Monday, April 21, 2014

`The Arch-Simplicity of the Song'

A reader in Scotland reports on the progress of spring:

“Probably the time of year, but many people in the UK have a deep emotional/poetic attachment to nature. I heard the cuckoo for the first time this year a few days ago and the first swallows have arrived. Maybe the response is the same everywhere."
It is. On Sunday, Dave Lull alerted me to a story about a snowy owl injured by a bus in Washington, D.C., now recovering in Wisconsin. Some of the finest prose devoted to the natural world (Thoreau minus the crankiness and gassy philosophizing) was written by the poet John Clare, a deeply learned amateur (in the etymological sense). The cuckoo is an Old World bird, so we in the United States rely on witnesses like Clare (and my reader -- note that he says "the cuckoo") for descriptions from life. This is from April 27, 1825 (The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, 1983), in which Clare echoes my reader's announcement: "Heard the Cuckoo for the first time this Season--it was said to be heard a week back by a shepherd." And this, from 1826 or 1827: "Heard the first Nightingale & Cuckoo both on this evening April 21st." And here, echoing a modern-sounding theme, from a letter written in 1823 or 1824:
" ...I love to look on nature with a poetic feeling which magnifys [sic] the pleasure I love to see the nightingale in its hazel retreat & the cuckoo hiding in its solitudes of oaken foliage & not to examine their carcasses in glass cases yet naturalists & botanists seem to have no taste for this poetical feeling they merely make collections of dryd [sic] specimens."
My reader goes on to praise Gilbert White and two others among his countrymen whose work in nature studies I know and admire -- Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker, who write in Birds Britannica (Chatto & Windus, 2005) of the common cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) and his cultural significance in Great Britain:
"With a song that is as far-carrying as it is unmistakable, the cuckoo has made a deeper cultural impression on us than all but two other summer migrants. The nightingale, with its richer literary tradition, is almost exclusively a bird of the south and only the swallow (now perhaps replaced by the swift) rivals the cuckoo as the nationwide badge of summer. However the swallow has always been far commoner, and our close neighbour. The cuckoo, by contrast, is thinly spread and highly secretive, which suggests that the arch-simplicity of the song is the key to its emblematic dominance."

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