Monday, 31 July 2017

Blokes and birds - look at them, phwoar, I mean, soar

Sorry to disappoint. This blog is literally about birds and more importantly their symbolism in texts. Like most teachers, I like to pull a thread and see where it leads me to. Recently, I have been teaching ‘Romeo and Juliet’ again and I got to the following section: 

1   Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
2   It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
3   That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
4   Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
5   Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

6   It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
7   No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
8   Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
9   Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
10   Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
11   I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

The thread I wanted to explore was the choice of nightingale and lark here. So, I pulled and pulled the thread to see where it took me. In the classroom, the students found a YouTube video showing a lark and a nightingale singing. Surprisingly, they lasted hours and the students were amazed with how many views the videos had received so far. We decided on the following points. 

Point 1: The nightingale’s song is more pleasing to the ear than the lark’s song.
Point 2: The nightingale is physically more attractive than the lark.

Of course, we related this to the way that Romeo and Juliet are presented in the play. Juliet is the ‘sun’ and beautiful and teaches the ‘torches to burn bright’. Romeo is presented as course. A pilgrim to a Juliet’s saint.

Then, I did a little bit of digging about the two birds, following that thread. I found out the following points about larks. 

Point 3: Larks announce the start of the day. 
Point 4: Larks only sing when they fly, unlike most birds.

Point 5: Larks are good mimics.

Point three is an obvious point as we have two birds symbolising different parts of the day. Nightingale represents the night and the lark represents the day. But, more interesting, is the fact that the lark was often associated with the arrival of day. So, the lark isn’t necessarily about the day, but the morning. This is ironic given the short life of Romeo – he doesn’t live a full metaphorical life / day. However, if the quote is emphasising the morning elements and Romeo’s fear of being discovered, then why didn’t William Shakespeare use a cockerel? After all, isn’t a cockerel a better symbol to show morning?

My theory is that a cockerel is too masculine and probably a better symbol to represent Paris. A lark is less masculine and less likely to cause conflict than a cockerel, as the play explores the relationship between love and hate. Romeo shows the human capacity to love and hate, but also the possibility of having more love than hate in a person.

Point 4 for me was interesting. Larks only sing when they fly. Of course, singing and flying can be associated with happiness and love. More interesting for me was the fact that a lark only sings when it flies. This does reflect the play. The language Romeo uses when he is in love reflects this subtle change. We can cite the use of sonnet form when they first meet to support this.

There is a strong mercurial theme in the play so Point 5 was pertinent. Of course, we have Mercutio, but the lark is like mercury as it can change and isn’t constant. Yet, I hadn’t always thought of Romeo as being very mercurial. But, he is. Like the lark, he changes his song depending on the context. Look how quickly he ends up mimicking the way Tybalt speaks in their conflict.

Point 6: Nightingales sing during the night and day.
Point 7: Nocturnal songs are primarily used to attract a mate.

Point 6, in a way, contradicts what we naturally think the quote is about. Nightingales don’t only sing during the night. So, the division between night and day isn’t so clear.  But, what is clear, is that Juliet is clearly linked to the nocturnal song to attract a mate. That’s what she is doing here, attracting him to stay. The lark announces it is time to start something new, whereas the nightingale is enticing him to stay attached to her.

Point 8: Larks have been used to symbolise Christ in literature and art
Now, this is quite an interesting aspect, because we can link it to so many aspects linked to Christianity.

·         Jesus in the desert fasting for forty days and forty nights – Romeo is going to leave to fast in the wilderness
·         Satan attempting to temp Jesus in the desert – Juliet is tempting Romeo to leave the desert
·         Redemption and resurrection – Romeo is to metaphorically die to return (reborn) to Verona

Point 9: Nightingales are seen as a symbol of the link between life and death. 
Point 10: Nightingales are seen as a symbol of freedom from the world’s troubles. 

Aside from the obvious link to femininity through the association with the night and the moon, it seems to associate Juliet with death and our ‘death marked love’ and temptation. Is the use of a nightingale foreshadowing Romeo’s death? Or, is it something more subtle? Maybe, it is a reference to his symbolic death or banishment. The symbol of freedom is reflected her in her tempting him to stay. For Romeo to move, he’d have to face the world’s troubles, yet staying in the bedroom is freedom from worry, fear and unhappiness. The nightingale’s call is that beautiful it makes someone forget the reality of things.

