Some poets' larks sing a bit off-key

Birdsong is not one of my notable fortes.

Recognizing it, I mean.

I can differentiate between owls and pigeons. Or even curlews and plovers. But try warblers! The ubiquitous warblers. Can experts really tell the song of one from another?

And nightingales! To my ears, a bird by any other name would sing as sweet. It could be an ambitious starling (starlings are notoriously ambitious). It could be a common blackbird, for all I know.

But I wonder, in the larger scheme of things, if my lack of ornithological finesse actually matters.

It may. But why, for imagination to soar, is it necessary to tell the "trilling sounds" and "rippling or gurgling notes" of the nightingale from the "clear and loud fluting" of the blackbird? Or from the "loud glissando whistles" of the starling?

Charles Dickens's novel "Hard Times" comes down hard on the side of imagination over "facts, facts." Facts kill. Imagination vitalizes. The old Romantic poets - Keats, Shelley, Byron, & Co. - would probably have agreed. "Ever let the fancy roam," cried Keats. And their poems often show fond dedication to birdsong, particularly that of nightingales and larks.

But I do not think Keats really had to know the precise timbre of the nightingale's song to write his wonderful ode to that bird. The timbre of his words is its own music. But this human language wouldn't mean much, presumably, to a nightingale.

"There is no word for bird in the bird's diction" wrote an anti-romantic Romantic poet of the 20th century, Norman Nicholson (he knew birds), "For man himself has improvised their songs...." But his poem "Footnote to Genesis 11, 19, 20" ends with a twist. Man may, he says, project onto birds what he believes them to be, catching "a gleam of his own [eyes] in the dark green doubt of the leaves." Yet:

- eyes are there already that he's

not invented;

Throstles disregard him in

whistles he never can

Learn even to hear. In the avian

evening, creatures

That are what man means by bird

have their own word for man.

Among the old Romantics, it was Percy Bysshe Shelley (he of the unfortunate middle name) who, in "To a Skylark," took the imaginative appeal of birdsong to hopeless extremes. "Hail to thee, blithe Spirit" this poem improbably begins, then clunk!: "Bird thou never wert." After this it's downhill all the way. The poem is vague, exaggerated, a trail of similes that have nothing at all to do with the skylark.

The skylark is romantic, no question. It is rightly loved for its "song-flight" (it flies in order to sing). I have an indelible memory of a birding friend once, in a summer-afternoon-meadow, saying "The skylark! Listen!" Although I could scarcely see it, high against the light, its rippling song seemed a few feet away.

But Shelley's skylark was just an excuse. Near the poem's close he actually gives the game away. He addresses his idea of a skylark as "thou scorner of the ground."

I hate to admit it, being broadly on the side of Dickens and imagination, but if Shelley had done his research he wouldn't have committed this gaffe. The skylark doesn't scorn the ground. It nests on it.

One early 19th-century English poet who was in every way a true naturalist, a true birder, was John Clare. The apparent simplicity of Clare's poetry (something about its repetitive rhythms actually suggests birdsong) masks subtle intelligence and sensitivity.

Today, Clare's work is still admired and studied. Seamus Heaney, lauded Irish poet, and Ronald Blythe, author of "Akenfield," the classic of East Anglian life, have both written about him.

Clare was a Romantic ... perhaps. But he was not averse to facts. His poem "The Sky Lark" characteristically brings this small brown bird back to factuality. It also brings Romantic poetry itself refreshingly down to earth.

Clare's skylark sings in the clouds, as they do. But she "drops and drops till in her nest she lies." The poem ends on the ground, with a description true to both nature and poetry, of the bird's "low nest moist with the dews of morn" lying "safely with the leveret in the corn."

In the quiet know-how of intimate encounter, Clare unironically debunks the airy fancies of overimaginative poets with unfortunate middle names.

Clare knew very well what he was doing. In a letter he once observed regarding nightingales: "Your Londoners are very fond of talking about this bird & I believe fancy every bird they hear after sunset a Nightingale." He then mentions a couple he saw in London, listening to a bird singing in a shrub. They proceeded to lavish praises on "the beautiful song of the nightingale."

But the bird, Clare adds succinctly, "happened to be a thrush."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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