Tweet tweet jug jug: Learning to Listen in the Romantic Anthropocene

This essay reflects on the experience of teaching Romantic bird poetry through the lens of our current anthropogenic environmental crises. In particular, it considers how we can not only read but also hear Romantic poetry anew as an undulating constellation murmuring beneath the Anthropocene, particularly as birdsong is in the process of disappearing as climate change threatens mass avian extinction. It explores how we might attend to those bird sounds and silences in poetry by Smith, Coleridge, Keats, and Clare in light of this impending silence. I describe the lesson in detail, which begins with students giving an account of their lives among our wasted environments (on local and global levels) before moving into the Romantic past. I frame this backward pedagogical approach through the rhetorical figure of hysteron proteron (temporal inversion). The lesson chiefly aims to cultivate a sonic sensibility, one that makes students better listening subjects attuned to sonic changes in their environments. It accomplishes this by pairing select poems about the nightingale with a contemporary digital sound sculpture that makes bird sound audible and visible. Developing a method of “close listening,” a model of acoustic intimacy that requires becoming attentive to the layers of ubiquitous sounds, I frame listening as an act of turning us outward, one that makes us more perceptually aware citizens of the Anthropocene.

Tweet tweet jug jug: Learning to Listen in the Romantic Anthropocene

The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing
—Keats, "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

1.        “Where are we?” With this question, I begin my upper-level undergraduate Romantics course at the University of New Brunswick (Canada). Class answers start with the classroom and quickly slide through larger conceptual containers (next the university, then city, province, country), culminating in the expanses of “planet Earth” and “the twenty-first century.” At this point, I invite students to consider locating themselves geologically within the Anthropocene, an era wherein humans have become a geological force responsible for irreparably damaging the earth.

2.        The first week of the course is dedicated to establishing a foundational understanding of the Anthropocene, the current “specter” that, as J. R. McNeill suggests, “is haunting academia” (117). I assign students critical readings, including excerpts from the work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Paul Crutzen, Jeremy Davies, and J. R. McNeill, to help frame the discursive parameters and give a sense of the texture of this emergent field of scholarship. A preliminary definition of the Anthropocene comes from Crutzen’s brief article, "Geology of Mankind":

For the past three centuries, the effects of humans on the global environment have escalated. Because of these anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, global climate may depart significantly from natural behaviour for many millennia to come. It seems appropriate to assign the term “Anthropocene” to the present . . . human-dominated, geological epoch. . . . The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784. (23)

3.        I propose one way to think about our world, which is increasingly marked by anthropogenic environmental crises, is that we inhabit a “wasted environment.” I mean to evoke both senses of the term “waste.” First, our environment is saturated in waste (pollution, detritus, and rejectamenta); second, it is an environment that itself has been wasted (missed, lost, allowed to expire), in the sense of anthropogenic wasting. Wordsworth evokes this second kind of waste in his poem “The world is too much with us”: “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers” (1–2). Here, the Anthropocene is perhaps more appropriately thought of as the “Anthrobscene” (to borrow Jussi Parikka’s phrase), where waste becomes inextricably enmeshed with human legacy. A class discussion quickly generates numerous examples of wasted environments on global and local levels. I ask students to push beyond what Timothy Morton calls the “hyperobject” of climate change to instead identify regional or provincial examples, of which there are no shortage. Some examples generated by students include New Brunswick’s atmospheric and river contamination; destructive forestry practices, including the use of herbicide glyphosate spraying, a chemical used to kill hardwood growth around powerlines; [1] and the rapidly declining deer population, as well as the increase of rare physical deformities found among deer. [2] Their enthusiastic contributions to this discussion, and their articulated feelings of anger, grief, and betrayal over their wasted environments, make me hopeful that classrooms can be solvents against such waste.

4.        This pedagogical work of scaling up, bursting from the microbubble (the classroom) to the macrosphere (the Anthropocene), is only the first movement we make. The second movement is to pull the thin film of the present into contact with the Romantic past. Yet turning backward, this hysteron proteron—the rhetorical figure of temporal inversion—is not a nostalgic or corrective move. [3] For as Peter Sloterdijk puts it, “It is too late to dream ourselves back to a place under celestial domes whose interiors would permit domestic feelings of order” (28). Instead, the goal in going about things backward—the inversion of past and future—is to revitalize a present relationship, to hear Romantic poetry, ideas, and problematics as a frenetic, undulating constellation murmuring beneath the Anthropocene. [4] To proceed backward in this hysteron proteron is a strategy befitting the preposterous and the disorderly, one that complements the name that novelist Amitav Ghosh, in his recent book on climate change, gives our era: “the time of the Great Derangement” (11).

