has inspired poets and writers since antiquity to write songs and poem on the beauty of their voice. The frog, in this scenario, sat gaping at the nightingale completely amazed and dumbstruck. Everyone in the bog (marsh land) around the sumac tree were also likewise awed and they stared at the nightingale in admiration.
And, when she had ended, clapped,
Ducks had swum and herons waded
To her as she serenaded
And a solitary loon
Wept, beneath the summer moon.
When the nightingale concluded her singing, everyone who had heard her clapped. Ducks swam towards the nightingale enchanted by her music and herons walked towards her as she sang. The song of the nightingale was so beautiful that it made a loon weep sitting by himself in the moonlit sky. The nightingale’s voice is glorified in the lines.
Toads and teals and tiddlers, captured
By her voice, cheered on, enraptured:
“Bravo! ” “Too divine! ” “Encore! ”
So the nightingale once more,
Quite unused to such applause,
Sang till dawn without a pause.
Even the toads and teals (which are a kind of freshwater ducks with bright colours on their necks) and tiddlers (which are fishes of salty water) were captured by the divine melody of the nightingale. Ravished and enraptured by her song they cheered for her with ‘Bravo!’ ‘Too divine!’ ‘Encore!’. The modest nightingale was quite unused to such high praise. Seeing her art being appreciated she sang on till the dawn.
Next night when the Nightingale
Shook her head and twitched her tail,
Closed an eye and fluffed a wing
And had cleared her throat to sing
She was startled by a croak.
“Sorry – was that you who spoke? ”
She enquired when the frog
Hopped towards her from the bog.
“Yes,” the frog replied. “You see,
I’m the frog who owns this tree
In this bog I’ve long been known
For my splendid baritone
And, of course, I wield my pen
For Bog Trumpet now and then”
The nightingale had received a lot of appreciation in the form of comments and applause the preceding night and so she decided to sing the next night as well. The next night she shook her head and twitched her tail to ready herself for her audience. She closed an eye and fluffed a wing and was just about to sing when she was startled by a croak.
It was the frog who had interrupted her. She asked the frog if it was him who spoke and the frog hopped towards her and replied that it was he. He introduced himself to the nightingale as the owner of the tree. He said that he’d lived in the bog for a long time and was himself renowned for his singing. The frog further flaunted that he also wrote music for Bog Trumpet. “Bog Trumpet” can be interpreted here as the name of a magazine or newspaper circulated throughout the bog where animals are human-like. Here we see the frog clearly trying to establish his dominance by boasting about himself.
“Did you… did you like my song? ”
“Not too bad – but far too long.
The technique was fine of course,
But it lacked a certain force”.
“Oh! ” the nightingale confessed.
Greatly flattered and impressed
That a critic of such note
Had discussed her art and throat:
“I don’t think the song’s divine.
But – oh, well – at least it’s mine”.
After meeting the frog the nightingale is convinced that the frog is someone of repute and has an acute understanding of her art. She asks the frog, rather hesitantly, if he liked her song. To this the frog replied that it was not too bad, but that it lacked a certain force. Here we see an individual who has no knowledge of the art acting as a critic and a superior to the one who has genuine talent. This happens quite often in the real world.
The nightingale on the other hand was quite impressed and flattered. She even held the frog’s baseless negative criticism with high esteem as she believes him to be a noteworthy critic. She undermines herself by saying that she knows her song is not divine. But that it is her own is enough satisfaction for her. We are witness here to the nightingale’s complete lack of confidence in herself and her art.
“That’s not much to boast about”.
Said the heartless frog. “Without
Proper training such as I
– And few others can supply.
You’ll remain a mere beginner.
But with me you’ll be a winner”
“Dearest frog”, the nightingale
Breathed: “This is a fairy tale –
And you are Mozart in disguise
Come to earth before my eyes”.
While we already see the frog undervaluing the nightingale’s song from the previous stanza, in this stanza the frog is seen to resort to open insult. He says in a very rude and heartless manner to the nightingale that the fact that her song is her own composition is not something to boast about. He goes a step further and says that the nightingale lacks proper training and that without such a training which only he and a few others can provide her with, she will remain a mere beginner. Alternatively, if she were to train under him, she would be a winner. Thus, the frog with his cunningness not only succeeds in undermining the nightingale, but also convinces her that it is in her best interest to train under him as she lacks proper training.
The nightingale unaware of the guileful scheme is overwhelmed with joy that she would have the chance to train under the frog. She further says that it is quite like a fairy tale and she compares the talentless frog with Mozart and says that he has arrived at the most opportune moment to her like a saviour.
“Well I charge a modest fee.”
“Oh! ” “But it won’t hurt, you’ll see”
Now the nightingale inspired,
Flushed with confidence, and fired
With both art and adoration,
Sang – and was a huge sensation.
Animals for miles around
Flocked towards the magic sound,
And the frog with great precision
Counted heads and charged admission.
The frog is bent on taking advantage of the innocent and foolish nightingale. He proposes that he is happy to teach the nightingale, but must have a modest fee in exchange for his teaching. Suddenly the nightingale is sceptical about the exchange with the fee involved. But the frog being a clever salesman full of guile and cunningness assures that it won’t hurt and that he is demanding nothing that the nightingale can’t afford. The Nightingale is inspired by this and is flushed with confidence instilled in her by the frog. She is excited with both art and adoration and thus sings and consequently is a huge sensation. Animals not just from the bog but from far away gathered towards the magical sound, and the frog with clever precision counted the present people and charge them with admission fee.
Though next morning it was raining,
He began her vocal training.
