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The Pedestrian Essay Symbolism Of Birds

Mankind has made great leaps toward progress with inventions like the television. However, as children give up reading and playing outdoors to plug into the television set, one might wonder whether it is progress or regression. In "The Pedestrian," Ray Bradbury has chosen to make a statement on the effects of these improvements. Through characterization and imagery, he shows that if mankind advances to the point where society loses its humanity, then mankind may as well cease to exist.

Bradbury has elected to reflect the humanity of mankind in the character of Mr. Mead. First of all, Mr. Mead is associated with warm, bright light, which is symbolic of soul. If, during his night walks, people are alerted to his presence, "lights ... click on" (104). In essence, the embodiment of humanity is about. Mr. Mead's house beams "loud yellow illumination" (105). Since literature not only records the history of mankind but also evokes deep feeling among men, it brings this occupation close to the heart of humanity. Third, Mr. Mead is close to nature. Something as simple as taking a walk is "what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do" (104). Man is most human when surrounded by the elements. Also, Mr. Mead's shadow is described as the "shadow of a hawk," relating him to a wild and free-spirited bird (104). Last, Mr. Mead is brought into a parallel with the most tender and human holiday observed in the western world when the rush of cold air makes his lungs "blaze like a Christmas tree" (104). The combination of these elements makes Mr. Mead a true representative of humanity.

As a contrast to the humanity portrayed by Mr. Mead, Bradbury has mirrored the characteristics of progress in the police car. The car, as well as Mr. Mead, is associated with light. The light of the car, however, displays the absence of humanity. Rather than the "warm" light of Mr. Mead, the car possesses a "fierce" and "fiery" light that holds humanity "fixed" like a "museum specimen"--something from the past that should be looked at behind an impersonal plate of glass (105-06). When not holding humanity captive, the car's lights revert to "flashing ... dim lights," showing the absence of any real soul (106). The car is representative of several modern inventions, thereby embodying mankind's advancement. It is itself a robot, and it speaks in a "phonograph voice" through a "radio throat" (105-06). Finally, the omission of a human driver emphasizes cold, "metallic" progress (105-06). There is "nothing soft" about the car; all traces of humanity have been cleaned from its "riveted steel" with a "[h]arsh antiseptic" (106). Altogether, these features function to create a picture of unfeeling progress.

The disdain that progress shows for humanity, which results in mankind's loss of soul, is shown through the interaction of Mr. Mead and the police car. The car does not comprehend the need for humanity. It does not understand Mr. Mead's desire to get back to nature--to walk just "to see" (105). It cannot fathom why Mr. Mead has no inclination either to sit in front of a "viewing screen" or to breathe air from an "air conditioner" (105). When the car assigns Mr. Mead "[n]o profession," it is denying the existence of humanity (105). Progress sees no need for humanity; therefore, the car makes no real effort to relate to Mr. Mead. It just locks him away in the "black jail" of its back seat and takes him away (106). Bradbury poignantly has progress drive away the remnants of humanity.

Bradbury stresses death in his imagery to emphasize what life would be like in a world that has let progress drive humanity away. He sets the story in November, near the onset of winter, signifying the coming of death. The dead leaves scattered on the ground are etched with a "skeletal pattern" (104). When Mr. Mead chooses to walk in a "westerly direction," the direction in which the sun sets, it also signifies the coming of death (104). The streets are described as "dry river beds"; there is no life in them (104). People sit "dead" in their "tomblike" homes; walking through the neighborhood is similar to walking through a "graveyard" (104-05). Bradbury's world without humanity has virtually ceased to exist.

Through the characterization and imagery of "The Pedestrian," Bradbury has given a warning of what life might lie ahead if mankind relinquishes its humanity to progress. It would be a great loss to watch children grow into hard, cold "police cars" rather than warm, human "Mr. Meads."

Bradbury, Ray. "The Pedestrian." Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, et al. 2nd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1989. 104-06.

--Susan McGallicher

The Nightingale in the Poetry and Science of the Long Eighteenth Century

by Bethan Roberts

The relationship between poetry and science in the long eighteenth century was rich and complex. This essay will consider that relationship through the nightingale, the most versified and celebrated bird in English Literature. It was in the eighteenth century that the nightingale was most fully embraced and explored as a subject, contemporaneously with the emergence of ornithology as a scientific discipline, following the Ornithology (1678) of Francis Willughby and John Ray and the flourishing of natural history. The subject is thus vast, and this essay gathers and assesses just some of the meetings, departures, discrepancies and crossovers between poems and ornithological accounts.

