By Vivien Massery, Apr 23 2016 02:59PM
I love John Clare’s poetry, he writes so clearly, so truthfully. I can ‘see’ every single detail of the hedgerow he passes daily, or the hares that he watches play on "the roly poly up and down of pleasant swordy well”. His connection to the seasons and how they affect the land around him is evocatively described; above all his love for the countryside that he inhabits is tangible.
In January when I first started to plan my spring and summer embroideries I turned immediately to John Clare and read and re-read The Woodlark. I kept returning to the lines “as safe as secrecy her six eggs lie, mottled with dusky spots unseen by passers-by”, I could picture the nest hidden away amongst the grass and ferns with Mrs W sitting low on her six eggs whilst farm labourers, cattle and probably even the odd fox went by, oblivious to the little bird and her brood hiding just out of sight.
Having decided on my subject and text I then had to find out just what a woodlark’s nest looked like and for that matter a woodlark. We’ve many birds in Malvern, plenty of green woodpeckers fly on the hills making their ‘yaffle’ call and there are at least three pairs of buzzards who spend a lot of time circling lazily in the skies above, but I've never seen a woodlark.
So I turned to Birds Britannica, a wonderful book edited by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey. This book suggesed that in John Clare's poem the woodlark was an alternative name for the tree pipit. I felt disappointed, pipit doesn't sound nearly as romantic as woodlark. Then I read on and learned that in the eighteenth century the pipit family were referred to as 'titlarks', which literally meant 'small larks' and thanks to John Clare's precise description of his 'woodlark's ' behaviour it seems that he was referring to the tree pipit. Both birds have mottled dusky eggs, both are songsters but the description that John Clare gives of the bird's rising flight whilst singing and then her dropping to earth are apparently more evocative of the tree pipit; I find it amazing that two hundred years after the poem was written the species of bird can be so confidently discussed because it has been so accurately observed in the writing.
For good measure I thought I would see what my great grandfather’s collection of books, The Outdoor World had to say on the matter. Published in 1895, leather bound with marbled end papers and complete with beautiful line drawings and colour plates, the book of British Birds would doubtless have more information on the subject. It did. Under woodlark was the following statement: "In appearance the woodlark is a lesser skylark...It ranks with the six or eight finest British songsters but is the least known of all. The tree-pipit, sometimes called woodlark, is a much better known songster".
So, a tree pipit or a woodlark? It's a moot point. She can continue to lay her mottled eggs safe in the secrecy of her nest and I can embroider my nest safe in the knowledge that somewhere in Britain a woodlark will still be flying under whatever name she or John Clare chooses.
The woodlark rises from the coppice tree;
Time after time, untired, she upwards springs;
Silent while up, then coming down she sings
A pleasant song of varied melody,
Repeated often till some sudden check
The sweet-toned impulse of her rapture stops,
Then stays her trembling wings and down she drops
Like to a stone amid the crowning kecks
Where underneath some hazel's mossy root
Is hid her little low and humble nest
Upon the ground; larks love such places best,
And here doth well her quiet station suit;
As safe as secrecy her six eggs lie,
Mottled with dusky spots, unseen by passers-by.