Category Archives: Anglo-Saxon

Queck! Medieval birds’ voices and birdsong

The last decade has seen a surge of ornithological interest in the complexities and mysteries of bird songs and calls. It’s been known for some time that certain species have remarkable mimic abilities (like the marsh warbler who intentionally weaves other species’ songs into its own repertoire, or the incredible lyre bird who can imitate just about any sound on the planet), but more recently birds’ voices have also played a major part in identifying new or split species (two species so alike that formerly they have been considered one, or subspecies of one). The popular Sound Approach project has demonstrated the need for taxonomic re-categorisation amongst certain Eurasian owls, for instance, and even the discovery of a completely new species. As recently as 2014, a bird heard in China led to a whole new avian family. There is no doubt that modern technological advancements are critical to all this new research. As much as we do know, this science wizardry also reminds us that where nonhuman communications are concerned, we barely know anything.

In essence though, all of this focus on bird sound is nothing new. Various classical authors were already clued into the virtuosity and intricate meaning of birds’ voices. One of the most famous examples is Pliny the Elder’s (1st century AD) ornate description of the nightingale’s song in his Natural History, which employs the terminology of skilled musicianship to convey the bird’s brilliance:

[T]hen there is the consummate knowledge of music in a single bird: the sound is given out with modulations, and now is drawn out into a long note with one continuous breath, now varied by managing the breath, now made staccato by checking it, or linked together by prolonging it, or carried on by holding it back; or it is suddenly lowered, and at times sinks into a mere murmur, loud, low, bass, treble, with trills, with long notes, modulated when this seems good – soprano, mezzo, baritone; and briefly all the devices in that tiny throat which human science has devised with all the elaborate mechanism of the flute. (10:43)

There is obviously an element of poetic conceit in this, but Pliny uses the language of human music to attempt describing something as intricate and complex in its own way (listen here, and just for fun, try here to translate any word into nightingale ‘speak’!)

A Roman nightingale, from Pompeii – the same century as Pliny and Plutarch were writing (Source: British Museum)

Our modern knowledge, too, of the learning and teaching abilities of birds – like the fairy wren that teaches its unborn chicks a food ‘code’ to deal with cuckoo impostors – was pre-empted by the ancients:

As for starlings and crows and parrots which learn to talk and afford their teachers so malleable and imitative a vocal current to train and discipline, they seem to me to be champions and advocates of the other animals in their ability to learn, instructing us in some measure that they too are endowed with both rational utterance and with articulate voice … Now since there is more reason in teaching than in learning, we must yield assent to Aristotle when he says that animals do teach: a nightingale, in fact, has been observed instructing her young how to sing. (Plutarch, On the Intelligence of Animals)

Despite these minority voices that recognised the innate and intended meaning of bird vocalisations,  the prevailing attitude systematically divided human and nonhuman voices – the first was rational and the second nothing more than instinctive repetition. This was the customary philosophy that led into and endured throughout the Christianised Middle Ages, and the rational/irrational adage became common place. So Saint Augustine remarked that either one would say that magpies, parrots, and crows are rational animals, or you have recklessly named imitation an art’ (On Music), and centuries later the Flemish theologian Thomas de Cantimpré could still state simply and with conviction that ‘the human voice is articulate, and animal inarticulate’ (Liber de natura rerum, I.xxvi).

However, as in the classical period, there were more free-thinking writers that spoke out for misrepresented nonhuman voices. It is quite clear from Old English glossaries that at least some Anglo-Saxon people were competent listeners. A large number of species are not named according to their appearance, as is the modern preference, but rather according to their song or call. And so we have, to name just a handful: hrafn (raven); ceo (chough); finc (finch – the typical ‘pink pink’ sound of a chaffinch); maew (gull); rardumle (bittern – ‘reedboomer’); stangella (presumably stonechat – ‘stone-yeller’); nihtegale (nightingale) cran (Isidore of Seville, a 7th century bishop, wrote in his Etymologies that the crane in Latin (grus) is named for its trumpeting call).