In 1794, in his ‘Essay towards a Natural History of British Song Birds’, James Bolton writes that:

Not only in the time of Pliny, but long before him, and since, down to this day, this poor bird has been the butt of whining lovers, theatrical writers, romancers, novelists, poets, poetasters, and liars of many other denominations. [1]

Indeed, the nightingale is also the most mythologised of birds: the ‘real’ bird has been obscured by myriad allusions, myths, symbols and associations throughout cultural history.  This means that the relationship between poetry and science here is particularly vexed. The nightingale is nearly always characterised as female, melancholy and heard singing at night, often with its breast against a thorn. These largely stem from myth. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (9 AD) tells of how Philomela, raped by her brother-in-law who cuts out her tongue to prevent her from telling her tale, is transformed into the bird. Philomel and Philomela have long since been poetic synonyms for the nightingale [2]. A related Persian myth associates the nightingale with the rose and thorn, against which it presses its breast in unrequited love for the flower.

The Ornithology of Francis Willughby, completed and published by John Ray after Willughby’s death, established many lasting characteristics and associations, some of which echo the mythological:

This bird is not remarkable for any variety or beauty of colours, but well known from its singing by night. And now that mention hath been made of singing, I cannot forbear to produce and insert the elegant words of that grave Naturalist Pliny, concerning the Nightingales admirable skill in singing, her study and contention, the sweetness of her accents, the great variety of her notes, the harmonious modulation and inflection of her voice. [3]

The celebration of the nightingale’s song is ubiquitous across works of literature and science and, typically, the singing bird is presented by Ray as female, although it is only the male bird that sings. In addition to the Philomela myth, this stems from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77-79 AD), in which the singing bird is female, a major source for eighteenth-century ornithologists, and from which Ray quotes in his hymning of the nightingale’s song. Although the nightingale sings both day and night, it is, as here, nearly always depicted or described singing at night, which is rooted in its etymology, which brings together night and singing. Ray and Willughby establish the nightingale’s presence in English groves in spring and summer, although whether the nightingale and other birds of passage migrated or hibernated was a much-debated topic throughout the century [4]. They also accurately located the nightingale and its nest in ‘Thick green bushes and shrubs’ (Ray, Ornithology, p. 221).  

These associations are displayed in early poems of the century. In Anne Finch’s ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ (1713), ‘lonely Philomel, still waking, sings’, while in the ‘The Nightingale’ (1713) the bird is implored to
Exert thy voice, sweet harbinger of spring!
    This moment is thy time to sing,
    This moment I attend to praise,
And set my numbers to thy lays. [5]

The chief interest of poets at this time is the appropriation of the nightingale’s song to the poem, for ‘Th’unhappy Poet’s breast, / Like thine, when best he sings is placed against the thorn’ (Finch, ‘To the Nightingale’, ll. 12-13). Although the gender dynamics of Finch’s poem are somewhat complex, the bird was a particular popular poetic subject and authorial emblem for women poets – including Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Sarah Nixon, Catherine Talbot and Mary Robinson – with its female, elegiac characterisation permitting a reticent, self-effacing means to public poetic expression.

Joseph Warton’s ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ (1746) is in many ways typical in its poeticised presentation of the bird:

O Thou, that to the moonlight vale
Warblest oft thy plaintive tale,
O fail not then, sweet PHILOMEL,
Thy sadly-warbled woes to tell;
In sympathetic numbers join
Thy pangs of luckless love with mine! [6]

The moonlit, plaintive tones of Philomel are here more straightforwardly invoked to the spirit of the poem. Warton’s poem is deeply influenced by Milton’s poetic presentations of the nightingale, which influenced not only many poets, but also natural historians in the eighteenth century. In his British Zoology (1768), the next major ornithological work following Willughby and Ray, Thomas Pennant quotes from Il Penseroso (1645), and also includes four quotations from Paradise Lost (1674) in his section on the nightingale. Pennant observes that

This was the favourite bird of the British poet, who omits no opportunity of introducing it, and almost constantly noting its love of solitude and night […] These quotations from the best judge of melody we thought due to the sweetest of our feathered choristers. [7]