5.        In what follows, I describe one lesson that attempts to amplify the murmuring of what we might call the Romantic Anthropocene. The lesson focuses on birdsong—a ubiquitous sound that often disappears into the layers of our everyday sonic environment. Yet more than that, birdsong is also a sound that is disappearing in a different way, that is, as a result of anthropogenic environmental destruction. The “silent spring” proposed by Rachel Carson in 1962 has given way to a more profound silence where, in Keats’ words, “no birds sing,” as we face the most widespread loss of birdsong human have ever experienced as a result of climate change. Indeed, climate change is now the primary threat to mass avian extinction. [5] According to Audubon’s Bird and Climate Change Report, published in 2014, rising temperatures threaten to reduce 314 species of North American birds by over half their current ranges by 2080. [6] As one of the world’s leading evolutionary biologists, Anders Pape Møller, reports, climatic conditions affect bird vocalization; warmer temperatures and increased humidity and precipitation alter the vegetation or “song posts” from which birds typically sing. How do we respond to this? How do we hear this impending loss of sound if bird sounds are already ubiquitous, if they have already, at least in some senses, disappeared—if silence is already sprung?

6.        Part of the challenge, I tell my students, is to make these sounds audible again, to bring them back to the summer of their full-throated ease (to riff on Keats). This, I believe, is the first step toward making these sounds meaningful. Indeed, my objective in teaching these poems is twofold: first, to cultivate in students a sonic sensibility, one that makes them better listening subjects attuned to sonic changes in their environments, and second, to extend the vocalization range of Romantic bird poetry. The best-known Romantic bird poems, such as Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale" and Shelley’s "To a Sky-lark," are often read as metaphors for the work of poetry itself, with the bird inevitably becoming a figure for the poet, poetry, or other “flights” of imagination. To step away from these rich yet well-worn readings and find new lines of flight requires a “shock to thought,” to borrow a phrase by Brian Massumi.

7.        My students are slightly surprised when asked to briefly step away from the text, comfortable as they are, as upper-level undergraduate students of literature, with the business of close reading. But where does reading happen in the body? Where, beyond the brain, is the “somatic locus,” as Garrett Stewart puts it, for this silent activity of reading (238)? It is also “the organs of vocal production, from diaphragm up through throat to tongue and palate” (1). This “silent reading,” as Stewart calls it, “locates itself . . . in the conjoint cerebral activity and suppressed muscular action of a simultaneously summoned and silenced enunciation” (1). After a discussion over the complimentary nature of reading and listening—a discussion supplemented by Geoffrey Hartman’s chapter in Saving the Text, where he challenges Derrida’s conflation of logocentrism and phonocentrism, and Jean-Luc Nancy’s phenomenological reflection on the act of listening—we discuss the stakes of this pedagogical experiment in what we might call “close listening.”

8.        Close listening means to be attentive to the various layers of sound—layers made visible (as I will describe in detail below)—which, in turn, models an acoustic intimacy that we can transpose to the poems in order to attend with greater perception to those minimal sounds or other minor elements that might otherwise fade away. In a feedback loop, this process also transforms readers into better listeners—that is, better listening subjects that pay greater attention to those ubiquitous sounds, those metonyms for the unsaid or silences within discourse.

9.        Why does listening matter, not only in terms of our engagement with Romantic poetry but also with our lives within the Anthropocene? Ultimately, listening may cultivate within us a heightened sonic sensibility, a better perception or attunement with the world, which, one hopes, will translate into acting. The effect of a “sharpened sense of perception,” as sound theorist Michel Chion writes, is world changing:

The information that we receive and which is the matter with which we fashion our opinions and thoughts is richer and more diversified. Is what is at stake with a trained perception to lift the veil of illusion and to see reality behind the appearances? Not so much as that, but simply to become aware of our “perceiving body” and to restate it, more vigilant and more active, in that ocean of messages in which it is tossed. (241)
While Chion suggests that language oftentimes “scotomizes” or darkens our access to sound, I suggest that poetry which directly engages with sound—that sounds sound, as it were—invites us to hear again. But what are we listening to, and what are we listening for?

10.        This lesson brings together Romantic bird poetry—selections by Charlotte Smith, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, and John Clare—and contemporary digital sound art by Australian multimedia artist Andy Thomas. For this particular lesson I select poems that focus on the nightingale, poetry’s long-prized bird in a history that begins with the ancient Greeks and Romans (Homer, Simon, and Ovid), extends through Milton, and culminates in the Romantics. When we look at the etymology of the nightingale, students are surprised to find the same word for nightingale in ancient Greek (αηδών) already being used metaphorically for songstress, poet, and poetry. [7] This helps us think about how this association itself becomes a sustained note heard throughout generations of poetry. What, I ask them, might it mean if this becomes the only way we encounter this bird? Does avian extinction affect how we feel about the legacy of this etymology, of the work of this metaphor?

