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Nether Lochaber
Chapter LXII


Nest-building—Cunningham's Objection to Burns' Song, "O were my Love yon Lilac fair"— Birds and the Lilac-Tree—Rivalries of Birds—Birds and the Poets—The Nightingale.

A finer February month from first to last was never known in the West Highlands. With an amount of sunshine that April might be glad of, it was mild and open throughout; the sort of weather, in short, that Thomson must have been dreaming about, when he invoked the season of bursting bud and wildflower as "Gentle Spring, ethereal mildness." March [1878], too, has come in, not lion-like, as the meteorological proverb would have it, but "like a lamb," as it is hoped it may continue and end. Everybody is now astir, and "speed the plough " is the order of the day, as well, indeed, it may, for the bud has already opened into leaf, and primroses are plentiful—so plentiful that they may be gathered in handfuls from the hazel copse and woodland glade. As for our wild-bird friends, they are in ecstasies with it all, everywhere in full and fluent song, and making love with an ardour and directness of purpose that rarely fails of its reward. Nest-building, the most important and serious labour of their lives, but a labour of love all the same, is being rapidly proceeded with, the God-taught architects knowing not only to labour, but how best to labour, frequently resting a space to refresh themselves with song :—

''Song sweetens toil, however rude the sound,
All at her work the village maiden sings;
Nor while she turns the giddy wheel around,
Revolves the sad vicissitudes of things."

And while speaking of birds, this is, perhaps, the proper place to refer to a paragraph that appeared recently :—

"The Lilac Tree and Birds.—Burns has a song, ' Oh, were my love yon lilac fair,' &c. Cunningham has remarked that Burns had made an unhappy selection of a tree for sheltering his little bird; for the feathered songsters are found to avoid the lilac when in flower, owing to its peculiar smell. We confess we are not skilled enough in natural history to attest the accuracy of Cunningham's assertion."—Paterson's Burns, vol. iiL

Fully to appreciate Cunningham's objection, it is proper that we quote the song in full; but before doing so, it may be observed that it is founded on an older version,- of which the best lines are retained, as is the case with not a few of Burns' finest love-songs. Writing to George Thomson in the summer of 1793, the poet says—

"Do you know the following beautiful little fragment in Witherspoon's Collection of Scots Songs?—

'''Oh, gin my love were yon red rose,
That grows upon the castle wa.''

"This thought is inexpressibly beautiful, and quite, so far as I know, original. It is too short for a song, else I would forswear you altogether, unless you give it a place. I have often tried to make a stanza to it, but in vain. After balancing myself for a musing five minutes on the hind legs of my elbow-chair, I produced the following. The verses are far inferior to the original, I frankly confess; but if worthy of insertion at all, they might be fn-st in place; as every poet who knows anything of his trade will husband his last thought for a concluding stroke :—

"Oh, were my love yon lilac fair,
Wi' purple blossoms to the spring;
And I a bird to shelter there,
When wearied on my little wing.

How I wad mourn when it was torn
By autumn wild, and winter rude!
But I wad sing on wanton wing
When youthfu' May its bloom renew'd.

Oh, gin my love were yon red rose,
That grows upon the castle wa',
And I mysel' a drap o' dow,
Into her bonnie breast to fa*!

Oh ! there, beyond expression blest,
I'd feast on beauty a' the night;
Seal'd on her silk-saft faulds to rest,
Till fleyed awa' by Phoebus' light."

Cunningham's ornithological objection to the song we believe to be well founded; and it is not a little to his credit, as proving what a close and clear observer of the habits of our song-birds he must have been, that he was the first, so far as we know, to notice how reluctant they are to have anything to do with the lilac while in flower, though at other seasons they perch upon it as freely as upon other shrubs. "We are not as sure, however, that our song-birds object to the lilac because of anything disagreeable to them in the perfume of its flowers. Except in the case of some of the Raptores, birds as a rule are neither acute nor delicate of smell, our little song-birds least of all perhaps. "We rather think the reason of their dislike to it is to be found, partly at least, if not wholly, in the fact that while it is in flower, its bark, particularly along the smaller branches and twigs, is covered with a slimy secretion or exudation at once viscid and acrid; and if there is one thing more than another which our wild-birds unanimously and with all their hearts detest, it is to have their legs or toes come in contact with anything glutinous or "sticky." Every bird-fancier knows how uncomfortable and generally miserable is a bird just upon being taken off a limed twig ; not, observe, because he is a captive— thoughts of that may trouble him afterwards—but immediately and in the first instance because of the bird-lime about his toes.

