There are three things that even a part-time birdwatcher, such as I am (you got a problem with that?), could tell you about the skylark: that it nests in the ground; that it will sometimes fly straight upwards to a tremendous height; and that up there in the air it can sustain the most amazing continuous mellifluous warble for minutes at a time. I’ve seen them two places on my travels: the rough grassy fields around Seaham, as mentioned in my last post, and some rough grassland near the Caerlaverock nature reserve, looking out to the Solway Firth. Both places are near the sea – is that a preference of the skylark? You’d have to ask a proper birdwatcher. Come to think of it though, since this post’s poem is by a poet from landlocked Northamptonshire, that just can’t be the case.
John Clare was a proper birdwatcher. Reading his nature poems combines the pleasures of poetry and encylopaedia – they really are as informative about their subject as, say, an entry in Collins’ Bird Guides. Obviously, Clare was a constant observer of the creatures of the countryside, with whom he felt at home. Sometimes, if I have seen a particular bird, I will check my copy of Clare to see if he has a poem about it, which he very often has, though he’ll often have another name for it – a chaffinch is a pettichap, a long-tailed tit a bumbarrel.
On a walk around Derwent Reservoir a few weeks ago, just before the cold snap, my wife and I spotted a flock of wintering fieldfares, handsome oversized thrushes who’ll land in a tree until you come near, at which they’ll fly to another a short distance away – they’ll repeat the process until you leave them alone, or they run out of trees. Alas, Clare did not, as far as I know, write about fieldfares, nor about golden plovers, which we saw flying over the reservoir for the moors. Perhaps if he had had a less troubled life, he could have done in poetry what Thomas Bewick did in engraving, and written a poem on every bird of Great Britain.
But come to think of it, he wrote some pretty good poems about his troubles too. And his nature poetry isn’t entirely free of trouble. Well, anyway, here’s his take on the skylark;
The rolls and harrows lie at rest beside
The battered road; and spreading far and wide
Above the russet clods, the corn is seen
Sprouting its spiry points of tender green,
Where squats the hare, to terrors wide awake,
Like some brown clod the harrows failed to break.
Opening their golden caskets to the sun,
The buttercups make schoolboys eager run,
To see who shall be first to pluck the prize—
Up from their hurry, see, the skylark flies,
And o’er her half-formed nest, with happy wings
Winnows the air, till in the cloud she sings,
Then hangs a dust-spot in the sunny skies,
And drops, and drops, till in her nest she lies,
Which they unheeded passed—not dreaming then
That birds which flew so high would drop agen
To nests upon the ground, which anything
May come at to destroy. Had they the wing
Like such a bird, themselves would be too proud,
And build on nothing but a passing cloud!
As free from danger as the heavens are free
From pain and toil, there would they build and be,
And sail about the world to scenes unheard
Of and unseen—Oh, were they but a bird!
So think they, while they listen to its song,
And smile and fancy and so pass along;
While its low nest, moist with the dews of morn,
Lies safely, with the leveret, in the corn.