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Eyes all the smiling family askance,
The fidelity to nature in this well-known quotation invests the passage with a rare charm, and by itself, no doubt, has done much towards sustaining the poets' claim to be considered scholars in nature. But more striking, albeit not more delightful, are the poets' utterances about the swan ; while the contrast between the passages about this bird that are written down from observation, and those that are merely imagined, are singularly felicitous to my present purpose. For in illustration of the poets' unfortunate tendency to hunt their images to death, and to prefer the fabulous to the real, at a great expense of grace and force, I cannot have a better example than the swan. It was Milton who first wrote (at any rate in English) that
The swan with arched neck
Rows her state with oary feet ; but Keats has
The swan, his neck of arched snow,
Oars himself along with majesty. Thomson says
Arching proud his neck, with oary feet
Bears forward ; and Broome
With snowy pride elate,
Arch their high necks, and row along with state. and so on, and so on, and so on, till the swan -so dreadfully "oary” does it become-might be a quinquereme rather than a bird. Again, the whiteness of the swan is notorious, and the story of Leda is a tolerably familiar one, yet the poets appear to be refreshed as with an original idea, whenever they can say "white as Leda's love." It would almost be worth a poet's while to pretend that Jove was a black swan, or speak of Othello as the colour of “Leda's paramour," “Blacker than Leda's love." The Hindu poets, by the way, place their white swans on black rivers ;' our poets have them on "silver” rivers
As milk-white swans on streams of silver show: which is surely an error in art, to be retrieved only by reversing the colour of the bird.
But after all, it is "the death-divining "fiction that chiefly attracts · Drayton alone, true to nature, makes his Thames “blacke as Stix.”
the poets to this bird ; and endless changes are rung on “the sad dirge of her certain ending.” Mrs. Hemans, standing up to her waist in reeds, and listening to a lonely swan "warbling his death chant,” is a delightful picture to contemplate; and again and again it seems as if the poet, in spite of his evident solemnity, was making fun, as Prior does on Turturella's demise, of “the doleful elegie" of "the soote-singing swanne.” The poets, therefore, fail, either by borrowing from predecessors or furbishing up the fictions of antiquity, in investing the swan with any becoming measure of dignity or beauty. And then, what a sudden change when they go to Nature for their inspiration! Their lines at once become beautiful, for they at once become true to their beautiful theme. Take only these on the swan at rest :
The white swans dream sweetly. - Keats.
or the swan angry :
The stately sailing swan
or the swan domestic :
Along the wild meandering shore to view
What admirable passages these are, and how sharply they emphasize my complaint against the poets, that when they err from truth they err from beauty too. Nor, in the case of the next bird, the swallow—the last on my list of conspicuously "popular” birdsare the poets more just to themselves, for there is a penury of fancy and of sympathy which appears all the more striking from the poetry that legend and myth have gathered round the swallow beloved in every country and sacred in most. This exceptional disregard of world-wide superstition seems indeed quite inexplicable, when we remember how readily, even rashly, they pursue other hints given by ancient myth and modern folk-lore, and how they swarm to such barren flowers as the dirge of the swan and to the dry breast of the poor old pelican.
They seem to think that Pandion had only one daughter, and to forget that Procne was Philomela's sister. They have no ears for Rhodes' glad song of welcome on the Swallow's Return, or sympathy with Rome's legend that swallows are the embodied spirits of dead children revisiting their homes. Why do they neglect these, when other traditions are so eagerly utilised ? Was not the swallow sacred to antiquity as the bird that Noah loosed from the Ark when the dove failed him, as the bird that brought together our first parents from Serendib and Jedda when they had lost each other after the Fall, as the Egyptian hieroglyph of prosperity, the Chaldæan bird of destiny consecrated in the Nameless City to the Penates, and all fateful to sunny Corinth? It is now beloved in every country of the modern world—“the bird of consolation ” in the North, “the bird of the gentle beak” in the South, “the bird of the hearth” in the West, and “the bird of God” in the East. Is there nothing in all this to have given the swallow a new significance in our poets, to have rescued it from the commonplace ? Apart from tradition, the climechanging swallow that, slipt from the secret hand of Providence, comes all the way from Abyssinia to see the English daffodils blow is one of the oracles of Nature and the joyous prophet of the happy summer. Its song is an eternal hymn in praise of sunshine and of liberty. And why, then, should the poets, worrying Jove's bird into tatters and mumbling Philomela to the bone, have given so little thought or fancy to the swallow? Its absence from Byzia made that city a by-word throughout Thrace, and the fate of Bessus made its note a perpetual augury to Greece. Yet our poets find no more to say of it than that it is “chattering," "twittering," "prating"; that it “ darts," "skims,” “wheels,” “jurks,” and “jurkles"; that it is “blithe," and "sportive," and "wanton"; and
privileged above the rest Of all the birds as man's familiar guest,
which is handsome but untrue. From the bird that gave such momentous fortunes to Egyptian Thebes they take only this profound augury :
When swallows fleet soar high and sport in air,
Cowper sees it catch a locust, and remonstrates with it
Ah, for pity drop the prize,
never remembering that Lemnos commended the swallow for its destruction of locusts.