Perhaps more interesting, though, are those moments where writers are forced to admit, willingly or otherwise, that translating nonhuman sounds isn’t always straightforward, and sometimes is just darned impossible. In Aldhelm’s Rules of Metre (7th century), for example, a teacher attempting to give the utterances of all sorts of nonhuman beings to his student is forced to say that storks … well, ‘make a stork noise’ and ‘kites make kite noises’. To Aldhelm, of course, this would only prove his point – that these are irrational voices, but it also inadvertently exposes the gulf between different modes of expression and their meanings. To quote another classical author: ‘even if we do not understand the utterances of the so-called irrational animals, still it is not improbable that they converse’ (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, I.73-6). In moments like these, the limitations of human languages are clear too – they cannot adequately cross boundaries.

Problems with translation become a key issue in a well-known late medieval Chaucer poem. The Parliament of Fowls is a dream vision bird debate poem – a popular form at the time in which two or more birds representing human individuals or perspectives conduct a formal argument as witnessed by a human narrator in a dream. In this case, the topic is love (or breeding), and Chaucer creates a great deal of humour by allowing the assembly to fall into chaos because the lowly birds (worm and seed eaters) disagree with the lofty pretensions of the birds of prey who want to conduct themselves according to the rules of courtly love. For certain birds, like the goose and the duck, this is all too much – why on earth would you spend time pining after an unrequited love when there are so many others to choose from?! Just get on and pick a mate! In Chaucer’s poem, that is, birds fail to consistently represent human beings; they keep on doing and saying birdy things.


A quecking duck in the Gorleston Psalter, 1310-1324 (Source: British Library)

The moment in the poem that has preoccupied me over the last year (for the full extent, see here) concerns these birds:

The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also
So cryede, “Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!” hye,
That thourgh myne eres the noyse wente tho.

The goose, the cuckoo, and the duck also
Cried, ‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!’ so loudly
That the noise went then right through my ears.

What is strange about line 499 is that it is the one and only instance of phonetically-rendered bird call in the entire debate. Elsewhere, as is conventionally the case, birds speak a human language (or rather,  they never actually speak in their own language – the voice is human from the start, only inserted into bird bodies). What then are we to make of a line that has the birds momentarily cry out in a transcription that, like the quacking duck in the marginal illustration above, at least seems to represent genuine birds’ vocalisations?

In my view, when the birds stop talking English and suddenly speak out in a strange semiotic mode, Chaucer is playing with the same sorts of curiosities that turn up in that sound wordlist from Aldhelm – there is a fault in the transmission. It raises all sorts of interesting questions concerning translation between species in the poem: are we to imagine that the line stands as his attempt to translate what he denounces as irrational ‘noyse’ elsewhere? In which case, why does he not do so in Middle English as at all other times in the debate? Are we to understand, maybe, that the dream enables the fantasy of nonhuman to human understanding, and that the birds do not actually speak English to each other? Or perhaps the birds’ utterances indicate something incomprehensible to the narrator – accurately reported, anomalous bird sounds amongst voices that otherwise genuinely speak English? The line, in fact, is doubly complex because it both conveys real bird calls, and presents a human mimicking bird calls (exactly like modern ornithologist’s attempts to replicate bird calls). And, given that the debate actually takes place between a multitude of birds, to what extent are other species meant to understand ‘quek[s]’ and ‘kek[s]’ – can they translate too?

More profoundly, Chaucer’s bird call line, interrupting the human speech, invites us to bridge the communicative gap. It provokes a speculative translation act from us at this moment, a playful invitation to imagine what the birds mean (or perhaps fail to mean) amongst their own and other species. From this angle, the lively vernacular of the goose and duck at other times conducted in English (‘All this is not worth a fly!’; ‘Come off!’) is an attempt to translate this otherness of bird species, and that of all nature’s voices. As a modern ornithologist states in a recent article on birdsong, ‘We will probably never be able to talk to birds, but we may yet be able to know what they are saying’ (David Callahan, Birdwatch, May 2016). Chaucer might have been dubious about such confidence, but I think he’d be happy to admit that ‘queck’ is far from meaningless.






