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For, though in a very modified degree, there is a certain sense of concord between all classes, which brings out “the bird unit” of nature, with something approaching to a defined “individuality." Otherwise it is merged both in phrase and application in the human, the result being often absurdity. Thus :
This was taught me by the dove,
One mate, and one alone, will take. Now, fidelity on principle to the memory of a beloved deceased has no place in nature, not even in human nature, much less in bird nature. It is an accepted fact of natural history that if the male bird of a wild pair be killed during the nesting season, the widow finds a new mate; and the cruel experiment has actually been tried, with the result of a bird losing five mates in succession, and completing her complement of eggs and hatching her brood only by a sixth marriage. Individual instances of a noble constancy, where other circumstances allowed of its indulgence, are of course abundantly on record, and in the East the abominable rite of suttee -although in most cases forced upon the woman by violence and the self-interest of relatives—might be accepted in part as a sacrifice to the fidelity idea. But men and women cannot inflict perpetual bereavement upon themselves, and still less die of a lost love, without opposing nature. In the bird world, such opposition to nature is even more impracticable. The stupidity of instinct alone prevents it. In captivity, birds have often pined to death for the loss of a mate, but quite as often for the loss of a companion or friend of another species, a cat or dog or human being. Indeed, the strongest attachments of the animal world are unnatural ones, namely to man, and the ties of bird love have nothing in common with our own; and attempts to find a sentimental analogy must inevitably be useless.
But summer is pre-eminently the bird season, and the poets often employ the feathered choir with exquisite grace and tenderness to heighten the charms of June.
They have left their nests on the forest bough,
Come up, come up,” they seem to say,
And to look on the green bright world below! Bird life at this season is apparently “all beer and skittles," and “the summer birds pursuing gilded flies" (Cowper), and “the singing of the summer birds among the flowers ” (Shelley), appear to comprise in the poet's mind the whole duty of "the light tenants of the barren air" (Thomson) during the months of June, July, and August. That they are really almost incredibly industrious for a large portion of the time is overlooked, and hardly a dozen references could be found to that summer miracle of every yearthe nest-building of birds—or to the exquisite fact of all our woodlands and hedgerows and meadows being studded with little nursery nooks; the shrubs in the copse, the mossy banks, and the sedges down by the river being all instinct for a while with the busiest, brightest emotions of life. Keats was in the secrets of the birds :
Summer has come and spoken
Full soothingly to every nested finch ; and again,
And patient as a hen-bird ;
About a young bird's flutter from the wood. Gilbert White, too, has a delightful passage on a summer's evening,
When day declining sheds a silver gleam,
And the same theme gives us in Clare a pleasant glimpse of nightfall in July:
Cooing sits the lonely dove
But there is nothing, virtually, to assure us that the story of a bird's life interested any other poets. They are ready enough to sing of the myths about birds : that the kingfisher calms the ocean, and the eagle grasps Jove's thunder-bolt; that the turtle is an inconsolable widow, and the nightingale ever-mindful of Tereus : and scattered up and down in verse, these versions of the old-world fancies read delightfully. But collected together into pitiless juxtaposition, they seem only dry bones after all, worn-out fictions. There is no tenderness in them, no appreciation of the true beauty of the parables of Nature. To make the kingfisher a sea-bird, mistake eagles for vultures, be ignorant of the annual migration of turtle doves, and to attribute the song of the nightingale to the henbird, are only specific errors of natural history, which may seem trivial enough, but, logically, an induction is only justified from “a sufficient collocation of instances”; and these can only be obtained by the aggregation of trivialities. And yet they are not trivial either. For in the nightingale's case, for instance, nine-tenths of the poets hang all their sympathy with the bird on the fact of her
And if that sex is wrong, the condolence becomes absurd. Or take the next case, of the turtle-dove, a summer visitor only, habitually described as lamenting her dead “stock-dove ” or “ringdove" (which are resident British species and do not breed with turtle doves), and as such condoled with, while all the time the bird has just come from Syria, where it hatched a brood of young ones three months ago, and now, mated to another spouse, is again a happy mother of another couplet. Or take the next instance, the eagle,
the idol bird of the poets. How often by misapprehension of Holy Writ, or mistranslation of the classics, or by want of reflection as to the locale of traditions, is this bird glorified, where the vulture, the abomination of the poets, and an object of loathing to them, ought to be receiving their homage instead! And so on with a score of others. These collocated form a sufficient basis for the induction that the poets perverted Nature for their purposes instead of, as has been so often claimed for them, and claimed by themselves, truly interpreting Nature. When they come to speak of birds generally instead of individual birds, this want of sympathy is not, of course, so conspicuous; but apart from the meagre recognition given to this very prominent and beautiful feature of rural life and the all-pervading presence of birds, it will have been seen that in each of these larger divisions of the subject-day and night, spring and summer—the central fact of the situation has received very scanty or very warped notice.
Next, Autumn, with its damp and chilling air," when “the year is overgrown,” and “summer, like a bird, hath flown,”
Where the glossy finches chatter
Over beds of yellow leaves. for
Winter cold is coming on,
These are tender lines and worthy of poetry, but, when we consider the immense range of English poets, they scarcely form a sufficient recognition of the great mystery of the autumnal emigration of our summer's visitors. There are very few like it in all nature, when we consider the distances which the birds, many of them the most feeble-winged of fowls, traverse in their journey, the punctuality with which they arrive and depart, or the instinct that guides their flight to the same spots year after year. In his admirable book VOL, CCLIII.
“Our Summer Migrants,” Mr. Harting writes: “There is something almost mysterious in the way in which numbers of these small and delicately-formed birds are found scattered in one day over a parish where on the previous day not one was to be seen ; and the manner of their arrival is scarcely more remarkable than the regularity with which they annually make their appearance. That most of them reach this country after long and protracted flights, crossing the Mediterranean, the Bay of Biscay, and the English Channel, is an undoubted fact; but how few of those who notice them in this country know where they come from, why they come, what they find here to live upon, how, when, and where they go for the winter!"
It is very difficult to determine how far the poets were cognisant of this great natural phenomenon. Of individual birds, the movements of snipe and woodcock-most of the poets were well informed about our game birds—were known, and the migration of the swallows, of course, no secret. But, though the poets knew the cuckoo was the herald of spring, they do not seem to have known it was only “a summer visitor," as they speak of its being waked from "a winter sleep;" and, considering how fully the nightingale comes under notice, it seems more than probable, from the absence of references to the fact, that the poets were in ignorance of its being but a temporary guest. Several poets, for instance, while comparing British birds with foreign, say they would not give “our” nightingale for all those songless birds of gaudy plumage-innocent of the fact that the nightingale itself is only a loan from abroad, and part of a much larger world than the British Isles. For instance
Let other feathers vaunt the dyes of deepest rainbow flush,
Give me Old England's nightingale. and again
Nor envy we the gaudy robes they wear, While Philomel is ours. The turtle dove, again, is one of the most frequently occurring birds in poetry, yet the poets thought it remained with us in winter, while they go out of their way to make “the hawk”-a bird they knew little of, except in falconry—“find perpetual summer and a change of skies.”
The fieldfare is mentioned by one poet as a winter visitor, but another makes it breed in Scotland. Four or five others refer to migration generally
The birds of passage transmigrating come,