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"amidst his harem sleeps in unsuspecting pomp," or, “wakeful,”
counts the night-watches to his feathery dames,” and as "the shepherd's clock” “his matin rings,” “ with startling summons," "at peep of day”—"a cottage-rousing craw," that "with lively din scatters the rear of darkness thin," and then, “fearless," "to the stack or the barn door stoutly struts his dames before," "flirting empty chaff about.” Indeed, it is not only pleasing but even a little pathetic to remark the gratitude of the poets to "the various poultry," " of mixed domestic kind,” for their general and very varied utility in verse: “The tame villatic fowl” thus become a very widow's-cruse of comfort to the unprovided bard, for they are inexhaustible in similes and illustrations, conceits and texts. Besides, there is so much in the manners and customs and demeanour of “the feathered tribe domestic,” that prompts to cheeriness in style, a hearty homely vigour of language-quaint and sudden turns of thought, lively sallies of humour, bright alternations from grave to gay and from gay to grave again, unexpected flights of imagination—that the poet, whether courtier, philosopher, or satirist, may find an infinity of material “within the palings, where the household fowls convene.” What a diversity of romance gathers round these birds in the fables of the poets, and what monstrous fun Chaucer, Dryden, Fenton, and others extract from Chanticleer and Partlet! There are those, of course, who decry the bird of Æsculapius, of Minerva, and of Mars, but the majority in its favour is overwhelming. What an engaging robustness does it attain in Milton and in Shakespeare !
The cock that is the trumpet to the Morn,
Awake the God of Day, arrives at considerable dignity; while in Cowper he reaches the highest rung
the noblest of the feathered kind. Now, as curious in itself and certainly not without a significance that “elegantly advantages my text,” it is worth noting that, while compliments are thus heaped upon the cock, there is nothing apparently worth saying to the credit of the hen or her chickens. She is a “ careful” but a “cackling" personage, and, with her offspring, is always in ridiculous bewilderment or in difficulties. The fact is, the poets find themselves on sure ground when speaking of barn-door fowls, and do not disdain, therefore, to draw nice and accurate distinctions of character. No liberties are taken with Nature—there is no "poetical license "-as when they hazard their errors about pelicans and cormorants, vultures and birds of Paradise ; and it might almost be inferred, therefore, that if they had known more about these exotic birds they would have sung more sympathetically about them, have left the pelican its life's blood, and the-bird-of-Paradise its legs.
To point this inference I may note the significant fact that every one of the British game-birds-nine in number—finds honourable mention, even though the multitude of sea-fowl are dismissed with seven species. Scott delights in the black-cock with its “sable plume," its “wing of jet," and its "jetty wing"; and, whether as gor-cock, heath-cock, or "moor-cock,” may be depended upon both in Scott and Burns as a detail of early morning, and this, too, with an accuracy that does not detract from its picturesqueness. With the “birring” partridge it is the same, for a score of poets make frequent mention of it (as a rule, in connection with the early shooting days of September): grouse, of course, comes in for its share of notice, and the pheasant too-Somerville apparently having been often out on the 12th himself. Ptarmigan finds its immortality in “Marmion” and elsewhere; the quail in White's “Evening Walk,” in Keats and Parnell, and others; the woodcock in a score of poets-Gay, Butler, Garth, Philipps, Greene, Pope, Shenstone, Prior, Drayton, Burns, Byron, Shelley, and Wordsworth among them—as an article of food and an object of sport; the snipe in many besides Wordsworth (who had evidently often flushed it in his walks); the wild duck “on Avon's tide,” where Shenstone made a note of it, Gay set his hawk at it, and Somerville shot it.
All the game-birds, then, are on the poets' list. Yet take them together and can it be said that they offer the poet the same surface of poetry or the same variety of beauty as any other nine which, comparatively speaking, they ignore—for instance, the heron, curlew, woodpecker, kingfisher; bustard, kestrel, merlin, nightjar, and corncrake? Moreover, the accuracy to nature with which the poets touch off the game birds is quite “unpoetical.” Their pelicans may tear their breasts open to feed their young and their vultures chase woodpigeons, their eagles feed on fruit and their nightingales soar to sing ; but there is no mistake about their woodcocks, whether in the cover or the larder, or about their snipe, whether on the wing or on toast.
No bird or family of birds has given more beautiful lines, similes, illustrations, metaphors, and ideas than the Pleiad of “the doves"; yet the poets know absolutely nothing about them. As
· Ring-dove, wood-dove, wood-pigeon, stock-dove, cushat, turtle-dove, pigeon. VOL. CCLIII, NO. 1821.
domestic poultry—"pigeons "_they saw they were greedy, quarrel. some, and wanton ; but the wild bird was a complete secret to them. They speak of it as a solitary fowl, generally a widow, of most melancholy disposition, that lives under a sense of grievous injuries received, and goes in fear of her life, being perpetually “pounced ”1 by something or other. When mated, she is an exemplar to the woods of chastity ; when widowed, a model to the whole world of constancy and fidelity to the memory of the deceased. She is usually “silver”; but her neck frequently glows with iridescent tints, perpetually changing, and she is otherwise distinguished by a “ homely song." The chief characteristic is her solitariness; and forlorn," " widowed,” “melancholy,"
melancholy,” “pensive,” “
pensive," "moaning," " “dolorous," "plaining," " wailfu'," “miserable," "wretched," "sobbing," and "mournfully hoarse” are sufficient to illustrate this. Next comes the idea of her constancy in affection—it is needless to accumulate epithets-and, indeed, it is distinctly stated again and again that this constancy is only to be found in doves—especially o turtles.”
