The Owl and the Nightingale: The Quetelet/Nightingale Nexus

Visiting the Acropolis in 1850, the 29-year-old Florence Nightingale came across boys playing with a baby owl that had fallen from its nest. She bought it from them, named it Athena (goddess of wisdom), and nurtured it until its death, two days before she sailed for the Crimea with a party of nurses in 1854. Translations of the Middle English 12th-century poem The Owl and the Nightingale appeared when Nightingale was 18 and 23. She is likely to have read with appreciation Owl’s observation that “[when her] lord travels … on behalf of both of them … the good wife is … sad by day and sleepless by night, and the time seems to her to pass very slowly” and Owl’s curt dismissal of the nightingale with “Do you think I can’t sing just because I can’t twitter?”

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