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19.06.12 Warren, Birds in Medieval English Poetry

19.06.12 Warren, Birds in Medieval English Poetry

Birds are frequent participants in medieval English literature, and a long history of scholarship tracks their appearance as allegories and metaphors representative of human relations, the Christian soul, and the songful poet. It is only over the past decade, however, that literary birds have been considered materially and ecologically, as creatures that live the natural world. Michael Warren's Birds in Medieval English Poetry: Metaphors, Realities, Transformations joins a handful of book-length studies on this topic. In examining well-known Old and Middle English poems that feature birds, Warren gives special consideration to "wild, native British species that were recognizable and nameable in real-world engagements," rather than domesticated or mythologized species that have been studied more frequently by scholars.

As a means of keeping the reader mindful of real species of birds, each chapter of Birds in Medieval English Poetry is introduced by a full-page photograph of the bird that is featured in the subsequent chapter discussion.

An introduction and epilogue frame Warren's monograph, between which are five chapters: 1) Native Foreigners: Migrating Seabirds and the Pelagic Soul in The Seafarer; 2) Avian Pedagogies: Wondering with Birds in the Exeter Book Riddles; 3) A Bird's Worth: Mis-Representing Owls in The Owl and the Nightingale; 4) 'Kek Kek': Translating Birds in The Parliament of Fowls; and 5) Birds' Form: Enabling Desire and Identities in Confessio Amantis. A Glossary of "Old and Middle English Bird Names" concludes the book, presenting, in alphabetical order, a handlist of British bird names, their Middle and Old English spelling, etymology, medieval attestations, and the page number on which each appears in Warren's book.

Warren's introduction acknowledges the allegorical and metaphorical roles that medieval birds are frequently given in poetry, and he recognizes the representationalist framework into which birds are positioned in these texts. However, Birds in Medieval English Poetry explains that even within the most traditional narratives, birds are physiologically, phonologically, and behaviorally in-between creatures. Like, but unlike, human bodies, human speech acts, and human actions, birds show us how "natural and cultural histories overlap, reciprocate, and interweave" (5).

"Native Foreigners" considers the birds of the Seafarer that inhabit the marine and coastal environments of Britain. Warren considers archaeological, onomastic, cultural, and linguistic evidence that reveals the depth and breadth of the attentiveness early medieval writers paid to the birds that lived near them. These examples stress the sonic recognition of seabird calls, and Warren's initial discussion of the poem turns briefly to the importance of onomatopoeic names in Germanic languages, which include the huilpe and moew of the Seafarer, and to the sounds of these and other birds in the poem. By introducing the Seafarer with a robust account of early medieval ecological sensitivity to birds, Warren limits the reach of traditional interpretations of the Seafarer, which have cast this poem within the frameworks of Christian metaphor and allegory. While such ecological awareness emphasizes the materiality of birds, Warren explores how the poem's sensitivity towards living seabirds correlate with the mysterious anfloga, a bird-soul figure that takes to the heavenly skies as an "enigmatic...hybrid" that is both material and metaphorical. Warren's first chapter illustrates the in-between nature of birds, which "co-exist" (44) between "factual and figurative birds," "remind[ing] us that a heaven-bound spiritual transformation begins with a necessary, physically experienced journey here on earth towards unknown horizons" (63).

"Avian Pedagogies" discusses early medieval riddles, arguing that birds are frequent subjects in them precisely because, like the riddles, birds are both "nameable and anonymous" (66)--"as subjects of wonder, they naturally perform a bewildering range of perpetual sleights and shifts that transgress species and territory boundaries, making their diversity excellent riddle material" (66). Wonder is an important feature of the riddles, and Warren explains that puzzling out the name of a bird described in these poems is not merely a game of understanding avian taxonomy but also a pedagogic exercise. Using Exeter Book Riddle 24(Jay) as its primary example, Warren considers the ways in which its imitative voicing of multiple species, all staged by the human voice of the riddler, "establis[h] and dissolv[e] boundaries" (79). Such an in-betweenness that questions the gamer's ability to name the identity of the bird in Riddle 24points towards the pedagogical function of riddles as poems that draw upon Isidorian principles of etymology, which purports that words outline the substance of whatever "thing" they reference. Riddling, then, is an act of engaging the world via language, and Warren argues that birds, and especially the jay on account of its capacity for mimicry, pose challenges to human ability to know, name, and define the wonders of this animal class. From here, Warren turns to bird glosses, which show similar preoccupations with naming and describing a host of non-native species; and he then discusses the role that birds play in writing technologies, as illustrated by Exeter Book Riddle 51(Feather and Fingers). That it is by means of a quill that speech is written down gives further dimension to the role that birds play in "misdirect[ed]," human attempts at knowing and naming, and Warren summarizes by explaining that in all of these examples of speech and writing, birds "inscrib[e] and eras[e] paths to knowledge both physically…and cognitively, because they partake in the wondrous renewal of all other subjects" (101).