Pelagic Anglo-Saxon souls

I’ve spent the last couple of months devoted to re-writing the very first chapter I ever wrote for my PhD. In many ways, it’s been the hardest task. Returning to something I wrote five years ago was always likely to make me balk, but quality of writing and ideas aside, there is the accumulated mass of four other chapters to cohere with those original thoughts now, and all the developments in methodology and theory that come with  that body of work. Needless to say it’s taking a while, but here’s the basic nub (which I offer now as much to clarify it to myself among the mess of sections and paragraphs that currently exists!)

The two Old English poems I discuss in this opening chapter, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, both expound a traditional Christian vision of the soul’s journey on earth to reach home (OE ham); heaven. Technically it’s the body that does the journeying, of course, but it’s for the soul’s sake. Whether we are to read the journey literally or not has been much discussed, but either way, the speakers of both poems are involved in a maritime pilgrimage of sorts – they take to the sea, probably voluntarily, to seek the ultimate destination. It’s not so far fetched to imagine this literally; certain monastic individuals (see here, entry for the year 891) did, in fact, do precisely this – set sail in flimsy coracles on sea-bound wanderings (peregrinatio pro amore Dei ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’), often headed for remote, pinhead islands in the Atlantic from which to live out bleak, ascetic lives (Robert Macfarlane discusses this practice and visits specific locations in the first chapter of The Wild Places).

What I’ve been researching and writing about, though, is the role of birds in all of this. The convention of representing souls as birds certainly predates both of these poems in Latin, Norse and Germanic cultures (and post-dates; think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It appears several times in scripture (as a sparrow [passer]), and almost certainly influenced one of the most famous instances of all time; Bede’s analogy of fleeting human life as a sparrow in his telling of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. The king’s councillor puts the case for converting thus:

“Such”, he said, “the present life of men on earth seems to me, king, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us: as if, while you were sitting at dinner with your leaders and ministers in the winter time, with the fire lit in the centre and the upper room filled with heat, with the raging winter storms of winter rains or snow everywhere outside, a sparrow were to arrive and fly swiftly through the house. As it enters through one door and soon exits through another, during the time when it is inside it is not touched by the winter storm, but nevertheless, after the briefest space of calm, when it has hastened forth, turning from winter and soon back to winter, it escapes your eyes. Thus this life of men appears for a moment; what follows, or what came before, we absolutely do not know.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.12, trans. B. Colgrave)

Just to indicate the legacy of Bede’s description, here’s how the twentieth-century poet Louis MacNeice reimagines the metaphor:

This indoors flying makes it seem absurd,
Although it itches and nags and flutters and yearns,
To postulate any other life than now.
(‘Dark Age Glosses’)

Given the religious content, and the popularity of Bede’s text, it seems likely that the poets (or poet – it’s possible one person wrote both; they appear in the same manuscript) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer were influenced by the sparrow-soul image. Moreover, though, these writers specifically include real birds in their texts, which preface the implicit references to bird-souls later on. In The Seafarer, we actually get birds named:

Hwilum yflete song
dyde ic me to gomene,     ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg     fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende     fore medodrince.
Stormas þær stanclifu beotan     þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera;     ful oft þæt earn bigeal
urigfeþra … .

[Sometimes the swan’s song I did for my game, the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry for man’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answers them, icy-feathered; very often the eagle screams, dewy-feathered… .]

The Wanderer‘s reference is fleeting, and far less specific, but the birds are real and doing birdy things nonetheless:

Đonne onwæcneð eft     wineleas guma,
gesihð him biforan     fealwe wegas
baþian brimfuglas     brædan feþra
hreosan hrim ond snaw     haggle gemenged

[Then the friendless man wakes again, sees before him dark waves, bathing seabirds spreading feathers, falling rime and snow mingled with hail.]

What has particularly intrigued me is not just that the souls of humans might be depicted as birds, but that they are depicted as seabirds (brimfuglas). The type of birds may well have been suggested to the poets by the ‘life is like a tempestuous journey at sea’ trope, but both these poems, to me, draw their suitable metaphors for the wandering soul from wider Anglo-Saxon knowledge about birds, and seabirds specifically.


The huilpan has never been definitively identified by scholars, but cognates with other Germanic languages like Dutch suggest that the curlew is a very likely candidate. There is no doubt that this species’ haunting call must have attracted the attention of Anglo-Saxons as much as it does us today. (Source: Wikipedia Commons.)

