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Mrs. Hemans also had a suspicion of it ; and of Carew I am doubtful. But I have not been able to find any other direct acknowledgments of the bird's precipitate desertion of the country that gives it a home when it needs one most. Indeed, it is only in Longfellow that I can find expression given to the well-founded grudge. It is borrowed from the German
Oh, maiden fair, oh, maiden fair ! how faithless is thy bosom.
The nightingale, the nightingale, thou tak’st for thine example.
So long as summer laughs she sings,
But in the autumn spreads her wings.
That many British poets knew the nightingale did not sing after June is beyond doubt, but they attribute the cessation of “her” song either to Philomela's own private woes (the treason of such a suspicion !)
mute, for her false mate Has fled and left her desolate ;
or else to her being overwhelmed by the contemplation of the dead spring; or else, as Shakespeare does, to a pretty and even high-spirited vanity
As Philomel in summer's forest doth sing,
Other prominent errors of fact are denying that it sings by daycalling it the only songster of the night-describing it as singing on the wing-making it "high-perched." And, unfortunately, each of these detracts from the undeniable poetry of the real bird of Nature, in comparison with whom the poets are but mere apprentices.
Oh! cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,
.. darling of the spring,
This sums up fairly enough the verdict of the poets on this bird. It was undoubtedly a favourite with those who knew Nature best, and for all the the rest it afforded "a cuckoo cry.” It was not easy to go wrong about the cuckoo, for the chief facts of its natural history
were so popularly familiar as to have passed into proverbs—and for the rest, it was “an invisible thing, a voice, a mystery.” Wordsworth's ode to it is a delightful welcome to the “blithe newcomer,” that with its “sovereign cry fills all the hollows of the sky,” and “straggling up to the hill-tops, shouteth faint tidings of some gladder place;" and as “the rustic herald of the spring" the cuckoo has received from many another poet a pretty compliment and graceful word. Yet there are those who have called it “dull” (Phillips), " shallow" (Milton), “hollow” (Thomson), "foolish” (Dryden), “hateful ” (Shakespeare), and others who lay stress only on the "monotony" of its notes,
The cuckoo away in the thicket
purport, as "unpleasing to the married ear." Yet folklore abounds with the kindliest nonsense about the cuckoo, for it is a favourite in every country and revered in most. English country folk, for instance, believe it to be a bird from spirit-land and the bearer of good omens. They say, too, that it turns into a merlin in the autumn, and that little birds love it. But somehow, so it seems to me, neither the picturesque nor the poetical in the bird-world of Nature commends itself to poets, and so, as they persist in preferring the ideal, the artificially pleasing, and the supernatural cuckoo, the beautiful parable of this bird finds no place in verse.
One poet has consecrated the skylark, and the others have made use of it liberally; and if it is not found “up-springing" on one page,
1 O youths and maidens rise and sing,
The trees of the forest have all been told,
-Waterfield's Indian Ballads.
it may be depended upon to be "mounting "a little later on. It is popular, and deservedly so, for it abounds in the moralities. Is it not“ low-roosted,” and yet "sky-searching," and does not this alone open
way to a very Sahara of virtuous teaching? With one eye on heaven and the other on the ground, is it not at once the emblem of aspiring hope and of earth-seeking pleasure? Moreover, it salutes the morn, a pattern of daily rising; cheers up the field-labourer ; dries its wings at the sun; and does many other things which suggest to the poets a wonderful variety of lines of great beauty.
It is “the morning lark” that "warbling springs frae the dews of the lawn,"
And climbs the early sky,
In morning's rosy eye ;“ bidding the villagers rise," and calling up" the tuneful nations." It is "the bird of the opening year
that updarts his flight
From his nest in the green April corn, to salute,
sweet warbling on the wing, The gay return of spring.
It is "the merry lark," " joyous as morning," that
invisible in flecked sky
Sends down her revelry.
lessening from the dazzled sight
Melts into the liquid light. Moreover, some of the poets, honouring their “ muse" with the epithet “lark," appear to think that because " they leave the lowest nest,” they therefore “ soar highest from the earth.” Recognising a similarity of humble beginnings, they make the mistake of continuing the parallel, and because they “from a thatched pallet rouse,” would infer that their melody takes heaven's gates by storm. This
· The lark shall soar in every ode.--Cowper.
is of course an error, for the flight of poets is principally horizontal. Only a very few indeed, “ like the skylarks, pour their songs into the sun."
This does not, however, prevent Wordsworth apostrophising it
“ Drunken' Lark,” nor Gay making it a wood-bird, nor Spenser, Scott,2 Young, Thomson, Burns, and others calling it “ shrill,” nor many of them describing its flight as being in circles (which it is not), and exaggerating its really very moderate altitude into eagle distances, nor speaking of it as a favourite with the farmer. But on the whole the lark stands out conspicuous in the ornithology of the poets as a bird to which full justice has been done.
Very frequently associated with the lark is the linnet. It is evidently looked upon as a common little brown sort of bird, and familiar but kindly liberties are taken with it. But the linnet has nothing to complain of. For one thing, it is not a bird of much character, while its song, though of extraordinary compass, delights from the very absence of character. Keats, who had evidently watched linnets, calls it “chuckling ;” Shenstone,“ artless"; and Beattie, “ careless ”; while Cunningham speaks of its "unnumbered notes," and Akenside of its “ random strain.” These are admirable touches. All the poets alike are gentle to it (except pelican Montgomery), and use it only as a harmless and pretty adjunct to a country place—“ starting all about the bushes." It is one of their stock-in-trade birds, and stuck on like the Oriental" knop and flower pattern," whenever there is room for a little bit of innocent ornament. Its association with the lark deserves perhaps a passing word. Thus, Lyttleton makes the linnet and the lark chant their matins together, and Watts says they sing their vespers together, while between whiles they are to be found in company at all hours, either in one poet or the other. Moreover, too,
with rival notes They strain their throats
To welcome in the spring, and side by side,
sing of love
While the summer remains. But this is only in the poets. In nature these two pretty minne
· Longfellow likens the mocking bird's melody to the revels of frenzied Bacchantes.
Scott's use of the epithet is most indiscriminate. He applies it to birds so widely different as the eagle and the robin, the grouse and the seagull, the skylark and the plover. It may, of course, mean something in Scotch : in Scott's English it means nothing.
singers are not comrades, for the lark is a bird of the meadows, the linnet of the hedgerows; the lark of the sky, the linnet of the ground.
Apart from the lark, the linnet has hardly any appreciable place in poetry ; yet no bird so nearly illustrates the majority of poets as "the linnet."
The robin presents itself in four aspects to the British poets as “the bird of December,”—“a pious bird,”—“the privileged robin," —and the lover of Jenny Wren. When we think of the little actors in this delicious intrigue, the bright lines of Wyatt
Ah ! Robin !
Joly Robin !
Tell me how thy Leman doth ? are enchanting. As the bird “that pensive autumn cheers,” and “the bird of winter,” and the Redbreast with “his tap-tapping bill” he is popular enough, while as the pretty undertakers of the “ Babes in the Wood,"
Whose little corpses Robin Redbreast found,
And strewed with pious bill the leaves around, robins have acquired a reputation of a semi-serious kind. Says Prior, “Ye pious redbreasts, deck his hearse”; and Cowley has
Robin Redbreasts, whom men praise
Make both my monument and elegy. But it is of course as the guests of man in winter that they find their heartiest welcome.
Art thou the bird whom man loves best,