A Watch of Nightingale Postcard Poems

Posted on: 15 June 2020 in Ecology and Environment

by Bethan Roberts

Last year, Spring 2019, marked the bicentenary of the composition of John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. To celebrate, a set of new nightingale poems was commissioned from Pavilion poets Sarah Corbett, Emily Hasler, Deryn Rees-Jones, Ruby Robinson, and Sarah Westcott. Together with Mona Arshi’s ‘Bulbul’, first published in her 2015 collection Small Hands, they were produced as a set of postcards, made available at events, and displayed in Abercromby Square. Read the poems here. I reflect on the poems, their place in relation to Keats’s ode, to the literary history of nightingale poems more widely, and to each other.

The nightingale is, of course, the most versified bird in literary history: more poems have been written on this small brown bird than any other wild creature on earth. The nightingale has meant many things to those who’ve written about it: love, spring, sex, death, melancholy, joy, and the six Pavilion poems touch upon some of these themes.

Hasler’s ‘Limit of Range’ stands out among the set due to its interest in place and natural rather than literary history. It is concerned with collective ‘nightingales’ but the birds are postponed, yet to arrive, perhaps reflected in the build-up of copious brackets in the poem which push and delay meaning. It’s a prelude nightingale poem of sorts, setting the scene in different ways: ‘I arrive before the nightingales (assuming they will arrive)’ the poem opens, before charting what has gone before the poet, the history of place which has led to the current habitat ensuring the nightingale’s arrival. The subtitle locates it in place and time: ‘Fingringhoe Wick, 19 March 2019’, the Essex location placing it within the bird’s UK range yet prior to the nightingale’s arrival from its African wintering territories in mid to late April. The poem runs through a history of place, situating the ‘I’ after the Romans who find the ‘fiddly estuary’ ideal for trade, and before that it was the ice age

(that laid down the gravel
(which was dug from the pits (and made this landscape
(with its scrub and trees not meeting (the type of woodness
That will not support bluebells) perfect for nightingales)))).

In the present day, one of the few places nightingales are thriving is in accidentally rewilded sites such as abandoned quarries, the product of human use of and interaction with place (the birds also like damp areas of riparian thickets or overgrown woods near water). This history has also brought the poet here, for their own interaction with place that is the poem. While the nightingales are yet to arrive, what is here is blackthorn and gorse, a brimstone, and the ‘(arrhythmic (intermittent) chattering)’ of a nearby firing range, with a play on the nightingale’s ‘range’ which the title might suggest. The final two lines shift to focus in on the birds:

And they are local (and foreign (and familiar (and rare))),
this place is famous for them (but they are not here (yet)).

These birds are not famous for any literary aspect, but because they come to this place, this locality. The poem takes its epigraph from the RSPB website: ‘They are skulking and extremely local in in their distribution’. Indeed, nightingales tracked by the BTO to Africa and back found birds return to within fifty metres from where they had left. These final lines nod to the split identity of the bird, both familiar, British, and famous; yet foreign, elusive, are rare: they spend most of the year at African wintering territories and are notoriously ‘skulking’ and difficult to see. Nightingales have declined by over 90% in the last fifty years in the UK, their range shrinking to a south-eastern pocket, and the poem is tentatively hopeful in assuming that they will arrive again in ‘this place’.

Keats’s poem was written in response to a nightingale that did arrive, and nested in Hampstead, where Keats was living at the time (the birds have not nested there since the 1890s, in a gradual retreat out of the capital, pushed out by human activity). Keats’s poem addresses the bird – ‘light-winged Dryad of the trees’, which sings ‘in full-throated ease’ – before charting his response to the nightingale’s song, what it makes him think and feel. The poem splits and shifts between the ‘real’ bird singing one passing night and the bird’s life of fame as an ‘immortal bird’, coming and going from located place and natural history to arcs of ‘fancy’ and transcendence. Tim Dee has written that ‘the nightingale after Keats might be the hardest bird to write about’. We might expect poems in its wake to echo it, or to similarly address the bird, to explore an encounter between the ‘I’ and nightingale with a similar sense of both real bird and its fame or literary life.