11.        In 2013, as part of the Europeana Creative project, Thomas produced a digital sound sculpture out of two bird sounds (see Figure 1). Nightingale and Canary, the video of the two audio lifeforms, was created using 3D software and sound recordings of these titular birds from the archives of the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. The brief video—less than three minutes in length—is a mesmerizing, colorful display of abstract forms that react to sound. As we listen to the first sound of the nightingale, abstract audio lifeforms flicker and flash before our eyes. Variegated textures of thick tendrils, tight folds, and loose cloudy vapors all pop and fade in rich greens, purples, browns, and pinks. Sidestepping here a technical discussion of the project’s digital production, it suffices to note that Thomas’s sound sculpture also incorporates the color of plumage and natural environments of the birds (Thomas "Visualizing the Sound"). This detail, included in the sonic design, points to those inaudible forms within the larger acoustic ecology. Nightingale and Canary features gorgeous abstract forms that twit and twitter, making visible the different layers, registers, intensities, and speeds of bird sound.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Nightingale and Canary. 
                    Copyright Andy Thomas. Reproduced with permission by the artist.

Figure 1. Screenshot from Nightingale and Canary. Copyright Andy Thomas. Reproduced with permission by the artist.

12.        We typically know it when we hear it, but what exactly is bird sound or birdsong? A quick gloss and brief anatomical lesson serves my students and I well here: birdsong consists of “brief vocalizations separated by pauses” called syllables; according to a recent scientific study, “In many cases, a bird can produce these vocalizations very rapidly, several per second. In these cases, the pauses are so brief that the song appears to be a continuous succession of sounds” (Mindlin and Laje 13). Romantic science was also interested in understanding birdsong. Surgeon and anatomist John Hunter, who dissected many songbirds at the request of Daines Barrington, determined strong larynx muscles to be linked to those birds with the loudest voice, and found the strongest in the nightingale (Barrington 262). [8]

13.        The abstract forms that we see in Nightingale and Canary illustrate the highly controlled syringeal muscles used for vocalization in birds, each vocalization appearing as an emerging visualization. Simultaneously listening and seeing this visualized sound enables us to better identify the different parts and textures of the vocalization. Paradoxically, this digital sound sculpture enables us to think about questions of legibility, of how we can “read” our animal others, and hence merges ethology with sound art and poetry. To work from an ethological perspective, as Parikka puts it in Insect Media, is to “evaluate bodies not according to their innate, morphological essences but as expressions of certain movements, sensations, and interactions with their environments” (xxv). Thomas’s dynamic audio lifeforms call our attention back to the voice, rendering us more attentive listeners.

14.        There is good reason to be called back to sound, particularly when thinking about the voice of the animal. As Tobias Menely compellingly argues in The Animal Claim, “To recover the face of the vocal imperative—its capacity to intervene or interpose, its availability to redirection or remediation—is to understand community not as a closed system of reciprocal entitlements, but as something constitutively open to those whose voices lay claim to rights not yet recognized” (1). Following the long association between the poet and the animal voice—recalling Virgil’s Orpheus who sings for the animals—Menely offers that what is unique to the eighteenth-century poets of sensibility (Pope, Thomson, Smart, and Cowper) is an amplified attentiveness to the animal, of speaking for animals. Advocacy, he reminds us, is etymologically linked to the Latin vocare, “to call” (1). While birdsong is not a voice heard in Menely’s text, we should consider what this voice and advocacy means for thinking about entangled environments and shared soundscapes with those that do not hold “companion species” status. [9]

15.        I begin by having the class listen with their eyes closed as I play Thomas’s Nightingale and Canary with the projector screen turned off. We then have a brief discussion about what we have heard. Students generally struggle to describe the bird sounds. This, I reassure them, is to be expected. For while we know what close reading involves, what are the tools of close listening? Next, I play the video of Nightingale and Canary with the screen on, and ask the class to both watch and listen. We have another lively discussion after the video finishes about what they have heard and watched, and what they find striking about the video. Some students note that the video gives the bird sounds a language, and that they could hear the sound better, able to identify in more detail because of the visualization. Of course, Thomas’s audio forms are not the first visualization of bird sound, and we next look at earlier spectrogram images—images that record sound intensity and variations over time—of these birdsongs. [10] Another brief discussion ensues as we consider the formal and affective differences between these two visualization models. Students are eager to explore and share their personal responses to the models, and overwhelmingly prefer the dynamism of Thomas’s audio lifeforms.

