The Owl and the Nightingale: A New Verse Translation

From the UK Poet Laureate and bestselling translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a complete verse translation of a spirited and humorous medieval English poem


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May 24, 2022
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The Owl and the Nightingale, one of the earliest literary works in Middle English, is a lively, anonymous comic poem about two birds who embark on a war of words in a wood, with a nearby poet reporting their argument in rhyming couplets, line by line and blow by blow. In this engaging and energetic verse translation, Simon Armitage captures the verve and humor of this dramatic tale with all the cut and thrust of the original.

In an agile iambic tetrameter that skillfully amplifies the prosody and rhythm of the original, Armitage’s translation moves entertainingly from the eloquent and philosophical to the ribald and ridiculous. Sounding at times like antagonists in a Twitter feud, the owl and the nightingale quarrel about a host of subjects that still resonate today—including love, marriage, identity, cultural background, class distinctions, and the right to be heard. Adding to the playful, raucous mood of the barb-trading birds is Armitage, who at one point inserts himself into the poem as a “magistrate … to adjudicate”—one who is “skilled with words & worldly wise / & frowns on every form of vice.”

Featuring the Middle English text on facing pages and an introduction by Armitage, this volume will delight readers of all ages.

Awards and Recognition

  • Shortlisted for the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry, Arrowsmith Press