Caught by the River


Will Burns | 7th December 2021

Published by Reaktion Books, Bethan Roberts’ ‘Nightingale’ charts our fascination through history with this nondescript yet melodious little brown bird. Will Burns reviews.

I suppose it is only right to declare from the outset that it would be extremely hard for any book built, like this one, out of sharp, original thoughts on poetry and a cultural, historical and biological history of birds to fail to be of some kind of interest to this particular reader. That said, Bethan Roberts’ excellent study of nightingales, or perhaps more accurately – ‘the nightingale’, in Reaktion Books’ equally good Animal Series is far more bountiful and enjoyable than just ‘any’ book might reasonably expect to be. It’s unabashedly academic in style, with an introduction and five subsequent chapters establishing Roberts’ ground and then moving with a perfect, deftly-handled combination of scholarly rigour and notable phrase-making through its argument. And it is an argument which both attends to the dichotomy at the heart of our conception of this much-loved bird, namely that it exists as all things simultaneously — poetic cipher, musical exemplar, mythical archetype, discreet biological category and finally, and perhaps most importantly, as material extant individual — and generates its own layer of complexities to further enrich the bird’s aspect in the mind of the reader.

Roberts expertly handles the apparent oppositional ideas of a kind of rational, scientific ‘knowledge’ of the natural world and a more subjective, post-Romantic ‘poetic’ conception. A generous overview of artistic and scientific reckonings with the nightingale take us from the classical period — though as Roberts smartly observes later in the book its ‘cultural baggage’ might well pre-date even this, beginning ‘with the name’, as it does — through Milton to the High Romantics, to Keats and Clare and on into the birds’ figuring in classical and pop music, before a final chapter dealing with the real-world decline of the bird in much of the parts of the country in which it once held fast. The dialectic relationship between these categories constantly blurs across disciplines too, beginning with the referencing of the work of Aristotle and Plato, for instance, before Roberts establishes the subjectivity which actually underpins much of our taxonomic understanding of the natural world, despite its early arguments to the contrary. Likewise John Clare’s ‘poetic’ sensibility, like Coleridge’s before him in ambition if not in achievement, is one of scepticism towards what he sees as whimsy and sentiment in the artistic representation that has pre-figured his own. There’s a wonderful sentence early on which resonated throughout the book — ‘nightingales are fond of the vicinity of an echo’ — and throughout there is a sense of reverberation, of ideas and the names they belong to chiming through the pages, reflecting one another, and always returning, slightly changed, to the reader; ‘the bird is always poised somewhere between the ‘real’ bird, in its natural habitat, and literary symbol, the balance between the two ever shifting.’ How alike this all seems to the prose on offer here, the ‘changeful song’ of Roberts’ own making. 

Roberts is unafraid to take up arms against her own obvious love of the poems she parses throughout, at one point declaring, ‘invocations of the bird as muse or poet still often serve to distract from it.’ Clare, as ever, provides suitable synthesis, with his desire to ‘look on nature with a specific ‘poetic feeling’, to be distinguished from ‘fancy’, and aspire to an accuracy and field-based authenticity that is removed from the cold, dry treatment of the scientist.’ This passage perhaps best surmises the readers’ final experience of the book — a certain kind of ‘knowledge’ of the bird that feels deepened or enriched by the artistic bulk of the bird’s multitudinous poems and images, while retaining a kind of cold eye that feels undoubtedly rooted in the field. Roberts sums this up with another well-turned phrase — ‘present-tense listening’ — used to describe the opening lines of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Twilight Calm’, and its echoes (that word again…) of Keats. Here the sense is of the ‘selfsame’ song being sung over and over, and much like the bubbling of phrases that mark the nightingale’s song out, so Roberts’ scholarship plays itself out across her pages with an effervescent, echo-y energy, creating in the reader’s mind’s eye that present-tense, fulsome impression of the bird, both literary and ‘real’, heard, or sensed, from behind the page and the hedge at once.

The final chapter is, perhaps inevitably, the most obviously ‘cold’ or ‘dry’, to use Roberts’ Clarian terms, leaning more on recent environmental movements and biological study of the bird’s fluctuating populations to deal with the all too ‘real’ decline of nightingales as a breeding bird in its historical strongholds, though the argument is still propelled with that base note (I know, I know…) of Romantic-poetic study. Writing of how the caged bird trade of the 19th century had already impacted on local populations long before the post-War decline with which we still wrestle, and which here Aldous Huxley seems to aptly anticipate, Roberts references James Harding’s Birds of Middlesex of 1866 in which he describes 180 nightingales being caught in one season alone. From the same year Richard Jeffries wrote about ‘whole groves’ being silenced, his use of the word ‘mortality’ bringing Keats once more to Roberts’ mind, bringing ‘home what is being lost’. Roberts quotes the academic Duncan Wu on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Woodsman and the Nightingale’ as being an ‘acknowledgement of the relationship between mankind and the natural world’, and this is the real power of Roberts’ book — to carry that ultimate Romantic sensibility across through the strength of its poetic readings as well as its tangible field-study, or perhaps better, field-love. The final sentences are given over to a last blending of ‘the poem’ and ‘green space’, to Shelley’s dual assertions that the ‘poet is a nightingale’ and the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, Roberts arguing, compellingly too, that this legislation is essential to, and at the heart of, the complex dialectic of human and non-human that defines the Anthropocene, as well as its books, of poetry or, as here, otherwise.


‘Nightingale’ is out now and available here (£12.95).