Category Archives: nightingale

Enigmatic riddle birds

Bit of a cheat post this one, but since I’ve recently published a general-audience post on the Anglo-Saxon riddles site The Riddle Ages, I thought I’d provide a link for readers of this site who might be interested. It’s taken and adapted from work I’ve produced on the Old English Exeter Book Riddles – an amazing collection of riddles written in Old English (the only ones we have – everything else is in Latin) and compiled in a huge manuscript given by Bishop Leofric in 1072 to Exeter cathedral, where it still resides. Many of the riddles involve a first-person speaker who describes themselves in typically riddling, paradoxical style and then asks that the listener or reader saga hwæt ic hatte ‘say what I am called’. Intriguingly, in this manuscript at least, there are no answers. It really is a guessing game! The natural world features well in the collection of 90+ riddles, and birds make up a noticeable portion of these. There is a swan, a nightingale, a cuckoo, a barnacle goose, hens and a jay. Riddle 57 is nearly always solved as one species of bird or another (crow, swift, swallow), but no scholar has ever settled on which species. So … here are my thoughts on why we should pay more attention to the anonymity of the birds in Riddle 57 then the possibility of a precise answer: see here for the translation, and here for the commentary.


‘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  

The Mediterranean dawn chorus

Today I wake early to immense light that we’ve not experienced since we arrived in Crete. Waves brim just outside the window beyond the broom scrub and blackbirds sing as they have done every morning through the rain, despite its attempts to silence them, their song rising and rising at intervals when light poured through momentarily. Finally, the pesky wind and low, solid clouds have moved east and the sky is clear. Even at this early hour, the sun is warm. At last we can get out to the high moutain reaches and spend whole, hot days walking in Crete’s famous gorges. A chaffinch chivvies its descending notes. A nightingale singing again, briefly. The bird arrived much the same time as we did on the island and has been warming up with subsong notes, finally throwing out its full licks, swoops and reels this morning as though announcing spring. I think of how much fantasy this song has inspired, and right here in the Aegean too; Sappho and Homer responding all those thousands of years ago. The resident Sardinian warblers are as encouraged by the warmth as I am. I step outside quitely. There they are on the broom, skitting from every top and scratching the air with their Mediterranean song, displaying in loops from the yellow tips. A male woodchat shrike, just in, perches on the tops near the warblers, who do not seem remotely bothered.


Today is what we’ve been waiting for so that we can head to Zakros Gorge and do some proper walking in the warmth. Hopefully the burst of birdlife from our balcony might indicate the arrival of migrants elsewhere on the island.

The road to Zakros is winding, wild, and you barely see another person. In mountains like this, only yesterday, up on the Lassithi Plateau where snow still lingered and the wind gusted through, I found my first lammergeier; broad, huge and wedge-tailed amongst the many griffon vultures. It sailed over without a single wingbeat, slowly moving west until I lost it to the haze. No vultures today, but plenty of shrikes on the telegraph wires, and swallows. There are red-rumped swallows and alpine swifts, too. After leaving the main road just before Chandrasekhar, you drive through one of the least populated reigns of the island – arid mountainous terrain with olive groves in the lower climes or small plateaus, but mostly tenacious, thorny scrub clinging from every possible angle. Scree and ochre rock. The road snakes up through tiny villages, looping and double-backing, switchback and harepin.

The head of the gorge is accessible from the village itself, Ano Zakros (Ano means ‘upper’) or from a little further south towards Kato (lower) from a sandy passing spot on the left of the road. Taking the left hand of the two paths (by the well with the ornate dragon’s head tap), you enter the maw of the mountain, descending to the river which flows out to the Libyan sea along ‘Dead’s Gorge’ (in Minoan times the caves in the cliffs were used as sacred burial sites). At this time of year, it is still moving and needs to be forged at several places – a shoes-and-socks-off job, or a wet behind in my case at one crossing. At midday, the whole canyon is fully lit by a harsh vertical sun, but there are still turnings that leave you under the immense shadow of the south rock face.


There are collared flycatchers in the gorge, distinctive males with their full white-through-black bands all the way around the back of the head. A pair of kestrels beat high up, circling and calling at our presence. The foot of the gorge exits to the smallest Minoan place settlement on Crete, built below a conspicuous arched cave high up in the cliff face above it. We arrived through olive groves with more flycatchers – plucking fat, knobbled, wild lemons from overhanging trees to pair with the handfuls of oregano and thyme we picked earlier – down to one of the most perfect beaches on the island. Even today, Greek Easter Sunday, the tavernas were open and lively with local Greeks and tourists. We chose one with the roof propped up by mature trees, right on the beach, drank ice cool Fix beers and ate spit-roasted lamb (a special for the day’s ceremony).

On our return walk, a splendid male rock thrush singing and swooping from one side of the gorge to the next.