Saturday, August 24, 2013

`I Can't Get Out'

The Oxford English Dictionary’s “Online Word of the Day” on Thursday was unexpected and strange – serinette, meaning “a small barrel organ originally designed for teaching cage birds to sing.” I never knew such things existed or that there was ever much call for song instruction for birds. The word derives from the French serin, “canary,” and entered English, naturally, in the eighteenth century. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, in its entry for “bird instruments,” says “songs, dances and airs d'oiseau (simple bird-like melodies)” were composed for the serinette, and reports, charmingly: “Although contemporary illustrations show them in use with caged birds, it seems unlikely that these instruments would have succeeded in their goal.” 

I thought of the unhappy starling in Chapter 41, “The Passport,” of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768). Yorick has been discussing the Bastille (“the terror is in the word”) with Eugenius, when: 

“I was interrupted in the heyday of this soliloquy, with a voice which I took to be of a child, which complained `it could not get out.’—I look’d up and down the passage, and seeing neither man, woman, or child, I went out without further attention. 

“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.” 

Yorick is unable to open the cage and free the bird, inspiring a paean liberté (and, presumably, égalité and fraternité): “Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastille; and I heavily walk’d up-stairs, unsaying every word I had said in going down them.” 

Yorick’s starling narrative continues in Chapters 42 and 43. Sterne includes in the text of Sentimental Journey 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.” 

Mention of the serinette reminds me, too, of The Goldfinch, painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654, the year he died in Delft when a powder magazine exploded. The painting served as the cover art for Selected Poems (1974) by Osip Mandelstam, as translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. In Carel Fabritius: 1622-1654 (Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis, 2004) a catalog and brief biography, Frederick J. Duparc identifies the species – Carduelis carduelis – and gives a history of the painting and bird: 

“The bird on a chain in front of its feeding-box, seen against a whitewashed wall, is a goldfinch…. recognizable by the red in its face and the bright yellow stripe on its black wing. The goldfinch was a popular pet already in Roman times: Pliny described its ability to learn difficult tricks. The bird’s name in Dutch -- puttertje, which is derived from putten, meaning to draw water from a well – was used as early as the sixteenth century. It refers to the bird’s dexterity in being able to draw its own drinking water (if taught to do so) by hauling up a thimble-sized bucket on a chain from a bowl or glass of water. Goldfinches can also open their own feeding boxes.”

1 comment:

Vincent said...

Your post reminds me of a story I published on my blog five years ago: "Free as a bird".

It was written by a virtually-unknown writer from Bengal, whose stories in English I've been editing.