Indeed, Rees-Jones’s ‘Nightingale’ builds through an extended address to the bird and distils a night-time encounter with it in its one stanza. Comprised of two sentences, its first spills over the opening nine lines, beginning ‘Dear bird of the early hours’ and ending ‘here we are alone together’. Mediating between is a long list of alternative addresses, modulating across a dazzling range of aspects of the bird’s different meanings and associations, from the adjectival of ‘brown bird’, ‘wise bird’ and ornithological labels – ‘passerine’ – to the more abstract phrases of ‘box lung’ and ‘trust hope’, and the sounds of ‘jazz riff, cello start, / sad techno’. Jazz is the genre most usually likened to the bird’s song, while cello might refer to cellist Beatrice Harrison who famously duetted with the bird in the 1930s; more recently it has been surmised that nightingales in Berlin might have picked up elements of techno music from the city environment. Keats’s poem is also interested in the various lives and forms of the ‘immortal Bird!’, exploring in the seventh stanza how ‘The voice I hear this passing night’ has been heard down the ages; it is the ‘self-same song’ of ancient days, of faery lands forlorn. In Rees-Jones’s poem, however, there is a disparateness to the nightingale’s identity that contrasts with the ‘self-sameness’ in Keats’s poem. Hers is a poem interested in parts: ‘shard part, splintering / and feather box’, ‘self-broken broken part’, as the lines and phrases themselves break and splinter. This also plays across the poem’s sound. There isn’t a regular rhyme scheme, yet the poem abounds with internal rhymes: start, heart, part, apart; thrust, lust, trust, making connections between parts which refuse to cohere into an ordered whole; interested in its own sound as much as the nightingale’s. The last four lines of the poem rework the relationship between bird and poet introduced in the final line of the first part (‘here we are alone together’), with a new sentence that shifts from opening, holding together, to throwing apart in specific reference to the body:

You’re opening my body to the night --
–– --- holding me together,
throwing me apart.

With its unusual dashes running over the line-endings, the poem itself seems simultaneously to be held together, while opening, and coming apart, both in this section and what precedes it (that opening sentence thrown apart by the bird’s multifarious identity and song, perhaps). The poem seems to say: this is what the nightingale can do – to a body, to a poem.

Arshi’s ‘Bulbul’ also encounters and addresses the bird, although, as its title suggests, the bird here is in a different guise. The title and form of the poem – the ghazal, traditionally a love poem – are from Indo-Persian culture. The nightingale as bulbul is best known from Persian literature in which the bird is in love with the rose, best-known from the ghazals of medieval Persian poet Hafiz, celebrated as the nightingale of Shiraz. Indian poet Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), known as the ‘Indian nightingale’, depicts the bulbul in Indian spring landscapes of cassia-plume, lotus and champak, yet the flora of Arshi’s poem is unspecified, ending on ‘blossom’ and ‘bud’. The poem invokes further an Indian context through sindoor, the red powder applied to the parting of a woman’s hair or on the forehead as a symbol of matrimony (it is first applied by the husband on the wedding day). ‘Bulbul’ perhaps explores the appropriation of the literary tradition of the bulbul through imagining the ritual of sindoor transformed from husband-wife to poet-bulbul. In its final part, the poem shifts from imagining (‘I imagine’, ‘I know’) to watching – ‘I watch you’ – as the language of ceremony and ritual remerges in ‘your compacted heart receives / the broken bread’, ‘you gaze at a bud, / listening hard for a miracle’. In the literary tradition of the bulbul, the nightingale is in love with the rose, representing both earthly and divine love; Arshi’s bird listens for a miracle in the bud – seeking a reply perhaps, a requited love in its flowering – alike to how Arshi seeks to capture and coax the bird, for it to deepen ‘the colour / of my hands’ and all that might mean for a poet, as the chain of gaze falls from poet to bird, bird to bud.

