Quotations Elizabeth Knowles Fall 2021

A Nest of Singing Birds

One of the pleasurable things about working with quotations is their capacity to surprise. Even a quotation which you know quite well, but have never had great reason to think about, may on investigation reveal an unexpected usage history. Recently, I came across just such an example, in a heading in the London Times: “Pit of vipers or a nest of singing birds: behind the scenes at No 10.” The heading introduced a piece on alleged factionalism in Number Ten Downing Street, with the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Allegra Stratton, claiming that contrary to reports “We are all a nest of singing birds.”

I was familiar with the phrase quoted as a coinage of Samuel Johnson’s, recorded by Boswell in his Life of Johnson, but it occurred to me that I would not necessarily today have expected to find it in live use as a quotation today. When I looked the original up to refresh my memory of the exact wording, it also appeared that the sense in which it was now being used had altered. As Boswell reports it, Johnson’s usage referred to literary achievement as the mark of many of his fellow members of Pembroke College Oxford. “Being himself a poet, Johnson was peculiarly happy in mentioning how many of the sons of Pembroke were poets; adding, with a smile of sportive triumph, ‘Sir, we are a nest of singing birds’”. Allegra Stratton, on the other hand, uses the phrase to suggest harmonious relations among a close group; something much nearer to the concept evoked in the hymn-writer Isaac Watts’ admonishment in Divine Songs for Children (1715), “Birds in their little nests agree/And ’tis a shameful sight, When children of one family/Fall out, and chide, and fight.” I decided to look at usage evidence to see if I could identify at what point the sense appeared to change.

In the main, examples found all supported the idea of literary (or musical) creativity. In Longfellow’s dramatic poem The Golden Legend (1851), Prince Henry uses it in addressing the poet Walther von der Vogelweide: “O noble poet! Thou whose heart/Is like a nest of singing-birds/Rocked on the topmost bough of life.” Walter Besant and James Rice employed it in a rather longer prose passage in their 1881 bestseller, The Chaplain of the Fleet, while evoking the atmosphere of a spa:

Everybody knows that a watering-place in summer is a nest of singing birds. I do not mean the birds of the air, nor the ladies who sing at the concerts, nor the virtuosos, male and female, who gather together to talk of appoggiatura, sonata, and—and the rest of the musical jargon. I mean rather those epigrammatists, libellous imitators of Pasquin, and love-verse writers who abound at such places.

Coming forward to the twentieth century, the literary context appears fixed. In 1942, a Times columnist reported on it as used in a New York paper:

A writer in the New York Herald Tribune drops a remark that it is good to read. He says that Hollywood, like Athens in the days of Greece’s glory or London in the age of Elizabeth (he might have added, like the Board of Trade in the days of Edmund Gosse and Austin Dobson), is a nest of singing birds. Even the bootblacks, waiters, and messenger boys write stories for the screen and carry the manuscripts in their pockets.

Just over fifty years later, in 1993, the journalist William Rees-Mogg commented on the literary make-up of his own neighbourhood: “Somerset has now become a county as full of columnists as Pembroke College, Oxford, was of poets in the 1720s. We are a nest of singing birds.” In 2013, commenting on a recent obituary of Oliver Bernard, the British writer and broadcaster Edward Lucie-Smith expanded on some of the details given. Bernard had worked for a time for Notley’s, a well-known advertising agency in London, and Lucie-Smith noted that “Notley’s, in the late 1950s and in the 1960s, was something of a nest of singing birds. Among the other copywriters were the Group poets Peter Redgrove and Peter Porter, in addition to myself. The novelist William Trevor (Trevor Bell) also worked there for a while.”

            Up to the second decade of the twenty-first century, therefore, the phrase appeared in the same context, and could arguably be said to have developed its own lexical identity, since it was not necessarily accompanied by any explicit reference to Samuel Johnson. It was however at this point that I found a change, attributable to what appears to be a favourite expression of what it is perhaps reasonable for a lexicographer to call a lesser Johnson. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom appears to reach for it naturally when wishing to evoke a sense of goodwill and harmony among those between whom less than cordial relations have been suggested. To take a couple of reasonably high-profile examples, in October 2013 on a trip to China with the then Chancellor George Osborne (“two potential successors to David Cameron” as the Guardian put it), when asked who was in charge, he responded that “”It’s a nest of singing birds is how I would describe it. It’s total harmony.” He used the same expression in September 2016 when he was asked by the Sun newspaper about his relationship as Foreign Secretary with his colleagues David Davis and Liam Fox and replied “We are a nest of singing birds.” Perhaps small wonder, then, that the phrase is a natural one for his Press Secretary to use to allay concerns about reported strife, but it will be interesting to see if in the longer run the original sense reasserts itself, or if the shift in sense remains. And it would be fascinating to discover at what point, and how, it became part of Boris Johnson’s own political vocabulary. Is it perhaps an example of a quotation half-remembered and misinterpreted as an image of peace and unity rather than one of literary creativity?

Elizabeth Knowles, March 2021