Notes on Poetical Birds
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Notes on Poetical Birds Saturday, December 29, 2018
I've been reading some bird poems lately--it's not exactly a common poetic theme in literary poetry but I've noticed that such poems are rarely about birds per se, and are rather highly metaphorical. When they do attempt to describe the bird as the thing that it is, there's often a slight (or not so slight) sarcastic tone which suggests that beyond whatever metaphor a bird might serve it's best seen as a purveyor of bird-brained antics, silliness, and vanity. To illustrate, here are four bird poems, starting with Ovid through Emily Dickinson and Alec Derwent Hope, and ending with Elena Shvarts. They are suprisingly similar and follow an interesting progression that turns full circle.

Ovid's picture of Corinna's parrot ("On the Death of Corinna's Parrot") is both naturalistic and a vehicle for a thinly veiled satire of the bird's owner who may be as bird-brained as the bird she loved, and inhabits an equally fragile world. The naturalism here is from direct observation of the bird's own antics in the fragility of his protected captivity, contrasted with the hardiness of birds in the wild which comes out of their rough struggle for existence. And this mirrors the fragile, protected world of Corinna's imagination and the stormy world that surrounds it.

Emily Dickinson's bird ("Hope is the Thing with Feathers") is pure metaphor--the bird represents hope. There's nothing naturalistic here beyond the most generic features of any bird. But the contrasting elements of the poem fit quite closely into Ovid's framework, though not in its conclusion. Dickenson's bird, like Ovid's parrot, is a fragile thing surrounded by storms and violence, yet in the end it provides the strength to prevail against the world while asking nothing in return.      

Alec Derwent Hope's bird ("On the Death of a Bird") is a metaphor for the existence of life in the world. There is the same general framework of Ovid--a fragile thing surrounded by an inimical world--but here there is no real seperation between the bird and the world. Hope's treatment is the most purely naturalistic, but the naturalism here is not in the direct observation found in Ovid, but is rather philosophical naturalism, in which there is no meaningful distincion between the bird and the world, since all are part of the larger mechanistic processes of nature which are impersonal and purposeless.

Elena Shvarts' parrot ("A Parrot at Sea") aligns most closely with the despair of Hope's poem, but she arrives at a different destination by a stranger, more complex route. Her description of the parrot is naturalistic in the manner of Ovid; that is, from direct observation of the parrot's own quirky behavior. And again there is the general contrast between a fragile thing and a surrounding deadly world. But where Hope's bird is purely a creature of instinct and mechanism, Shvarts' parrot is a creature of hubris who spins self-serving illusions of safety and normalcy yet exists strictly at the world's whim. This is not a world of philosophical naturalism and nihilism despite appearances; it's a world of uncertain purpose that has more in common with Ovid's pagan world than with Hope's mechanistic one.

Here are the poems:            

By Ovid

Parrot, the mimic, the winged one from India's Orient,
is dead - Go, birds, in a flock and follow him to the grave!
Go, pious feathered ones, beat your breasts with your wings
and mark your delicate cheeks with hard talons:
tear out your shaggy plumage, instead of hair, in mourning:
sound out your songs with long piping!
Philomela , mourning the crime of the Thracian tyrant,
the years of your mourning are complete:
divert your lament to the death of a rare bird -
Itys is a great but ancient reason for grief.
All who balance in flight in the flowing air,
and you, above others, his friend the turtle-dove, grieve!
All your lives you were in perfect concord,
and held firm in your faithfulness to the end.
What the youth from Phocis was to Orestes of Argos,
while she could be, Parrot, turtle-dove was to you.
What worth now your loyalty, your rare form and colour,
the clever way you altered the sound of your voice,
what joy in the pleasure given you by our mistress? -
Unhappy one, glory of birds, you're certainly dead!
You could dim emeralds matched to your fragile feathers,
wearing a beak dyed scarlet spotted with saffron.
No bird on earth could better copy a voice -
or reply so well with words in a lisping tone!
You were snatched by Envy - you who never made war:
you were garrulous and a lover of gentle peace.
Behold, quails live fighting amongst themselves:
perhaps that's why they frequently reach old age.
Your food was little, compared with your love of talking
you could never free your beak much for eating.
Nuts were his diet, and poppy-seed made him sleep,
and he drove away thirst with simple draughts of water.
Gluttonous vultures may live and kites, tracing spirals
in air, and jackdaws, informants of rain to come:
and the raven detested by armed Minerva lives too -
he whose strength can last out nine generations:
but that loquacious mimic of the human voice,
Parrot, the gift from the end of the earth, is dead!
The best are always taken first by greedy hands:
the worse make up a full span of years.
Thersites saw Protesilaus's sad funeral,
and Hector was ashes while his brothers lived.
Why recall the pious prayers of my frightened girl for you -
prayers that a stormy south wind blew out to sea?
The seventh dawn came with nothing there beyond,
and Fate held an empty spool of thread for you.
Yet still the words from his listless beak astonished:
dying his tongue cried: 'Corinna, farewell!'
A grove of dark holm oaks leafs beneath an Elysian slope,
the damp earth green with everlasting grass.
If you can believe it, they say there's a place there
for pious birds, from which ominous ones are barred.
There innocuous swans browse far and wide
and the phoenix lives there, unique immortal bird:
There Juno's peacock displays his tail-feathers,
and the dove lovingly bills and coos.
Parrot gaining a place among those trees
translates the pious birds in his own words.
A tumulus holds his bones - a tumulus fitting his size -
whose little stone carries lines appropriate for him:
'His grave holds one who pleased his mistress:
his speech to me was cleverer than other birds'.

--Translated by A. S. Kline

by Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I've heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

by Alec Derwent Hope

For every bird there is this last migration:
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a speck on the map, divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come;
Season after season, sure and safely guided,
Going away she is also coming home.

And being home, memory becomes a passion
With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest,
Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart's possession
And exiled love mourning within the breast.

The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;
The palm-tree casts a shadow not its own;
Down the long architrave of temple or palace
Blows a cool air from moorland scarps of stone.

And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger;
That delicate voice, more urgent with despair,
Custom and fear constraining her no longer,
Drives her at last on the waste leagues of air.

A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place,
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space,

She feels it close now, the appointed season:
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will, the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign,
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

by Elena Shvarts

After a ship had been wrecked
A parrot was left in a cage.
He floats on a plank - for as long
As the ocean pleases.

He picks away at words
Like his own silky plumage,
Lets them go - and seizes them again,
Peeks them and again throws them aside.

He sings a song of a mulatto woman
Or suddenly shrieks at the top of his voice
On the very crest of a roller,
Poor little polly wants a vodka.

And he casts such proud glances
Across that watery plateau.
How the arrogance of weak and helpless
Creatures touches the heart.

Nodding his head, he murmurs:
I agree, but even so...
On the other hand, hardly, surely,
Essentially and moreover...

On his slippery plank
He sits and sings along,
Brazil and love are clutched
In his yellow claws,

He squints a sleepy eye
In order to trick the sea:
Teufel!...To some extent
And strictly speaking...

But the waves grow darker and steeper
And at nightfall the ocean rages.
He tucks his head in his feathers
And sleeps, as trustful as a child.

And the blind darkness and the grey
Dishevelled ocean dissolve
The tiny reddish-golden,
Green and light blue bundle.

--translated by Michael Molnar

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