The migrating or pelagic seabird provides the poet(s) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer with a potent image for the migrating soul partly because these species inhabit liminal, coastal territories, the uneasy boundary between the joys associated with the earthly splendours for which the speakers in both poems yearn, and the paradoxically desired hardships sought on the rough waters. Seabirds breed on terrestrial margins, but travel for vast distances to feed, often for huge spans of time. They inhabit realms that might seem, well, otherworldly. The religious journeys of both human bodies and souls, that is, are so well depicted not only by birds generally, whose most noticeable ability is flying, but by birds who master this skill over nonhuman habitats – mysterious and dangerous seas that stretch beyond the human eye. That Anglo-Saxon poets responded to the natural aspects of these richly suggestive locations as part of their poetic imaginings seems very significant. Seabirds, it seems, did feature in the cultural identities of coastal areas in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a series of coins dating from the eighth century, for instance, largely distributed in southern coastal regions, which portrays what appear to be tall waders. And zooarchaeological work on at least one coastal high-status site, has unearthed numerous sea or water bird species,  including herring gull, common gull, kittiwake, dunlin and curlew (see here).

The Anglo-Saxons were certainly aware of birds’ ability to migrate, in the sense understood in ornithological terms. Aristotle’s observations on birds were available to churchmen through Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies (XII.7), the last of which comments, for instance, on how birds like the swallow and stork are ‘migratory and return at certain seasons’, whilst others ‘stay in the same location’. But the Anglo-Saxons, keenly aware of their own migrations over the ‘gannet’s bath’ (OE ganot’s bæþ; e.g., Beowulf, 1861) and wary of invasions from Nordic foreigners across the North Sea, must have understood and responded to birds’ migrations in the broadest sense, too, as creatures seemingly always on the move, soon to be gone and out of sight. In two riddles from the same manuscript of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a swan is defined by its unreachable flights far ofer folc ‘over people’, and a barnacle goose is described according to the myth that its unfathomable disappearance is explained by its origin as a mollusc. They are equated with frightening but compelling territories outside human knowledge, like the ‘wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia’ to which Isidore links birds’ unknowable wanderings in his introductory passages to birds and which leads to their most characteristic quality, that which gives them their Latin name (according to Isidore; a lot of his etymologies are highly dubious or downright ridiculous!)): ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’.

Seabirds, at home on the pathless oceans that the speakers of The Seafarer and The Wanderer perversely seek out, best embody this marvel of avian behaviour, and provide the ideal metaphor for human souls pursuing a mysterious celestial destination beyond known lands.

Postscript: the ideas explored in this post are now to be published in an article submitted to English Studies. For a copy of the pre-submission script, see here.

Gower’s goshawk – raptor and ravisher

I’ve been reading and writing about goshawks and their kin a lot over the last four months. As fashionable birds from the sport of falconry, they make frequent appearances in medieval literary texts, alongside eagles and falcons and other hawks. Chaucer’s Sir Thopas carries a ‘grey goshauk on [his] honde’; Maldumarec in Marie de France’s Yonec morphs into the species; and Philomena in the very popular L’Ovide moralise (a 14th-century French moralised version of the Metamorphoses) is a woman of status, skilled in the art of hunting, who knows about goshawks and moulting patterns.

Goshawks are back in fashion. They’ve made it beyond the rarefied interests of birdwatchers and austringers to fascinate a wider public. Two recent books have contributed to this accipitrine  passion – Conor Mark Jameson’s Looking for the Goshawk (2013) and the phenomenally successful H is for Hawk (2014), both of which honour their debt to, and have renewed interest in, T. H. White’s classic The Goshawk. Helen Macdonald’s work has outstripped sales of all other books of its kind, and is now set to make it to the big screen. The goshawk craze looks set to continue.

