Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall; The Wittenberg Nightingale

[This page by Madeleine Brook]

Die Wittenbergisch Nachtigall; The Wittenberg Nightingale (1523)

This is Sachs’s most famous long poem on Luther and the Reformation. It was an instant success, thanks to its popular form and topical content and quickly went through seven editions. It is 700 lines long and uses a form of rhyming verse passed down from the Middle Ages: Knittelvers. This is comprised of 8 or 9 syllable lines arranged in rhyming couplets (the rhyme is not always pure). It is a form also used for satirical purposes by Sebastian Brant. While it is a very popular poetic form of the early 16th century, therefore, Knittelvers should not be dismissed as having no literary value, i.e. as ‘mere’ doggerel.

The poem can be divided into three sections:

Ll.1-333: The colourful allegory which forms the basis for the poem’s frontispiece woodcut and its explanation. It opens with the iconic lines:

Wacht auf, es nahet sich dem Tag!

Ich höre singen im grünen Hag

Die wonnigliche Nachtigall;

Ihr Lied durchklinget Berg und Thal.

Awake, awake! Day draws near! In the green woods I hear the delightful nightingale singing; its song resounds through hill and valley.


Here, the nightingale represents Luther, singing in the new dawn (of church reform and the Word), while Pope Leo X (the lion) and his associates (variously asses, wolves, and snakes) seek to mislead ordinary Christian believers (sheep). The image of the nightingale and the opening lines of the poem hark back to the medieval dawn song.

Ll.334-439: An explanation of Luther’s key teachings, including the sinful nature of all Christians, salvation by faith alone, and the Lutheran understanding of good works.

Ll.440-700: An overview of the events in the Reformation up to the Edict of Worms in 1521 and the Roman Catholic reaction to Luther and his ideas, ending with an exhortation to followers of Luther to maintain their support of Luther’s teachings and their faith in what these teachings promise for Christians.

Sachs claims in his introduction to be addressing three target audience groups: those who as yet know nothing about Luther’s teachings; those who already know about the new teachings; those who reject Luther and his ideas. In other words, Sachs’s ostensible intentions are to instruct, to exhort, and to persuade – and to direct this at the ‘common man’, for which his own background and poetic style made him particularly suited. It should be noted, however, that Sachs concentrates on particular aspects of reformation complaint – for example, ll.120-440 discusses good works (and thus also the Lutheran understanding of salvation), but principally through listing examples of traditional expressions of piety with which Sachs’s readers will have been familiar; he does not deal explicitly with the concept of the priesthood of all baptised believers, another key idea that Luther had introduced in his 1520 treatise, An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation; Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, nor with the structural reform that Luther had proposed in the same text.