While reading through the poems and prose of John Clare recently in order to compile a quiz for literary ornithologists, I found references to mystery birds, an unexpected treat in this poet who sees and finds a name for everything. ‘I frit them up from Swordy well a pond so called by the roman bank which is never dry and often haunted by water birds’, Clare writes, and he describes them as fully as he can, an unwasted experience, and maybe in hope that someone else will identify or know them, ‘four odd looking Birds like large swallows of a slate colour on their wings and back and their bellys white they had forked tails and long wings and flew exactly in the manner of the swallow but instead of skimming along the ground they rose to a great height’.
This set me looking for a poem by Edward Thomas called ‘The Unknown Bird’ in which the song of the unknown bird draws the poet, and is both alert and soothing in his memory. The Clare bird quiz is coming. Start brushing up now on your bumbarrels, throstles and butter bumps if you want to get ahead. But here is Edward Thomas’s poem for the quiet pleasure and goodness of it. The poem is a sharing of solitude, and its pausing, air-filled syntax almost compels you to hear it in a hush:
The Unknown Bird by Edward Thomas
Three lovely notes he whistled, too soft to be heard
If others sang; but others never sang
In the great beech-wood all that May and June.
No one saw him: I alone could hear him
Though many listened. Was it but four years
Ago? or five? He never came again.
Oftenest when I heard him I was alone,
Nor could I ever make another hear.
La-la-la! he called, seeming far-off —
As if a cock crowed past the edge of the world,
As if the bird or I were in a dream.
Yet that he travelled through the trees and sometimes
Neared me, was plain, though somehow distant still
He sounded. All the proof is — I told men
What I had heard.
I never knew a voice,
Man, beast, or bird, better than this. I told
The naturalists; but neither had they heard
Anything like the notes that did so haunt me,
I had them clear by heart and have them still.
Four years, or five, have made no difference. Then
As now that La-la-la! was bodiless sweet:
Sad more than joyful it was, if I must say
That it was one or other, but if sad
‘Twas sad only with joy too, too far off
For me to taste it. But I cannot tell
If truly never anything but fair
The days were when he sang, as now they seem.
This surely I know, that I who listened then,
Happy sometimes, sometimes suffering
A heavy body and a heavy heart,
Now straightway, if I think of it, become
Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore.
The transformation of isolation and gloom: ‘others never sang / In the great beech wood all that May and June’ into a moment of rare encounter: ‘Three lovely notes… too soft to be heard / if others sang’ is an instant deepening of attention. There are many beautiful lines in the poem. I love the doggedness of ‘All the proof is — I told men / What I had heard’. Self as evidence. Being moved as proof. I love the line endings and almost forgetful syntax which nevertheless keeps sense intact. But more than anything it’s the internal work in the poet’s memory through those last three sentences, through all the delays and distances, that filters sadness until it turns up with a kick of joy, ‘straightaway… Light as that bird wandering beyond my shore’. Gorgeous and I don’t know that there isn’t a deal of truth in the very mechanism of the poem. For all the softness of his approach, Thomas has a way of getting in behind your defences and staying like a living presence in your own memory.
Do you have a favourite line or moment from this poem? Or a favourite Edward Thomas poem you would like to share?