There is a bodily presence in Arshi’s poem – the bird’s breast, throat, brow, wings and heart, juxtaposed with the hands and palm of the poet. Similarly, in Rees-Jones’s poem there is reference to the bird’s throat, heart, lung, and to the poet’s body. This is in contrast to much of nightingale poetic tradition, in which the emphasis is on the disembodied night music of the bird’s song. In Keats’s ode, all is embalmed darkness, and in turn he craves his own disembodiment through the nightingale’s song: to ‘with thee fade away into the forest dim: / Fade far away, dissolve’ which becomes bound up with ‘the viewless wings of Poesy’.

The poet’s body is at the fore of Westcott’s ‘Songbird’, a poem which directly responds to and uses some lines from Keats’s ode. Westcott said of the poem:

[It] came about after I read an article by author Lucy-Anne Holmes who described how, growing up in the 1980s, images of young women bearing their breasts taught her that her body was ‘there for men, not me’. Holmes writes that empowerment later came from learning to ask lovers ‘could you touch me here, please?’ I wanted to capture the voice of a woman’s sexuality and pleasure as powerful – to sing of this and be heard. The nightingale, so frequently used as a metaphor for poetry itself, seemed to express something of that true, clear voice. In a sense, the girl or woman is the bird and the bird embodies the girl. It felt a little audacious to weave in Keats’ lines from his lauded poem, and yet they seemed to express a sensuality that resonates in our own bodies.

Her poem is striking in how it brings new meanings to Keats’s poem and how seamlessly it transforms in this new context, not least through the sensuousness of Keats’s original: the ‘coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine’. Again, then, there is an ‘I’ and a bird. The separation between them is clear at first, ‘I turn to my own body’, yet the two start to merge (in a way not dissimilar to in Keats’s poem): ‘a sweet clear voice is falling from my mouth’. The poem plays between this fusion and separation – ‘I am already half in love with you – real bird’ – reaching a crescendo as the speaker’s voice takes on that of the bird, in order to vocalise sexual desire:

I hold your voice lightly in my throat,
no space in the note but itself –
oh, touch my body tenderly. Yes, the tone

like an egg, line-less and unbroken –
our throats skinned-open and trembling,
I touch myself, the weight of living bird.

As the poem channels the voice of the bird, it magically seems to unbecome a poem: ‘line-less and unbroken –’. The bird’s song and Keats’s ode fuse to underscore the voicing of desire, which come together in both the poem and in the body, meeting in the throat: ‘our throats skinned-open’ a line reminiscent of Rees-Jones’s ‘opening my body’. Despite the emphasis on sound and song, the resonance is firmly bodily. Throughout its literary history, the nightingale – in part due to its night-time song and the fecundity of spring – has had sexual connotations from the ‘prick’ of the thorn against which it supposedly sings to providing the soundtrack to many a lover’s tryst, and keeper of its secrets, although Westcott’s voicing of female desire and tenderness is a far cry from the overwhelmingly masculine perspective of this tradition. It has its violent extreme in the Philomela myth, of course, in which Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law Tereus who cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling her tale. At the end of the myth, she is transformed into a nightingale and subsequently sings her melancholy song throughout much of literary tradition, and at the end of Keats’s poem the female bird’s song has become a ‘plaintive anthem’, redolent of all the poems in which the bird laments her fate. In a recent poetry collection Nightingale, Paisley Rekdal contemplates the problematic nature of the nightingale’s importance, underpinned by the Philomela myth, to literary tradition, especially for the woman writer: ‘I have spent my life devoted to an art whose foundational symbol is one of unspeakable violence’. Astonishingly, in Wescott’s poem, Keats’s poem – the most famous of them all – becomes the fulcrum through which this tradition is transformed to speak of tenderness and woman’s sexual pleasure and power, expressed and heard clearly.

The ‘real bird’ is perhaps hardest to locate in Ruby Robinson’s ‘Last Breath’, which also doesn’t have an ‘I’: only a ‘you’ and a ‘he’, while breath does imply a body and a physicality. The poem’s title suggests an elegiac context, as the ‘last breath’ seems to coincide with the moment in which

all that was lost
or had never been

spilled over and sang
or cried out all night.

