This date is the earliest I have heard a Nightingale in Northants but I won’t be hearing one this evening in lockdown. In any case, for the last couple of years the regular haunts near my home have been bereft of Nightingales.
My favourite Nightingale wood is Glapthorn Cow Pasture (a Beds, Cambs, Northants Wildlife Trust nature reserve which is, despite the name, a wood). I have visited that wood most springs for decades now; with my parents (and Dad died 23 years ago) and with my children when they regarded standing in a wood at 9pm as a ‘staying up late’ treat. And we have listened to Nightingales sing – without fail, every year from late April through May and June – but no more.
It’s not the least bit strange that Keats was inspired by this song; here are examples from France;
…and one from the UK:
Aren’t they superb? It’s slightly fashionable to dis the Nightingale as too obvious and flashy but it is a superb songster. Its song commands attention – those Nightingales in Glapthorn Cow pasture have commanded my attention for decades. As the light fades and the Robins, Blackbirds and Song Thrushes fall silent there is a brief period of overlap with the Nightingales as they start to sing but then the air is theirs, only interrupted by an occasional hooting owl, barking deer or a plane flying over. Darkling we listened.
Those short and varied phrases are the key to what makes the Nightingale’s song such a performance. It sings; it pauses, as if to let the listener fully appreciate the perfection that has just passed; it sings; it pauses; it sings; it pauses, and this goes on for many minutes. And each short phrase is unpredictable – it might be the characteristic chug-chug-chug, or a warbling melody, or a series of whistles, you just don’t know. Does the Nightingale know? The pauses make it seem as though it is choosing its next phrase – ‘What shall I sing next? I know – this!’.
In fact, if you were to record the performance of a male Nightingale night after night I vaguely remember that you would hear exactly the same performance – the same phrases following each other in the same order each night. That may take some of the lyricism out of it all (sorry) but it turns it from a performance of virtuosity into one of studied recollection. Recollection of near perfection.
I miss the Glapthorn Nightingales. Fled is that music.