Photo: Oliver Reville

It’s not difficult to see why these birds fascinate us. We love a predator – a creature that can be part-tamed, or captured at least, but which remains well on the distant side of loveable or predictable, of that we think we can come to know. Minacious and fierce, tiger-striped, fire in the eye. Goshawks might be familiar to us as captive birds for display or hunting, but we know they exist wild, too, rare creatures that made it back from extinction in this country. In British forests these huge, striking birds are masterful predators, but so rarely seen by the uninitiated that they more fully inhabit the mythic realm – the stuff of medieval elite hunting (unsurprisingly they appear in T. H. White’s best known book The Once and Future King, the source for Disney’s Sword in the Stone); the blood-and-guts poetry of Ted Hughes; or stunning footage in wildlife documentaries, at large in HD. Their name hints at their impressive bulk: from Old English goshafoc; goose-hawk. These birds are capable of taking large prey, unlike their smaller cousin, the sparrowhawk (OE spearhafoc), and there is evidence that they were used to hunt big water birds from the Anglo-Saxon period onwards. All in all, I imagine Macdonald may have had less success with M is for Meadow Pipit.

I have never seen a goshawk. In the last few days of 2015 I make determined plans to change this in the coming year. Wild breeding goshawks are elusive and, quite rightfully, guarded closely. The threat of egg collectors has not yet passed. I know there are goshawks in the counties where I live and watch birds, but the most likely places are the Forest of Dean on the border of England and Wales, and Thetford Forest in Norfolk. On calm, sunny days in March, it is possible to see goshawk pairs displaying above their territories. I am re-reading Jameson’s book, translating his journeys into my own imagined quest for a bird that still exists as symbol for me, as a complex and tantalising construct that has not yet escaped my Kulturbrille, the thrilling bird in Ted Hughes’s ‘Hawk Roosting‘ whose ‘manners are tearing off heads’. The poet’s ‘falsifying dream’ both dismisses human pontification and confirms it – the bird is a part of that ‘falsifying’, even in the attempt to envisage a hawk’s perspective, for whom the ‘earth’s face [is] upward for my inspection’. I revel in all of this, in White and Macdonald and the goshafoc, but what I really want is to see the thing itself, to collapse and explode myth into the barred breast and the orange eye of the flesh-and-feathers bird.

For now though, I return to medieval hawks, to a sparrowhawk in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and a goshawk in the ‘Tale of Tereus’ in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The references are insubstantial – fleeting metaphors, in fact – but carry sophisticated meanings. In both examples (and its certainly possible that Chaucer’s sparrowhawk detail influenced Gower’s goshawk), the birds take on inherited meaning from aristocratic culture, but they also allow something of the instinct and unpredictability of real hawks to intrude as well, to create perversely alluring figures of sexual desire.

New Picture

In Middle English, the association between these birds and their predatory nature was linguistically pronounced – ravine referred to both greed, but also raptors; indeed, our modern word for birds of prey still carries the Latinate etymology – from rapere (to seize). The knot of words surrounding this term included raptors alongside lust, theft, abduction and aggression. Rape still carries these associations, but ravishment has more romantic significance than it once did. John Trevisa, in the Properties of Things (14th cen.), writes that: ‘The goshauk is a real foul  and for þe takynge of oþir foules for pray (because it takes other birds for its prey) he[o] (she) is icplepid (called) aucipiter (accipiter) ‘a raptour and rauyschere (ravisher)’.

Both Chaucer and Gower take advantage of this apparent ferocity. In Troilus and Criseyde, the sparrowhawk is a metaphor for the first sexual union of the two lovers, and is striking because it conflates sex with both disturbing violence and sexual pleasure. The narrator rhetorically asks ‘What myghte or may the sely (wretched) larke seye / Whan that the sperhauk hath it in his foot?’ No answer comes, but the narrator goes on implicitly to link this metaphor to the lovers’ ‘gladnesse’ (III.1196) as well as their ‘hevynesse’ (III.1197): they come ‘out of wo in[to] blisse’ (III.1221). The implication is that both human and avian sexual instincts are alike – love, lust, aggression and death are not unrelated, and not human preserves.