16.        Next, I ask students to keep in mind this experience, this feeling they have had with the bird sound becoming visible—and, as a result, heard with new ears—and ask them to bring it with them as we approach our Romantic bird poems. For here, we are also invited to experience bird sound with a similar feeling of acute fascination. Indeed, the goal is to transport the affect of this audio-visual experience with the audio lifeforms into one we have with the Romantic bird poem. This technique, another hysteron proteron, primes the class to be able to experience such affect in relation to the sound of the animal, a figure that twit-twits and chew-chews in the background of their lives.

17.        After such audio-visual priming, I then prepare the class for reading the Romantic bird poems (Smith, Coleridge, Keats, and Clare) by briefly recalling the Philomela myth and the longer traditions of associating poets with birds, and birds with the beautiful. Aristophanes, Ovid, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Milton are all key figures in this history. However, the greatest contextualizing comes by outlining how the bird participates in the discourse of Romantic aesthetics, serving as a recurrent figure for the beautiful in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)—a text we study earlier in the term. Burke’s text formatively shapes our contextualization of the poems to come. A brief rehearsal with the class of the aesthetic concept of the beautiful (as distinct from the sublime) is productive, as it helps to sharpen the stakes of the beautiful: “There is a wide difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us” (103, emphasis mine). The takeaway point of Burke’s aesthetics, I stress, is how this constellation of fragility, beauty, love, and submission remains a problematic, tangled cluster of ideas for us today living in wasted environments. Some questions that we explore include: In what ways is aesthetics tangled with an ethics of ecological care? What is the role of aesthetics, and specifically the beautiful, in shaping our responses to our various eco-disasters? And what kind of space might that leave for ugliness? Toggling back to Thomas’s Nightingale and Canary, how does Burke’s theory of the beautiful dovetail with what we might find affecting and problematic in the abstract audio lifeforms? In A Philosophical Enquiry, Burke provides a lengthy analysis of the beauty of the dove, beautiful for the serpentine line of beauty, smoothness, and pleasing variations in plumage: “it agrees very well with most of the conditions of beauty. It is smooth and downy; its parts are (to use that expression) melted into one another; you are presented with no sudden protuberance through the whole, and yet the whole is continually changing” (104). Students are quick to point out the ease with which Burke slides from the beautiful bird to the beautiful woman, celebrating both on similar grounds, which serves as an effective transition into poetry’s similar gendering of the nightingale. At this point, we discuss the intersection of eighteenth-century aesthetics, natural history, gender, and poetic representations of the nightingale as female (cf. Milton’s Il Penseroso and Thomson’s Spring). [11]

18.        Subsequently, we turn to a close reading of the poems that treat in detail not only the figure of the bird, but particularly its sound. Proceeding chronologically, we begin with selections from Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784). Sonnet III ("To a Nightingale"), gesturing to Petrarch, addresses the “poor melancholy bird” (1). This poem foregrounds the speaker’s work as a poet, as one of “translating” the bird’s voice in her work. In Sonnet VII ("On the Departure of the Nightingale"), the speaker translates something of the poetic identity back to the bird, here apostrophizing it as “Sweet poet of the woods,” and making numerous allusions to the poetry of Shakespeare and Milton. We hear nothing of what the song actually sounds like, as Smith’s sonnets immediately sublimate the sound into an abstraction, a metaphor for “the soft voice of young and timid Love” and “Hope’s dear voice” (Sonnet LV, "The Return of the Nightingale," 7, 14). In Smith’s sonnets the bird consistently functions as a figure for poetic identity. This trope continues in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry (1821) that portrays the poet as “a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds” (SPP 486), and in Keats’s November 22, 1817, "Letter to Bailey," which offers a vision of becoming-sparrow—two texts that students will also encounter in the course (when we discuss poetic identity). [12]

19.        We next turn to Coleridge, a poet enormously influenced by Smith. However, Coleridge, contra Smith, directly challenges the poetic tradition of associating the bird with melancholy in his conversational poem The Nightingale, published in Lyrical Ballads (1798): “A melancholy bird! Oh! idle thought! / In nature there is nothing melancholy” (14–15). Coleridge’s poem differs from Smith’s bird poems with its attention to the estrangement between the material reality of the bird—a reality that impresses itself through its joyful sound—and its poeticized identity. Coleridge chastises the listener who projects his own negative memories or feelings onto the bird, he who fills “all things with himself, / And made all gentle sounds tell back the tale / Of his own sorrow” (19–21). Poets, Coleridge charges, reify this association, echoing the emotional projections of some first sullen human rather than the bird’s actual sounds. Thus the central problem in this poetic economy is a hearing loss, as it were, a restricted economy of sound that operates without carefully listening to the bird itself. The solution, as the poem offers, is a model of close listening. Far better for the poet would be an attentiveness to “the influxes / Of shapes and sounds and shifting elements / Surrendering his whole spirit, of his song” (27–29).