This is indicative of the fluidity of the relationship between poetry and works of natural history in the eighteenth century: poems are often included and drawn on as sources of ornithological knowledge and judgement. Although we do not get any information regarding the sex of the nightingale in Pennant’s entry, the quotations he includes from Milton distinguish the bird as female. In Paradise Lost, ‘the wakeful Bird / Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid / Tunes her nocturnal Note’ while IlPenseroso establishes the pervasive melancholy mood on nightingale poems: ‘Less Philomel will deign a song / In her sweetest saddest plight’, amid moonlit woods, ‘Most musical, most melancholy!’ [8]. Pennant also includes a long quotation from Pliny, even though we are told that Pliny only ‘in general’ expresses ‘the truth’ (British Zoology, II, 256). By contrast, George Montagu, writing on the nightingale in his Ornithological Dictionary (1802), in which the singing bird is male, notes that ‘we confine our pen to the facts of natural history [...] we must refer our readers to the British Zoology, for the more classical and elegant information’, as elegance gives way to truth. [9]

After Milton, James Thomson became the poet best known for nightingales. His poems were celebrated for their accurate portrayal of the natural world, most notably by John Aikin in ‘An Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry’ (1777), which as Sharon Ruston shows speaks to the increasingly close relationship between the two spheres in the eighteenth century. Aikin’s essay is addressed to Pennant, and its chief aim is ‘to shew that the accurate and scientific study of nature would obviate many of the defects usually discoverable in poetical compositions’ [10]. Defects such as ‘supineness and servile imitation’ can be redressed by turning to the natural world, he suggests, with a new attention to and emphasis on precision and accuracy. Aikin complains of the false and erroneous images of nature which traditional poetic imagery and language have led to: ‘false representations of natural things, the real properties of which are commonly known [...] cannot stand the test of sound criticism’. Thomson is identified as an exception among poets guilty of false representation and imitation, being ‘The Naturalist’s Poet’ according to both Aikin and Pennant (Aikin, Essay, pp. 5, 32, 41). Aikin quotes a popular nightingale passage from Spring (1728):

Up-springs the lark,
Shrill-voiced, and loud, the messenger of morn;
Ere yet the shadows fly, he mounted sings
Amid the dawning clouds, and from their haunts
Calls up the tuneful nations. Every copse
Deep-tangled, tree irregular, and bush
Bending with dewy moisture, o'er the heads
Of the coy quiristers that lodge within,
Are prodigal of harmony. The thrush
And wood-lark, o'er the kind-contending throng
Superior heard, run through the sweetest length
Of notes; when listening Philomela deigns
To let them joy, and purposes, in thought
Elate, to make her night excel their day.
The black-bird whistles from the thorny brake;
The mellow bullfinch answers from the grove:
Nor are the linnets, o'er the flowering furze
Pour'd out profusely, silent. [11]

These are joined by the jay, rook, daw, and stock dove. The nightingale stands out here, however, as the only bird not to be named, appearing instead as ‘Philomela’. It is also the only bird to be characterised as female (only the lark is designated as male), and is more a bird of poetry than one drawn from nature. This is matched by the way the nightingale is not actually present in the scene, or rather it is not heard: its song is delayed until night, although its song could well be distinguishable amid the dawn chorus. At the beginning of this section of Spring, Thomson includes a typical invocation of the song of the nightingale to the spirit of the poem:

Lend me your song, ye nightingales! oh, pour
The mazy-running soul of melody
Into my various verse! While I deduce,
From the first note the hollow cuckoo sings,
The symphony of spring. (ll. 576-581)

While Thomson’s speaker keenly ‘deduces’ the first note of the cuckoo, the notes of the nightingale are not; instead a vague, distracting ‘mazy-running soul of melody’ is channelled. Special rules seem to apply to the nightingale. Indeed, in his essay, Aikin points to a ‘slight error’ Thomson makes about the bullfinch in deeming its song to be mellow, yet Aikin does not mention the mythological trappings of the nightingale (Essay, p. 63). Moreover, Aikin quotes from an essay by Daines Barrington, ‘Essay on the Language of Birds’ (1773) in which Barrington identifies the singing nightingale as the male bird. Aikin writes:  

