RSPB Walsall Local Group

a million voices for nature

John Kilbourn and 'The Nightingale at Great Barr'

John Kilbourn

The poet and essayist John Kilbourn (3 August, 1838 — 16 June 1898) was born, lived, and is buried in Walsall. Despite being self–taught, after leaving school early to join his father's basket–making business, his lectures on moral and social issues were very popular.

After his death, his essays and poems were collected in to a single volume, 'John Kilbourn - His Writing', with an introduction by his friend, William Henry Duigham, published in 1907 and funded by private subscription.

This included his most famous work, a sonnet:

'The Nightingale at Great Barr'

The sun is chambered in the distant west,
And night has spread her robes across the sky;
Nature is silent in expectancy,
And over all things lies the hush of rest.

The stars above their faithful sentry keep;
I listen for the music of the spheres,
Said to re-echo through the eternal years,
But every earthly sound and whisper sleep.

But hark! From out of the shadows comes a song,
So strangely sweet, that never was there wrought
such music out of human life or thought,
Nor earth's darkness do such notes belong.

The song is heard; the singer hides from sight;
Hath not God promised music in the night?

Factual basis

Image: Thomas Bewick's 1797 engraving of a Nightingale

The idea of a Nightingale singing near Kilbourn's Great Barr home is not as fanciful as it might seem to us today; for Duigham noted in the book's introduction that:

I remember when the night coaches to London would pull up on Barr Hill [1] for the passengers to hear the sweet songster.

Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge all also wrote poems about the Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos).

1 what we now call Barr Beacon.


Paul McDonald: 'John Kilbourn: The Great Barr Nightingale', in The Blackcountryman', Vol. 39, No. 2, ISSN 0006-4335; Spring 2006


Andy Mabbett
March 2006


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