20.        The voice of Coleridge’s nightingale “crowds, and hurries, and precipitates / With fast thick warble his delicious notes” (44–45). Shifting from the individual vocalization in the second stanza, the poem’s third stanza offers us a dense acoustic ecology of what a wild grove teeming with nightingales sounds like:

But never elsewhere in one place I knew
So many nightingales; and far and near,
In wood and thicket, over the wide grove,
They answer and provoke each other’s song,
With skirmish and capricious passalongs,
And murmurs musical and swift jug jug,
And one low piping sound more sweet than all—
Stirring the air with such a harmony,
That should you close your eyes, you might almost
Forget it was not day! (55–64)
Sampling the nightingales’ bioacoustics—the sounds birds make to communicate with one another—the poem finds avian answers and provocations without pressing for a human understanding, without speculating on what they are saying. Nevertheless, despite this not-knowing, the collective power of their voices is illuminating (night becomes day), again part of Coleridge’s efforts here to redirect the sound of the nightingale away from its entrenched melancholic association. When asked what the stakes are of this poem, and why Coleridge might want to shift these melancholic associations away from the bird, some students provocatively suggested it could be an ethical move. One student explained how attributing certain qualities, like “dangerous,” to animals can lead to their demise, such as in the case of sharks. We first decide that an animal is dangerous, and then we act as if we naturally find this animal dangerous; humans conveniently forget their own role in shaping how we see the world. So, I asked my class, is Coleridge trying to save the nightingale? In some senses, yes, they answered. Another student insightfully suggested that it was an effort to see past entrenched stereotypes, a comment on the importance of being able to see or hear something in a new light.

21.        Next, students nestle Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale" between the tradition of associating the bird with melancholy (Smith) and those inclined toward ornithological observation (Coleridge). Keats’s ode positions the nightingale’s voice as a pharmakon, as both poison and cure. The speaker, “being too happy in thine [the bird’s] happiness” (6), describes in the first stanza the feeling of a “drowsy numbness” that “pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk” (1–2). This pleasure that is also a pain comes from listening to the bird’s song that “Singest of summer in full-throated ease” (10). If the birdsong is not initially melancholic, and here Keats is like Coleridge, its song gradually comes to be framed in these terms as the poem unfolds, later described as a “high requiem” and “plaintive anthem” (60, 75). We consider this shift throughout the poem as a formal indicator of the way that human pressures, especially emotional and psychological ones, redress this sound. One student noted that it was as if Keats (like Coleridge) knew he shouldn’t associate the nightingale with melancholy, but then ultimately gives in and does. What might contribute to this melancholic indulgence, to this “giving in”? I direct students to stanza six, which ruminates on the openness of the birdsong throughout human history. Here, the speaker imagines the birdsong he hears to be the same one that “found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth” (65–66) and “The same that oft-times hath / Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” (68–70). The sound, students suggest, is a way of establishing a connection back to the beginning of time; the speaker is motivated to treat the sound this way perhaps because he is lonely. After all, they note, we don’t encounter any other sounds (of, say, human companions) in the poem. Like the illuminating power that Coleridge ascribes to the nightingale’s sound, Keats’s poem imagines this sound’s affective power, unlocking hearts and casements alike. Like the dynamic sound of the nightingale that was championed in Coleridge’s poem and richly visualized and heard in Thomas’s audio lifeforms, Keats’s poem cannot fix the sound to one melody or concept (contra Smith).

22.        The final poet we study in this lesson is John Clare, beginning with "The Nightingales Nest," a poem that immediately calls for quiet: “lets softly rove / And list the nightingale—she dwelleth here / Hush let the wood gate softly clap” (1–3). With the invitation to listen and to follow, readers travel “through matted thorns” (13) to nestle down and watch the nightingale as it sings:

Her wings would tremble in her extacy
And feathers stand on end as twere with joy
And mouth wide open to release her heart
Of its out sobbing songs—the happiest part
Of summers fame she shared (22–26)
Students admitted to being the least interested in this poem. Clare’s language was estranging to some, and unnerving to at least one student who felt the poem strangely sexualized the bird through its descriptions, pointing out key words: the singing bird as “trembling” in “ecstasy” with a wide-open mouth. Is this, I asked, a bird orgasm? Students laughed and blushed. (Things you never thought you’d say in the classroom). Inviting serious discussion on this latter point, I asked students to think about the rhetorical strategy of this representation. It makes Clare, lurking in the bush, look “super creepy” (their words), but if we apply this thinking more broadly to humanity, it becomes a critique of the act of looking. Is looking a kind of touching? Is there not a kind of voyeurism operating in this poem? And what ways does this looking become a kind of bad touching? I asked students to pause in answering that last question, as we moved past Clare’s unique attention to the physiological features of the singing bird, and turned to the poem’s next object choice: the nest itself, an object overlooked in the other studied poems. I invited students to describe the nest. They were underwhelmed by its description, almost disappointed to find that the nest appears to be haphazardly constructed with loose materials, dead leaves, and scraps of grass. The flowers surrounding the nest itself, one student noted, are prettier than the nest. Another student remarked that one doesn’t typically find an ugly or mediocre object as the focus of a poem. Another student called attention to the way that the nest itself doesn’t seem to be special, but Clare transforms it by including it in the poem, and thus makes it special. What kind of nest are you looking for? I handed out scrap paper and asked my students to draw me a nest. What became apparent is how the students envision the Ideal Nest, a round, tightly woven structure, some with perfectly shaped eggs nestled at the bottom. We circulated the drawings while talking about what it means, then, to encounter a nest that doesn’t fit with their idealizations. Suddenly, students found the poem to be asking us to attend to differences and to that which defies our expectations. Suddenly, Clare isn’t such a dirty bird.

23.        Having moved from the bird’s physiology to its nest, I next draw my students’ attention to the changes in bird sound as humans approach the nest:

now near
Her nest she sudden stops—as choking fear
That might betray her home so even now
Well leave it as we found it—safetys guard
Of pathless solitude shall keep it still (59–63)
Between the close attention to the bird’s shift in vocalization and the nest itself, Clare’s poem now offers us a glimpse into human interference, that is, the silences that are the result of the human listening subject. I stress human listening subject here because the poem also frames the bird’s environment itself (“a wilderness of listening leaves” [32]) as a listening subject. The poem explores the idea that while humans are not the only listening subjects, they are the only ones that are disruptive: the “rude boys” and the speaker himself are the only ones in the poem that make the bird mute.

24.        In the poem’s final stanza, the speaker promises the bird that “We will not plunder music of its dower / Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall” (69–70). Here, we pause over the promises humanity makes to animals and the environment. How are such promises to “leave them still unknown to wrong” (92) perhaps compromised by the speaker’s desire to see what he hears, to pursue the nightingale to her hiding places? While we might recognize the speaker’s desire for minimal interference, in what ways might we be skeptical of this possibility? In short: do we believe our speaker? This question made for a lively discussion. Some students insisted that we should not believe the speaker because he has already tracked and followed her down this far, and has already crossed a line he shouldn’t have. Others cautiously offered a more optimistic reading: that we should trust him precisely because he has come this far and then turns away, and has caused no real harm to the bird. Other students responded, in turn, by noting that the speaker has caused distress to the bird just by coming close to the nest, evident in her being described as “choking fear.” What if human looking always brings with it some kind of violence? What if looking is a kind of fetishizing or sexualizing that becomes a plundering? I leave these questions unanswered as a way to segue into our final poem.

25.        While the human-caused silence of birds is a repeated concern throughout Clare’s poetry, I conclude the lesson with one last poem, the short “Birds in Alarm,” which consists of ornithological observations of the different threat responses of birds. The poem catalogues the silence of the yellow hammer, nightingale, and pewet when their nests are found alongside the wrens’ “chitter loud” and the robins’ “hollow tut” (13, 14). The poem extends similar concerns as “The Nightingales Nest” and helps build an additional dimension into Clare’s sensibility, his interest in bird sound and the conditions of silence. This, I offer, textures Clare’s sensibility, his self-described approach in his natural history letters to “looking” with a “poetic feeling” at the environment:

I love to look on nature with a poetic feeling which magnifys the pleasure I love to see the nightingale in its hazel retreat & the cuckoo hiding in its solitudes of oaken foliage & not to examine their carcasses in glass cases yet naturalists & botanists seem to have no taste for this poetical feeling they merely make collections of dryd specimens classing them after Leanius into tribes & familys. (The Natural History Prose Writings 38)
We discuss what Clare means by looking with a poetic feeling. To look with a poetic feeling, as Clare puts it, is not to imagine nature as pristine or untouched. It is to take pleasure in animals alive and in their habitats, to put them under the magnifying power of poetry rather than look at them as classified “carcasses in glass cases.” Students suggested that it is a way of capturing the life or vitality of the animal, as opposed to the lifeless, stuffed specimen that one could encounter in a museum. What Clare is talking about, another student noted, is a different experience: of engaging with an animal alive versus dead. One of the experiential differences between the animal alive or dead is a dimension we often overlook: its sound. For Clare, sound and our attention to it by listening is key to being able to look with a poetic feeling. As Stephanie Kuduk Weiner notes, Clare celebrates “listening as a means of making sense of the world” (382). In considering the activity of listening as a way of engaging with and making sense of the world around us, my students and I come away from our reading of Clare with a heightened sense for the benefits (the magnified pleasures) of listening to the world around us. Could listening be a solution to the trouble with looking? This is a bigger question, one that kicks us out of the cozy nest that we’ve created for ourselves with these Romantic bird poems, and back out into the hot, carbon-filled atmosphere of the Anthropocene.

