John Clare and Birdsong


Richard Astle

In a series of articles, Richard Astle, chair of the Langdyke Countryside Trust looks at different aspects of John Clare’s relationship with birds, noting his early career as a bird-nester, exploring his role as one of the first chroniclers of bird behaviour; and his prototype role as a bird-guide, using his poetry to lead his readers on nature walks similar to those the Langdyke Trust runs for its members today.  The articles should be read with the recordings of the bird-song using the links below to allow you to compare the words of the poet with the actual sound of the song …

This article is in two Parts:
Part one – Bird songs in words
Part two – Signs of Spring 

Part one – Bird songs in words

John Clare by William Hilton, oil on canvas 1820

John Clare’s attempts to capture bird song in words – both prose and poetry – are a defining and singular feature of his work and indicator of how birds and indeed wildlife of all kinds intrigued the poet – he wasn’t just a nature lover; he was a naturalist.

As Robinson and Fitter point out in the introduction to John Clare’s Birds, the poet’s ability to describe bird song matures and emboldens during his career.  In early poems doves ‘coo’ and swallows ‘twitter’ while owls of course ‘whoop’ and magpies ‘chatter’.  All reasonably standard stuff, and quite comparable to other writers of the early 19th century.

As his style and perhaps confidence develop, so do his verbal descriptions.  In later work Clare invents onomatopoeic words that he feels can better describe the sounds he hears. So, redstarts (firetails to Clare) ‘tweet tut’ and flycatchers whistle ‘eejip eejip’.

Clare’s description of the song (if it can be called song) of the quail, takes us down a rather different pathway of song-description, using common words – in this case “wet-my-foot” – strung together to capture the sound.  It is impossible to know if Clare borrowed this phrase from local custom or made it up himself.  As noted in Birds Britannica other early renditions of the sound include “Wet-my-lips” and “Quick-me-dick”.

You can hear this here and compare it yourself.

I wandered out one rainy day
  And heard a bird with merry joys
Cry “wet my foot” for half the way;
  I stood and wondered at the noise,

When from my foot a bird did flee—
  The rain flew bouncing from her breast
I wondered what the bird could be,
  And almost trampled on her nest.

Clare’s descriptions of bird sounds weren’t restricted to his poetry.  This is his description in prose of the call of the bittern. Again, you can find this on the website – personally I am not sure he gets this one quite right!

Some describe the noise as something like the bellowing of bulls but I have often heard it and cannot liken it to that sound at all.  In fact, it is difficult to describe what it is like, its noise has produced it the above name (the butter bump) by the common people. The first part of its noise is an indistinct muttering sort of sound very like the word butter uttered in a hurried manner and the bump comes very quick after and bumps a sound on the ear as if echo had mocked the bump of a gun jus as the mutter ceased.  I have often thought the putting ones mouth to the bund hole of an empty large cask and uttering the word butter bump sharply would imitate the sound exactly.  After its first call that imitates the word butter bump it repeats the sound bump singly several times in a more determined and louder manner

Bitterns were found in the fenland that stretched out from Northborough in the earlier 19th century, subsequently drained and now expanses of arable farmland with no bitterns!  They have, however, started to turn up regularly at the wetlands created by gravel extraction between Etton and Maxey, an exciting if accidental recreation of the marshes that separated the villages in Clare’s day, home to flocks of ducks and the grazing geese that caused the goose wars of the 18th century!

But perhaps above all it is in the description of the song of the nightingale that Clare’s abilities to describe birdsong in words are best displayed.

First there is his prose description of just how hard it is

“I can sit at my window here and hear the nightingale singing in the orchard and I attempted to take down her notes but they are so varied that every time she starts again after the pauses seems to be something different to what she uttered before and many of her notes are sounds that cannot be written in the alphabet having no letters than can syllable the sounds”

Then in “The progress of Ryme” he tries to solve the problem!

