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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 May 2020

Malcolm Guite is more keenly aware of the sound of birdsong

LIKE many in these strange days, I have become more keenly and gratefully aware of the scatterings of bright birdsong which suddenly burst and ripple into the unusual quiet of our gardens, our woodland walks, and our little lanes.

Just as the air seems clearer and the sky itself a deeper blue, so the very sound of the birds themselves seems closer, more focused, more varied and beautiful. Perhaps it is the real quiet, the deeper silence that has arisen because that usual rush and smudge of distant road traffic is gone and the skies themselves no longer hold the drone of passing aircraft.

But perhaps it is also because we are listening more deeply. In the intensity of this time, our senses, too, become more intense, and everything is more keenly felt. Whatever the reason, Maggie and I are so much more aware of the birds that visit our garden: the darting of tiny wrens, the vivid patch of red and the mellifluous and liquid song of a robin, a blackbird with its bright eyes and yellow beak, and, that most soothing of sounds, the distant and unperturbed cooing of wood pigeons.

And, when I climb Rivey Hill, on my statutory hour’s exercise, I am astonished at the glorious outpouring of song from the skylarks, so high and distant in the dazzling blue that only their song gives them away. I stand gazing up, and Shelley’s perfect words echo across two centuries as I greet them aloud:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Our sorrows still run deep, and for a long time there will be a note of elegy in all our own songs; but still we can’t help feeling that the birds, in their musical delight, are on to something. Listening to them in the depth of this crisis, I feel rather like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, whose loneliness and isolation we have all tasted now. But, even when he has been living a “nightmare life-in-death” alone on that wide, wide sea, there comes a moment when he hears the hidden angels that accompany him sing their matins, and it brings the memory of birdsong at dawn:

Sometimes a-dropping from the sky
I heard the sky-lark sing;
Sometimes all little birds that are,
How they seemed to fill the sea and air
With their sweet jargoning!

And now ’twas like all instruments,
Now like a lonely flute;
And now it is an angel’s song,
That makes the heavens be mute.

So, I will take comfort in the birdsong that seems to wheel and flutter, like the birds themselves, as I pace about our little garden, and when the thrush breaks suddenly into his “full-hearted evensong of joy illimited”, I will dare to think, as even that great pessimist Thomas Hardy dared, when he heard his “Darkling Thrush”, that there is in the bird’s song “Some blessed hope, whereof he knew, And I was unaware”.

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