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 , 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
labour, frequently resting a space to refresh themselves with song :—
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.
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
"Is it for thee the linnet pours
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
"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.