Saturday, 3 January 2015

Bumbarrels in literature

John Clare (13 July 1793 – 20 May 1864) mentions them in Emmonsails Heath in Winter, he writes:

Up flies the bouncing woodcock from the brig
Where a black quagmire quakes beneath the tread
The fieldfare chatter in the whistling thorn
And for the awe round fields and closen rove
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerows in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again

‘Bumbarrels’ is a lovely and earthy colloquial name for long-tailed tits – and here Clare deftly snags with words their busy, fidgety ways – and arrests us with that audio-visual image of ‘the whistling thorn’ and its close, orchestral collaboration with the fieldfares, for whose movements ‘rove’ is the perfect description.


John Clare, the nineteenth century naturalist poet doesn’t let us down in providing a poetic tribute to Aegithalos caudatus. Inspired by his local ‘bumbarrels,’ he wrote this poem, full of closely observed detail – and a lovely, vivid sense of these busy little birds, which truly do ‘hang and hide along’:

Bumbarrel’s Nest                                                       

The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed -
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains -
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along.

                                                                       John Clare.