What a “turtle" is, the poets cannot agree. Some make it the male of “the dove," others the female of the “stock-dove," and others again the male or female of the ring. dove ; while the stockdove and ring-dove are similarly mis-mated in bewildering combinations, the general result being as delightsul a confusion of three wholly distinct species of birds as even poets could wish for.
Of the rest of the poets' dove fictions—how they had no galls, and were thus “serenely mild ”; how they built nests of exceptional cosiness; how “clowns” cruelly carry away these nests in their hands (the delicious idea of it !); how vultures chase them, and so forth— I have not space to speak. But, after all, does not “dove," the Christabel of the birds, rhyme delightfully with "love," and where, after all, are we to expect to find pretty errors perpetuated if not in the unnatural history of the poets? But it is a pity the poets did not know that a dove's “nest " was about as cosy as a box of matches spilt on a mantelpiece.
Next on my present list comes the eagle ; but if I begin, where shall I end? The poetical literature of “Columbia's bird” will fill a solid volume. Indeed, the very word in itself is so beautiful, that I can easily understand the poets delighting in its use. And what a splendid thing it grows, this eagle, under their inspired pens! So splendid, indeed, that nature borrows the supreme epithet of its
I The Pleiades, "pounced” by Orion, were changed into doves and sent up out of harm's way among the stars,
name—"eagle skies," "eagle-baffling mountains," " eagle tempests” -the cloud borrows its wings, the sun its eyes. It towers overhead “the feathered king” and “bird of Jove," "royal," "wide-ruling,” "imperial,” “thunder-grasping,” “Olympian,” “Lord of land and sea.” It is the captain of nations, and has Victory for a slave. It lends its dignifying name to majesty and to science, to religion, philosophy, history, and song. It symbolises triumph and dominion, and is the emblem of pride and of noble ambition, of chivalry, of fame, and of freedom ! Its flight is the supreme comparison for strength and speed, for distance and for height. Discord in nature reaches its climax when the slumber of the eagle is disturbed. Under the shadow of its pinions is an universal silence, a deferential peace.
Yet even here, if I may do so without seeming to be profane, I would lodge a protest against the poets who make the eagle
Whom Madhava bestrides
When high on eagle's plumes he rideseat human corpses. That it eats carrion is well known—the gods · themselves were sordid when they stooped to earth--but once make
the eagle the boon-companion of the vulture, the hyena, and the jackal, and all sympathy with the great bird is choked. I would also venture to remonstrate with Shelley, the poet of Freedom and the Eagle, for speaking of it as feeding on flower seeds. The poet wished to account for the growth of some vegetable stuff on the pinnacle of a crag of prodigious height. He would not admit that any other bird than the eagle could have flown to such a height, and therefore (knowing that birds are one of the recognised agencies in nature for the diffusion of seeds) he says that the day was
Swayed in the air.
The nightingale, in itself a poem, has hatched hundreds—so many, indeed, that the subject overwhelms me. Some of these are notoriously of exquisite beauty, and yet there has been enough fustian written about the bird to make Keats' "eyes dissolve in woe" and Milton “roar.” Do poets ever read each other? From the monotony of their repetitions about nightingales alone, I should be inclined to think they never did-unless, of course, the same phenomenon of plagiarism be accepted as proof that they do. But apart from mere dull, harmless fustian, made all the duller by the
damnable iteration” of their echoes, their verses are as “ shagged " with silly errors of fact as Thomson's wintry plains are with silly errors of fancy. Take, for instance, the poets' persistence in making the female nightingale sing--the hen bird, that cannot, as Chaucer would say, "sing me worthe a boterflie”! Milton, Gilbert White, and Montgomery knew better ; but the rest, thinking to create a thing of greater beauty than Nature contained, present us with a she-nightingale-a preposterous fowl, as wicked as the poet's ostrich, that is
formed of God without a parent's mind, that wastes all her night in telling her "melodious sorrows" to a world in bed, and flying about the woods, instead of sitting on her eggs and keeping the night-chill off them; the absurdity reaching its climax in Mallet, who, conscious of error, yet loath to abandon the legend, makes “ Philomela” male! It is not easy to recognise the benefit that poetry derives from such eccentricities, for nothing ever yet written in verse surpasses the wonderful poetry of the real nightingale's life. It comes to England every year from Asia Minor, to build its nest in English hollies and sing its song. It nestles in the “leasy quiet” of “shadiest covert hid”
What more secret than a nest of nightingales ? — and there, sitting close by his brooding mate, the male bird sings day and night. It has drawn for itself what naturalists call “the nightingale line" across the English shires, and all the loving artifices of man cannot get it east, west, or north of its own chosen limits; and I cannot recall any other fact in ornithology so curiously picturesque as this.
That Waller knew the nightingale lest England as soon as summier was gone is evident in the following (from his “Address to Sir W. Davenant")
Thus the wise nightingale that leaves her home,
To foreign groves doth her old music bring;
The nightingale, a welcome guest,