“But I can’t sing in this weather”
“Come my dear – we’ll sing together.
Just put on your scarf and sash,
Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! ”
So the frog and nightingale
Journeyed up and down the scale
For six hours, till she was shivering
and her voice was hoarse and quivering.
The next morning it was raining. The weather was unsuitable for the nightingale to sing but the frog begin with her vocal training anyway. Nightingales sing in the evening when the weather is clear whereas the frogs croak when it rains. The Nightingale pleaded to the frog that she could not sing in the rain, but the cunning frog pushed and persuaded her to sing regardless. He told her to put on her scarf and sash and sing along with him. And so the frog and the nightingale practiced singing for six hours straight in the adverse rainy weather. The nightingale was shivering with cold by the time, her voice became rough and she trembled when she spoke.
Though subdued and sleep deprived,
In the night her throat revived,
And the sumac tree was bowed,
With a breathless, titled crowd:
Owl of Sandwich, Duck of Kent,
Mallard and Milady Trent,
Martin Cardinal Mephisto,
And the Coot of Monte Cristo,
Ladies with tiaras glittering
In the interval sat twittering –
And the frog observed them glitter
With a joy both sweet and bitter.
Because of the so called ‘vocal training’, the nightingale was sleep deprived and quite tired. However, in the night she regained composure. Her throat revived and she could sing in front of the bog. As always her audience was left overwhelmed and breathless. Many a notable personalities from near and far had come to hear her. The Owl of Sandwich, Duck of Kent, Mallard and Milady Trent, Martin cardinal of Mephisto, and the coot of Monte Cristo were some of these figures.
We see a clever characterisation by the poet in these lines. All the dignitaries from the poet’s animal world are mentioned to draw our attention to the widespread fame of the nightingale’s voice and to convincingly portray the world. We see in the last two lines of the stanza that the frog sees this audience composed of dignitaries with a bittersweet temperament. This is because he is both happy to see such a turnout of people which will culminate in money for him and sad with jealousy to know that people are there for the nightingale and not him.
Every day the frog who’d sold her
Songs for silver tried to scold her:
“You must practice even longer
Till your voice, like mine grows stronger.
In the second song last night
You got nervous in mid-flight.
And, my dear, lay on more trills:
Audiences enjoy such frills.
You must make your public happier:
Give them something sharper snappier.
We must aim for better billings.
You still owe me sixty shillings.”
We see that the frog has become abusive towards the nightingale. He is seen at his most exploitative in the lines of this stanza. The frog collects the earnings from the show every night and scolds the nightingale to practice harder. He chides her saying she should practise longer for her voice to grow as strong as his own and that it’s a shame that she got nervous in the middle of the second song from the previous night’s performance. The frog suggests bizarre things for her to do to impress the gathering. He says that they must aim for better earnings as the nightingale still owes him sixty shillings for his lessons. We see the evil and cunning nature of the frog who even when keeping the earnings from the nightingale’s show and providing a misleading lesson wants to further exploit her by demanding an undeserved fee.
Day by day the nightingale
Grew more sorrowful and pale.
Night on night her tired song
Zipped and trilled and bounced along,
Till the birds and beasts grew tired
At a voice so uninspired
And the ticket office gross
Crashed, and she grew more morose –
For her ears were now addicted
To applause quite unrestricted,
And to sing into the night
All alone gave no delight.
In this manner, suffering at the hands of the cunning frog the nightingale grew more sorrowful and pale day by day. Night after night, forced by the frog, she kept on singing until she grew tired of it and lost all inspiration. This weariness of hers started reflecting in her song and the quality of her performance gradually started degrading. It worsened to such a point that her audience once so eager to hear her sing reduced in number. The nightingale consequently grew morose. She was by now quite habitual to see a horde of listeners gathered to hear her sing. And so, now singing alone in the night gave her no pleasure. She had grown used to others applauding at her song.
Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.
Seeing that the nightingale’s show now didn’t make him the money it used to, the cruel frog puffed up with rage. We see here that the frog has absolutely no compassion or sympathy towards the nightingale. He again scolds her, calling her a brainless bird. He tells her to use her wits, to follow the trends with changing times and to puff her lungs out to show her passion. The nightingale, too afraid to fail in front of her audience and reduced to tears by the frog’s insult, followed what he said. She puffed up causing a vein in her body to burst and died. Thus, in this stanza, we see the nightingale following one last ill advice from the frog and leading to a fatal outcome.
Said the frog: “I tried to teach her,
But she was a stupid creature –
Far too nervous, far too tense.
Far too prone to influence.
Well, poor bird – she should have known
That your song must be your own.
That’s why I sing with panache:
“Koo-oh-ah! ko-ash! ko-ash! ”
And the foghorn of the frog
Blared unrivalled through the bog.
In the final stanza of the poem, we are acquainted with the frog’s true nature and objective in acquainting with the nightingale. He has not a shred of remorse for what he has done. He declares that he tried to teach the nightingale, but she was a stupid creature. She was too nervous and tense and could be easily tricked. In the ending lines of the poem, we see the frog once again after removing good competition in the nightingale, sing unrivalled through the bog.
Here we see the frog uttering perhaps the two singularly most important lines in the entire poem. He says that the nightingale should have known that ‘one’s song must be their own.’ She should have been confident in herself and her abilities. Even the talentless frog knows this lesson. The moral of the poem “The Frog and the Nightingale” is expressed in these lines and it can be summed up as the following — while each one of us are gifted intrinsically with certain talents, each person differs from another, and so one must have faith in one’s own strengths.