The Language of Birds by Gary Glass

The hermit thrush has an ethereal flutey call. It composes its serenades in a minor Dorian mode, structured around an ascending scale that concludes with a coy come-hithering, the phrase being repeated at various rather awkwardly connected pitches. Actually, like most birds, it has a variety of calls — even the “mute” swan, which sings like a crow eating a cricket. The so-called “trumpeter” swan sounds something like a hoarse goose. Many a purple poet has assayed to paint the hermit’s song in lyric:


gone beyond all going on beyond real gone

gone beyond all going on beyond real gone

gone beyond all going on beyond real gone


and so on. Results are mixed.

The scientific name for the hermit thrush is Catharus guttatus. Catharus, from Greek katharos, means “pure.” Probably this was meant to describe its simplistic song. Guttatus, from Latin, means “speckled, spotted.” Probably this was meant to describe its plumage. It is more piebald than particolored, as Father Hopkins might have sung, who sang that the song of the thrush


Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.


The family name is Turdidae, meaning “thrushy.” Another street name is the “swamp-angel.”

T.S. Eliot wrote of this hermit in the fifth and final section, “What the Thunder Said,” of his masterpiece poem The Waste Land:


If there were water

And no rock

If there were rock

And also water

And water

A spring

A pool among the rock


Wait, there’s more…


If there were the sound of water only

Not the cicada

And dry grass singing

But sound of water over a rock

Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees

Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop

But there is no water


If there were water — but not a rock. On the other hand, if there was a rock, and also water — like from a spring, producing a pool, among the rock (sic, among the rocks? upon the rock?). On the third hand, if all we had to hand was the sound of water, but no actual water (what is the sound of one hand slapping in the forest with no one to hear?), nor no actual rock, and certainly no bloody cicada, but instead some dry grass singing back up to the watersound tripping over a silent rock, and all this taking place just where our thrush sings secreted in the pine trees (how one bird may sing in multiple trees, it’s a paradox): well, the watersound tripping over the rock that isn’t there, goes drip, drop, drip, etc., very much like, we must suppose, a secret serenade falling down a Dorian scale. Except, in the final analysis, there is no water any damn way.

Someone said the poet’s job is to wrestle words back from the brink of nonsense. The thunder said “Da da da.”

“Cicada,” from the Latin, is a loan word from an extinct Mediterranean language. There’s a debt will never be repaid. In ancient Greece a cicada perched on a lyre was a symbol of music. Their onomatopoeiac word for cicada was tettix. That’s a great word. Tithonus, the consort of dawn, was a professional Trojan poemsinger who was afflicted by Zeus with eternal life without eternal youth. Eventually he metamorphed into a cicada. The golden cicada is an emblem of Apollo, the god of music and poetry and many other things. Priapic Hermes invented the lyre for him. The periodical cicada is one of the longest lived insects. Everything is connected: Apollo and Dionysus, cortex and limbic, yang and yin, ethereal and chthonic.

Nobody knows what The Waste Land is about. But Eliot said these are the best lines of the poem. For God’s sake.

The Four Quartets is better. “Quartets” is meant to refer more or less to the kind of music made by four musicians, like the Beatles (British quartet, flourished 1960 – 1970 CE). However, each of the four poems that comprise Eliot’s quartets have five, not four, parts. He might have called it The Four Quintets, but he didn’t. He plays the thrush theme in the Quartets too:


Other echoes

Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?

Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,

Round the corner.

Through the first gate,

Into our first world, shall we follow

The deception of the thrush? …


(It was a thrush betrayed the jealous dragon’s lair to ring-thief Bilbo Baggins.)


… Into our first world

There they were, dignified, invisible,…


Blah blah…


And the bird called, in response to

The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery,

And the unseen eyebeam crossed, for the roses

Had the look of flowers that are looked at.


Unheard music. Unseen eyebeams. Hidden shrubbery. The man had a thing about things that were and were not there. Music is seductive.


O my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in june;

O my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly play’d in tune…


sang the Ploughman.

The lost garden symbolizes separation from one’s second self, where, in sessions of sweet silent thought, one recollects that pregnant paradise which lay up on a big goose bed.

A fervourless Thomas Hardy in the fagg-end of a desolate winters-day was accosted by


An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,


who flang


his soul

Upon the growing gloom


In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited.


His prose is better.

John Keats had a similar problem with the nightingale.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards.


