Chicken Words and Chicken Music : BBC Radio 3’s “Hey, Little Hen” – featuring Christina Rosetti, Edward Lear, Gary Whitehead, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Vaughan

I used to quite enjoy BBC Radio 3’s “Words and Music” programme on a Sunday evening. Driving through Northern Ireland allowed me to listen to it again after a bit of a hiatus (yes, I know the internet means that this is a bit absurd, but still..)

Today’s edition was on the initially unlikely-seeming theme of chickens . 

Initially unlikely, as it turns out there is a rich seam of chicken (and egg) related works, as a listen to the programme via the link above should reveal.


I was expecting P G Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens,  but the other literary selections were pretty much new ones on me (though I kinda knew there would be some Ted Hughes. There was the deceptive simplicity of Christina Rossetti’s A White Hen Sitting:

A white hen sitting
On white eggs three:
Next, three speckled chickens
As plump as plump can be.
An owl, and a hawk,
And a bat come to see:
But chicks beneath their mother’s wing
Squat safe as safe can be.

There is the whimsy (with a bit of depth, for once) of Edward Lear’s O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!:

O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!
O gracious me! O my!
This broken Eggshell was my home!
I see it with my eye!

However did I get inside? Or how did I get out?
And must my life be evermore, an atmosphere of doubt?

Can no one tell? Can no one solve, this mystery of Eggs?
Or why we chirp and flap our wings,—or why we’ve all two legs?

And since we cannot understand,—
May it not seem to me,
That we were merely born by chance,
Egg-nostics for to be?

OK, that is an awful pun … which confirms my iffyness re Lear. Moving on to more contemporary work, here is Gary Whitehead’s A Glossary of Chickens (which opens the programme):

There should be a word for the way

they look with just one eye, neck bent,

for beetle or worm or strewn grain.

Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”and “grit.”

And for the way they run

toward someone they trust, their skirts

hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:

“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted

after “blowout” and before “bloom.”

There should be terms, too, for things

they do not do—like urinate or chew—

but perhaps there already are.

I’d want a word for the way

they drink,head thrown back,

throat wriggling,like an old woman swallowing

a pill; a word beginning with “S,”

coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”

And one for the sweetness of hens

but not roosters. We think

that by naming we can understand,

as if the tongue were more than muscle.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” is too long to fully quote here… so here is  selected excerpt (the show also excerpted it at more length than here):

At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
just below
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.
Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,
where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.
Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,
the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;
deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town. A rooster gloats
over our beds
from rusty iron sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,
over our churches
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,
making sallies
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:
glass-headed pins,
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,
each one an active
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, “This is where I live!”
Finally, poetry-wise, Henry Vaughan’s Cock-Crowing.  There is an unexpected spiritual and near-erotic charge to this poem, which concludes:
Only this veil which Thou hast broke,
And must be broken yet in me,
This veil, I say, is all the cloak
And cloud which shadows Thee from me.
This veil Thy full-eyed love denies,
And only gleams and fractions spies.

O take it off! make no delay;
But brush me with Thy light that I
May shine unto a perfect day,
And warm me at Thy glorious eye!
O take it off, or till it flee,
Though with no lily, stay with me!

As for the music, I did expect Haydn’s Hen Symphony and There Ain’t No Body Here But Us Chickens… the rest however was a pleasant surprise.

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