Cuckoos, cuckolds, and the coming of spring

Photograph of a cuckoo by John N Murphy,

According to one website, Shakespeare “writes more about birds than any other poet”, with 606 mentions of 64 different species. He certainly names many species, and associates them with feelings, people or events.

 The day before yesterday I heard my first cuckoo of the year. A website check revealed they have been back in this country since April 11. The one I heard was in a wildlife reserve in Sussex, and in spite of having been out in the Warwickshire countryside regularly over the past three weeks, I haven’t heard a single one. Shakespeare notes that in his time they were so common they were “on every tree”, and in Henry IV Part 1 the King warns that his predecessor Richard II   

          was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded

If they are now difficult to hear, seeing them is really tricky. This reclusiveness, combined with the mystery of their migration, might contribute to the belief that it was lucky to see one, but unlucky to hear the call.

 Cuckoos are one of the few birds whose name comes from its call, and the Latin name too comes from this sound made by males on the lookout for a mate. It’s a bird defined by its call.

The now outdated English word cuckold is also derived from the call. A cuckold was a man whose wife had been unfaithful to him. The folklore associated with the bird relates to its extraordinary habit of laying its egg in the nest of another bird. The cuckoo chick hatches before those of the host bird, and immediately ejects all the other eggs from the nest so that it gets the undivided attention of its adopted parents.

 No wonder that the two-note call of the bird was a symbol of infidelity. A result of this predatory behaviour could be a man raising another’s child as his own. This verse is part of the song of the Owl and the Cuckoo from Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The cuckoo then on every tree
Mocks married men; for thus sings he, “Cuckoo”;
Cuckoo, cuckoo” – O word of fear,
Unpleasing to a married ear

 As usual Shakespeare is an excellent observer of nature. He mentions the cuckoo’s habit of laying its eggs in other birds’ nests, in both The Rape of Lucrece, where “Hateful cuckoos hatch in sparrows nests” and in King Lear:

The hedge-sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had its head bit off by its young

 The legend that the bird was unlucky goes back long before Shakespeare’s time. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, calls the bird “lewd” and “love’s enemy”.

 By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the bird’s image had been transformed. In his poem To the Cuckoo, William Wordsworth wrote:

 O blithe New-comer! I have heard,
I hear thee and rejoice.
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?

While I am lying on the grass
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass,
At once far off, and near.

 Though babbling only to the Vale,
Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

 Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring!
Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing,
A voice, a mystery.

If you’re lucky enough to hear or even see a cuckoo this spring, enjoy it!

Update:  On 8am Tuesday 10 May I heard a cuckoo calling loudly from the Greenway overlooking fields at Luddington!

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7 Responses to Cuckoos, cuckolds, and the coming of spring

  1. Jo Wilding says:

    The medieval (mid 13th century) poem “Sumer is icumen in” predates Chaucer by about 150 years and simply celebrates the cuckoo as the harbinger of summer without any reference to it being unlucky. It’s the earliest poem in my 1968 reprint of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1939 edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse (Quiller-Couch of course was a major editor of Shakespeare’s plays for the Cambridge University Press in the 1920’s). This is the first verse :

    SUMER is icumen in,
    Lhude sing cuccu!
    Groweth sed, and bloweth med,
    And springth the wude nu—
    Sing cuccu!

    I heard my first cuckoo this year (across a Warwickshire field) yesterday which is rather late. I was lucky enough to see one quite by chance many years ago in Hertfordshire. It suddenly cuckoo’d in a tree only yards from where I was walking. I remember how striking it was with the bars across its chest, not unlike a peregrine. Sadly I didn’t have a camera with me and I’ve never seen one since.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      Thanks for the link to the earlier poem, yes perhaps infidelity was a particular obsession around Shakespeare’s time! I’ve been lucky enough to see cuckoos a couple of times, when I wasn’t expecting to.

  2. Richard Morris says:

    Infidelity of wives does seem to be a particularly Tudor and Shakespearean obsession with the cuckoo as the symbol. Cuckoos also represent the idea of the changeling child depositing an egg into the nest, and leaving it to the host to look after. Henry IV actually wishes that Hal could be swapped for Hotspur…
    “O that it could be proved that some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
    in cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
    and called mine Percy, and his Plantagenet!

    Thanks for another interesting blog.

  3. Richard Morris says:

    I forgot to mention the lovely tone poem by Delius “On hearing the first cuckoo in spring” you could be listening to the Delius whilst reading the poem by Wordsworth, they fit together very well.

    • Sylvia Morris says:

      What a lovely thought, listening to the Delius while reading the Wordsworth. I think it’s one of Wordsworth’s loveliest poems.

  4. Richard Morris says:

    The final post script is that we got a brief glimpse of a cuckoo today over near Broom (Bidford-on-Avon).

  5. christopher hook says:

    as i sit here on an early sydney sunday morn the cuckoo has once again arrived to announce the spring as it has for many years its solitary crescending call echoing through the bush

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