Keats died of consumption. He was a great envier of dead poets. The first


There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright

Viewing with fish of brilliant dye below;

Whose silken fins, and golden scales’ light

Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:

There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,

And oar’d himself along with majesty;

Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show

Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony,

And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.


and last


In after-time, a sage of mickle lore

Yclep’d Typographus, the Giant took,

And did refit his limbs as heretofore,

And made him read in many a learned book,

And into many a lively legend look;

Thereby in goodly themes so training him,

That all his brutishness he quite forsook,

When, meeting Artegall and Talus grim,

The one he struck stone-blind, the other’s eyes wox dim.


poems of his abbreviated career were pastiches of Spenser. (The voluptuous fairy is not identified.) (Contra Spenser the typographical Giant wins the day. The power of education.) Keats stole a sonnet from the thrush too:


O thou whose face hath felt the Winter’s wind,

Whose eye has seen the snow-clouds hung in mist,…


Yada yada…


O thou, whose only book has been the light

Of supreme darkness which thou feddest on

Night after night…


O it’s really not that good…


O fret not after knowledge—I have none,

And yet my song comes native with the warmth.

O fret not after knowledge—I have none,

And yet the Evening listens…


O light of darkness? Poets! Everything inside out.


Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.


Marx. Not Karl.

Talus, the Flail, was an Elizabethan robot who faithfully served the star-maiden of justice until she, the last of the gods to abandon humanity to its fate, gifted him to Artegall the Just and quit for Virgo. Talus famously said,


Klaatu barada nikto.


Which is thought to be the origin of the phrase,


Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani.


Which sounded to Allen Ginsberg like a saxophone’s shivering sacrificial cry.

Spenser in his bride-gift poem invoked the Turdidae:


Hark how the cheerefull birds do chaunt theyr laies

And carroll of loves praise.

The merry Larke hir mattins sings aloft,

The thrush replyes, the Mavis descant playes,

The Ouzell shrills, the Ruddock warbles soft, …


“Mavis” is another name for song thrush, which is like a hermit thrush in a different hemisphere. “Ouzel(l)” is another name for the common blackbird, which is another kind of thrush. “Ruddock” is another name for the European robin, which is still another kind of thrush. Spenser’s Epithalamion however is not primarily a taxonomy of thrushes. It’s a nuptial song.


… So goodly all agree with sweet consent,

To this dayes merriment.


Likewise Bully Bottom to comfort his courage in the fearful forest sang the catalogue of its birds, beguiling by his dulcet tones the faerie queen to bed him.


No night is now with hymne or carroll blest.


Compare to him the beastmen dissolving in the Bower of Bliss. All these poets bastardized each other’s brainchilds.

The light fantastic lark notoriously heralds dewy daybreak to languid lovers lurking late in honeyed sheets.


To hear the Lark begin his flight,

And singing startle the dull Night,

From his Watch Tower in the Skies,

Till the dappled Dawn does rise;


as Milton accused.

Long before Columbo and his merry men


Set sail upon the deep blue seas

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules,


Roman dandies, lacking chocolates, wooed their darlings with braces of thrushes fatted with figs. Eliot looked into Chapman’s Birds. He transcribed the nightingale’s viewless song as “jug jug.” Dirty Diogenes, snug as a bug.

Vladimir Nabokov disdained Eliot. Nabokov was an aristocratic Russian lepidopterist. He disdained everybody. Eliot admired Walt Whitman’s masterwork Leaves of Grass. Nabokov’s uncle translated Whitman into Russian. Whitman often called his poem his “song.” Nabokov’s great anti-hero Humbert Humbert sounds a lot like Whitman singing himself. Humbert Humbert’s name even echoes itself. Humbert liked to read Poe out loud to his Lolita. No wonder she ran ululating into the night. Lolita’s father was the Black Swallow of Death. Book I (“Inscriptions”) of Whitman’s Leaves begins with the poem “One’s-Self I Sing” (though employed for a time as a grammar school teacher on Long Island, Whitman was a notoriously eccentric punctuator):


One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person.


Separate, like a hermit. Whitman was a celebrated 19th century American narcissist. The most celebrated leaf in Whitman’s celebrated tree is entitled “Song of Myself,” which begins,


I celebrate myself, and sing myself.


Case closed.


I loaf and invite my soul.


The “dry grass singing” in The Waste Land may well refer to Whitman’s song. Eliot was an embarrassingly anglophilic New Englander. One of Whitman’s best known poems is his elegy to Abraham Lincoln (16th president of the United States of America, so called, who was assassinated by a stage actor, of all people), “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the fourth section of which has


In the swamp in secluded recesses,

A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.


Solitary the thrush,

The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,

Sings by himself a song.


