Not surprisingly, therefore, my walks take place amid a chorus of singing, twittering, chirping, chattering, whistling, and warbling. But too often I am daydreaming, and the music passes me by.
"It was widely rumored that certain persons had heard celestial music coming down from heaven around two o'clock in the morning on New Year's Day. And they say it has been heard every eighth night since. Some told me in all seriousness that they actually heard the music at such and such a place on such and such a night. Others dismissed it as simply a prank played by the wanton wind. I, for one, was inclined to take the idea seriously, but could neither accept it as completely true or reject it as absolutely impossible. For heaven and earth are filled with strange and mysterious powers. . . . In any event, I found myself intrigued, and invited a group of my friends to come to my humble cottage on the nineteenth day of March. We all listened intently, from early evening on, but we heard nothing until the first sunbeams touched the far end of the eastern sky. Then all at once we heard a voice -- we heard music -- coming from the plum tree near my window.
sing the music of heaven
in this world."
Issa (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa), in Nobuyuki Yuasa, A Year of My Life: A Translation of Issa's Oraga Haru (University of California 1972). Oraga Haru was written in 1819.
Robert Ball, "Mrs. Barclay's Pond, Harborne" (1949)
In his poem "Bird-Language" (which has appeared here previously), W. H. Auden speculates that "fear . . . rage, bravado, and lust" may be heard in "the words/Uttered on all sides by birds," but he ultimately concludes that "All other notes that birds employ/Sound like synonyms for joy." Yes, I concede that all is not sweetness and light in the world of bird communication. Yet, compared with human communication, all bird conversations (and soliloquies) sound like celestial music to me. (Save, perhaps, for the cawing of crows and the screeching of jays.)
Call me sentimental, but I am inclined to the view that those unseen choristers -- hidden off in the tall grasses of the meadows or up in the leafy boughs of trees -- are indeed motivated by joy. Joy and beneficence.
To the Nightingale, and Robin Red-Breast
When I departed am, ring thou my knell,
Thou pitiful, and pretty Philomel:
And when I'm laid out for a corse, then be
Thou sexton (red-breast) for to cover me.
Robert Herrick, Poem 279, Hesperides (1648). In the third line, Herrick uses the word "corse" rather than "corpse."
Herrick was wont to revisit his favorite themes. He was particularly fond of robins.
To Robin Red-breast
Laid out for dead, let thy last kindness be
With leaves and moss-work for to cover me:
And while the wood-nymphs my cold corpse inter,
Sing thou my dirge, sweet-warbling chorister!
For epitaph, in foliage, next write this,
Here, here the tomb of Robin Herrick is.
Robert Herrick, Poem 50, Ibid.
The image of birds providing kind offices to the dead was a common one in the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan periods. In the following poem by John Webster, those offices are performed by the robin and the wren. (In a moment, we shall hear of the wren from Issa.)
Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o'er shady groves they hover,
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole,
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robbed) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that's foe to men,
For with his nails he'll dig them up again.
John Webster, from the play The White Devil (1612).
Michael Garton (1935-2004), "Woodland Clearing"
I am well aware that the notion of birds as heavenly choristers is looked upon askance by modern products of the so-called "Age of Enlightenment." These moderns are equally troubled by the notion of a human soul. For them, human beings, and human "reason" and "rationality," are the measure of all things. How odd and how sad it is to constrict humanity, the World, and existence in such a fashion.
I am not in a position to make pronouncements about the existence or non-existence of heaven or of the soul. Who would presume to do so? These things are not matters of theology. Nor are they matters of science. Theology and science both posit a certainty that does not exist.
Here Lies a Prisoner
Leave him: he's quiet enough: and what matter
Out of his body or in, you can scatter
The frozen breath of his silenced soul, of his outraged soul to the winds
Quieter now than he used to be, but listening still to the magpie chatter
Over his grave.
Charlotte Mew, The Rambling Sailor (1929).
Christopher Sanders, "Sunlight through a Willow Tree at Kew" (1958)
Sooner or later, one comes to the realization that there are no certainties in life. Except one. Our death. Anyone who tells you otherwise -- theologians, scientists, politicians, social or political "activists" of any stripe -- is dissembling. They know nothing.
In fact, this uncertainty is a glorious thing. It is why we turn to poets and artists, poems and paintings.
Will we spend eternity listening to birds carrying on conversations above our graves? Nobody knows.
Look! this lonely grave,
With the wren
That is always here.
Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 4: Autumn-Winter (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 342.
Fairlie Harmar, "The Bridge at Monxton" (1916)