(British Library, Harley 7026, fol. 16, 15th century)

In Gower’s Confessio Amantis, the well-known tale of Philomela is re-told to focus on Tereus, the king who rapes and mutilates his sister-in-law. Gower describes this act ‘As if a goshawk hadde sesed (seized) / A brid, which dorste noght for fere / Remue (does not move for fear): and thus this tirant there / Beraft hire (bereft her)’ (V.5642-7). Similar to Chaucer’s sparrowhawk, the goshawk becomes a complex and paradoxical image of shared sexual kind between beings – ravine (lust) and ravine (raptor) are intimately linked – so that the goshawk is invested with enabling and natural qualities through which Tereus performs worrisome and yet excusable acts (morality and natural law are frustratingly uncertain in the Confessio). The mutilation of Philomela’s tongue also anticipates the dismemberment of other human bodies later on in the tale, particularly that of Itys, Tereus’s son, whose is served up for his father to eat. Bodies, we are reminded, are flesh, eaten and eating.

Most tellingly, Gower’s goshawk image presages real avian transformations at the end of  the tale which are not punitive, not indications of depraved bestiality, but empowering changes which reveal and define character most fully through bird-human bodies. In this light, the Tereus-goshawk must be considered more than simple metaphor.  The raptor and the ravisher, bird and human, desirous knight and seizing bird, conjoin in Gower’s tale. Medieval goshawks are symbolic, heraldic, projections of cultural elite values, but these writers do not forget the natural either. There is something of the bird I will seek next year, that reminds us of common impulses, the shared viscera and carnality dispersed and experienced across species: the ‘herte on fyre’ in lust (Confessio, V.5622) and ‘takynge of oþir foules for pray’ (Trevisa) are of a kind.

(Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 366 (The Ormesby Psalter), fol. 38r, c. 1300)

Mysteries of the marsh

Marshes, levels, fens, bogs, mires, wetlands – these places, and the countless names for them, have long registered their eldritch presence in this island’s imagination. They are there in the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf – the looming morhopu [marshpool] from which Grendel, that mánscaða [evil being], lopes to seize his wretched human victims. They open Dickens’ Great Expectations, the first indelible landscape in child Pip’s ‘first most vivid and broad impression of things’:

the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and …   the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and … the distant savage lair from     which the wind was rushing, was the sea.

Pip’s ‘savage lair’ has something of Grendel about it. Intriguingly, recent historical interpretation of the epic has attempted to site the action in north Kent, in the territories where the early stages of Dickens’ novel is set and where I most enjoy birdwatching in the county. The Isle of Sheppey in winter still maintains a sense of wild down by the Swale estuary. The 11th-century name for Harty was Heorot (exactly the name of Hrothgar’s mead-hall in the poem) and the region itself was recorded as Schrawynghop in 1240, an Old English term, supposed to mean something like ‘marshland of malign creatures’. I cannot find anything convincingly academic on all this, but it’s an appealing notion.

At the end of October my partner and I spent time on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex. It’s become a favourite haunt – out east beyond the London fringe, the strain of M25 traffic, the crush of industry and towns with bad reps, out towards the flat miles and North Sea – where I meet a friend twice a year for a day’s walk round Old Hall Marshes. I wanted more time here, and booked a cottage nearby for a week. These days felt like ceremony or rite out on the coast, with the year finally turning bonfire colours, Ginny’s birthday, and the brent geese in from Artic colds. We went to embrace the solstice.

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Looking across to West Mersea

Seen from above or on a map, the estuary’s mazing channels, more complex here than anywhere along the Essex coast, appear like the brain’s lobal crevices, or a nutmeg cut open to reveal its woody fissures. The saltmarsh shares these intricacies, secrets. Its bewildering waterways belong to the birds and seals.

It is surely this foreignness of marshland that makes it most alluring. Either side of the seawall at Old Hall, the land at times can feel thrillingly treacherous: dense, shifting reedbeds on one side, and thick, clutching mudflats on the other. Although managed and shaped by humans for centuries, these spaces still retain a sense of the un-human and impenetrable, and can still be reclaimed by unpredictable tides, as they were in 1953. The birds match the mystery of their lands. Bearded tits are most often unseen in the depths of their close, vertical world, and the bittern is so accustomed and coloured to this environment, imitates its home so well, it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks.

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From the other side of the seawall, curlews and redshanks call in darkness. I fancy their songs sound desolate. They are not. But they are of the saltmarsh entirely, estuarine substance, coming to me along double-hidden creeks – out of view and under dark.

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.

‘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 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.

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