The first thing, therefore, that the bird-catcher does is to cleanse the captive's feet and toes by rubbing them gently between his finger and thumb with fine sand, and afterwards washing them with water; an operation no sooner performed and the bird restored to its cage, than it evinces its satisfaction at being relieved from its state of intolerable discomfort in many little ways that cannot well escape the notice of even the most unobservant. "VVe have known a newly captured chaffinch, placed in a cage directly on being taken off the limed twig, and inadvertently left uncared for till the evening, peck its toes until red flesh appeared, in his attempts to rid them of the bird-lime attached to them. But whether the song-bird's dislike to the lilac when in flower be owing to its perfume or to the disagreeably glutinous exudations of its bark in early summer, or to both combined, it is simply the fact that such an aversion exists; and Allan Cunningham's objection to the lilac in this connection is perfectly well founded. And even if this particular objection had not been well founded, it would have been better, we think, if Burns had selected some one or other of our native flowering shrubs, such as the hawthorn, for example, rather than a comparatively rare exotic like the lilac—rare now, and rarer still a hundred years ago. If those who give any heed at all to these matters will only consider the question, they will he ready, we think, to confess that they never yet knew an instance of a bird's nest in a lilac tree. About our own place here, where the lilac grows to a large size, and flowers splendidly, we ourselves have never known or heard of such a thing. "Within the shelter of every other tree and shrub of any consequence about the place, we have known our song-bird friends to build at some time or other—never once in the lilac, nor, it may be added, in the fvfohsia, which in the warm shelter of this genial spot grows to the dimensions of a tree, all the year round too, without the slightest petting or special protection of any kind, as hardy and self-reliantly as its companion hawthorns, hollies, and hazels. The fuchsia is probably avoided for the same reason as the lilac. It also exudes in spring and early summer a viscid secretion almost as "sticky" and disagreeable, if you run your hand along a twig, as that of the lilac itself; and, as we have already said, anything of this kind is an utter abomination to the Insessores or perchers, who are as particular about their feet and toes as ever was dainty and delicate belle about the state of her hands and fingers.

Such of our readers as care about these things, and have the opportunity, may very profitably and pleasantly give an occasional half-hour to the doings of our song-birds at this season. Their little love quarrels and rivalries are very amusing. All this forenoon a pair of cock chaffinches have been bickering and quarrelling after their fashion along the hedgerows and amongst the trees immediately opposite our study window. The casus belli is of course a female, handsome and coy, and fully conscious, you may believe, of her own value, who keeps flitting about at a little distance, proud and pleased, doubtless, to be the object of rivalry between a pair of such gay and lively chaffinch beaux. Varium et mutabile, she has evidently great difficulty in making up her mind as to which of the suitors she shall select her state of indecision being probably akin to that of the renowned Captain Macheath in the Beggar's Opera :—

"How happy could I be with either,
Were t'other dear charmer away!
But while you thus tease me together,
To neither a word will I say."

