The twitching chirrup

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.

Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’). Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Detail from Raphael’s ‘Madonna del Cardellino’ (‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’). Source: Wikipedia Commons.

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).

Goldfinch - Sherborne Missal (c. 1400)
Goldfinch – Sherborne Missal (c. 1400)

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.


4 thoughts on “The twitching chirrup

  1. Nice piece on the goldfinch, but what struck me were the incidental comments on the swallow vocalisations. Could you give me a reference, please, for the conjunction of ‘jargoun’ and ‘cheterynge’? It would make a nice footnote to my discussion of the perception of swallow ‘song’ in the ancient world, where it was sometimes compared to a ‘barbarian twittering’ (the worst ethnic slur Aristophanes could come up with!).


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jeremy

      There isn’t a recorded collocation of these two terms specifically for swallow. This species does seem to have been associated with loquacious women, though. Besides the reference from Troilus and Criseyde above, in The Miller’s Tale, the carpenter’s ‘loud and yerne (eager)’ wife is compared to a ‘swalwe sittynge on a berne’. It was the magpie or jay who was most often associated with gossiping women: ‘A pie, A jai, A woman (Common-Place Book of the Fifteenth-Century). The Wife of Bath is ‘joly as a pye’.

      Here’s a good example of the ‘chitre’ and ‘jargoun’ together, but I can provide you with other examples of the words separately if you wish. The two are interchangeable and, although they are applied to humans by association, they are verbs that are specifically attributed to birds. The Middle English Dictionary is full of avian examples for these terms. Anyway, as for them together, I’ve quoted here at from Gower’s version of Tereus. Philomena is compared to a twittering bird. I love what Gower does with this passage. Where Ovid describes the severed tongue on the ground through a serpent metaphor, Gower focuses on birds:

      And out he clippeth also faste
      Hire tunge with a peire scheres.
      So what with blod and what with teres
      Out of hire yhe and of hir mouth, [eye]
      He made hire faire face uncouth.
      Sche lay swounende unto the deth,
      Ther was unethes eny breth. [scarcely]
      Bot yit whan he hire tunge refte, [tore apart]
      A litel part therof belefte,
      Bot sche with al no word mai soune,
      Bot chitre and as a brid jargoune.
      (Confessio Amantis, V.5690-700)

      Gower is drawing upon a popular medieval tradition here that sees bird song and calls as evidence of their irrationality compared to humans – meaningless rubbish, even though it might sound logical or pretty. My work on Chaucer and Gower has tried to argue that they work against this convention. For them, birdsong is mysterious but revelatory. I think the reason Gower chooses to deal with Philomena exclusively in bird metaphor is because it sets up a great irony: in the rape scene she has been reduced to a dumb non-human creature without capacity for speech, precisely because of the bird comparison. Come the end of the tale, however, the bird has sloughed off the orthodox interpretation and become a powerful enabler, both in body and in song. ‘Chitre’ now has positive associations – Procne ‘chitreth out in her langage’. ‘Jargoune’ is ultimately a deliverer for the women, for it provides the means of announcing truths that they could not in their human form and circumstances.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s