Five Questions: Francesca Mackenney on Birdsong, Speech and Poetry

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Francesca Mackenney is currently undertaking an AHRC International Placement at the Library of Congress. Her monograph, Birdsong, Speech and Poetry: The Art of Composition in the Long Nineteenth Century, which we discuss below, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. Alongside her research on birdsong, her attention has increasingly focused on exploring the role that literature can play in environmental education. With funding from Creative Scotland, during lockdown she created an educational podcast about birdsong for young people (waysoflistening.net). When she returns from the US, she will begin her new role as a postdoctoral researcher on an AHRC-funded collaborative project, jointly hosted by Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Cardiff University: ‘The Sound of Nature: Soundscapes and Environmental Awareness, 1750-1950’.

1) How did you first become interested in birdsong, and how did you come to decide you wanted to write a book on its representations and implications?

Many moons ago, when I was still at school, I read King Lear and for some reason the king’s words to his daughter have always stayed with me: ‘Come, let’s away to prison | We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage’. I don’t know why exactly, but I must have been moved by those lines because I started noticing birds everywhere in literature and in life, and they became the focus of my doctoral research. I became fascinated by the different ways in which scientists, musicians and poets have listened to (and tried to understand) the everyday mystery that is birdsong. This little singing creature raises these larger profound and even now unanswered questions: why do birds sing? And what about our own arts of human music, speech and poetry? Where do they come from and what are they for? What are the origins of this love that we share with birds for creating patterns and shapes out of sounds and colours? The truth is there are so many things that we still just don’t know. But even thinking over these questions in the book felt like a wonderfully enriching thing to do. It opened up a whole new world to me. It made me hear birdsong differently. It changed the way I think about poetry too.

2) In your introduction, you write that your approach to birdsong ‘has been to draw attention to the deep and underlying affinities which have historically disturbed and unsettled our sense of being different’.  What for you are the most important things we gain from recognising such affinities? 

In the long nineteenth century, scientists discovered apposite similarities between how nestling birds learn to sing and how human infants learn to speak.  In the book I trace ‘the science of birdsong’ as it developed from the ‘ingenious’ experiments of Daines Barrington to the evolutionary arguments of Charles Darwin. When I first came across this material, it was all totally new to me and I found it fascinating. I started to wonder why I had never heard about any of this before and why it had never occurred to me that, of course, birds learn to sing. It was the beginning of a long journey, which led me to confront some of the blockages or blind-spots that so often prevent us from noticing such small and seemingly ‘trivial’ things.

What do we gain from recognizing the affinities between birdsong and human speech? It depends where you’re coming from. In a volume of scientific essays with a foreword by Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky and entitled Birdsong, Speech and Language; Exploring the Evolution of Mind and Brain (2013), birdsong has re-emerged as an analogy ‘particularly well placed to probe certain biolinguistic questions’ regarding the origins of human speech and language. Those questions partly inspired my book. But they are well beyond my remit and expertise. My approach is historical and literary critical. In tracing the ways in which scientists, philosophers and poets have puzzled over these questions throughout the centuries, what I try to do in my book is to pinpoint and analyse some of the longstanding cultural assumptions which have shaped (and continue to shape) how we respond to other creatures in the Anthropocene.  

3) Your first two chapters explore the science of birdsong and the science of language respectively.  In terms of your argument, what would you locate as the most significant developments in these fields during the period your book covers?

This is difficult to answer, because scientific ‘progress’ in this period is by no means linear. It had long been common knowledge that various species of songbirds could be (as they had been for centuries) trained to sing particular songs. But the fact that birds could manifestly learn to sing was not directly used to challenge, or even necessarily perceived as challenging, an established tenet of British zoology: namely, that the ‘natural’ or instinctive voices of animals bore no comparison with the ‘artificial’ or acquired language of human beings. With regard to birdsong, as with so many other areas of scientific inquiry, the long nineteenth century may be characterised by an ongoing struggle to square the known facts with the general rule, to reconcile the mounting evidence with a vestigial belief in a divinely ordained universe. In the book I explore how the many isolated facts about birdsong were collated and actively used to draw an ‘analogy’ with human speech in Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1872).

