At half past one this morning, I was tossing and turning, unable to sleep because of the loud birdsong outside my window.
I’m not at all good with identifying birds from their songs, but I’m pretty sure it was a nightingale singing from the cherry tree. It stopped briefly when I put the light on, but then, from what I remember – I did get some intermittent sleep – it continued all through the night until I was awake again around six. Gradually, as it got lighter, the voice was joined by others, and now it’s daylight, there is still much birdsong, but it is more scattered as they are all off about their usual business.
Still, it gave me plenty of opportunity to think about what little I know about nightingales and run through the various quotations I could remember about the birds and their songs. And, having given up and got up ridiculously early for a Saturday, I’ve been following links around the web and discovered lots of things I didn’t know.
Of course I knew that Eliot’s nightingale cried, “‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears” and I remembered his “Twit twit twit/Jug jug jug jug jug jug” – not least because I swear that the bird actually did say that last night.
What I didn’t know, is that that may well have been a reference to John Clare’s writing. The article Listening with John Clare at the Free Library is a fairly dense but interesting look at Clare’s “exploration of the relation between sound and poetry” which I tracked down after reading Pingle and Strain on the Isola di Rifiuti blog.
Clare’s attempts to transcribe the song of the nightingale seem to be taken seriously by bird experts, too, and are cited on birdcare.com in an interesting portrait of the bird by Chris Mead which includes a range of scientific and cultural information.
Another nightingale I remembered in the wee small hours was the one from Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat:
And David’s Lips are lock’t; but in divine
High piping Pehlevi, with “Wine! Wine! Wine!
“Red Wine!”—the Nightingale cries to the Rose
That yellow Cheek of hers to incarnadine.
Again, I recognised the phrase “wine, wine, wine” in the song that was keeping me awake.
Incidentally, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is called Matar un ruiseñor in Spanish. I don’t find a “tranquil and continual joy” in the nightingale’s song, as Keats is reported to have done, and being awake half the night does little for my attitude. However if the bird continues to keep me awake in the future, I’ll try and bear in mind that “es un pecado matar un ruiseñor”.