Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


A Charm Of Birds
by [?]

There is little sense in the words, doubtless, according to our modern notions of poetry; but they are like enough to the long, plaintive notes of the nightingale to say all that the poet has to say, again and again through all his stanzas.

Thus the birds were, to the mediaeval singers, their orchestra, or rather their chorus; from the birds they caught their melodies; the sounds which the birds gave them they rendered into words.

And the same bird keynote surely is to be traced in the early English and Scotch songs and ballads, with their often meaningless refrains, sung for the mere pleasure of singing:

‘Binnorie, O Binnorie.

Or –

‘With a hey lillelu and a how lo lan,
And the birk and the broom blooms bonnie.’

Or –

‘She sat down below a thorn,
Fine flowers in the valley,
And there has she her sweet babe born,
And the green leaves they grow rarely.’

Or even those ‘fal-la-las,’ and other nonsense refrains, which, if they were not meant to imitate bird-notes, for what were they meant?

In the old ballads, too, one may hear the bird keynote. He who wrote (and a great rhymer he was)

‘As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies making a mane,’

had surely the ‘mane’ of the ‘corbies’ in his ears before it shaped itself into words in his mind: and he had listened to many a ‘woodwele’ who first thrummed on harp, or fiddled on crowd, how –

‘In summer, when the shawes be shene,
And leaves be large and long,
It is full merry in fair forest
To hear the fowles’ song.

‘The wood-wele sang, and wolde not cease,
Sitting upon the spray;
So loud, it wakened Robin Hood
In the greenwood where he lay.’

And Shakespeare–are not his scraps of song saturated with these same bird-notes? ‘Where the bee sucks,’ ‘When daisies pied,’ ‘Under the greenwood tree,’ ‘It was a lover and his lass,’ ‘When daffodils begin to peer,’ ‘Ye spotted snakes,’ have all a ring in them which was caught not in the roar of London, or the babble of the Globe theatre, but in the woods of Charlecote, and along the banks of Avon, from

‘The ouzel-cock so black of hue,
With orange-tawny bill;
The throstle with his note so true:
The wren with little quill;
The finch, the sparrow, and the lark,
The plain-song cuckoo gray’ –

and all the rest of the birds of the air.

Why is it, again, that so few of our modern songs are truly songful, and fit to be set to music? Is it not that the writers of them– persons often of much taste and poetic imagination–have gone for their inspiration to the intellect, rather than to the ear? That (as Shelley does by the skylark, and Wordsworth by the cuckoo), instead of trying to sing like the birds, they only think and talk about the birds, and therefore, however beautiful and true the thoughts and words may be, they are not song? Surely they have not, like the mediaeval songsters, studied the speech of the birds, the primaeval teachers of melody; nor even melodies already extant, round which, as round a framework of pure music, their thoughts and images might crystallize themselves, certain thereby of becoming musical likewise. The best modern song writers, Burns and Moore, were inspired by their old national airs; and followed them, Moore at least, with a reverent fidelity, which has had its full reward. They wrote words to music and not, as modern poets are wont, wrote the words first, and left others to set music to the words. They were right; and we are wrong. As long as song is to be the expression of pure emotion, so long it must take its key from music,–which is already pure emotion, untranslated into the grosser medium of thought and speech–often (as in the case of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words) not to be translated into it at all.