At the moment, I have yet to explore the eating habits of the two birds, but I am sure I will get to some complex symbolism linked to their eating habits at some point. In the meantime, here’s a table that I have cobbled together from different sources to use with students. It isn’t finished and there’s more to add, but it is a start.

Interesting points
Smaller than crows and ravens
Darkness of sin
Temptation of sin (song)
Christianity: Saint Benedict was distracted in an attempt to tempt him by the Devil in the form of a blackbird
Capon is a castrated cockerel 
Early morning
Being alert
Ready to fight
Souls awakening and response to God’s grace – Christianity
Bible: Jesus foretold Peter’s denial, at the Last Supper, of Christ three times before the cockerel crowed
Considered to be one of the most intelligent animals
Adultery / wicked thoughts
Devil’s henchmen

Greek myth: princess Arne was bribed with gold by King Minos of Crete and was punished for her avarice by being transformed into an equally avaricious jackdaw, which still seeks shiny things
Dove and pigeon similar – dove tends to be a smaller species and pigeon a larger species
Make fairly flimsy nests out of twigs
A soul
Soul of the departed
Holy Spirit / God’s word – Christianity 
Self-indulgent / slothful – pigeon

Bible: Noah sent out a dove to find land after the floods. Doves were used in sacrifice if a family were poor and couldn’t afford to sacrifice cattle or livestock. Dove represented the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity Apostles were often portrayed as doves in art.
Rarely seen in the sky
Live in mountains or high trees
Extremely protective of their young
Faith and consistency
Link between Heaven and Earth
Salvation / Resurrection – Christianity

Roman myth:  eagle carried the souls of emperors to the Goods.
Greek myth: eagle supplied the thunderbolts for Zeus
Strong, powerful eyesight
Link between Heaven and Earth
Unconverted, materialistic soul – Christianity 
Wild falcon – evil thoughts
Domesticated falcon – conversion to Christianity

Monogamous – living as a permeant pair  throughout the year
A selfless soul

Christianity: symbol of Saint Cerbonius
Sharp vision
Thought to be able to stare into the sun
Sun – close to the sun

Sing while they fly- unlike most birds
Very good mimics of other birds
Christ in Renaissance period

Sings at night  and during the day
Known for their powerful songs
Only unpaired males sing regularly at night
Nocturnal songs are to attract a mate
Night (therefore moon and femininity)
Connection between love and death
Freedom from the world’s troubles
Greek myth: Philomel (Philomela) transformed into a nightingale to protect her from death
Night (therefore moon and femininity)
Wisdom of the soul
Foreshadows death (European legend)

Greek myth: symbol of Athena and an owl sat on Athena’s blind side, so she could see the whole truth. An owl guarded the Acropolis 

Greek myth: partridge does  not build a nest in trees or high places as a result of Daedalus threw his nephew, Perdix, off a hill 
Believed that the flesh of a peacock couldn’t rot
White peacock- narcissism, vanity, pride 

Believed that the pelican would injure itself to feed its dying young
Christ and the resurrection

Very little difference with crow, apart from size

Ignorance – colour of the feathers / lack of sweet song
Christianity: ravens have been presented favourably and have helped feed numerous saints in a time of need. Raven was one of three birds sent from the ark to search for life; it failed to return.

Judaism: Legend that its once white plumage turned black because it failed to return to the ark  

Not fearful of humans and males tend to be very territorial
New beginning
Caged robin – removal from God’s grace
Christianity: Legend tells how the robin protected the young Christ and received the red breast from the sparks of fire from the attack 

Lowest / weakest in society
A caged sparrow – impending death

Prefer drying habitats unlike herons
Coming of spring 


Resurrection - hides itself in mud in the winter and appears in the spring
Christianity: Swallow was one of three birds sent from the ark to search for life; it failed to find dry land and returned to the ark.

Believed that swans released a beautiful song when they died
Rebirth / transformation  – Ugly Duckling

Greek myth: Aphrodite viewed the swan as sacred because of its beauty and Apollo viewed it as sacred because of its song
Christianity: a swan befriended Saint Hugh of Lincoln and kept watch on him as he slept 

Devil – undermines the health of trees

Note: For Christianity, birds were often associated with the soul ascending to God and moving beyond the material world

Further reading and sources:

Thanks for reading,

P.S. Sorry, there are no pictures of birds. And, no ducks.

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