In a special long-read for World Curlew Day, Bethan Roberts considers the role of the curlew in poetry, music and popular culture.
Curlew eggs – picture via curlewcountry.org
The relationship between birds and poetry is as old as poetry itself, and the curlew features in one of the earliest English poems The Seafarer (10th century). In a section which contrasts the miseries of life at sea with the comforts of life on land, the poem bemoans hearing ‘the sound of the curlew instead of the laughter of men’. The natural world is drawn upon to express a separation from it. By the time of Helen Maria Williams’s sonnet ‘To the Curlew’ (1795) the relationship between poet and place has been entirely reworked, steeped in a ‘Romantic’ closeness between bird, environment, and speaker. Encountering the bird on the ‘bleak lone sea-beach’, uttering ‘his melancholy wail’, the poem’s speaker hails a ‘congenial bird!’. Bird poems speak particularly keenly to the close relationship between nature and culture, our propensity to attach human emotions and histories to aspects of the natural world, hearing in the calls and songs of birds our own feelings, stories and myths.
Robert Burns could ‘never hear the loud solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer’s noon […] without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of Devotion or Poetry’. From Burns and John Clare, who – writing about the nightingale (curiously he didn’t write much about curlews) – ‘love[d] to look on nature with a poetic feeling’, nature being ‘the very essence & soul of Poesy’, to Simon Armitage, who suggests that ‘at some subconscious, secular level’, birds are the ‘souls’ of poets, there is something about birds which touches the very nature of poetry, and the quick of the soul. To readers (well, to me), the experience of poems and the natural world span the same spectrum of emotions, which bird poems have a peculiar ability to capture in their weave.
Throughout cultural history, the curlew’s call has nearly always been presented as mournful and elegiac, and also often as foreboding. In folklore, the cry of curlews (sometimes identified as that of the ‘Seven Whistlers’) has been said to presage disaster. Perhaps this is behind the surreal appearance of the curlew in Brian Eno’s ‘Burning Airlines Give You So Much More’ (1974) – said to be inspired by the Turkish Airlines Flight 981 plane crash – or why, more recently, it is curlews which appear in ‘The Final Moments of the Universe’ as envisaged by Richard Dawson in his 2009 song of that title. Curlews breed on summer moors and can be found around the whole of our coastline, especially on the mudflats of estuaries, often open, desolate spaces which may give rise to such emotions. They are also quite easy to find and identify, with distinctive downward-curving beak, sizeable body (it’s Britain’s largest European wader) atop gangly legs, and evocative call.
In recent decades, it has become increasingly apparent that the relationship between nature and culture has taken a perverse and desperately sad turn. The curlew is just one of many casualties of the widespread environmental devastation which we as humans have brought about. The UK supports 27% of the global curlew population, yet studies show a 64% decline from 1970 to 2014 (the figure is even higher in Ireland and Wales), and the bird was one of fifteen species moved to the ‘red list’ – in danger of extinction or experiencing significant decline – by the 2017 ‘State of the UK’s Birds’ report issued by the BTO. The bird’s global status is ‘near threatened’. This is the reality of life in the Anthropocene, the present epoch in which, as Tim Dee recently put it, ‘everything of Earth’s current matter and life, as well as the shape of things to come, is being determined by the ruinous activities of just one soft-skinned, warm-blooded, shortlived pedestrian ape.’ As well as increases in predators reducing breeding success, suggested reasons for the curlew’s decline include human activities such as afforestation, farming and climate change.
