John Clare’s Nightingale

Nightingales have a special significance for me; when I first saw and heard one in France I had an experience of the ‘numinous.’ I describe this briefly in another post titled, Keats’ Nightingale.

I even coined the term, ‘the nightingale effect’ to describe any time and instance when we see the world anew, with child-like eyes, completely devoid of pain or disharmony.

John Clare (1793-1864) used to be described as a ‘peasant poet’ because he had not had much of a formal education, if any. However we must remember Bernard Shaw’s quip about his own education, that ‘the only time my education was interrupted was when I went to school.’ The education Clare received from Nature, like Wordsworth, was life-long and deep. Maybe his vision was kept pure because he hadn’t been ‘corrupted’ by the stultifying educational system of his day.?

It’s strange how we have books on our shelves unread or unremembered. I have a 1966 anthology of Clare’s poetry and prose and I certainly have read it. However, I can’t remember this poem, The Nightingale’s Nest, having such an effect on me as when I read it today. It works on a number of levels as all good poetry does. It parallels my own experience of searching for this ‘wonder-bird.’ I wasn’t looking for its nest but simply looking and listening to see if I could find the bird. People who are not birders (to use the American term which has been adopted here in the UK) may wonder what all the fuss is about. This would require an article of its own but for me it combines many things including a sense of the chase, making a list, a sense of achievement, furthering the trait of curiosity, aesthetic pleasure and self-transcendence, if that latter is not too pretentious a term. (Actually, readers now can appreciate this, as witnessed by so many in this unprecedented lockdown situation. Presenters on TV, such as Chris Packham, have talked of the healing power of nature.)

To get back to Clare, the lines, I’ve nestled down/And watched her while she sung – and her renown/Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird/

Should have no better dress than russet brown. . . exactly parallels my response when I first saw one singing. (I’ll add my short poem at the end just to show this similar response.)

The genius of Clare is that he writes of the particular but in so doing he uses the specific as a jumping of platform into a spiritual dimension. (Strictly speaking there are not two things here; the experiences he writes of are all of a whole; the specific and spiritual are two sides of the coin.) Of course, he has this in common with Blake, Wordsworth and many other poets. But, perhaps he is the more consistent in his adherence to his ‘local patch’. Wordsworth travelled a lot in comparison. Anyway, I’ll leave the poem to speak for itself.

The Nightingale’s Nest

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove,
And list the nightingale – she dwells just here.
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love;
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year –
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day,
As though she lived on song. This very spot,
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way –
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got,
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails –
There have I hunted like a very boy,
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn
To find her nest, and see her feed her young.
And vainly did I many hours employ :
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn.
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down,
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown.
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy,
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy,
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me
Did happy fancies shapen her employ;
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred,
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain:
The timid bird had left the hazel bush,
And at a distance hid to sing again.
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves,
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain,
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs;
For while of half the year Care him bereaves,
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast;
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs,
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs,
Are strangers to her music and her rest.
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide –
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way,
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs,
For we will have another search to day,
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ;
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows,
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook :
In such like spots, and often on the ground,
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look –
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here,
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by –
Nay, trample on its branches and get near.
How subtle is the bird ! she started out,
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh,
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near
Her nest, she sudden stops – as choking fear,
That might betray her home. So even now
We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still.
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough,
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill.
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.
We will not plunder music of its dower,
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall;
For melody seems hid in every flower,
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ;
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves,
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard.
How curious is the nest ; no other bird
Uses such loose materials, or weaves
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves
Are placed without, and velvet moss within,
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair;
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win.
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives
Homes for her children’s comfort, even here;
Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places. Deep a down,
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell.
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five,
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown;
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well.
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong,
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.

* * *

Nightingale Farewell

Last day in France – binoculars at the ready –
after sudden rain I walk along
steaming tarmac into pine forest shade,
pulled by bright sobbing and glissando glide –
I know you’re there by your jazzy come-on;
I’ve tuned my ears to see round corners!
My first glance upwards towards the telephone cable
over-shoots – the bird on the wire looks so plain –
I don’t catch on to your whispered tones. When I catch up,
you’re magnified in a circle – I marvel
at your modest plumage, warm brown tail
and throbbing throat. A little brown jizz!
Your bel canto leaps, your triplets and tremolos
are a high wire cabaletta – heard only by me.

Maybe tomorrow you’ll fly south, silently tracking
the fine line between light and dark, between
seeing and not seeing, while I fly north towards grey skies,
terraced houses and blackbirds in the park.

*

The Clare anthology I have is Clare, New Oxford Series, Edited by Eric Robinson and Geoffrey Summerfield. (1966) It has a wide selection of poems and prose so you can read the prose description and the subsequent poem.

6 thoughts on “John Clare’s Nightingale

  1. a g s woodpecker visited my peanuts this morning.   had other visitors,  some soggy juveniles I couldn’t identify.   I started watching episode 2 of springwatch last night.  Thanks for the interesting blog.  standard high as ever.  John —— Original Message —— On Saturday, 13 Jun, 2020 At 11:07, All Things

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  2. particularly liked “fine line between light and dark, between seeing and not seeing.” Being with that state of unknowing has promise. Bird song during walks in the park has lightened these days of restriction from the virus. Your posts are much appreciated.

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  3. Thank you for this beautiful post. I’d never heard of John Clare. His poem of the nightingale reminds me of John Muir’s writings on the American Dipper (aka the Water-Ouzel). Ever since reading that chapter, the Dipper has been on my list of must hears. So glad you got to see, and hear, the nightingale before you left.

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  4. Thanks Indra. I’ll look up the John Muir poem. Sadly, John Clare spent the last few years of his life in an asylum. His poetry is very accessible and worth getting to know.

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