Thursday, May 03, 2007

Pingle and Strain

Tree and Sign

After my splutters regarding the way writers long to tackle (better, be overwhelm’d by) pure sound, Sam Ward wrote me pointing to John Clare’s nightingale in “The Progress of Rhyme”:
—& nightingales O I have stood
Beside the pingle & the wood
& oer the old oak railing hung
To listen every note they sung
& left boys making taws of clay
To muse & listen half the day
The more I listened & the more
Each note seemed sweeter then before
& aye so different was the strain
She’d scarce repeat the note again
—“Chew-chew chew-chew” & higher still
“Cheer-cheer cheer-cheer” more loud & shrill
“Cheer-up cheer-up cheer-up”—& dropt
Low “Tweet tweet jug jug jug” & stopt
One moment just to drink the sound
Her music made & then a round
Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird
“Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur chur-chur
“Woo-it woo-it”—could this be her
“Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew
“Chew-rit chew-rit”—& ever new
“Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig”
The boy stopt sudden on the brig
To hear the “tweet tweet tweet” so shrill
The “jug jug jug” & all was still
A minute—when a wilder strain
Made boys & woods to pause again
Words were not left to hum the spell
Could they be birds that sung so well—
I thought & may be more then I
That musics self had left the sky
To cheer me with its majic strain
& then I hummed the words again
Till fancy pictured standing bye
My hearts companion poesy
Stirring me to lift down the Margaret Grainger-edited Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare (Oxford, 1983), index’d and thorough—no recollect of noting it in other Clare forays, episodic attempts to “join with” the “self-tutored and self-deprecating” Clare (“I always had a thirst after knowledge in every thing & by that restless desire have only acquired a very superficial knowledge of many things that serves for no other purpose than to make me feel my real ignorance of every thing so much the more”). Of the nightingale, Clare’s knowledge (the “tee-rew tee-rew”—a variant of “tereu tereu”?—above notwithstanding) is of the naturalist, perfectly willing to scoff at the literary. He notes how the birds
. . . sing their varied songs with short intervals both in the night & day time & sing in one as common as the other I have watchd them often at their song their mouth is open very wide & their feathers are ruffled up & their wings trembling as if in extacy the superstition of laying their throat on a sharp thorn is a foolish absurdity but it is not the only one ascribed to the nightingale . . .
(See, provided in a footnote, verses by one Richard Barnfield—“Some sing her leaning on a thorn / & give her music pain . . .”) I love, too, Clare’s easy scorn for city provincials out in the country (edging into honest contempt for the city itself):
I forgot to say in my last that the Nightingale sung as common by day as night & as often tho its a fact that is not generaly known your Londoners are very fond of talking about this bird & I believe fancy every bird they hear after sunset a Nightingale I remember when I was there last while walking with a friend in the fields of Shacklwell we saw a gentleman & lady listning very attentive by the side of a shrubbery & when we came up we heard them lavishing praises on the beautiful song of the nightingale which happened to be a thrush but it did for them & they listend & repeated their praise with heart felt satisfaction while the bird seemed to know the grand distinction that its song had gained for it & strive exultingly to keep up the deception by attempting a varied & more louder song the dews was ready to fall but the lady was heedless of the wet grass tho the setting sun as a traveller glad to rest was leaning his enlarged rim on the earth like a table of fire & lessening by degrees out of sight leaving night & a few gilt clouds behind him such is the ignorance of nature in large Citys that are nothing less then grown prisons that shut out the world & all its beautys
Somehow Clare makes one think (for a moment) the “enlarged rim” refers to the “gentleman” Londoner, a kind of lard-buttedness and idiocy annealing to the citified laggard. Ward’s note, too, led finally to another Clare rough-futile limning of the bird’s song:
I can sit at my window here & hear the nightingale singing in the orchard & I attempted to take down her notes but they are so varied that ever tiem she starts agains after the pauses seems to be something different to what she uttered before & many of her notes are sounds that cannot be written the alphabet having no letters that can syllable the sounds
Chee chew chee chew chee
chew—cheer cheer cheer
chew chew chew chee
—up cheer up cheer up
tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug

wew wew wew—chur chur
woo it woo it tweet tweet
tweet jug jug jug

tee rew tee rew tee rew—gur
gur—chew rit chew rit—chur-chur chur
chur will-will will-will tweet-em
tweet em jug jug jug jug

grig grig grig chew chew

wevy wit wevy wit
wevy wit—chee-chit
chee-chit chee chit
weewit weewit wee
wit cheer cheer
pelew pelew—
bring a jug bring a
jug bring a jug
And today, walking through the six a.m. bird-chorus, a nuthatch—normally a noisemaker of a nasal “yank-yank yank-yank” sort, got heard saying distinctly “bitte bitte,” in German.

I note, too, that T. S. Eliot’s nightingale—along with a nightingale in Chaucer (Troilus and Criseyde)—
. . . the newe abaysshed nightingale,
That stinteth first whan she biginneth to singe,
Whan that she hereth any herde tale,
Or in the hegges any wight steringe,
And after siker dooth hir voys out-ringe . . .
—and in Thomson’s The Seasons and, oh, “everybody” (including Clare, except in one piece)—all those nightingales are female, whilst Clare asserts: “I think & am almost certain that the female . . . never sings.”

Clare’s lovely orthography: “a shoy bird,” shy.

The belief (apparently correct) that after the bird’s eggs hatch, the songster’s bold melodiousness is replaced with “a harsh, raucous call.”

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)