Bird of the Month John Mcewen
But where a passion yet unborn perhaps Lay hidden as the music of the moon Sleeps in the plain eggs of the nightingale. ‘Aylmer’s Field’, Alfred Lord Tennyson The song of the nightingale ( Luscinia
megarhynchos) ‘reverberates like a chord through European and Asian poetry’ wrote the poet Edward Hirsch. ‘Sweet Nightingale’ and ‘A la claire fontaine’ are just two traditional folk songs it has inspired. Izaak Walton wrote that its song ‘might make mankind to think miracles are not ceased’. The BBC’S first wildlife recording (1924) featured cellist Beatrice Harrison accompanying a nightingale in her Surrey garden. A million listeners tuned in. Folksinger Sam Lee replicated this event, singing to the accompaniment of nightingales and musicians for an audience on the South Downs in last year’s Brighton Festival. John Clare (1793–1864) imitated the legendary song in verse: ‘Wew-wew wew-wew chur-chur
chur-chur Woo-it woo-it’ – could this be her? ‘Tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew tee-rew Chew-rit chew-rit’ – and ever new – ‘Will-will will-will grig-grig grig-grig.’
From ‘The Progress of Rhyme’
Nightingales (old English, ‘nightsingers’) have 200 distinct songs, most singularly sung at night (23½ hours non-stop the record), in late April and May after its summer arrival from equatorial Africa. Secretive and ‘clod-brown’ (Clare) the nightingale is hard to see. I could not think so plain a bird Could sing so fine a song.
From ‘To the Nightingale’
In old poetry it is often called Philomel, from the myth of Philomela. Philomela was reborn a nightingale after her tongue was cut out on the orders of her rapist brother-in-law Tereus, King of Thrace. Countryman Clare would have agreed with the poetess Sappho 2,500 years before, who wrote ‘spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale’.
It is not the only nocturnal songster. Black caps are called ‘northern nightingales’, sedge warblers ‘fishermen’s nightingales’. Paul Mccartney wrote ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night’ in St John’s Wood. Artificial light can dupe birds into thinking night is day. London nightingales were once so numerous Edward the Confessor complained they disturbed his prayers. But when in wartime London Eric Maschwitz wrote: The certain night, the night we met There was magic abroad in the air, There were angels dining in the Ritz And a nightingale sang in Berkeley
Square he was right; only the love-struck could imagine such a miracle. The bird is claimed to have another miraculous power: Tom Cruise, Victoria Beckham et al apparently swear by anti-ageing facials of Japanese nightingale droppings.
The diminishing 3,000 British breeding pairs are confined to the South-east, principally Kent and Essex. But our most famous nightingale remains the bird Keats heard one night in Hampstead: Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no
pain, While thou art pouring forth thy soul
abroad In such an ecstasy!
From ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Carry Akroyd is running the first Oldie Drawing Day on 13th April in London SW1. Tickets £150. Call 01225 427 311.