Summer owes to one poet its supreme epithet, the “swallow summer," and the seasons theirs, “ the swallow-seasons ”; but among the rest the best simile that can be found for the bird that obeys the sun, is a newspaper that “rats " in its political opinions !
It is not, of course, to be expected in those short “swallowflights of song," where the poet just dips a wing in a thought and skims away along the surface, that he should burden his line with a fact where it is enough for his purpose if he brighten it with an idea. But it is surely sufficient to justify remark when the poets who spit themselves so punctually on Philomela's thorn, who insist on keeping the eagle company till it gets into the middle of the sun, and who poke ravens' beaks so diligently into corpses, should have taken no notice of the curiously beautiful growth of superstition round the swallow. Why, Cowper even pretends that there is not tradition enough, and concocts a fiction for himself—that it sleeps on the wing. It is bad enough that he did not purge himself of that same heresy with regard to the bird of Paradise, but that he should extend it with a high hand to the swallow is intolerable.
As the swallow's most notable points, the poets select, as I have already hinted, its "twitter" and its “skimming." Even Keats, who lay on his back half his life looking up into the sky, had nothing better to say of Procne than that she “twittered”; while the number of poets that have been grateful to it for being swift enough to afford a simile is mournfully great. But do no other birds “skim” except the swallow? Has no poet ever seen a hawk on a moor, an owl on the summer fields, a gull on the wave, a martin on a cliff? And as for velocity in flight, does the swallow arrogate a monopoly of speed ? Will it dare to give the swift a start? Or for rapidity sufficient to
I With the lark,
wing any thought, are there not the merlin and the homing-pigeon, the kestrel and the kingfisher, and many another bird of "arrowy " flight?
In swallow life, again, there is one episode above all the rest instinct with significance, the mustering of these little sun-worshippers for the great autumnal pilgrimage. No one seeing them even once could fail to understand the meaning of this gathering of the feathered clans, or to sympathise with the ruddy-throated ministers of the summer. How consumed they are with restless impatience to be off after the summer ! yet, how obedient to an irresistible discipline ! Each bird in the vast Hegira is nervously anxious to start, proud of its powers of flight, and unable to resist altogether the instinct of its wings; yet, how punctilious in waiting for the rest! There is no mistaking the meaning of the multitudinous welcome extended to each batch of new arrivals, “ Better late than never—twitter, twitter !” Nor can there be more than one explanation of those sudden impulses to launch out into the deep-sea air, often checked as soon as they arise,. but as often tempting the little travellers to take just one and then another and then a third preliminary sweep round the sky. Yet Thomson, after watching them diligently, came to the conclusion that they were gathered “for play," and were having one last good game together “ere to their wintry slumbers they retired”! It is true that he gives them the choice of
clinging in clusters
or of being "conveyed into warmer climes"; but it is incomprehensible that he should have even given them a choice.
Here and there, of course, there is a pretty word or even a thoughtful phrase ; but the sum of these random beauties does not compensate for the general treatment of this bird, which is emphatically commonplace.
With this bird, then, closes my list, for in one aspect or another I have almost exhausted in the course of review the complete ornithology of poetry. There remain, of course, the winged things of pure fancy
Such as Dame Nature selse mote seare to see
the phoenix, in which the poets delight, the no less convenient harpy,