Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why Are Poets So Fascinated with Birds?

This is the question the Guardian asks.

From the piece...

The birds are back in woods behind my house. Wrens, nuthatches, tree-creepers; from first light their bright calls spill into my sleep. After a winter watching a monoculture of jackdaws floating over the lake like delicately made marionettes, the inhabitants of An Atlas of Breeding Birds in Cumbria have begun to spill into the peripheries of my poems.

What is that draws poets to birds? And why have so many turned to them at critical points in their own writing? The collective nouns we all remember from childhood speak of language's innate fascination with all things avian: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls. And it's no coincidence we afford them the most poetic collective nouns: right from the birth of literature birds have been present.

In "The Seafarer", the Anglo-Saxon poem of spiritual longing and exile, birds become astringent emblems of solitude as earthly pleasures are traded for the "the gannet's noise and the voice of the curlew" while the laughter of men is replaced by "the singing gull". And once discovered it's hard to shake the haunting, spiritually exact, idea in Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica that our passage through life is like a sparrow flying through the mead-hall on a winter night: from darkness through the bright light and out again into the unknown dark. Later, Chaucer's rhyme royal dream-vision, The Parliament of Foules, sees the bickering birds provide the perfect form for a discussion of love and the imperatives of the natural world.

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