Sunday, May 29, 2016

Choristers And Companions

While out for an afternoon walk this past week, I realized that I often fail to listen to what is going on around me.  My path takes me through meadows and wooded areas in Discovery Park, which, although it is a city park, is akin to a nature reserve.  According to the Seattle Audubon Society, more than 250 species of birds have been seen in the Park, including thrushes, warblers, wrens, swallows, chickadees, goldfinches, nuthatches, tanagers, towhees, vireos, and waxwings.  And, of course, robins, sparrows, jays, and crows.

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.
                                     
                                             Only birds
                                        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.)

                              A Dirge

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
          that rave:
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)

10 comments:

Anjali Krishna said...

Steve, here's to the songs of untold birds, and to the uncertainty of all things other than death! Uncertainty and i are bosom friends too. A quote from J. Krishnamurti sprang to mind on reading your post today:

'The song of a bird, the distant flute, the breeze among the leaves, all these break down the walls that human beings have created for themselves.' (Krishnamurti's Journal)

Steve, i think you would find Krishnamurti's Journal very engaging...do take a look.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anjali: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. As to uncertainty: we need to accept it, don't we? But, speaking for myself, it is a daily struggle to live with that truth -- there is always an urge to be in "control" of things. Impossible, of course. But I think it becomes a bit easier with age: one begins to let go of things.

Thank you for the the lovely passage from Krishnamurti: it fits perfectly here. These sounds from outside do shake us out of our selves, don't they? "The breeze among the leaves" -- one of my favorite things.

Thank you for the recommendation of Krishnamurti's Journal, which is new to me. I just found the text on the internet on J.KrishnamurtiOnline. Here is a coincidence: one of the first passages my eye hit upon was this: "Death is everywhere and we never seem to live with it." After discussing our avoidance of the subject of death, he closes the journal entry with this: "On the road everything seemed to be passing, marriage, death, the laughter of children, and someone sobbing. Near the moon was a single star."

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

You say in your post:

"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."

Shelley thinks as you do. I find after reading your splendid paean to birds, that Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark" can endure a rereading. The song of the lark stirs something transcendent in Shelley's imagination. He longs to sing with the freedom of the bird, untrammeled by the vicissitudes and vexations of life. Shelley longed a world far from ours, one "Where music and moonlight and feeling / Are one." The skylark inhabits this world and sings of it in full-throated, obstruction free, ease and uninhibited joy.

Below are stanza 13 and the last one. Make no mistake about it: what Shelley hears in the lark's lilt is adulterated joy, and he longs for the bird to teach us how to sing as unfettered.


Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine. 65

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know;
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,
The world should listen then, as I am listening now. 105


John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, while out on my regular weekly woodland walks I try hard to listen to what is going on around me, and have learned over the years to recognise the songs of a handful of the more common birds, but know there are still many that elude me and probably always will. On the other hand I rather like to walk surrounded, embraced almost by that world of sound and not know exactly which particular voices are responsible for all the different songs. It is part of the experience of being in that world of trees, birdsong, sunlight and shadow, the rustling of leaves, the wind moving through the wood.

Perhaps Issa is right;
" Only birds
sing the music of heaven
in this world"

Whether that be the case or not I cannot think of another sound I'd rather have to accompany me on my walk, and perhaps like yourself I'm also inclined to hear those sounds as overwhelmingly joyous.
On my walk this morning, which was mostly through heavy rain I was suddenly halted by such beautiful singing, I stopped and searched for its source, after a few moments I spotted a robin perched on a branch end, singing in spite of the rain, or because of it. I don't know, but whatever the reason it held me for more than a few minutes. I don't want to know the reason why he was singing.

Often while I am working at my allotment, digging, planting or weeding a robin will appear, seeming to follow me around the plot, sometimes venturing a little closer. I like to think it's the same robin, it might not be, but is there any harm in my thinking so.

Last year the BBC aired a programme called The Dawn Chorus, which is exactly what it was . Three recordings of the dawn chorus from different locations around England without any intrusive narration,or banal commentary. Just the sound of the birds and images of the world waking. I have kept the recording and play it from time to time...it is so beautiful.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for the lines from Shelley, which fit perfectly in this context. But I can't help thinking (and I am not picking on Shelley in particular) about the differences between the traditions of English poetry and those of Japanese haiku. Here is Bashō (translated by R. H. Blyth) on the skylark:

In the midst of the plain
Sings the skylark,
Free of all things.

This is not a criticism of Shelley's poem. English Romantic poetry and Japanese haiku (especially as practiced by Bashō) come, literally and figuratively, from wholly different worlds. But the comparison is thought-provoking. For me at least.

Thank you again for sharing this.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: I'm like you: I'm willing to live without the knowledge of which birds are making which sounds; it is the overall chorus that attracts me. Complemented by, as you note, all else that is going on -- the wind in the leaves, for example (as mentioned by you and in Ms. Krishna's quotation from Krishnamurti).

Your anecdotes about robins are lovely. For all of the wonderful species of birds that are out there, the humble robin tends to exert a hold over us, doesn't it? It certainly did for Herrick, and I fully understand why. I'm sympathetic to your view that, when you are working in your allotment, it may be the same robin that is paying you a visit.

Thank you for the reference to "The Dawn Chorus" on the BBC. I was able to find it (I think) on the BBC4 website: the locations were in Dartmoor and East Devon. Beautiful.

Thank you very much for visiting again. It is always a pleasure to hear from you.

mary f.ahearn said...

I'm reminded of the lovely line from the 73rd Sonnet about the "bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang." Choristers lamented when they depart.
I feel that a difference in Western and Eastern poems is that the bird, or whatever creature, is seen as complete in itself, as something of equal value to our human lives in Eastern poems. It seems to me that Western poets often impose ourselves onto the bird, wanting something that can't be given. I know I'm not explaining this well, but hope that you understand what I'm trying to say. At any rate, I too am on the side of joy and beneficence.
Thank you for these lovely poems and thoughts.

Mary

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: Thank you very much for those thoughts. I think your comment about a difference in Eastern and Western poetry in the manner in which non-human creatures are perceived is worth considering -- making allowance for exceptions, of course. For instance, I think that Shelley's poem is more about himself than it is about the skylark. I think your point is particularly apt with respect to haiku -- and I suspect that this has something to do both with the nature of haiku (with its emphasis on concrete images) and with the cultural background of Buddhism and Taoism. I am vastly generalizing, but I think this combination leads to more humility and self-effacement when it comes to viewing the World. But, on the other hand, Thomas Hardy now comes immediately to mind: I think that he displays a great deal of humility and self-effacement when it comes to non-human creatures (and birds, in particular, as it happens).

As ever, it's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting again.

George S. Baldwin said...

As a die-hard Romantic, I especially like your inclusion of . . .
Only birds / sing the music of heaven / in this world

I suspect the reason for bird-song is much more practical (as scientists would argue), but I prefer the more sentimental reason(s).

Thanks for sending me outside to listen to this morning's songs.

v/r
George

"God and American Writers"

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Baldwin: I'm pleased you liked the post, and that it prompted you to go outside and listen! As I indicated in the post, that is something that I often neglect to do. Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.