From the [...] ingenious paper of Mr. Barrington’s we learn, that the music of the nightingale [about which we have only] confused and indefinite ideas, has in reality all the excellencies of a kind which may be clearly and scientifically stated. (pp. 136-137)

Simultaneously, however, other confused and indefinite ideas of the sex of the female are permitted to be perpetuated. Barrington was a member of the Royal Society, and along with Pennant, a correspondent of Gilbert White and addressee in The Natural History of Selborne (1789). In his essay, Barrington sets out ‘experiments and observations [...] related to the singing of birds, which is a subject that hath never been scientifically treated of’. He attempts to affix ‘precise ideas’ to celebrated descriptions of the nightingale and produces a ‘table, by which the comparative merit of the British singing birds may be examined’ [12]:

The nightingale clearly wins here, and in a turn aside from the poetical and mythological, Barrington in a supposedly scientifically – albeit highly subjective – way, deems the nightingale’s song to be superlative, and deduces that its song is ‘plaintive’. As noted, in his essay, Barrington states that the hen bird does not sing, and it is from this time that the nightingale is more frequently described and designated as male in natural history works.

In his substantial section on the nightingale in The Natural History of Birds (published in French in 1778 and translated into English in 1793), the Comte de Buffon refers to the work of the anatomist John Hunter – which Barrington also references – to detail that the muscles of the larynx are ‘stronger in the male, which alone sings’ [13]. It is also more frequently and clearly stated that the male nightingale sings to attract the female, ‘stimulated to court the joys of love, and warble his amorous tales’ (Buffon, Natural History, v, 81). Despite pronouncing that only the male bird sings, Buffon still refers to a singing, caged hen nightingale, however, and to a ‘sweet Philomela’, as the two genders and different versions of the bird seem able to coincide; propagated by the inclusion and amalgamation of a variety of previous works (Natural History, v, 84). In Thomas Bewick’s popular British Birds (1797), the singing bird is again male, entertaining the female during the incubation period ‘with his beautiful singing’ [14].
The year after Bewick’s Birds, Coleridge’s ‘The Nightingale. A Conversational Poem’ was published in Lyrical Ballads (1798). This poem marks a major turning point in the literary life of the nightingale, for the bird is also male here, and Coleridge undoes the connection with Milton, between the nightingale and melancholy, and indeed with poetic tradition and myth:

And hark! the Nightingale begins its song,
‘Most musical, most melancholy’ Bird!
A melancholy Bird? O idle thought!
In nature there is nothing melancholy. [15]

Coleridge traces and locates the source of the connection with melancholy to a ‘night-wandering Man’, perhaps Milton – whose Il Penseroso he quotes from in the above lines – who ‘First nam’d these notes a melancholy strain; / And many a poet echoes the conceit’, ‘When he had better far have stretch’d his limbs / Beside a mossy forest-dell’ and listened to the real bird’s song (ll. 22-23, 25-26). Jettisoning ‘Philomela’s pity-pleading strains’, he promotes ‘A different lore’ of ‘the merry Nightingale / That crowds, and hurries and precipitates / With fast thick warble his delicious notes’, a ‘love chaunt’ (ll. 39, 41, 43-45, 48). His poem recalls Buffon’s characterisations and description of the nightingale: both identify the bird as male, and in a significant departure from preceding works, the bird is not solitary in either account. Indeed, both Coleridge and Buffon are interested in the chorus of nightingale song: ‘they are not insensible to the effects of harmony’, Buffon writes, ‘they strike the unison, and strive to eclipse their rivals’, while in Coleridge’s poem

They answer and provoke each other’s songs
With skirmish and capricious passagings,
And murmurs musical and swift jug jug
And one low piping sound more sweet than all,
Stirring the air with such an harmony [...] (ll. 58-62)

The source and nature of Coleridge’s ornithological knowledge is intriguing. While we do not know for certain that he read Buffon, we know that he read Gilbert White and William Bartram, and the poetic originality of Coleridge’s nightingales suggest a different and additional sort of knowledge beyond that which can be gleaned from stretching out beside a mossy forest-dell. Even if Coleridge has relinquished books – as recommended in another Lyrical Ballads poem ‘The Tables Turned’ – his poem evinces something of a scientific mode of observation and engagement required in order to deduce important aspects such as the sex of the singing bird, when and why it sings. Debbie Sly has drawn attention to this aspect of Coleridge’s poem, and also questions the provenance of its knowledge, deeming that the poem presents an ‘impossible project’, presenting a ‘mediated’ experience, steeped in something ‘learnt’, while purporting not to [16]. Coleridge’s poem is variously implicated and in dialogue with nature’s lore, natural history, literary tradition and myth.

