“Death is a great price to pay for a red rose,” the nightingale said. “Yet love is better than life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?”
I first read Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightingale and the Rose” as a senior in high school. The story immediately captivated me. It was both inspiring and dreadful, beautiful and tragic.
To this day, the story leaves me contemplative of “the mystery of love.”
Wilde tells the story of a student whose love agrees to dance with him if he brings her a red rose.
But when he cannot find the rose, the student weeps for his lost chance. From her nest, the nightingale hears the student and flies through the garden, begging each rose tree for one red rose.
When she too can find no red rose, the nightingale determines to press against a rose tree’s thorn to stain a white rose in her own heart’s blood.
When the thorn pierces her heart, the nightingale feels the pain but stays, singing a wild song, still pressing her heart against the thorn. Her blood stains the rose red, but the nightingale’s song is hushed.
As I reached the final pages of the story, I prepared myself for an ending as moving as the nightingale’s sacrifice.
Surely, the student would take the rose to his love, and they would dance together and live out a Cinderella-like love story.
But when the student takes the rose to his love, she rejects him, and the student abandons his belief in love. The rose that cost the nightingale her life is thrown away and trampled in the road.
I felt played. The ending violated my every expectation, my sense of justice and my view of life.
The nightingale’s death had to mean something more. But how could it? The student never danced with his love. He never had his happy ending. The nightingale’s death now seemed pointless.
But the nightingale had done something. She achieved what few people ever achieve, the greatest feat of all humanity—she had loved.
The nightingale seemed to me on another level, out of my reach in some nirvanic existence. She did what I could only hope of doing. She hurt for the student and, for love, paid everything she could pay.
Cost separates the nightingale from the student, true love from cheap imitation. The student gave a rose to fulfill his own desires, but the nightingale gave herself to fulfill another. The nightingale was the true lover.
In this fallen world, to truly love there has to be pain.
Pleasant feelings and Cinderella endings aren’t love because they have no cost. Love has to cost you something.
I envy the nightingale. Her humility, compassion and courage. Her transcendent love for another that echoes Christ’s love for humanity.
When I look at the world, when I look at myself, I see more students than nightingales. Living a casual sort of existence, never willing to invest it all, never willing to give ourselves, we like but never love.
We stick around when “love” has no cost, but when the pain comes and the thorn presses close, who will stay?
God, give us the grace to love another, to throw ourselves against the thorn, to feel the pain but stay. Let love be better than life.
God, give us the “heart of a bird.”