A number of commentators have asked how artists respond to and write in the age of the Anthropocene when, as Robert Macfarlane argues, ‘old forms of representation are experiencing drastic new pressures and being tasked with daunting new responsibilities.’ On the curlew specifically, Mark Cocker has written about how ‘biological loss is cultural loss’, as we ‘forgo all that curlew have inspired within us by way of story, poetry, music, dance’. I am interested in how existing poems, songs and ‘forms’ appear differently in the current environment of change and loss. A 2016 article in the Irish Independent on curlews, for example, reporting devastating losses and urging emergency action, draws on Yeats’s short lyric ‘He Reproves the Curlew’ (The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899), deemed to be ‘now as much prophesy as poem’. In his 2017 book on ‘books & birds’ Alex Preston has pointed to how the ‘sad call’ of ‘the melancholy curlew, whose eldritch cry has stirred fear and sown sorrow over centuries’, is now reheard as ‘an unheeded warning of the wave of extinctions to come’. From Yeats’s ‘O curlew, cry no more’ to Bridget St John’s ‘curlew cry curfew’ (the song is ‘Curious Crystals of Unusual Purity’ from her 1969 album Ask Me No Questions), across poems and songs, moors and estuaries, we hear the curlew’s call differently, more melancholy, more elegiac. The final verse of Tommy Makem’s ‘The Curlew’s Song’ (1966), a sort of coda to Yeats’s poem, takes on a much deeper sadness, with an ear to the curlew’s demise, rather than an improvement in mood that comes with the spring:
Sweet sun-warm’d summer came along
From green-leaf’d days of spring
I soon forgot that lonesome song
I heard the Curlew sing.
We also perhaps hear the curlew’s call more powerfully – a call to arms. Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental work Silent Spring (1962), which takes its epigraph ‘no birds sing’ from a Keats poem, is a powerful example of how poetry can be claimed as prophesy, and can also impel environmental action. In a direct example of this, Karen Lloyd’s Curlew Calling, an anthology of writing about the curlew, was produced last year to raise money to support action for curlew conservation. Mary Colwell’s book Curlew Moon (2018), ‘part travelogue, part conservation, part exploitation of the curlew in culture’, recounts her 500-mile walk from the west of Ireland to the east of England to raise awareness about curlews, and to find out what is happening to them. As Colwell encounters real curlews, as well as their stories, poems and myths, her book is suggestive of how our experience of the natural world is bound up with art and culture, and how the interchange between them can, in turn, inspire engagement and conservation, in what Nick Groom has called a ‘cultural environmentalism’.
In a recent statement, Dr Steven Ewing, senior conservation scientist at RSPB’s Centre for Conservation Science, said that curlews, ‘like other species before it […] risk becoming just another memory lost to future generations.’ This put me in mind of Ted Hughes’s poem, ‘Horses’ (The Hawk in the Rain, 1957), in which the call of the curlew interleaves with the workings of memory. In the first part of the poem we hear that: ‘I listened in emptiness on the moor-ridge. | The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence’, and, at its end, the poem looks forward to the memory it has given form to:
In din of the crowded streets, going among the years, the faces,
May I still meet my memory in so lonely a place
Between the streams and the red clouds, hearing curlews,
Hearing the horizons endure.
As it does so, Hughes’s poem recalls perhaps the best-known Romantic meditation on memory and place, Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey […]’ (1798). Revisiting the banks of the Wye, Wordsworth hymns how:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet[.]
Hughes combines the sense of these lines with that of ‘in this moment there is life and food | For future years’, as Wordsworth’s ‘forms’ of landscape modulate across the poem’s backwards-forwards temporal motions. Hughes’s poem takes an interest in lines, ridges and horizons, entwined with the curlew’s call, and mirrored by the lines of the poem, stretching out on the page, and turning their own edge on emptiness and silence. The curlew is strongly associated with Hughes’s native Calder Valley in his works. In his essay ‘The Rock’ (1963) ‘the moist voices of curlews’ articulate ‘the spirit of the moors, the peculiar sad desolate spirit’ and in his later Elmet poetry, the curlew is the ‘wet-footed god of the horizons’ (‘Curlews in April’, Remains of Elmet, 1979). There is something about the horizon that suits the curlew. The bird’s call has an openness, an arc, which the stretch of the horizon permits to unfurl across it.
Wordsworth and Hughes both teach us how to store experiences of the natural world for when we might need them. Writing about Hughes’s ‘Horses’ in 2008, Jeanette Winterson said that: ‘A poem is an act of memory, first forged out of the need to remember what would otherwise be forgotten’ and that ‘poetry prompts us to remember alters according to what we are most in peril of forgetting’. In the age of the Anthropocene, when aspects of the natural world, as Ewing says, are at ‘risk [of] becoming just another memory lost’, the ability of poetry to give form to memory, to couch its workings, and to enunciate place, also carries more weight. While it could be no substitute for it, through Hughes’s act of memory, the curlew’s call, entwined with horizons and the lines of the poem, endures within in them, a memory the reader can share in and inherit as the bird’s real call falls into silence.
