In the opening of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem about a group of pilgrims journeying to Canterbury and its cathedral, Chaucer’s narrator introduces the reader not to the pilgrims, but to the world in which they will travel. It is an April world of refreshing showers, soft west winds, and blooming flowers brought alive by spring’s quickening pulse. To this luscious world of the senses Chaucer adds sound, as his narrator notes, “And smale fowles maken melodye/That sleepen al the night with open ye/So priketh hem Nature in hir corages” (lines 9-11). Roughly translated into contemporary English, the lines read, “And small birds make melody/That sleep all night with open eyes/So pierces them Nature in their hearts.” Through these opening lines the reader is immediately immersed in an emergent landscape, hurtled into Chaucer’s particular vision of springtime England. From the birds’ and countryside’s awakening the scene then moves to the pilgrims assembled at the Tabard Inn in south London—ready to set off on their pilgrimage and tell their stories.
For the pilgrims, as for the poem’s original listeners and readers, the sounds and sight of birds would have been a reminder of a world transformed from the stark landscapes and stilled sounds of winter into a spring of green promise: a time to be busy and joyful. The sound might also have reminded them of the music that would greet them in Canterbury Cathedral when they arrived at their journey’s end: the music of choristers raising their voices, the sounds swelling up from the carved wood benches, rising up past the vast stained glass windows, and swirling around the vast stone ceiling.
The potential connection between the countryside with its birdsong and the choristers’ sweet human song echoing round the cathedral becomes a central image several centuries later in the work of Chaucer’s fellow Englishman William Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s sonnet 73 the poem’s speaker, feeling aged and broken, addresses his younger lover. Describing a very different pulse of time—the slow decay into age from the bright spring of youth—he compares himself to trees shivering in the cold, their branches barren except for a few leaves: trees that become “Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang” (line 4). The line captures the sense of a landscape devoid of the bloom of leaves and buds and the melodies of birds: a lonely, barren landscape. There is also, perhaps, a reference to the radical changes that had swept England and changed the nature of the church since Chaucer’s time. These changes included the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, which left a country full of ruined churches: their small choristers no longer raising their voices, their windows absent of bright stained glass, and their open roofs letting in both sun and rain.
For Chaucer and Shakespeare the birds and their songs are a reminder of the seasons of nature and human life, cycles of growth and death, foregrounding the importance of youth’s pulse and energy—even if for Shakespeare’s speaker it is only dimly remembered. For Chaucer’s pilgrims the birds and their song are also linked to spiritual seeking: the energy of the birds foreshadowing the pilgrims’ need to leave their homes and travel to Canterbury’s shrine. For other artists birds have been harbingers variously of peace, danger, threat, and contrition. These range from the image of the Spirit of God like a dove brooding over the universe and creating life in John Milton’s Paradise Lost to that of the albatross, the helpful spirit shot down by the sailors in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, its death a curse upon the men. On a sinister note there are the ominous dark shapes in Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds, once-gentle creatures menacing the inhabitants of a small town for no discernable reason, their very ubiquity a promise of unending woe. These images and ideas have become such a part of our cultural imagination that we accept, and often dismiss, them unthinkingly, rarely considering their import in our daily lives.
Many of my memories, including some of my first memories, are filled with birds: the tiny hummingbirds at the red plastic feeder on a warm summer afternoon; the blue-jays knocking on the windows to get us to rise to feed them; the eagles riding the breeze, seemingly casually, watching for a loose chicken from our coop; the small birds gathered to feed on crumbs on the thick stone still of my grandmother’s kitchen window on visits to her Yorkshire home. In the winter I’d watch the chickadees feed off the cranberries, their tiny dark and pale heads bent over the red berries, and in the spring there were the robins in the garden and the seagulls on the beach. Most miraculous were the snow geese, who would visit the mudflats in the spring on their long migration. The sight of the birds wheeling round and settling on the mudflats, turning them from a dull brown to a moving snowy sea of white, amazed me each year I saw it: I miss those sights now, living so far away from home.
I wonder how future artists will imagine birds, the sight, touch, sound of them, from the echoing clap of pigeons rising from the ground to the soft calls of the mockingbird. I wonder because our birds are disappearing. Recent studies by the National Audubon Society—founded by naturalist John James Audubon, who created some of the first images of American birds in his book Birds of America (1827-1838)—have found that birds are increasingly impacted by human activity, from direct alterations and loss of their habitat to the shifts in the environment wrought by climate change. The study, which examined the future of America’s birds, argued that more than half may be lost; the global impact will probably be similar, or worse.
What will it mean to no longer see a robin in the spring, its red breast shining amidst the fresh new grass, or no longer draw our eyes away from the mundane to gaze at hawks spiraling high above, riding the air in a manner of which we can only dream? Without the birds, insect populations may increase, providing new dangers to crops and health; the spreading of seeds and pollination will also suffer, and the entire ecosystem will feel their loss. And there will be no sound to greet us when we venture outside except the mechanical shrill of machines—no liquid glissandi, soft trills, or aching notes falling away into silence: how poor we will be then.