The Nightingales Nest
An essay by Richard Lambert
about a poem by John Clare
Up this green woodland ride lets softly rove
And list the nightingale – she dwelleth here
Hush let the wood gate softly clap – for fear
The noise may drive her from her home of love

For here Ive heard her many a merry year
At morn and eve nay all the live long day
As though she lived on song – this very spot
Just where that old mans beard all wildly trails

Rude arbours oer the road and stops the way
And where that child its blue bell flowers hath got
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails
There have I hunted like a very boy
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorns
To find her nest and see her feed her young
And vainly did I many hours employ
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn
And where these crimping fern leaves ramp among
The hazels under boughs – Ive nestled down
And watched her while she sung – and her renown
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird
Should have no better dress then russet brown
Her wings would tremble in her extacy
And feathers stand on end as twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out sobbing songs – the happiest part
Of summers fame she shared – for so to me
Did happy fancys shapen her employ

But if I touched a bush or scarcely stirred
All in a moment stopt – I watched in vain
The timid bird had left the hazel bush
And at a distance hid to sing again
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves
Rich extacy would pour its luscious strain
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs
For cares with him for half the year remain
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast
While nightingales to summers life belongs
And naked trees and winter’s nipping wrongs
Are strangers to her music and her rest
Her joys are evergreen her world is wide
Hark there she is as usual lets be hush
For in this black thorn clump if rightly guest
Her curious house is hidden – part aside
These hazle branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious neath the rustling boughs

For we will have another search to day
And hunt this fern strown thorn clump round and round
And where this seeded wood grass idly bows
Well wade right through – it is a likely nook

In such like spots and often on the ground
Theyll build where rude boys never think to look
Aye as I live her secret nest is here
Upon this white thorn stulp – Ive searched about
For hours in vain – there put that bramble bye
Nay trample on its branshes and get near

How subtle is the bird she started out
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh
Ere we were past the brambles and now near
Her nest she sudden stops – as choaking fear
That might betray her home so even now
Well leave it as we found it – safetys guard
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still
See there shes sitting on the old oak bough
Mute in her fears our presence doth retard
Her joys and doubt turns every rapture chill
Sing on sweet bird may no worse hap befall
Thy visions then the fear that now decieves
We will not plunder music of its dower
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall
For melody seems hid in every flower
That blossoms near thy home – these harebells all
Seems bowing with the beautiful in song
And gaping cuckoo with its spotted leaves
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard
How curious is the nest no other bird
Uses such loose materials or weaves
Their dwellings in such spots – dead oaken leaves
Are placed without and velvet moss within
And little scraps of grass – and scant and spare
Of what seems scarce materials down and hair
For from mans haunts she seemeth naught to win
Yet nature is the builder and contrives
Homes for her childerns comfort even here
Where solitudes deciples spend their lives
Unseen save when a wanderer passes near
That loves such pleasant places – deep adown
The nest is made an hermits mossy cell
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five
Of deadend green or rather olive brown