With regard to the science of language, the development is also not straightforward. In the Romantic period, figures as various as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfied Herder, Lord Monboddo and Hugh Blair were all hotly debating the origins of music, speech and language, and the ‘progress’ of poetry. By the 1860s, however, the Paris Société Linguistique had banned all papers on the subject. There are some very good reasons for this. The arguments of Rousseau and others are wildly speculative, conjectural and to this extent unscientific (as well as routinely racist, sexist and classist to boot). But there are other things at play here as well. Following the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the opponents of evolution increasingly relied upon language as the one remaining bulwark which might (in the words of Max Müller) ‘yet enable us to withstand the extreme theories of the Darwinians, and to draw a hard and fast line between man and the brute’. Increasingly philologers and evolutionary scientist met in fierce public debate, most notably in some bristling exchanges between Müller and Darwin.

In either instance, there is likely some degree of what the primatologist Frans de Waal has termed ‘anthropodenial’: ‘the a priori rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals’ which ‘denotes willful blindness to the human-like characteristics of animals or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves’ (‘Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial’, 2009).   Whereas de Waal has called for a more open-minded approach to the behavioural parallels between human beings and primates, I have in my book sought to sketch out a history of ‘willful blindness’ towards the special affinities between birdsong and human speech.

4) Your principal literary subjects are Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Wordsworth siblings, John Clare and Thomas Hardy.  How did you select this quintet as the most suitable for your purposes, and are there other poets to whom you’d be interested in extending the analysis you conduct in your monograph?

All of them are excellent field observers (as well as listeners), belonging to a literary line that Jonathan Bate first began to sketch out in Romantic Ecology (1991). They were all out there on the ground watching, listening and taking notes. They were also all avid readers, with multifarious interests in natural history, ornithology, philology and, of course, poetry. What comes across in their writings is that these are incredibly multi-faceted and independent thinkers, who were continually out there looking, listening and recording, and checking all they saw and heard against what they had read in books. They’re all quite different and some (especially Coleridge) were quite conflicted about what they were finding out about birdsong, but the intellectual curiosity and endeavour – to look, to listen, to understand – is there with all of them.

All of these writers demonstrate an awareness of the poet’s propensity to make the sounds of nature, in Coleridge’s phrase, ‘tell back the tale | Of his own sorrow’ (‘The Nightingale’, 1798). But they were writing at a time when it was not only poetical fancies that were being brought under scrutiny; they belonged to a generation of men and women who collected, compared and vigorously disputed the facts about how and why birds sing. While the followers of Descartes continued to describe animals as mere machines wholly devoid of reason or even consciousness, an alternative school of thought began to recognise in birds the kind of artistic, skillful and self-aware animal minds from which they believed human music and speech had originally evolved. In sum, I would say that these writers get the balance between a respect for difference and an acknowledgement of an active, albeit mysterious animal agency narrowly glimpsed in the ‘bright bright eyes’ of nightingales (‘their eyes both bright and full’) (Coleridge, ‘The Nightingale’). Their writings reflect a complex shift in how human beings came to perceive the art of birdsong, and how they came to perceive, measure and value their own art by the contrast.

But the truth is there are so many other writers I might have looked at, Charlotte Smith perhaps most especially. Her sonnets to the nightingale are utterly ground-breaking, I think. She does feature in the book (as do Keats, Shelley and various others), but I think, if I were to start it all over again, she would be right at the heart and centre of it. I have found myself coming back to her poems time and time again.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Birdsong continues to fascinate me, but my attention has increasingly turned to the strange sounds and antics of wetland birds in the mating season: the booming of the bittern, the drumming of the snipe or the ‘peewit’ of the lapwing. Like so many other things about wetlands, these peculiar mating rituals may be able to tell us something about the evolutionary origins of aesthetics or ‘sense of the beautiful’ (as well as how important our aesthetic tastes have proved in deciding what is valuable or worth conserving in the natural world). I am currently revising an article about John Clare’s fen poems, which developed out of my work with Jeremy Davies at the University of Leeds on his AHRC-funded project, ‘Experiments in Land and Society, 1793-1833’. I have also just begun a six-month AHRC International Placement at the Library of Congress, which has further enabled me to compare Clare’s writings about wetlands with those of the American essayist Henry David Thoreau, who discovered in even the most ‘dismal’ of American swamps ‘a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum’ (‘Walking’, 1862). When I return to the UK in the spring, I will be drawing together my interests in sound, aesthetics and environmental history as I begin my new role as postdoctoral researcher on an international, interdisciplinary project, jointly hosted by Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and Cardiff University: ‘The Sound of Nature: Soundscapes and Environmental Awareness, 1750-1950’.