‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’ by John Clare is a thirty-line poem that is combined into one block of text. While there is not one consistent rhyme scheme to this poem, the poet has chosen to make great use of a number of techniques to enhance and unify his text. There are also a number of instances in which the rhyming lines create a sing-song-like melody.
Another element a reader might notice is the alliteration. It is very prominent throughout the poem, especially within lines seven and eight where the ‘b’ sound is repeated in the words “beside,” “bank,” “Beneath,” and “bunch.” Another moment of note is within the entirety of the first six lines in which the ‘b’ sound is once again used in repetition.
The poem begins with the speaker asking that his listeners come close to a stream and take a look at the nest which is nestled there. It contains beautiful eggs that appear to have “scribbled” ink lines upon them.
The second half of the poem describes the beauty of the world of birds and how that beauty will eventually be interrupted by weeds and predators.
Analysis of The Yellowhammer’s Nest
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
‘Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed
In the first set of six lines of ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, the speaker begins by describing a simple “wooden brig” which is the background for a bird flying up from beneath. While it is not stated explicitly in the text, it can be assumed from the title that this bird is a yellowhammer. A small European bird recognized by its yellow and brown colouring.
The bird is doing its best to scramble down to the “dewberry,” a type of plant closely related to a blackberry. The plant is described as being “misty,” helping to paint an image of the landscape in which the poem is playing out.
The narrator then speaks directly to his listeners and asks them to “stoop” down and “seek” out the bird’s nest. From these lines, it is easy to tell that the speaker and those he is with, have an interest in nature. For this action to be the opening of a thirty-line poem, it must be important.
There is a brook nearby that is quite shallow. The speaker says that no one should not fear the water as it could not drown a bee. It is “harmless,” singing over “its pebbly bed.”
—Ay here it is, stuck close beside the bank
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk seeds tall and high—’tis rudely planned
Of bleachèd stubbles and the withered fare
That last year’s harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse’s sable hair.
In the second section, the speaker devotes more time to the description of the river. It is “close” to “the bank” and surrounded and sometimes covered, by a variety of different plants. There are tall “spindles” of grass that are “rudely planned.” There is no organization to the layers of plants that run alongside the river.
One of the elements which contribute to this unplanned scene is the remains and “withered fare” of “last year’s harvest.” This gives a reader a clearer image of where the river and the yellowhammer are located. They are not within dense woodland or in the distant countryside, they are somewhere which human agriculture can touch. The scene is less wild than pastoral.
Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells
Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads
As nature’s poesy and pastoral spells—
They are the yellowhammer’s and she dwells
Most poet-like where brooks and flowery weeds
As sweet as Castaly to fancy seems
In the next set of lines, the speaker draws the reader’s attention to “Five eggs.” These are not the average bird eggs that one might see in a normal nest. They appear to be highly decorative as if someone has “scribbled” on them with “ink.” One can easily imagine the delicate nature of these objects and the beauty of their design.
The speaker states that the markings on the eggs seem to him to be like scrawled writing. The swirling marks read like a text of “nature’s poesy.” The lines speak of the general beauties of nature; it is a representative of all that is good about the natural world. The eggs are determined to belong to the yellowhammer, as one most likely assumed, in the next lines.
“She,” referring to the bird, dwells like a poet in the places where “brooks and flowery weeds” meet.
And that old molehill like as Parnass’ hill
On which her partner haply sits and dreams
O’er all her joys of song—so leave it still
A happy home of sunshine, flowers and streams.
Yet in the sweetest places cometh ill,
A noisome weed that burthens every soil;
In these lines of ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, the speaker crafts an image of a Parnassus-like molehill on which the bird’s partner sits. This is a reference to Mount Parnassus in Greece which often played host to the Greek gods of mythology. This elevates the image of the bird in one’s mind; it is akin to the gods. One bird, the partner of the previously described yellowhammer, sits and watches his partner sing her songs of “joy.” Whenever he leaves this place, he dreams of returning to her and her music.
After this, optimistic and beautiful description of the world of birds comes a more literal and down to earth interpretation of what nature is really like.
Although the birds may sing, dream, and feel joy, still will come a time when all is not well. The speaker describes this change as the “sweetest places cometh ill.” Even the most beautiful rivers and pastoral scenes will eventually have to deal with death and destruction. There will be some “noisome weed” that burdens and poisons the soil.
For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil
To watch such nests and seize the helpless young,
And like as though the plague became a guest,
Leaving a houseless home, a ruined nest—
And mournful hath the little warblers sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.
In these final lines, the speaker continues describing the ways a bird’s landscape could, and probably will, go bad. Snakes, which are “known with chill and deadly coil” sit and watch the nests. They will “seize the helpless young” whenever they get a chance. These deadly “guests” will leave behind them a “houseless home, a ruined nest.”
In the final two lines of ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, the speaker describes the reaction of the “little warblers” after such an event has taken place. They feel pain the same as any other human or non-human animals and mourn their loss. They sing with a “woe” that “rent[s] [their] little breasts.”