It is a short poem – breath-like, perhaps. The sounds of loss manifest into ‘a call you knew, yet / had never heard’: is this the nightingale? The poem seems steeped in personal recollection, in something the reader cannot, should not, penetrate. In the final stanza, the song becomes ‘One, perhaps, he would / only sing in your sleep’. There has been a shift, now after the last breath, in the ‘sleep’ of death in which the poem’s you will be serenaded by the bird, perhaps. The nightingale has been associated with death throughout much of its literary history in which it is often an elegiac subject. Keats’s ode – bearing his medical training and personal experience of the death of family members – is steeped in an awareness of ‘The weariness, the fever, and the fret’ of mortality, yet reaches its emotional pitch with the realisation that ‘Now more than ever seems it rich to die’, immersed in the nightingale’s song. As that stanza opens:

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;

Robinson’s poem resonates with this stanza in particular, especially in the reference to ‘breath’, and to the song heard – or not heard – in death, when ‘I have ears in vain’, ‘To thy high requiem become a sod’. References to breath also arise in much nightingale writing: Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77-79 AD) makes much of how the nightingale manages its breath to make its virtuoso song, and also draws attention to how nightingales would sooner give up their ‘breath’ than their song: they ‘dieth for it, and sooner giveth she up her vitall breath’ in singing competitions. Breath is the stuff of sound, of song, of life, of poetry, and of the moment of death.

In Corbett’s ‘The Nightingale Speaks (from the other side)’, again there is ‘I’ and a bird, yet these identities are one. As the title suggests, it is the nightingale that speaks here: ‘I call through the night / sweet sweet sweet sweet’, voicing the poem. There are echoes of Keats’s ode as ‘tender is the night’ and ‘here there is no light’ becomes ‘where no light tenders the dark’, and the unusual presentation of the poem, broken up on the page is somehow redolent of the appearance of Keats’s odic stanzas, broken here into fragments. There is also a ‘you’, an audience within the poem, yet one who does not hear or see, ‘you cannot hear me, you beyond the meniscus, / the veil, who see nothing’:

you do not look up, your eyes grown cataracts,
your ears strange contraptions, your mouths
tap tap tap tap tap

Here, again, is the emphasis on a body, yet that of the ‘you’ outside of the speaking bird. It is characterised by strangeness, and I wonder if this is Keats’s himself, for ‘you were the old voice who knew the glade’, who, in his own poem, cannot see and seeks to lose his body. Here his ears are ‘strange contraptions’, his hearing of the nightingale is not to be trusted, perhaps. Corbett has said that in the poem she ‘wanted to flip the traditional relationship of poet (usually male) looking at and writing about the bird (usually female) as nature object or muse. I wanted my nightingale to speak for herself, and she was pretty angry’, speaking from the other side of ‘not being seen’. In the natural world, it is of course the male bird that sings, yet Corbett harnesses the misconception of poetic tradition to write back, as object or muse becomes female poet and female bird demanding to be both seen and bird. Birdsong and human language interweave in the sound of ‘sweet sweet sweet sweet’, ‘tap tap tap tap tap’, one becoming the other ‘bub bub bub bub / bubbling / beneath the earth. There are further echoes from Keats in ‘bubbling’ and ‘earth’. In the final lines, it seems that the ‘old voice’:

in refrain once once once once once
to counter the silence

The Philomela myth is a particularly brutal tale of violence against women and of their silencing, yet, through Philomela’s transformation into the bird understood to be a poet, the nightingale also symbolises potent poetic female power. Yet, it has been largely male poets who have ‘counter[ed] the silence’, voicing female experience through the bird as object or muse while claiming its poetic power for themselves. The Pavilion poets, all in different ways, reclaim the female voice in writing of the bird and put it firmly back in the female body.

Nightingales in Abercromby Square – Manuscripts and More 


Keywords: nightingales, birds, poetry.