The birds have been a continuous, colourful presence ever since we set up our modest balcony ‘garden’. The entire-wall-height Georgian window of our living room looks out immediately onto our copper beeches and feeders where we can watch the always coming-and-going of chaffinches, house sparrows, starlings and wood pigeons, of coal tits, blue tits, great tits, and nuthatches.
But most of all it’s the goldfinches. They are a near permanent presence and delight – up to ten in a charm, in all stages of plumage, from juveniles to resplendent adults right there on our window box in crimson and black and yellow. Their calls are often what draws me from my study to wander through and watch them again. There are the fluting notes which have made them popular caged song birds for millenia, but it’s also the jitter of electricty, the kick and fizz down live wires. Swallows do it too. In John Gower’s version of Ovid’s tale of Philomena (c.1390), her sister Procne is transformed into a swallow and she ‘chitreth out in her langage’ (Confessio Amantis, Book 5). Chitter is right. It’s where modern chatter comes from, and in medieval usage, the word is specifically applied to birds: for Chaucer, too, the swallow ‘made hire cheterynge’ (Troilus and Criseyde) and Trevisa, an encyclopedist, mentions the ‘chiteryng of briddes’ (Properties of Things). The word conveys the sound marvellously. But it was also derogatory in medieval terms – often accompanied with jargoun to describe bird sounds because it denotes their seemingly nonsensical twitterings and is associated with the gossiping of women!
It’s well known that goldfinches had a rich history in late medieval and Renaissance art (for which I direct any curious readers to Mark Cocker’s two great tomes – Birds Britannica and Birds and People). Their red faces were symbolic of Christ’s blood, and the yellow linked to a long-lived tradition in which the colour was considered curative.
As with birds generally in medieval art and literature, however, alongside the allegory in which all nature was believed a book or mirror of God’s divine scheme, there was room for real birds, palpable and material creatures. The goldfinch already had its name in the late Anglo-Saxon period (goldfinc), but it is also listed in one glossary as þisteltwige. The popular interpretation of this name is thistle-tweaker, which sounds lovely, but there’s actually no philological evidence for it. What is apparent, however, is the close observation so often implicit in Old English bird names. They are not straight-forward translations of Latin, but original terms that denote actual attention to plumage, habitat, behaviour: glida (red kite); colmase (coal tit(mouse)); wudecocc (woodcock); snite (snipe – a reference to its long bill) or haefenblaete (heather-bleater!); hegesugge (hedge sparrow – literally hedge sucker). The goldfinch is described metonymically, according to its familiar food type (the linnet is linetwige).
Mark Cocker has remarked how the goldfinch’s ubiquitous presence in sacred art is ‘as strong a candidate as any to illuminate how vastly different were our ancestors’ views of nature’. I’m not sure, on more than one account. Alongside the etymology of its name, depictions of the goldfinch in marginal illuminations of medieval texts like the Sherborne Missal suggest, at least, that the intricate plumage was part of the artist’s fascination (although no doubt he worked from a skin). But in our times, too, whilst we quite rightly admit that we are ‘only part of life’s purpose’, we still seem to find the same irresistible desire to create metaphors or symbols from birds, even if that ‘red face and golden wing bars owes us nothing’. My title for this post is taken from Ted Hughes’s description of a goldfinch in his poem ‘The Laburnum Top’, but my favourite appearance of the bird in modern poetry comes from Paul Farley. In ‘Paperboy and Air Rifle’ (Tramp in Flames), a young boy shoots a goldfinch whilst out on his after-school round. The final stanza conveys boyish glee, but when the rest of the bird’s charm flies overhead, there is a note of remorse, and the magnificence and beauty of all life is apparent in their flight on a summer’s evening which lead’s the boy’s eyes upwards to new and wonderful possibilities presented by the natural world:
… I’ve never been happier than the time
I got a goldfinch, looked it over in my hand –
just a line of blood between the mandibles –
and, taking the shortcut through a thistle field,
a summer’s worth of goldfinches, the rest of his charm,
flew with me, a little ahead of me, from crown to crown.