And the old prickly thorn bush guards them well
And here well leave them still unknown to wrong
As the old woodlands legacy of song
I came to this poem as a poetry fan who writes poems, and it stunned me. One of the first things that struck me about it was that it doesn’t sound like any other poet I know. In its use of sound and its conversational energy, it feels more like something written in the twentieth century than in rural Northamptonshire in the early 1830s. There’s nothing (or almost nothing) high-flown about it. It feels like a complete original.
It’s 93 lines, rhyming, with an iambic pentameter base line. It starts with an invitation: I got the sense here that it’s okay to think of this narrator as Clare himself, that it’s an extension of his prose nature notes, although, having said that, he was fond of working in personas, from fake Elizabethan songsters to a Byronic mask in his version of Don Juan... Anyway, here this strong and present and present-tense ‘I’ figure feels like Clare the person. Who he’s addressing might be one of his friends, perhaps the head gardener Henderson at Milton Hall who liked to go birding with Clare, or one of Clare’s children who he did take on tours of the neighbouring fields. But the addressee feels like me, us, you – the reader.
It’s a gentle beginning, low-key, soft, and I didn’t have the sense that there’s anything but a bit of mild pastoral going on, but then you get the third line. Suddenly we’re right there. It’s still soft (he repeats ‘softly’ from the first line which muffles, there’s ‘hush’ of course, dropping the volume a notch, and the sounds are largely mild - not many closed-lip, hard k, t, p sounds) but he’s speaking to us and telling us not to bang the gate. He’s leading us into the wood in order to discover. In fact, one of the sustaining things of the poem (how do you sustain the drive of a 93-line poem?) is this journey we take with Clare through the gate into the quiet and solitude, in quest of the nightingale and her (it is a ‘her’ in the poem) nest.
But anyway, that third line. My knowledge of nineteenth-century poetry is limited, but I don’t know any other poets of the time who take their reader out into the natural world like this, and with a speaking voice like this. Perhaps Coleridge and Wordsworth do, but for me there’s still a sense of literary reference and educated diction in their work that I don’t hear in Clare. This is a friend taking us out on a country walk to show us something wonderful, and dropping his voice and saying ‘Hush’.
Although, having said that, this sense of naturalness is actually a pretty sophisticated mode, isn’t it? We’re not really there in Helpstone in a summer of the early 1830s, are we? We’re wherever we are, now, reading a poem – as I am, with an edition of his poetry before me on a table. I wonder how he composed this – was he out in the woods, scribbling (by pencil?) in his notebook, a notebook that cost him a week’s wages and a day’s walk into Market Deeping to purchase? Apparently he sometimes did compose outdoors (like Constable making those fresh-air and fresh-as-air oil sketches), using his hat to rest his notebook on. Or is this ‘recollected in tranquillity’ indoors, or in the garden? I wonder that because the implication of the mode of address promises us there’s no distance at all between the speaker and reader. Or just the distance of a few yards on that woodland walk.
But that third line. Because as well as the mode of address, there’s the rhythm, too. It’s iambic pentameter, isn’t it? Except, when I count what I’m actually saying when I read it out loud, it seems that in the third line there’s not the expected five but seven stressed syllables. (And in the first line six stresses and the second line four stresses.) Which seems astonishing really, because it sounds absolutely natural, not, for example, that dense texture of stress-music by someone like Hopkins. Or someone where things get loaded up in a line for effect. Anyone where you pull up short and notice. Here it’s completely natural. Present, but lightly done. Part of the hushy softness.
The surprise of the poem really hit me, though, when I tried to work out the rhyme scheme. Because there isn’t one. Yet every one of the 93 lines rhymes. You read the first four lines and it’s ABBA, and you think it’ll carry on like that, or in some variation of it. But it doesn’t. Instead it begins to hold off on the rhyme for several lines at a time, until at one point Clare holds off on a rhyme for ‘song’ (crucially and significantly, given the subject of the poem) for 19 lines, right until the final couplet. He also seems to get excited and multiply his rhymes, rhyming a word just once early on until that becomes twice, and finally a full rhyme shifts into consonant rhyme when the double letter ‘l’ of ‘still’/’chill’ is picked up in the next few end-rhymes of ‘befall’/’thrall’/’all’.
I’m so used to critics and poets talking about ‘schemes’, and so used to a scheme being made complex in a purely mathematical way, that the surprise of the pure weave and riff of this was a delight. And weave is the crucial word here. It is, perhaps, too neat to think of a poem about a nest as a weave. And perhaps too clever-clever to say that he is constructing these snug sound-shapes, where everything is connected to everything else not by an architectural plan but by experience and intuition, in the same way as birds construct their nests – but sometimes that is how it seems.
These sound-effects are located not only in the sheer variety of stresses in a line or in the magic of his end rhymes but also through the lines. You can identify a sound fragment and see it picked up a few lines further on, changed, morphed, merged. There’s a constant shift. So, for example, take those first lines again. The end of line one is ‘rove’ which has a consonant rhyme with ‘love’. (Incidentally, it would be so good to know what the Northamptonshire accent is/was, and how those two words ‘rove’ and ‘love’ would sound together spoken by his voice – would the rhyme be perfect?) In the fifth line that rhyme of ‘rove’ and ‘love’ is picked up in the ‘v’ in ‘Ive’. (And, by the way, ‘many a merry year’ actually contains another rhyme, the consonance of ‘many’ and ‘merry’, and of course ‘here’, ‘heard’ and ‘her’ rhyme too with a mixture of consonance and assonance, and then there’s the full rhyme of ‘here’ and ‘year’ – all in that one line.) But in the following line the ‘Ive’ is now picked up in the word ‘live’, then in the next line this moves to ‘lived’, then becomes ‘have’. You can trace it, moving through various shifts, until we reach the nest’s ‘velvet’, more ‘lives’ and ‘loves’, and finally the eggs’ ‘olive brown’. And when you isolate these sound-shifting words like this, you wonder if there are associations of meaning in these modulations, not just sound-effects. So to rove leads to love which leads to the self (‘Ive’) that leads ultimately to that olive-brown egg. Perhaps that’s pushing it all too much. But I wonder.
