Category Archives: poetry

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.






February is the cruelest month

Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ achieves its haunting allure because the bird at its centre features an unresolved and disquieting contradiction. It is both everything we might expect a song thrush to be – tuneful, ‘full-hearted’, ‘ecstatic’ – and yet ‘frail, gaunt’, intimately associated with the ‘growing gloom’. It is a favourite of mine precisely because of this ambiguity – effortlessly simple but, like all great poems, endlessly regenerating new meanings. Originally titled ‘The Century’s End, 1900’, for instance, the poem clearly expresses some sense of fin de siècle anxiety, but Hardy could not have guessed how much more painfully ominous his words would seem following the advent of the Great War. The poem presents a restless mixture of despondency and hope which might carry all sorts of valencies, including perhaps, in the early 21st century, the ecological.

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I was minded to recall this poem today. Here on the Essex coast again, I walked at Tollesbury Wick along the Blackwater in late afternoon light. We had been out all morning, but with mid February now suddenly cold I am indulging a little winter solemnity while it lasts. Mornings have been below freezing – a hard frost, the ground brittle under hard glistenings. Out on the marsh, raised on the sea wall, the North Sea blast comes straight at you. There are huge flocks of huddled wigeon and teal on the reed bed pools, shifting lapwing and golden plover; on the other side, solitary redshanks on the exposed mudflats. I watch a barn owl quarter the banks way out on the grazing marsh. The bare hawthorns along the path have endured this for years – wind-beaten and crouching, aged with silver lichens that wreath the branches like dense fogs.

In these circumstances, I had not expected to be brought up short. But there it was. A single hawthorn in full bloom. I circled the shrub as though in ritual, brushed the white flowers. Then got in close to frame winter out – here was something wholly of spring, its delicate petals and scent, sweet green shoots lilting warmth and renewed earthly energies. I moved out, glanced up and across to Mersea where the clouds gusted, the colour of dented pewter. A small group of black-tailed godwits called overhead, all subdued greys.

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A week before, perhaps I would have not been quite so astounded. It’s been an exceptionally warm winter – record-breaking – with temperatures well into the teens through the Christmas period and into New Year. I noticed daffodils, butterflies in December, primroses in January; naturalists and writers all over Britain have been noting these strange occurrences (see here, and here). Swallows were recorded months after they should have departed for Africa, and have already been sighted again this year. What might this have to do with the swift I saw at the beginning of September? This is one pleasure (and consternation) in watching nature; you see things that go entirely missed by others, both that which is expected (the firsts and lasts of each season), and that which is out of joint.

It is staggering, quite incomprehensible to think that here at one spot in squelching mud on this stretch of a tiny peninsula in south Essex I might be witnessing some phenomenon, a possible link between this moment and extreme weather patterns all around the globe prompted by Pacific ocean currents; the El Niño, droughts in Africa, a disrupted jet stream, a dragonfly in November, and the premature blooming of one young hawthorn. Even in our modern age, when the causes for such events can be explained, thinking upon the implications still invokes the portentous. I do not know precisely what atmospheric influence or telluric force is at play here, but one single feature of the natural world has reminded me of the intimate and far-reaching interrelations of all things, and I  am embraced with it. I think of Hardy’s singing thrush. My hawthorn blossom in February’s ‘weakening eye of day’ conjures that ‘ancient pulse’, something ‘whereof he knew / And I was unaware’.

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.