‘The nightingales, the nightingales!’ – birds in verse

ST. ALBANS, Jan 23 – Bird poems are as little cages, their filigree bars artfully fashioned by master creators who strive to do their best by their captives.

But a caged poem bird is never the same as a free bird, even when the poet in question is the great John Keats. I’ll never tire of reading THE NIGHTINGALE. Yet it is as much or more about his melancholia than the bird, which seems to fill the role of his flute-throated accompanist, thereby embellishing the poet’s lustre.

So, too, in his exquisite TO THE SKYLARK, Percy Bysshe Shelley reveals his desire to draw from his subject to further his own powers:

‘Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now!’

Yes, he’s listening, but at least in part with an ear to himself being heard the better.

And when I read Ted Hughes’ HAWK ROOSTING it is Ted Hughes I see sat ‘in the top of the wood’, his ‘eyes closed’, at the height of the creative food chain, his iron will resolved ‘to keep things like this.’


Richard Barnfield, born 1574, shows us a different way, acutely mimicking the musicality and notation of the arch songster in these lines:

‘Fie, fie, fie, now would she cry

Tereu, tereu, by and by.’

The poet had a sharp ear and conveyed what he heard in simple words of crystalline clarity. But then the world was a far, far more silence-rich place than it is now.


More recently, Vernon Watkins brought his painter’s eye to bear in his poem THE HERON, describing said bird as ‘cloud-backed’. The heron – which, at some 38 beats a minute, has the slowest wing action of any British avian – is a most patient of fisherbirds.

‘…no distraction breaks the watch

Of that time-killing bird

He stands unmoving on the stone:

Since dawn he has not stirred.

Calamity has fixed his golden eyes,

On water’s crooked tablet…’

William Wordsworth put his back into his bird verses, opening with, ‘O blithe newcomer!’ in TO THE CUCKOO and ‘Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!’ in TO THE SKYLARK.

Shelley however shows the value of verbs in the far more active and immediately memorable opening of his TO A SKYLARK, ‘Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!’ He also sustains the mood for some twenty five-line verses, thus replicating the astonishing stamina of the bird’s actual song flight. Some achievement.

Tennyson’s poem THE EAGLE is a mere six lines. Yes, he has the bird falling from a cliff like a thunderbolt, but that’s about it. His heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. Six lines. No more. The world has moved on.


Elegance, reason and romance seemed antiquated. Grandfather clock cases had swelled to enormous girth, and Victorian novelists were turning out gigantic novels, much as mines and factories were disgorging mountains of coal and miles of cotton. Reason gives way to realism, romance to sentimentality. The industrial city has burst forth and multiplied.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning pours forth a wonderful word fall in BIANCA AMONG THE NIGHTINGALES. Driven to distraction in her pursuit of a lost lover, the nightingales provide a nightmare sound-track to Bianca’s breakdown. Each of the sixteen, nine-line stanzas ends with one or another of these increasingly ominous lines:

‘The nightingales, the nightingales

And still they sing, the nightingales

I will not hear these nightingales

For still they sing, the nightingales

I cannot bear these nightingales.

(O Lady hush these nightingales!)

And evermore the nightingales!

Oh, owl-like birds! They sing for spite,

They sing for hate, they sing for doom!

They’ll sing through death who sing through night,

They’ll sing and stun me in the tomb-

The nightingales, the nightingales!’

Bravo! We’re far closer to Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Nevermore’ THE RAVEN (with ‘evermore’ a poet-to-poet bridging word?) than to Shelley’s ‘blithe Spirt and Keats’ ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’. I wonder if Poe read Browning or Browning read Poe?


But something far more savage is afoot. Europe is ripped apart by revolutions and then in 1857 the archly saturnine Charles Baudelaire publishes his recognisably modern snarl on the vice and boredom to be found flowing aplenty in the viscera of life in a modern city, namely THE FLOWERS OF EVIL – a work of revolutionary potency.

In Baudelaire’s THE ALBATROSS, bored sailors trap an albatross and have it ‘on the planks…hurt and distraught…its great white wings, dragging like useless oars’. The sailors mock the aristocratic avian and one ‘pokes a pipe into its beak’. Baudelaire then likens ‘The Poet’ to the downed bird who:

‘…loves a stormy day:

But on the ground, among the hooting crowds,

He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.’


albatross 1

The fate of Baudelaire’s albatross feels different to that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s earlier bird slaughter in THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER. Yes, the Coleridge albatross is downed by the mariner’s cross-bow bolt. But poetry does not seem to die as well. There is something far nastier going on in the Baudelaire poem. Both are written in tight form, but the latter feels thoroughly modern in its reportage.

And if it’s all getting far too sombre, there’s always Edward Lear to cheer us up:

‘The owl looked up at the stars above,

And sang to a small guitar

O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,

What a beautiful Pussy you are,

You are

What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Moving swiftly on – bypassing Charles Darwin poring over the beaks and other anatomical minutia of the Galapagos finches, and those fashionable Victorian ladies who adorned their hats with bird of paradise fascinators (they sported the whole bird).

Things are fragmenting, the centre cannot hold.

Gerard Manley Hopkins might not have made the grade as a Jesuit, failing his priestly finals, but his outburst of sheer joy in THE WINDHOVER has uplifted many a soul. It would take a very stony heart not to sense something beautiful in his, ‘daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon…upon the rein of a wimpling wing’.


Writing just a year after T S Eliot’s THE WASTE LAND was published in 1922, W B Yeats LEDA AND THE SWAN is a poem in form on a classical theme – the god rapist sewing nemesis and hubris. The violence is beautifully worded, but terribly disturbing. The fate of Belgium in 1914 springs to mind.

‘A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.’

Yeats’ swan sprang to mind one lunchtime in London’s Canary (!) Wharf where I was working. I went for a walk by the docks and down to the River Thames and happened to see a real swan’s nest in Millwall Dock. The nest was built largely from bits of human detritus, plastic bottles, blue plastic rope, crisp packets, rubbish. It was sad to see such a beautiful work of nature as the swan reduced to such a low state, while all around soared the concrete and glass towers of man’s material triumph.

Later on during the same walk, I saw a clutch of cormorants perched on a derelict landing stage stretching out into the River Thames, about thirty of them. The sight of the lugubrious black birds put me in mind of a passage in Milton’s PARADISE LOST.

Satan, deeply conflicted and unsure as to whether he can accomplish his work of corruption, is perched high in the Tree of Life in The Garden of Eden, in the guise of a cormorant. He beholds Adam and Eve in their innocent happiness, and the rest as they say is history – the history of each and every one of us.

Success is all. And success in the towers of Canary Wharf is measured in money. The birds do not count.

That said, it is the RSPB’s big garden birdwatch this weekend. Thousands of people across Britain will count the different types and numbers of birds that visit their ‘patch’.

Perhaps one of them will be moved to write a poem that will inspire us all to return to or find more natural ways – though perhaps not by resorting to a quill pen in his or her quest so do do.



by R J Askew


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