Whereas Coleridge seeks to disentangle the nightingale from literary tradition and myth, promoting the different ‘lore’ of the natural world, Charlotte Smith perhaps more than any other poet holds the two overtly in dialogue. Nightingales bookend Smith’s writing career. Two sonnets on the bird were included in the first edition of her Elegiac Sonnets (1784) and her natural history work for children, A Natural History of Birds, published posthumously in 1807, includes a section on the nightingale. She writes that the ‘Poet and the philosopher should both be naturalists’ and her works really speak to the inseparability of poetry and natural history in the late eighteenth century. Across her works, she is keenly aware of poetic tradition, closely observant of the natural world, and engaged in natural history. Smith was well read in this area, and her ornithological work makes reference to a number of precedents.

In her own Natural History of Birds, Smith gathers different accounts, mediating between them and her own observations. Remarks are often introduced in a deferent way, often qualified by ‘perhaps’ and ‘it seems’. She is always careful where she is unable to confirm reliably, or observe first-hand. Commenting on migration, a matter on which ornithological works were still at odds, she is only able to state that ‘doubts have arisen, whether the Nightingales really retire into other countries, or remain silent in this country from the middle of June’, while we get the strong sense that Smith herself has observed that ‘the Nightingale is a solitary bird, and though it really sings all day, is usually celebrated for it’s [sic] song during the night’. She departs from The Elements of Natural History here, in which it is stated that the nightingale sings only at night. Finally, while ‘the voice of the Nightingale is considered generally as expressive of melancholy’, she finds ‘some of it’s various notes are certainly very cheerful’. The tone is frequently non-committal, ambivalent. Curiously, Smith does not comment here on the sex of the bird, but her two main sources observe that both the male and female bird sing, yet the female not very well, and infrequently. Aside from ornithological details, Smith is more concerned with how the ‘Nightingale is the most known and admired of all the songsters, and is celebrated by the poets more than any other of the feathered race’, and this almost becomes the bird’s most salient feature [17]. She includes quotations from poems by Petrarch, Milton, Mary Montagu, Thomson, Erasmus Darwin, Coleridge and – in typically playful mode – from two sonnets of her own.

Smith sonnets are obsessively engaged with literary tradition, and the first two nightingale sonnets rework the sonnets by Petrarch and by Milton she names in her natural history. They also raise some of the same ornithological points, and display a similar ambivalence. In sonnet III, with Petrarch’s antecedent poem in mind, she listens to the nightingale and wonders ‘From what sad cause can such sweet sorrow flow, / And whence this mournful melody of song?’ [18]. The ‘poet’s musing fancy’ must translate the bird’s song. Smith draws attention to the role of the poet – and also indeed recalls scientists such as Barrington – in interpreting the natural world, highlighting the fact that this will always be steeped in subjectivity and ‘lore’. While Smith hears and judges the song to be melancholy as a poet—aware of the Ovidian myth—she is also able to deduce cheerful notes as a natural historian, and her sonnet depends on being able to ‘translate’, reinterpret and rework the trope. The second sonnet holds natural and literary history more closely in dialogue. There is the same indeterminacy regarding migration present in her later natural history: ‘Whether on Spring thy wandering flights await, / Or whether silent in our groves you dwell’, whatever the facts regarding migration, ‘The pensive Muse shall own thee for her mate’ (a borrowing from Milton). Smith’s interest in ornithological knowledge is in balance with that of poetry [19].

James C. McKusick has argued that ‘Elegiac Sonnets witnessed […] the return of the nightingale’ to English poetry. While her sonnets may still retain a sense of the literary, together with Coleridge’s conversation poem they ‘rescue from its mythic associations’, and present instead ‘real’ birds that inhabit ‘real’ English groves [20]. However, for Smith the nightingale should never be freed from its literary associations, and for her to encounter the ‘real’ bird is to encounter the literary past. Indeed, Coleridge’s attempt to disentangle the nightingale from literary tradition appears somewhat disingenuous when literary tradition is shown to be so much part of what the bird is about. Coleridge himself acknowledges this in the verse note he included with his poem when he initially sent it to Wordsworth: ‘In stale blank verse a subject stale. I send per post my Nightingale’, undercutting the way he undoes the poetical trappings of the bird within the poem [21].