And so on. (Dooryard. noun. Americanism. A yard in front of a door of a house. In other words, a yard — for what is a yard without a door upon it? A waste land, that’s what.)

Thrush is also a yeast infection that can affect the throat, characterized by white vesicular speckles. The link with C. guttatus is, supposedly, obscure. Possibly something to do with frogs. The disease can also affect the frog of a horse’s hoof, in which sense it is also known as frush.

Eliot may have had this bit of Whitman in mind when the thunder spoke. Or else or as well he may have been thinking of another place where Whitman in his Leaves dresses himself in the plumage of the thrush: Book II (i.e., 2, the second), “Starting from Paumanok”:


Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born,


Paumanok is what the aborigines called Long Island.


Well-begotten, and rais’d by a perfect mother,


How does he know he was well-begotten? Did they tell him about it later? Repulsive.


After roaming many lands, lover of populous pavements,

Dweller in Mannahatta my city, or on southern savannas,… 


Whitman spelled as mischievously as he punctuated. Manhattan comes from an aboriginal term meaning “island of many hills.” The East River separates this island from Long Island. The pavements of Manhattan are populous indeed, but a man can be lonely in a crowd. It is called “the city that never sleeps,” but pedestrian traffic definitely wanes in the wee hours.


Or a soldier camp’d or carrying my knapsack and gun, or a miner in California,

Or rude in my home in Dakota’s woods, my diet meat, my drink from the spring,…


Whitman volunteered as a sort of nurse for the Union in the American Civil War, a.k.a. the War Between the States, a.k.a. the War of Northern Aggression. He never soldiered. He never went to California or Dakota. He wasn’t especially carnivorous. Poetic license run amok.

Dakota is another aboriginal place name. It means “ally.” The Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota were three dialects of the Sioux people. Sioux means “snake” or “enemy.” You can’t make this stuff up.


Or withdrawn to muse and meditate in some deep recess,

Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,…


The rollicking rhythm here is reminiscent of another avian adventurer, the raven who, one rainy midnight, visited an insomniac poet in his garret where he in a funk sought succor in auld bokes. He was pining for some chick named Lenore. (“Nevermore,” being the entirety of the raven’s haplogical vocabulary, required a rhyme, which Macbeth misheard as “sleep no more,” having the same effect. Simple Rudge’s clever raven also was suspected of calling at the door. Orgoglio’s untoward doorman could tell no one nothing. Oh my darling never knocked twice on the pipe.) Poe was another rank egoist. “The Raven” is the most overrated poem in English letters. The inkish visitor assumes pursuivant perch upon Athena’s bust (goddess of wisdom, get it?) in the grieving lunatic’s room, who interrogates the avian to small avail.


Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,

Though its answer little meaning — little relevancy bore;

For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being

Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door,

Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,

With such name as “Nevermore.”


The fiendish raven leaves him nevermore neither. To appreciate how screamingly bad it truly is you must have the whole thing deliberately read out to you, in full voice, by a harlequin.

Ravens are of the cosmopolitan Corvid family. Corvids are “oscines,” from the Latin for “songbird.” The raven’s song is not well-regarded. Corvids are notorious however for their wicked smarts. It is said that any Corvid could pass the Turing test if it wanted to, but none of them can be bothered. Computers on the other hand are renowned for their wicked stupidity. They take the Turing test all the time, and, even though the test is egregiously rigged in their favor, it’s a washout every time. But they are surpassingly good at chess, which no Corvid can be induced to play. Hence the expression “Better a black bird than a black rook.”

Spenser was similarly concerned that ravens might disturb his bridal consummations:


Let not the shriech Oule, nor the Storke be heard:

Nor the night Raven that still deadly yels,…


Apparently owls and storks were also known at that time to be carousers. The nightingale condemned the screech owl on this account. The kindly stork, as everyone knows, is famous throughout history for its mastery of the castanets. Spenser, perhaps like Poe caught short for a rhyme, overplays his plea. The raven’s voice, while certainly unmusical, is not as dangerous as all that, unlike Poe’s poem, which is known to have murdered sleep.


Nor damned ghosts cald up with mighty spels,

Nor griesly vultures make us once affeard:

Ne let th’unpleasant Quyre of Frogs still croking

Make us to wish theyr choking…


Spenser may have exaggerated the danger to frighten his wife under the coverlets. Only a fool or a boy would choke a frog. Their mouths are so large you turn their bodies inside out. It’s not a mistake you make twice.


… Let none of these theyr drery accents sing;

Ne let the woods them answer, nor theyr eccho ring.


