Tuesday, September 27, 2011

`The Crowds of Starnels Whizz and Hurry By'

I read A Sentimental Journey again recently and marked this passage in Sterne’s novel:

“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.--”

The Reverend Mr. Yorick repudiates those so little gifted with imagination as to complain of boredom. The phrase “this little span of life” is doubly poignant, as Sterne died of tuberculosis, age fifty-four, on March 18, 1768, less than a month after publishing A Sentimental Journey. Already he had laced Tristram Shandy with the theme of trying to outrace death in the act of writing. I’ve returned to Sterne by way of John Clare, who spent twenty-six of his seventy years in mental asylums. In a letter to his friend William Knight, written July 8, 1850, from the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum, Clare says:

“I am still wanting like Sternes Prisoners Starling to `get out but can’t find the way.”

Clare refers to the caged starling appearing in three chapters of Sentimental Journey (“The Passport: The Hotel at Paris,” The Captive: Paris” and “The Starling: Road to Versailles”). Yorick says:

“In my return back through the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over; and, looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage. — `I can’t get out, — I can’t get out,’ said the starling.”

Nine months later, on April 11, 1851, Clare again writes to Knight:

“I would try like the Birds a few Songs I’ the Spring but they have shut me up and gave me no tools and like the caged Starnel of Stern `I can’t get out’ to fetch any so I have made no progress at present—but I have written a good lot and as I should think nearly sufficient—so `I rest from my labours and my works do follow me’—I love the `rippleing brook’—and `the Singing of Birds’—But I cant get out to see them or hear them—while other people are looking at gay flower Gardens—I love to see the quaking bull rushes & the broad Lakes in the green meadows—and sheep tracks over a fallow field & a Land of thistles in flower—I wish I could make U a little book of Songs worth sending but after some trials I can’t do it at present…I am in this d-----d mad house and cant get out.”

Clare’s biographer, Jonathan Bate, glosses this heartbreaking letter:

“The phrase `they have shut me up’ following immediately upon an image of birdsong has extraordinary poignancy: Clare is not only a man enclosed but also a songster silenced.”

“Starnel” is an English dialect word for “starling” (from the Old English stærlinc) related to Sturnus – the starling genus, so named by Linnaeus in 1756. The species known to Sterne and Clare was Sturnus vulgaris, the common European starling. Sterne was punning on his own name, and in the text of Sentimental Journey includes a picture of “this poor starling as the crest to my [coat of] arms.” Tim Parnell in his notes to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the novel (2003) writes:

“…the arms and crest pictured had been used by Sterne’s great-grandfather Richard Sterne (d. 1683), archbishop of York, on his episcopal seal. Although the family may not have had a legal right to them, Sterne himself used a seal impressed with the arms. The Sternes appear to have adopted the starling crest on the basis of a punning association between starn (Yorkshire dialect for starling) and the family name.”

In connection with the Reverend Mr. Yorick, we might mention that the starling appears once in Shakespeare, in Henry IV, Part 1, when Hotspur says:

“I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but 'Mortimer,' and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.”

Again, this is Sturnus vulgaris, and we can indirectly thank Shakespeare for its plentiful presence in the New World. In 1890, Eugene Schieffelin, invariably described as an “eccentric drug manufacturer,” released some sixty European starlings in New York City's Central Park, and forty the following year. He had imported them from England as part of his plan to introduce into North America every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The skylarks and song thrushes never caught on but starlings, tough and readily adaptive, are among our most common birds, considered pests by some. Clare writes in “Autumn Birds”:

“The crowds of starnels whizz and hurry by.”

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