26.        To approach Romantic bird poetry with such a poetic feeling, as I understand Clare’s phrase to mean, demands our participation in the soundscape; this is what my overlaying of these poems by Smith, Coleridge, Keats, and Clare with Andy Thomas’s digital sound sculpture attempts. Attending to the “dust of the lark that Shelley heard” means more than searching for a “little ball of feather and bone,” to borrow the words of Thomas Hardy ("Shelley’s Skylark"). It is to think and listen for that which otherwise wastes away. For these poems call us to be attuned, to be listening, which, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, means “to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible” (6). Listening is different from hearing, as hearing “is to understand the sense . . . to understand at least the rough outline of a situation” (6). To hear something is to recognize already and thus partially understand the source or message. To listen is rather the act of being open to the unknown, to be unsure of the source or message. As part of our closing discussion and reflection on the week spent on these poems, I confess that while I hope my students have heard me and one another and that they have at least roughly understood our discussions, I would be happiest if what they took from our discussions was an enhanced commitment to listening in their lives beyond the classroom.

27.        The pedagogical payoff of learning to listen in the Anthropocene is substantial and undoubtedly exceeds the parameters of the Romantic classroom. It is a defiant gesture against the anthropocentric work of letting go in the way it actively opens up subjects to the more than human. [13] What might have happened if Orpheus had only listened to Eurydice’s footsteps instead of turning around to see her? Listening turns us outward, an act worth taking—especially when it is toward a wasted environment. [14] As I tell my students, to be listening is “a straining toward”; it opens us to the unknown, the sonorous, an act that places us “on the edge of meaning” rather than within understanding or meaning itself (Nancy 9, 7). This heightened sense of perception, in turn, makes us more aware of perceptual bodies, both our own and of nonhuman others. Listening is not only a way of “looking” with a “poetic feeling” in Clare’s sense, but is also one strategy in the cultivation of an ethics of care for all that will be wasted.

28.        To listen is to be attentive to that which is elusive and unfamiliar. Moreover, when listening is also synesthetic, as in the case of the sound sculptures used in class, these bring the additional benefit of exposing “us to stimuli that may stress and strain the ‘structures’ of sensory apprehension we have developed to organize sound, sight, and touch into meaning” (Heard 58). To break us out of the habitual ways of making sense of the world is one way to rethink our ways of being in the Anthropocene.

29.        Listening, as Salomé Voegelin notes, “produces me as a dynamic subjectivity intertwined with the dynamic things . . . The sonic self finds the collective from his solitary agency of listening through his body rather than through language” (94). As I try to stress to my students, listening is a form of acting. To actively cultivate listening students is to prepare them for greater civic and public engagement with the world, waste and all. In sharpening their perceptions by calling attention to sound, and particularly sounds that are wasting away, we create a new relation to the world by inviting them to become more self-aware of the ways they are perceptible bodies, not just reading and writing machines (which they often feel like in the thick of the semester). If students learn to become, in the words of Chion, “more vigilant and more active” (241) in the space of the classroom through lessons like this one, the hope is that they will become more creative thinkers and problem solvers, more active, perceptually aware citizens out in the community who will be committed to, in Donna Haraway’s words, “staying with the trouble,” or working with and through the waste.

Works Cited

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Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Edited by Adam Phillips, Oxford UP, 2008.

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Chion, Michel. Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise. Duke UP, 2016.

Clare, John. Major Works, edited by Eric Robinson and David Powell, Oxord UP, 2004.

———. The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare. Edited by Margaret Grainger, Clarendon,1983.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.

———. The Complete Poems. Edited by William Keach, Penguin, 2004.

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Dooren, Thom van. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction. Columbia UP, 2014.

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Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. U of Minnesota P, 2008.

———. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Hardy, Thomas. Selected Poems. Edited by Harry Thomas, Penguin, 1993.

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Keats, John. Complete Poems. Edited by Jack Stillinger. Harvard UP, 1982.