The rival birds are in their gayest spring plumage; and when tired of mere vulgar scolding and abuse, they try to sing each other down; and then it is that they are well worth not merely the listening to, but the looking at. Directly opposite the gean-tree near the top of which the lady chaffinch sits preening her feathers, and occasionally uttering a twink-twink of self-admiration, is an aged hawthorn, on which the rivals select to hold their tournament of song; and the energy and heart with which a bird sings in such a case must he seen and quietly studied to he fully appreciated. Swaying lightly each on his own bough, the rivals begin to sing as if their very lives depended upon it; their throats swollen almost to bursting; the feathers on their polls erected into a crest, and their whole bodies tremulous to the very tips of the quill feathers of their wings, as they pour forth a torrent of song so rapid, clear, and loud, that all the other birds in the neighbourhood are for the moment silent, as if they had purposely ceased their own aindess melodies to listen to the impassioned strains of the competitors in the thorn. Of human eloquence, Quintilian says, "Pectus, id est quod disertum facit"—the heart (and not the brain) is that which makes a man eloquent; and even more than of eloquence, with all the might of its "winged words," is the same thing true of song. To be all it ought to be, and be at its best, it must well up a living stream from the hot, impassioned heart; not from the marble fountain of mere intellect, which, if always clear, is not "the less always cold. If ever song came, in Quintilian's phrase, direct a pectore—from the heart, it is the song at this moment of the rival competitors in yonder thorn. It is only when one has seen and studied a bird singing after this fashion that the full force and meaning of a line in Gray's Ode to Spring can be understood and appreciated. Under the lens of a cold, critical analysis, the line is sheer nonsense; in sight of the bird itself, as at this moment, singing with all his might, heart and soul in every note, its truth and beauty are at once apparent. The line is this—

"The Attic warbler pours her throat, 
Responsive to the cuckoo's note."

Had not the poet seen, and closely and intelligently observed, a bird in the act of loud and excited song, he would never have ventured on an assertion that at first sight seems so curiously extravagant, that a warbler 11 pours her throat." It is to he observed, however, that the really beautiful and expressive phrase is not original, but second-hand as regards Gray. He borrows it from Pope, in whose Essay on Man (Ep. iii.), published ten or a dozen years before Grays ode, occurs this line—

"Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat?"

But it is a pity to separate the line from its context, and as the passage is not too well known, we may be pardoned for quoting it:—

"Has God, thou fool ! worked solely for thy good,
Thy joy, thy pastime, thy attire, thy food?
Who for thy table feeds the wanton fawn,
For him as kindly spread the flowery lawn;
Is it for thee the lark ascends and sings?
Joy tunes his voice, joy elevates his wings.
 
Is it for thee the linnet pours his throat? 
Loves of his own, and raptures swell the note.
The bounding steed you pompously bestride
Shares with his lord the pleasure and the pride.
Is thine alone the seed that strews the plain?
The birds of heaven shall vindicate their grain.
Thine the full harvest of the golden year?
Part pays, and justly, the deserving steer:
The hog, that ploughs not, nor obeys thy call,
Lives on the labours of this Lord of all."

It will be seen that Gray makes his nightingale—his "Attic warbler"—feminine, "pours her throat," while Pope, more correctly, makes his linnet songster a mate, "pours his throat;" and Pope who, indeed, from his habits of life, must have known more about birds than Gray, is right, for it is the males of song-birds that sing, and not the females. Milton makes the same mistake as Gray, and adds to the blunder by saying that the nightingale sings "the summer long," which it does not. It is curious that our English poets should so frequently err, as Gray did, in attributing the melodies of song-birds to the females instead of to the males. The explanation, we suppose, is that, as amongst ourselves women as a rule are more musically inclined, and usually have sweeter voices than men, even so the poets, knowing no better, rashly conclude that the rule must hold good amongst song-birds also. The very contrary, however, is the fact. It is the male bird that always sings ; the female attempts at song being extremely rare, and when attempted always a failure, never for a moment to be compared with the rich and long-sustained melodies of the male. Of all our song-birds, the most frequently mentioned by the poets is, of course, the nightingale, and almost invariably they make it a "she" instead of a "he." One of the finest passages in English poetry is a reference to the nightingale in The Lover's Melancholy of the dramatist John Ford (d. 1639). We are fond of reciting this passage when "i' the vein" for such things, but we always take the liberty of changing the "she," "hers," and "her" of Ford, into the "he," "his," and "him" of ornithological fact.


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