It is interesting to read Gillian Clarke’s ‘Curlew’ (The Sundial, 1978) alongside Hughes’s poem (Yeats’s curlew poem was her own favourite). Rather than straight lines, the poem is intrigued by curves and circles, the ‘circumference’ of the seascape echoed by the shape of ‘her beak’ and the name and title of ‘curlew’ itself, the ‘c’ of which is alliterated throughout. It is an intricate, tightly bound poem, nest-like in construction, with its own ‘small circuit’ of sound. In contrast to Hughes’s inland, widening spaces revealed by the dawn, the space of Clarke’s coastal poem contracts and rounds with falling dusk:
circle within circle till there’s nothing left
but the egg pulsing in the dark against her ribs.
For each of us the possessed space contracts
to the nest’s heat, the blood’s small circuit.
The poem plays with and circles around the relationship between speaker and bird, identification with and distance from, between I, she, her, scythe and beak, song and poem, space and territory. Yet in the final lines, they are drawn together, ‘each of us’, in motherhood, as the poem contracts to its intense focus on the nest and eggs, ‘there’s nothing left’. In contrast to Hughes’s poem, Clarke’s ‘Curlew’ moves to the present tense, an immediacy, even ‘heated’ urgency.
Clarke has spoken of how her first collection of poems The Sundial was written in the ‘present tense’ of rearing children, familial matters and domestic relationships and that reviewers of the collection wrote, as Clarke recalls, ‘somewhat patronisingly of my concern for domestic issues and the natural world, and I and those who shared my concern were regarded as writing about marginal matters, away from the centre.’ Clarke’s perspective is akin to a ‘glocal’ one, whereby an intensely local sense of place can incorporate a global one, and to narrow and hunker down, coincides with an intensely placed globalisation, which issues such as climate change, demand. As Clarke herself writes: ‘you begin with the self, then explore the local, before you draw a map of the world, the universe. You explore the world in widening circles’. She also remembers ‘Many of the writers most concerned with these matters were women, made alert to the danger and worried for the future of an increasingly sick earth by motherhood’. The present tense of Clarke’s poem also looks to the future, Ewing’s ‘future generations’ in danger of never hearing a curlew.
Poetry and song echoes the curlew differently when heard with an ear to the curlew’s demise. Moreover, poetry’s unique spaces teaches us how to think about environment, across Hughes’s lines, inscribing cultural memory, to Clarke’s concentric spaces, instilling immediacy and urgency, bound up with a deep investment in family and the territory we share with the wildlife (locally and globally) we have imperilled. Lines, sounds and circuits of connectivity run and echo across nature-culture. The urgency to impel a different balance of power between them, which these connections invite, continues.
Additional sources and further reading
Anonymous, ‘The Seafarer’, in Anglo Saxon Poetry, trans. by R. K. Gordon (Dent, 1926)
Simon Armitage, Afterword, The Poetry of Birds, ed. by Armitage and Tim Dee (Penguin, 2011)
Robert Burns, The Letters of Robert Burns, ed. by J. Logie Robertson (London: W. Scott 1887)
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962)
John Clare, Natural History Prose Writings, 1793-1864, ed. by Margaret Grainger (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Gillian Clarke, At the Source: A Writer’s Year (Carcanet, 2008)
Gillian Clarke, The Sundial (Gomer Press, 1978)
Mary Colwell, Curlew Moon (William Collins, 2018)
Tim Dee, Ground Work: Writings on Places and People (Jonathan Cape, 2018)
Ted Hughes, The Hawk in the Rain (Faber & Faber, 1957)
Ted Hughes, Remains of Elmet (Faber & Faber, 1979)
Ted Hughes, ‘The Rock’, The Listener, 19 September 1963
Karen Lloyd (ed.), with a foreword by Mark Cocker, Curlew Calling: An Anthology of Poetry, Nature Writing and Images in Celebration of Curlew (Numenius Press, 2017)
Alex Preston, As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds (Corsair, 2017)
Helen Maria Williams, Poems on Various Subjects (G. and W. B. Whittaker, 1823)
William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems (T. N. Longman, 1798)
William Butler Yeats, The Wind Among the Reeds (Elkin Mathews, 1899)
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