Spenser was an even worse speller than Whitman. 


Blackbird singing in the dead of night.


The Beatles. “Blackbird” and “thrush” probably derive from the same Proto-Indo-European root, trozdos, which is also the trunk of the etymological tree that leaved into the words “sturdy” and “ostrich.” Ostrich? The unmusical ostrich is not native to Europe, Indo-europe, or even Proto-indo-europe. Not knowing what else to call the unkindly ungainly bird, what the hell, let’s call it a “thrush.” Language is the reason nobody can understand anybody else. How do you get to “sturdy” from “blackbird”? It gets worse: another descendant of trozdos is the Vulgar Latin exturdio, which means, not “outhouse,” but “dizzy.” Now “dizzy” is the downright opposite of “sturdy.” But the Vulgars apparently thought this was a clever way to refer to someone who is intoxicated just as a thrush might be intoxicated from bingeeating grapes, presumably fermented grapes. It is not known how an inebriated bird can be told from a sober bird, but this may account for them singing in Dorian damn melodies in the middle of the night. The Bacchae nursed their babe on honey; he gave them wine.

Whitman continues:


Far from the clank of crowds intervals passing rapt and happy,

Aware of the fresh free giver the flowing Missouri, aware of mighty Niagara,…


The Missouris were an extravagant branch of the Sioux. The Sioux, like the Beach Boys, got around (quintet, American, peaked in ’66):


She goes with me to a blossom world.


The Niagara is a loud waterfall not far from Buffalo. The word comes from a Mohawk name meaning “neck.” The Mohawk were a branch of Iroquois. The Iroquois were another group of arboreal North American aborigines. The name is an English corruption of a French corruption of the Algonquin epithet (“real snakes”) for their enemy the Kanonsionni (“longhousers”). Algonquin means “we just wanna be friends.” Adirondack, meaning “tree eater” is what the Mohawks called the Algonquins, the French, the English, and porcupines.


Aware of the buffalo herds grazing the plains, the hirsute and strong-breasted bull,


Whitman is referring here to the American bison (scientific name Bison bison, echoically meaning “the stinking animal that stinks”), often miscalled “buffalo” (meaning “wild ox,” which bison aren’t. — Strangely, “ox” literally means “besprinkler.” No authority elucidates this silly-looking word as “ground pisser,” but, it seems reasonable, if you’ve ever followed an ox anywhere — Europa sailed an ox across the “brine-sprent deep” “with a horn for a steering-oar” — Horny Dionysus yoked one to a plow the better to spread his seed). American bison cows are just as shaggy as American bison bulls.


Of earth, rocks, Fifth-month flowers experienced, stars, rain, snow, my amaze,


May is the fifth month of the English calendar. April is the cruelest month. Nobody knows why “Fifth” is capitalized, nor what amazes Whitman here — presumably himself.


Having studied the mocking-bird’s tones and the flight of the mountain-hawk,

And heard at dawn the unrivall’d one, the hermit thrush from the swamp-cedars,…


Nota bene, the mocking-bird is “studied,” but it’s the hermit thrush who is appellated as “unrivalled.” This is an error. The mockingbird has more variety of invention, greater range of expression, and a nobler profile overall.


The throstle, with his note so true,


sang the assman.


Coocoo ga choo-choo!


quoth the Walrus, thinking of what they’d done to Poe. Allen Ginsberg spotted Freddy Lorca lurking amongst the watermelons in a frutería.


Would you marry me anyway?


queried the Carpenter.

Whitman’s biographers have pointed out that his singularity is pretense: half the stuff he says “I” did, he never. When it comes to narration there’s nobody like a narcissist for unreliability. Ignorance begins at home. People who live in glass houses.


Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.


Solitary, like a hermit.

Nor is Whitman finished quite with the melodious retiring thrush. To wit:


The singing thrush whose tones of joy and faith ecstatic,

Fail not to certify and cheer my soul.


It’s like the whole world happens just for him.


List, the sturdy throstle weaves

Her song amidst the woodland leaves.



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“The Language of Birds” is the opening chapter of Gary Glass’s upcoming novel.

Gary Glass

Gary Glass wrote his first novel over monsoon season in the Himalayas. He has been working for several years on his fifth novel, a mad monstrosity of a book called The Swan of Antares. He has also been an ad writer in Taiwan, a racehorse exerciser in Japan, a registered nurse in Indiana, and has a software engineering patent. He created and ran for ten years a social networking site for readers and writers called BookBalloon. He currently lives with his wife in Valencia, Spain. 

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Twitter: @glassifaction