1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Nicholas of Guildford
NICHOLAS OF GUILDFORD (fl. 1250), English poet, the supposed author of The Owl and the Nightingale, an English poem of the 13th century. This work, which displays genuine poetical and imaginative qualities, is written in the south-western dialect, and is one of the few 13th-century English poems not devoted entirely to religious topics. The nightingale sitting on a branch covered with blossom sees the owl perched on a bough overgrown with ivy, and proceeds to abuse him for his general habits and appearance. The birds decide to refer the consequent dispute to Master Nicholas de Guildford, who is skilled in such questions, but they first of all engage in a. regular débat in the French fashion. The owl is the best logician, but the nightingale has a fund of abuse that equalizes matters. Finally, when the argument threatens to become a fight, the wren interferes, and the two go to the house of Master Nicholas at Portisham in Dorset. He judges, they say, many right judgments, and composes and writes much wisdom, and it is lamentable that so learned and worthy a man should gain no preferment from his bishop. The poet, whoever he was, wrote the octosyllabic couplet with ease and smoothness. He borrows something from Alexander of Neckham’s De naturis rerum, and was certainly familiar with contemporary French poetry. The piece is a general allegory of the contest between asceticism and a more cheerful view of religion, and is capable of a particular application to the differences between the regular orders and the secular clergy. The nightingale defends her singing on the ground that heaven is a place of song and mirth, while the owl maintains that much weeping for his many sins is man’s best preparation for the future.
There are two MSS. of the Hule amd the Nightingale, MS. Cotton Caligula A ix. (British Museum), dating from the first half of the 13th century, and MS. Arch. I. 29, Jesus College, Oxford, written about half a century later. In the Jesus College MS. the poem is immediately preceded by a religious poem entitled La Passyun Jhu C/zrist, which, according to a note on it, once possessed an additional quatrain implying that it was written by John of Guildford, perhaps a relation of Nicholas.
The Owl and the Nightingale has been edited from the Cotton MS. chiefly for the Roxburghe Club (1838) by Joseph Stevenson, and for the Percy Society (1843) by T. Wright; the best edition is by F. H. Stratmann (Krefeld, 1868), who collated the two MSS. See also B. Ten Brink, Early English Literature (trans. H. M. Kennedy, pp. 214-218); Courthope, History of English Poetry; and J. W. H. Atkins in the Cambridge History of Literature, vol. i. For some textual criticism see A.E. Egge in Modern Language Notes(Baltimore, January, 1887).