The Frog And The Nightingale – Vikram Seth

Once upon a time a frog 

Croaked away in Bingle Bog 

Every night from dusk to dawn 

He croaked awn and awn and awn 

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 
Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks. 

Insults or complaints or bricks 

Stilled the frogs determination 

To display his heart’s elation. 

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, 
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. 

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. 
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” 
“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”. 
“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”. 
“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. 
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. 
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. 
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.” 
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. 
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. 
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.