"A Bird's Worth," which closely examines The Owl and the Nightingale, begins with the medieval understanding that birds are morally and intellectually instructive. Warren examines the debate between owl and nightingale, arguing that these two birds lean on proverbial perceptions rather than specific attributes of owls and nightingales in order to cast aspersions upon one another and represent themselves. As "real and fictional birds become entangled" (116) and avian behaviors are mapped in relation to cultural typologies, emerging from their discourse is "a great deal of uncertainty about what even constitutes an owl and a nightingale" (128). Warren argues that there is an ethical dimension to such species confusions even when birds are metaphorized according to cultural perceptions. Birds, he explains, do "not stay harmlessly in [an] abstract category, but infec[t] the real bird, dangerously instructing the ways humans act upon nature" (135). For the owl, its ominous presence makes it, according to the nightingale, subject to stoning by "children, gromes, heme & hine" (children, servants, peasants, and farm-hands), practices that are naturalized when, as the nightingale explains, the owl is mobbed by small birds. Warren suggests that the poem's abuses are "also realized in extra-literary contexts" (137) so that the moral and intellectual representations of birds contribute to real-world violence that is done to them. Finally, Warren associates the ethical troubles with animal metaphor by noting the owl's mobbing by birds as a "symbol of the righteous indignation of Christians against the wickedness of Jews" (142; quoted in Miyazaki 33). As Warren explains, avian metaphors perpetuate not only avian realities but also "alarming social realities" (144).

In "'Kek Kek'," Warren focuses on the famous "kek kek" of goose, cuckoo, and duck in Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, a moment in which the human speech of birds in the poem is exchanged for a Middle English approximation of "real birds' voices" (149). Warren evaluates this moment through the lens of translation, arguing that "kek kek" simultaneously "confirms language barriers and species difference" yet "function[s] as a form of sympathetic interspecies translation" (149, 150). Such a translation draws our attention to vox as a category of medieval grammar that, in this instance, slips from human towards bird language, articulate and confusa, untidying translation and drawing our attention to the "ethics of representing alterity" that Warren explains as a "coming-together of multiple voices and standpoints…[that] might be read more precisely as a form of 'biotranslation.' (161, 164). "Kek kek" is a sign that is "shared across life forms" and "invites us to bridge the communicative gap" (164) between humans and birds. Yet as an allegory, Parliamentis also about birds whose activities and speech are meant to reveal ideas about human conditions. As Chaucer violates the standard attributes of varies species, allegory, however, Warren argues, becomes a "positive form of 'speaking otherwise' in which the processes of anthropomorphizing do not simply reflect back the human" (177).

"Birds' Form" examines the "comingling and assembling" of human and bird bodies that takes place in 'Tale of Tereus,' an Ovidian retelling embedded within Gower's Confessio Amantis. Warren explains that Gower's deployment of metamorphosis enables species to combine in ways that "complicat[e], exten[d] and inter-translat[e] identities, stretching the limits of how human and bird species can be understood such that they can function as "sites of powerful revelation" (188). Gower discusses the relationship between Tereus and Philomela according to the predator/prey trope in medieval literature, figuring Tereus as goshawk--a raptor and a ravisher of Philomela. Warren notes Gower's revision of Ovid's Tereus, remarking that the goshawk is a bird beloved by aristocratic hawkers despite its predatory nature, and he argues that these "conflicting associations" with the goshawk locate Tereus's love and attempted rape of Philomela in "an ambiguous moral middle": wrong yet "natural and unavoidable" (199, 200). Such moral ambiguity concedes to the goshawk a blurred form that can be read, according to Warren, as "a traditional image of corrupted or debased humanity resulting from unnatural behaviour" and "another form to which Tereus is naturally akin, a form that expresses...his lust" (200). The blurring of moral boundaries opens the door, in Gower's story, to a similar blurring of species boundaries. In the final moments of the story--when Tereus cuts out Philomela's tongue, Procne murders her own son, and Tereus unknowingly eats him--bodies are mutilated and consumed, and Warren writes that these acts, which recall the predator/prey metaphors earlier in the story, turn towards inter-body associations and shifts in form. As all three characters are transformed into birds, Warren argues that "species and behaviours must be read reciprocally...birds are not a mirror of character, but intimately and literally a part of character" (216, 217).

Warren's book is a lovingly-written analysis that considers birds across medieval English literature. It returns, in each chapter, to remind readers that, regardless of the moment of production, poetry about birds confronts and expresses issues of in-betweenness, hybridity, and metamorphosis that can be articulated in relation to language, ethics, and translation. Yet, despite its desire to focus on "real" birds, Birds in Medieval English Poetry leans heavily on the ones constructed in medieval literature. Consequently, although Warren's book seeks to challenge the representationalizing force of medieval bird poetry, his insights--which consider how birds ask us to think more about humans--point consistently towards representation. Such a conceptual through line does not go unnoticed by Warren, and his Epilogue articulates the "unavoidable risk" of engaging nonhuman forms in literature and also, one might add, literary analysis (219). Warren points to the words of Erica Fudge as a means of responding to these risks, explaining, as a matter of conclusion, that "we must 'place ourselves next to the animals, and [that] this opens up a new way of imagining the past'." [1]



1. Erica Fudge, "A Left-Handed Blow: Writing the History of Animals," in Representing Animals, ed. Nigel Rothefels (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2002), pp. 3-18, at 6, quoted in Warren, 220.