The nightingale’s song is one that is known for being heard at night, softly echoing among the trees and in through windows. For the wife in Marie de France’s “Laüstic” this was certainly the case. She used the nightingale as an excuse to see her lover from her window every night, giving them time together that they would not have had because of her marriage to another knight. The nightingale is the catalyst for these lovers rendezvous, signifying all they are to each other, their secret means of communication using this bird as a secret symbol. Furthermore, the nightingale symbolizes the failed yet infinite nature of the lover’s love in “Laüstic,” and how they are emotionally trapped, broken, and powerless due to the wife’s marriage to her jealous husband.
The symbol of the nightingale shows the limits of sexual freedom outside the young woman’s marriage. Her husband confines her in a sexual way, having the ultimate say on who she could give her sexual attention to. Marie de France describes how “the lovers loved one another a long time,” then transitions into a lovely description of the summer:
when the woods and meadow were all green
and the orchards were flowering;
the little birds with great sweetness
expressed their joy among the flowers.
It is no wonder if one who has a mind to love
gives it his attention! (59-64)
This description describes the heightened sexuality that grew between the lovers during their secret affair. Though this is not the story of their sexual awakening, but uses these images to illustrate they are in the peak of their love. Their love has grown into one that is intensely intimate but not physical, especially when picturing the lovers as being the birds from the lines above “with great sweetness expressed their joy among the flowers” (61-62). Even with this great love, the young woman was trapped, locked away from the young knight as the following lines describe:
there was no obstacle or barrier
except a high wall of grey stone.
…they could not be together
entirely at their pleasure,
for the lady was closely guarded
when her husband was at home. (37-38, 47-50)
The young woman was controlled by the presence of her husband, hidden under lock and key in her own home, forced to stay away from her lover, who was her neighbor. There is a wall of grey stone between them, a cold barrier without give or lenience, which Marie uses to depict her husband. This wall keeps the lovers apart, never able to touch each other or be together in any physical sense, because of her husband. Playing on the reoccurring reference to birds, she uses the nightingale as the lover’s excuse to at least see each other. As soon as her husband notices her diversion from his bed at night he becomes angry, ensnaring the bird, saying to her the following:
I have caught the nightingale
for which you stayed awake so long.
From now on you can rest in peace:
he will wake you no more. (107-110)
Her husband caught the nightingale to keep her close to him, as he knows that she is cheating on him with her time, though he never finds out it is with his neighboring knight. He says that her restlessness will be cured now, breaking her away from her excuse to see her lover. He also mentions her “rest in peace,” which is his way of taking complete ownership of her desires and putting to sleep her sexual love for anyone other than himself (Marie 110). Thus, her husband has the ultimate say on her sexual life, being the one who tears her away from her love, killing the blossoming desires for being with anyone else, and hoarding her all to himself.
The husband in “Laüstic” not only controls the sexual aspects of his wife’s life, but also her showing affection to anyone or anything else. Marie uses the symbolic nightingale to show how entrapping marriage is for the wife’s freedom to choose whom she could show affection. Her husband keeps her “closely guarded” in the confines of their home, keeping her not only close, but never makes mention of letting her out at all (49). She is always locked away at home, resorting to only seeing her lover and exchanging things with at night via their windows (40-44). Marie then writes “No one could prevent them / from coming to the window / and seeing one another there” (54-56). She states this fairly early in the lay, the words are empowering to the wife, giving her agency to be able to choose whom she gives her affection. Later in the lay, however, Marie doubles back on this agency when the wife’s husband traps and kills the bird, the wife saying “’Alas,”… ‘it goes ill with me! / I can no longer get up at night / nor go to stand by the window,” (126-128). Her agency ended with the death of the nightingale that served as her excuse to see her lover. Her husband found out that she was sneaking to her window at night, and for whatever reason, lie or truth, he becomes full of “anger and ill will” and “He fixed his thoughts on one thing: / entrapping the nightingale” (92, 93-94). This trapping of the nightingale shows the extent to which he will go to ensnare whatever distractions she has, just as he as entrapped her, and destroy them to keep her from thinking of anything other than himself. He succeeds in the destruction of the bird, solidifying the nightingale’s role as a source of affection for his wife, and he takes control of where his wife’s affections should truly lie.
The limits of the lover’s love are made clear through the actions taken toward preventing them from having a relationship at all. Where they were physically unable to have a relationship, their love is preserved, undying even though it was impossible physically. Through all odds, the lovers juxtaposed the impossibility of a relationship with making the most of every moment they could have had together. The wife retained her agency in the end by giving the nightingale to the young lover knight; she took great care of dressing the bird: “In a piece of samite / embroidered and inscribed all over with gold / she wrapped the little bird;” (Marie 135-137). She went to great lengths to take such care of the bird that was broken, like her heart that was equally broken by the end of their affair. She used samite to wrap up her little bird, which was a beautiful cloth used for dressmaking and decorations, hence why it was fabric infused with gold (“Samite”). This act shows that although her freedom to physically see him and to show him affection was taken away from her, she still has the agency to give her heart out to whomever she wanted. The young lover knight also took ownership of their love in his own treatment of the bird:
He had a small casket made;
it contained not a bit of iron or steel,
it was made all of fine gold with valuable gems,
most precious and costly;
it had a very well-fitting cover.
then he had the coffer sealed.
He carried it with him always. (149-153,155-156).
He took great care to have a casket be made for their nightingale. He made sure that the casket was not made of wood that would rot away, or of something as cold and hard as iron or steel, but of gold, signifying that this bird was the most important thing to him. He covered it in gems, not just leaving it plain, embellishing the beloved casket that he then sealed, as he needed to seal away their love. He always carried this token of their love with him, thus preserving the nightingale as a symbol of their love, making it both a failed relationship, but one that defies the limits of the physical to live on in the heart forever.
1.) Are the crude (will be fixed, promised) raindrops too distracting from the image?
2.) Will they be more distracting if I have vague images in them?
3.) As I am printing this out (slightly larger than 11x17) and framing it for a semi-formal group show… should I put a description of the story behind the piece underneath it or just list the poem in my artist’s statement? Because- I don’t know about you but I really doubt a whole lot of the general populace is going to know about Marie de France’s lais of “Laustic”…
Also- I’m only allowed to ask two questions TOTAL on tumblr? regardless of upon which blog or sub-blog the questions are asked? seriously? aaaugh. well then, drop me an ask if you’ve got some ideas!
testing out the rain-blob version I originally was going for… remember this? and this?
Yeah- liking how dark it is. The glow thing will stand out much better here as well as keeping him in shadow. note to self: figure out where light is coming from in the now, dark, rainy space… lol
Because this piece doesn’t have enough literary references (sarcasm, folks) there will be some owl and nightingale themes too (like from the 12th century poetic response to laustic) on their clothes and the tapestry behind them (yes, that is what that is ;) not just a shady block hanging on the wall!)
Obviously need to learn how to draw rain. Since the weather is being so nice.. I may have to fake it with water on my sliding patio door 0-0 we’ll see how well that goes. Despite their grotesque sketchiness - do you think the rain will distract from the image?
What if there are small, vague images in the raindrops?