To John Clare, Smith was a poet who ‘wrote more from what she had seen of nature than from what she had read of it’, a quality which certainly also applied to himself [22]. In his ‘natural history’ letters Clare writes much and quite vehemently about what he variously calls the lies, superstitions and absurdities surrounding the nightingale in poetry and natural history, many of which he directly addresses. We know that he had access to and read some ornithological works, but did not take these at face value, conducting instead his own poetic brand of fieldwork. He writes with exasperation about those who puzzle over whether nightingales sing by day and night and whether their song is ‘grave or gay’. He offers an explanation: ‘the poets indulgd in fancys but they did not wish that those matter of fact men the Naturalists should take them for facts upon their credit’ (Natural History, p. 42). Here Clare signals to the way in which works of natural history have drawn on and included elements of poetry, as seen from Pliny to Pennant and beyond. Clare also writes that

I Love to look on nature with a poetic feeling [...] I love to see the nightingale in its hazel retreat [...] & 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 specimens classing them after Leanius into tribes & familys. (Natural History, p. 38)

As Hugh Haughton writes, Clare’s position is a complex one, a balancing act between ‘those matter of fact men the Naturalists’ and men of fancy (the poets), wary of and distancing himself from both [23]. According to Clare, one should look on nature with a specific ‘poetic feeling’, to be distinguished from ‘fancy’, and aspire to an accuracy and authenticity, which is removed from the cold, dry treatment of the scientist. This manifests in Clare’s ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ (1832), one of several poems he wrote on the bird. The reader is taken ‘Up this green woodland’ to hear the nightingale – and indeed to see it – ‘Creeping on hands & knees through matted thorns’ to find the nest [24]. Our proximity to the bird is bound up with the authenticity of Clare’s careful, accurate first-hand ornithological knowledge.

Clare’s poem is unpinned by an awareness of poetic tradition, but this proximity and authenticity cuts through it:

her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress than russet brown. (ll. 19-21)

Here we have the first real visual description of the singing bird, as well as of its nest. Sly suggests that both Coleridge and Clare centre their nightingale poems on an ‘ornithological experience’, ‘unusually accurate in their knowledge’, which ‘competes’ with the literary and subjectivity (Ornithological and Poetic Discourse’, p. 18). Clare’s poem is often contrasted with Keats’s ‘Ode to the Nightingale’ (1817) and it has sometimes been read as a response to that poem. As Haughton writes, Clare’s ‘nightingale is no courtier from some golden version of pastoral, and nor is she a ‘light-winged dryad of the trees’, a classical Philomel ‘far from home’. In contrast to Keats’s famed bird of ‘viewless’ flight, ‘embalmed in mysterious invisibility […] all music’, Clare’s poem is firmly grounded, pedestrian, earthly brown in hue (Haughton, ‘Progress and Rhyme’, p. 62). In Keats’s poem the nightingale is closely connected with ‘fancy’ – relinquished by Clare – as the nightingale’s song, fancy and the poem fade and cease in unison:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! Thy plaintive anthem fades. [25]

Here, Keats fully embraces transcendence, which Thomson’s earlier poem ‘Spring’ unwittingly seems to channel in its rhapsodic invocation of the nightingale’s song as the speaker attends to and deduces the notes of other birds. While Clare’s poem is a more pertinent answer to Aiken’s call for accuracy, Clare also presents the singing bird as female. This is despite having observed that ‘I watched her [the nightingale] frequently [...] as regards particulars this is in the wrong gender for I think and am almost certain that the female is silent & never sings’ (Natural History Prose Writings, p. 313). In his other nightingale poems, Clare sometimes presents the singing birds as female, sometimes as male. It seems somewhat fitting that the moment we are taken so close to the real nightingale – guided by Clare’s authentic ‘poetical feeling’ and naturalist’s knowledge – that it again eludes us. McKusick argues that the nightingale is persistently gendered as female because it ‘embodies an archetype that is [...] more powerful than mere empirical precision’ (‘The Return of the Nightingale’, p. 35). Clare himself seems to nod to this in his reference to ‘her’ in the same sentence that he observes this gender to be incorrect. Clare observed that Keats wrote of ‘Nature as she [...] appeared to his fancys & not as he would have described her if he had witnessed the things he describes’ [26]. Clare had witnessed the things he describes, yet in appropriating the nightingale he too succumbs to cheating fancy.