———. The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins, vol. 1, Harvard UP, 1958.

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Knopp, Jericho. "Deformed ‘dork deer’ bagged by hunters, leads to questions on increase." CBC News, 19 Dec. 2016. Accessed 7 Sept. 2017.

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Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. 7th ed., Clarendon, 1964.

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[1]The World Health Organization has classified glyphosate as a “probable carcinogenic” and California has banned its use. New Brunswick advocacy groups are calling for the end of spraying. BACK

[2]According to CBC reports, New Brunswick’s deer population has decreased 70% in the past three decades (McEachern), while deer deformities have increased (Knopp). In both cases, glyphosate spraying is a suspected factor. BACK

[3]Hysteron proteron, meaning “latter before,” implies both a temporal inversion, putting that which is latter first, and a preposterous or disordered speech. In classical rhetoric, as Richard Rand notes, it is when “two terms are reversed according to the sequence, the order, temporal, spatial, causal, in which you ordinarily find them” (51). BACK

[4]My use of hysteron proteron is closest to Coleridge’s use of the term in Biographia Literaria. For him, poetry’s pleasure is to be considered first rather than lastly as an effect, an inversion that he calls “a small Hysteron-Proteron” as “the communication of pleasure is the introductory means by which alone the poet must expect to moralize his readers” (Biographia Literaria II, 131). BACK

[5]For a sustained examination of avian extinction, see Thom van Dooren’s Flight Ways, which focuses on five different groups of endangered birds. Dooren explores important ethical questions (“What does it mean to care for a disappearing species? What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings?”) but does not consider bird sound or the ethics of listening (5). BACK

[6]See also Gary Langham et al., "Conservation Status of North American Birds in the Face of Future Climate Change." BACK

[7]Jeni Williams makes a similar point in Interpreting Nightingales: Gender, Class and Histories but does not attend to the metaphorical usage (20). See instead the detailed entry for αηδών (“nightingale”) in Liddell and Scott’s A Greek-English Lexicon BACK

[1]Thomas’s Nightingale and Canary reuses archived sounds and runs them through various computer-generated 3D imaging software. Thomas discusses his process and the software used: “I start by listening to the sound carefully, going for a walk, and concentrating on the sound, then I do some sketches, and search the Internet for inspiration, nature related inspiration, such as flowers and insects, whatever I feel suits the sound vision that I see in my imagination. Then I experiment with forms in my 3D software to try to emulate these visions. I take the waveform of the sound, run it into 3Ds Max and activate simple geometry with the audio float controller then use the geometry as either an emitter or a surface constraint. Then I use a variety of different particle effects: FumeFX, KRAKATOA, RealFlow, Phoenix FD, and I especially like the XSI ICE system. Finally, I render with Vray” (qtd. in Komen). BACK

[8]Daines Barrington (judge, antiquary, and naturalist) founded The Naturalist’s Journal in 1767, and was (along with Thomas Pennant) the real-life correspondent to Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne (1789). Barrington’s essay on birdsong first appeared in the Philosophical Transactionsand was included in the third volume of Pennant’s British Zoology (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Barrington offers a more lyrical definition of birdsong: “a succession of three or more different notes, which are continued without interruption during the same interval with a musical bar of four crotchets in an adagio movement, or whilst a pendulum swings four seconds” (252). BACK

[9]Companion species is Donna Haraway’s term to describe those animals we have domesticated and brought close to ourselves, such as dogs. BACK

[10]I also note in class that those who are especially interested in the visualization of these sounds may download apps such as SpectrumView, a real-time spectrogram. A future project might explore what reading a bird poem, such as Clare’s "The Progress of Ryhme," would look like on a spectrogram. BACK

[11]Next time I teach this, I will discuss at greater length the growing counterpressure of natural history at this juncture, as eighteenth-century ornithological knowledge, contra a certain poetic tradition, comes to identify the male nightingale as the one who sings. See, for example, Daines Barrington’s "Experiments and Observations on the Singing of Birds" (1773) and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon’s The Natural History of Birds (1770–83). For an overview of this see Bethan Roberts’s "The Nightingale in the Poetry and Science of the Long Eighteenth Century." BACK

[12]Keats writes in his letter to Bailey, 22 November 1817, “if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel” (Letters 1:186). However, Keats’ avian poetics is attuned to the bird’s movements rather than its sound. BACK

[13]I am gesturing here to Roy Scranton’s work in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, which makes the case for the importance of letting go: “learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death” (92). BACK

[14]Listening is also one of the “arts of noticing” that Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing identifies as a tool for survival in the Anthropocene. See chapter 1 in The Mushroom at the End of the World. BACK


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