The effect of all this weave is a complex soundscape. And the repetitions that so annoyed his editor John Taylor (and if Clare brought this poem to a poetry workshop today everyone in it, including me, would point out that he used ‘softly’ in line one and in line three and he should cut one of them), these repetitions build into that sound-weave. To me it seems that the sounds in this poem are very close to Clare’s consciousness, to the flow of song, that he hasn’t got time to select a word with obstinate care. Move one thing, and he’s lost the whole. He’s doing it quick, the way, I imagine, a bird will fly along and pick up bits of grass and corn stubble, and fit them together to make a nest. There’s speed in this. And in fact it seems the flow of composition did take him, he was set to rhyming by some inner force and would compose colossal amounts until he collapsed exhausted. But while his poems are flows of sound, at the same time they’re not simply abstract sounds – there is astonishing acuity of sight and mental attention, and also an onward flow, a narrative, a story.
So, to the story. This supplies the onward rush and dynamism of the poem. The structure of the story is a journey demanding hush, one that we join. It begins in the present, with the entry through the gate, then there’s a wobble between past and present tense before there’s a plunge into memory about how he’s crept and ‘nestled’ (pun intended, surely) to watch the nightingale in the past. Then he describes her singing (still in the past) and this is where the thought gets briefly more consciously associative and slightly more conceptual, and the language becomes Keatsian. In fact, there is another echo of Keats a few lines later. It seems that Clare writing about a nightingale and using ‘happy’ and ‘envy’ has somewhere in mind (or at the back of his mind) Keats’ address to his nightingale: ‘’Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,/ But being too happy in thine happiness’. (And I was slightly pulled up short a bit later in the poem by one word that didn’t seem to fit the everyday language when, finding a rhyme for ‘guard’, Clare uses ‘retard’, and I wondered if below it is Keats’ nightingale song again: ‘The dull brain perplexes and retards’.) Clare admired Keats – a volume of Keats’ poetry stood on his oak bookshelf and although they never met they had the same publisher, John Taylor, who several times sent Clare the London poet’s latest pieces and also, once, Keats’ critique of Clare’s own poetry. Clare valued the comments. So this Keats echo is at least possible.
But the envious, emulating thrush is interesting. It’s a ‘he’ whereas the nightingale is a ‘she’. I wonder where in the psychic drama of the poem Clare stands in relation to these two birds. Does he associate himself with the nightingale or the thrush? What he writes of the thrush was so for Clare, whose immobilising depressions might lift when the summer came. And the thrush does not have the ‘fame’ of the nightingale - Clare’s dramatic height of fame was declining by the early 1830s. Or does Clare associate himself with the nightingale, made happy by singing, and whose song endures beyond silly celebrity? Whatever the case may be, this section is suddenly interrupted by the present tense and by the real nightingale, not the imagined bird of his past (or the nightingale of Keats). It’s where the register gets chattier and more immediate, with the fantastic ‘Hark there she is as usual lets be hush’.
And this is where the attention is so total he manages the imaginative feat of convincing me that I am actually there. He goes on... A few lines on... We’re getting closer now... This moment when he gives physical directions to his companion (me, you – the reader) then changes his mind and corrects himself is stunningly immediate (perhaps a tad frenzied?). I am missing out the lines here that observe the nightingale herself, which are terrific, and then he finds the nightingale’s nest. This discovery, after all that excitement, is surprisingly quiet. The final 17 lines are a unified, church-quiet single-toned meditation, without any uttered interruptions and injunctions. They begin ‘How curious is the nest no other bird/Uses such loose materials or weaves/Their dwellings in such spots…’ What follows is attention to the living, visible world. And isn’t that what poetry is? An act of attention. A real carefulness of noticing. In a way, all he does is notice. And all he’s noticing is a bird nest and some eggs. Although, there is something else going on here, I’m sure, in the ‘dead’ of ‘deadend’ (punning on dead-end?) green, held in opposition to the word ‘live’ hidden in olive brown – because forms of the word ‘live’ recur six times in this poem. I wonder if one of the senses of ‘live’ which he’s getting at here is the verb ‘to live’ and how it’s used when we say ‘I live in a house’ or a bird ‘lives in a nest’. And where Clare lived when he wrote this poem had recently changed – he had had to leave the house where he’s lived his entire life. He was so attached to his birthplace, the family cottage in the village of Helpstone that was the source of so many of his poems, that when he moved three miles down the road, to Northborough (visible across the flat fenland landscape from Helpstone) he experienced a loss so great it was a trauma. Already prone to immobilising depressions, the trauma contributed to his movement into delusion – and his eventual hospitalisation.
It was while living in Northborough that he wrote The Nightingales Nest and several other wonderful nest poems. All these poems seem to be about birds making a safe home. The nests are easily disturbed, broken, destroyed – in fact, disturbing nests was something Clare himself had done as a boy when he went hunting for eggs with his pals. But he won’t do that now, in his poetry. He leaves the nest alone – safe. Then turns away. And it’s this quickness as much as the conversational energy of his voice that appeals to me so much. The immediacy. That sense of a glimpse. The close noticing of a simple thing. Not a grand thing – nothing grand or grandstanding at all in this poem, only the flow of a companionable voice that comes to an end. The feeling that the poem closes with a shrug and a turning away to some new noticing. The Nightingales Nest finishes suddenly, quietly, as if he’s said the thing he meant to say, and no more. And that’s it. He leaves the bird’s home intact, as his wasn’t.