[1] James Bolton, Harmonia Ruralis; Or, An Essay Towards a Natural History of British Song Birds, 2 vols ([Manchester]: For the Author, 1794), II, 52
[2] ‘Philomel, n.’ and ‘† Philomela, n.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press, December 2015) <> [accessed 05/01/16]
[3] John Ray, The Ornithology of Francis Willughby of Middleton in the County of Warwick, esq […] (London, 1678), p. 220.
[4] See Tim Birkhead, The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), chapter four.
[5] Anne Finch, ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’, in Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Manchester: Carcanet, 1987, pp. 70-72 (l. 4); ‘To the Nightingale’, in Selected Poems, pp. 67-68 (ll. 1-4).
[6] Joseph Warton, ‘Ode IX. To the Nightingale’, in Odes on Various Subjects (London: Dodsley, 1746), pp. 34-35 (ll. 1-2 and 15-18).
[7] Thomas Pennant, British Zoology, 4 vols (London: Benjamin White, 1768), II, 255-56.
[8] George Montagu, Ornithological Dictionary; Or, Alphabetical Synopsis of British Birds, 2 vols (London: J. White, 1802), I, s.v. ‘Nightingale’.
[9] John Aikin, An Essay on The Application of Natural History to Poetry (London: J. Johnson, 1777), p. 33.
[10] James Thomson, ‘Spring’, Poetical Works, ed. by J. Logie Robertson (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 3-51 (ll. 590-613).
[11] Daines Barrington, ‘XXXI. Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds’, in Philosophical Transactions: Giving Some Account of the Present Undertakings, Studies, and Labours, of the Ingenious, in many Considerable Parts of the World, LXIII, Part I (London: Locker Davies, 1773), pp. 249-91 (p. 249).
[12] Barrington, ‘Experiments and Observations’, pp. 281 and 282.
[13] Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, Natural History of Birds, Fish, Insects and Reptiles, 5 vols (London: J. S. Barr, 1793), v, 80.
[14] Ralph Beilby and Thomas Bewick, History of British Birds. The Figures Engraved on Woodby T. Bewick. Vol. I. Containing the History and Description of Land Birds (Newcastle: 1797), p. 201.
[15] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘The Nightingale; A Conversational Poem, Written in April, 1798, in Lyrical Ballads, ed. by R. L Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 40-44 (ll. 12-15).
[16] Debbie Sly, ‘‘With Skirmish and Capricious Passagings’: Ornithological and Poetic Discourse in the Nightingale Poems of Coleridge and Clare’, Worcester Papers in English and Cultural Studies, 3 (2005), 6-19 (p. 10).
[17] Smith, A Natural History of Birds, p. 334. Charlotte Smith, A Natural History of Birds, Intended Chiefly for Young Persons, in The Works of Charlotte Smith, gen. ed. Stuart Curran, 14 vols (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005-2007), XIII, 335, 334.
[18] Smith, ‘To a Nightingale’, Poems, in The Works of Charlotte Smith, XIV, 18 (ll. 3-4).
[19] Smith, ‘On the Departure of the Nightingale’, Poems, p. 21 (ll. 5-6, 7).
[20] James, C. McKusick, ‘The Return of the Nightingale’, The Wordsworth Circle, 38 (2007), 34-40 (pp. 37 and 39).
[21] Coleridge, quoted by Brett and Jones in Lyrical Ballads, p. 279.
[22] John Clare, The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare, ed. Margaret Grainger (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 34.
[23] Hugh Haughton, ‘Progress and Rhyme: ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’ and Romantic Poetry’, in John Clare in Context, ed. by Hugh Haughton, Adam Phillips and Geoffrey Summerfield (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 51-86 (p. 59).
[24] John Clare, ‘The Nightingales Nest’, in Major Works, ed. by Eric Robinson and David Powell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 213-215 (ll. 13).
[25] John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, in The Oxford Authors: John Keats, ed. by Elizabeth Cook (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 285-288 (ll. 73-75).
[26] Clare, The Letters of John Clare, ed. by Mark Storey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 519.