‘When the woods wax green’ – nightingales in a Kentish wood

This morning we went walking in a local wood, intent on seing the fulsome signs of spring. It’s the perfect time to be out and we were content in the primrose-brilliance of it all. The undergrowth beneath the beeches was rich with white wood anemones and bluebells.

We heard it before we’d gone fifty paces. The very thing we came for surprised us from the dense bramble – a secret nightingale out its tremendous song; a cry, as the poet Ted Hughes remarks, that ‘momentarily threatened the earth’. I think of my first nightingale this year, freshly arrived on the north Crete coast only two weeks ago; Homer’s nightingale – the bird that began centuries of thinking on just how that remarkable voice raises such powerful ideas of love and suffering, of yearning for the warm days of spring and the beginning of a year’s work in the fields. It’s a bird I seek every year in May.

This morning’s nightingale, though, is back here in a small but ancient wood near a tiny village in West Kent. It’s a bird intimately associated with our own landscape in its own special way – the oak, beech and hazel woodlands of southern England. And English poets, too, have always found something inspiring, even numinous, in  that disembodied voice. Of Keat’s ode most people have some inkling, can perhaps even quote the odd snatch about ‘shadows numberless’ and ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’. The Romantic poets generally were pretty keen on the symbolic potential of the bird. But the nightingale’s legacy in English poetry goes back much further. It’s as old as English poetry itself, in fact. The bird crops up in Latin lyrics from the British Isles in the early medieval period (the 7th cen. Bishop Aldhelm, for instance, who includes the nightingale in his Enigmata), but it’s first known appearance in English itself is in ‘Riddle 8’ from the Exeter Book Riddles (see here). Well, it’s first appearance as far as most Anglo-Saxon scholars agree, that is; the problem is that this collection, most unusually, has no answers, so it’s taken a good couple of centuries of academic guesswork to produce convincing solutions, and some are still heavily contested! ‘Riddle 8’ has generated a whole range of suggestions (mostly birds). To my mind though, the phrase eald æfensceop ‘old evening-singer’ points the way – a veiled reference, using other words, to the nihtegale, the Anglo-Saxon name for the bird that stuck.

In the later medieval period (influenced by the courtly poetry of French troubadours and trouvères), the nightingale becomes such a ubiquitous feature of love lyrics, it sort of just fades into the background of the stock ‘wodes that waxen grene’ when ‘lef and gras and blosme springe’ (see here). And then it finds its way into a run of bird debate poems (that’s right, avian poetic altercations were all the rage for the literary elite in late medieval England!): ‘The Thrush and the Nightingale’ (anon.); The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ (Clanvowe); ‘The Clerk and the Nightingale’ (anon.). By far and away the best, however, and perhaps my favourite of all medieval poems is The Owl and the Nightingale (probably late 13th cen., but no one really knows). It forms a substantial part of my PhD thesis on birds in medieval poetry.

The_Owl_and_the_Nightingale1
The Owl and the Nightingale. London, British Museum, M.S. Cotton Caligula A.IX ff. 233-46. ll. 1-16 (Source: Wikipedia Commons; photograph by Jesse Fawn.)

What’s remarkable about this poem is how self-consciously it uses the nightingale as a character. In short, the whole thing becomes a parody of the overused bird symbol in the debate genre. With great humour that prefigures the trademark irony of Chaucer, this poet pulls the bird back off its literary high horse and back into its real scrub environment. This allows for some brilliant ornithological-based comedy through playing off the tendency to treat the bird as a symbol against neatly observed real bird behaviours. The beginning of the poem starts off in typical fashion, describing the woody scene in what’s known as a natureingang (basically a pretty nature scene). But this is no locus amoenus (‘beautiful place’ – medievalists’ speak for the natural world idyll). The nightingale sits right in the middle, unseen, in a ‘vaste þicke hegge’ / Imeind mid spire & grene segge’ (dense, thick hedge / Mixed up with reeds and green sedge’. Real, biodiverse, natural territory – just where you’d expect to find a nightingale, in fact. There’s a further description of the nightingale’s habitat to snigger at later on. Here’s the owl in full invective:

Wan ich flo niƷtes after muse,
I mai þe uinde ate rumhuse,
Among þe wode, among þe netle.
Þu sittest & singst bihinde þe setle:
Þar me mai þe ilomest finde –
Þar men worpeþ hore bihinde.
(591-6)

When I fly at night after mice
I can find you at the crapper
Among the weeds, among the nettles.
You sit and sing behind the toilet seat:
I will find you there most often –
Where men thrust out their behinds.

There’s more from the owl – when all is said and done, the nightingale is nothing more than ‘lutel soti clowe’ (a little sooty ball)! All of this makes me think of John Clare’s oft-quoted criticism of Keats’ fictive nightingales all those centuries later, takes issue with ‘nature as she appeared to his [Keats] fancies and not as he would have described her had he witnessed the things he described’. The owl doesn’t get off lightly either, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out more.

For more information on the poem, also see http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126541.html  

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