The more I listened and the more
Each note seemed sweeter then before
And aye so different was the strain
Shed scarce repeat the notes again
Chee chew chew chew and higher still
Cheer cheer cheer cheer more loud and shrill
Cheer up cheer up cheer up and dropt
Low tweet tweet tweet jug jug jug and stopt
One moment just to drink the sound
Her music made and then a round
Of stranger witching notes was heard
As if it was a stranger bird
Wew wew wew wew chur chur chur chur chur
Woo it woo it could this be her
Tee rew tee rew tee rew tee rew
Chewsit chewsit and ever new
Will will will will grig grig grig grig
The boy stopt sudeen on the brig
To hear the tweet tweet tweet so shill
Then jug jug jug jug till all was still
A minute when a wilder strain
Made boys and woods to pause again

This is Clare’s poetic voice at his most distinctive and a comparison with other famous early writers and poets of nature makes that distinction clear. Keats, in his ‘Ode to the nightingale’ makes no attempt to capture the actual sound at all, while Gilbert White notes in prose only that ‘nightingales make a plaintive and a jarring noise’.  Much more recently Ted Hughes offers only

Your lightning and thunderclap nigh-voice
Shuts back with gaggings and splutters

Perhaps only Gerard Manley Hopkins comes close to Clare’s attempts to capture birdsong in verse using sounds not words to try to illustrate the call of the woodlark

Teevo cheevo cheevio chee
O where, what can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of song-strain

Even this hardly stands comparison with Clare’s efforts.  Perhaps this simply demonstrates the uniqueness of Clare – an outstanding observer of the natural world, ever curious to discover more and always ready to experiment in verse and prose how to record that world – for himself and his readers.


Part two – Signs of Spring

The sunshine of April 2020 has been in strong contrast to the sadness that has beset our world during that time. Often it has felt rather unreal sitting in the garden, basking in the sun while outside the country struggles to contain the deadly Coronavirus.

Clare knew much trauma in his life and it shaped both his poetry and, I think, his attitude to nature, from which he not only took great joy but also solace in times of difficulty.  Nature cure is something we all appreciate, I am sure.

And nature has been doing its best at this time to keep reminding us of the wonders of our world.  With the weather so settled many of the summer migrants have been reaching our countryside several days earlier than usual and so far in good numbers too – perhaps the weather means that more are surviving the rigours of migration, and less are being shot of the skies in the southern Mediterranean, perhaps the hunters too are in lockdown?

One bird that Clare wrote so beautifully about is the common whitethroat – one of our commonest summer songsters which proclaims its presence in our hedgerows with its scratchy song and bursts of vertical song-flight. 

Here he goes

The happy white throat on the sweeing bough
Swayed by the impulse of the gadding wind
That ushers in the showers of april – now
Singeth right joyously and now reclined
Croucheth and clingeth to her moving seat
To keep her hold and till the wind for rest
Pauses she mutters inward melody
That seems her hearts rich thinkings to repeat
And when the branch is still her little breast
Swells out in raptures gushing symphonies
And then against her brown wing softly prest
The wind comes playing an enraptured guest
This way and that she swees – till gusts arise
More boisterous in their play – when off she flies.

As ever, Clare captures the essence of the bird perfectly – it is a jaunty bird, constantly on the move and often retreating into the hedgerow as you approach, churring away in annoyance and peeping out as you pass! 

Clare also remarked that the bird often imitates the nightingale in variety and loudness of song – it is certainly very vocal, although its song is much less rich than the nightingale’s and overall rather scratchy in tone.   If I were to describe the difference in human terms, I would say that the whitethroat is the cheeky chap of the local bird world, full of fun, restless and not too serious! And if the nightingale listens to Radio Three, then the whitethroat is more of a Radio Six Music listener, loving the indie sound! 

Whitethroats remain common today and can be found singing and nesting in scraps of hedgerow across John Clare Countryside.  Good places to see and hear them are around the heaths at Castor Hanglands or in the hedgerows around Woodcroft Castle.