In deepening December, darkness arrives ever earlier each day, of course. On clear December days darkness falls in the blink of an eye. The light is extinguished. As I walked home in cold twilight one evening this past week, I thought of the Venerable Bede's fleeting sparrow.
"The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."
The Venerable Bede (translated by A. M. Sellar), in A. M Sellar, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England (George Bell and Sons 1907), pp. 116-117.
William Wordsworth versified the Venerable Bede's passage in the following sonnet. The poem appeared here a few years ago, but it is always worth revisiting.
"Man's life is like a Sparrow, mighty King!
That -- while at banquet with your Chiefs you sit
Housed near a blazing fire -- is seen to flit
Safe from the wintry tempest. Fluttering,
Here did it enter; there, on hasty wing,
Flies out, and passes on from cold to cold;
But whence it came we know not, nor behold
Whither it goes. Even such, that transient Thing,
The human Soul; not utterly unknown
While in the Body lodged, her warm abode;
But from what world She came, what woe or weal
On her departure waits, no tongue hath shown;
This mystery if the Stranger can reveal,
His be a welcome cordially bestowed!"
William Wordsworth, in Ernest de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire (editors), The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, Volume Three (Oxford University Press 1946).
"The Stranger" referred to in line 13 is Paulinus, who, in 601, was sent to England by Pope Gregory I to convert the inhabitants to Christianity. The incident (which may or may not be apocryphal) took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).
The Venerable Bede's "but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all" and Wordsworth's "But whence it came we know not, nor behold/Whither it goes" bring this to mind:
Thou gavest me birth, Eileithyia; Earth, thou wilt hide me sleeping.
Farewell to you both. I have finished the race you measured me.
I go, not knowing whither. For whence I came to your keeping,
I know not, neither who made me, nor yet who I may be.
Macedonius (6th century A. D.) (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas, Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951), page 386. Eileithyia, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, is the Greek goddess of childbirth.
Thomas Train (1890-1978), "Headlights"
From darkness into light, thence back into darkness. "Passing from winter into winter again." But there are always compensations along the way. On one of last week's clear afternoons, a half-hour or so before the sun disappeared beyond the Olympic Mountains, I walked north down an avenue of bare trees. The stout grey-brown trunks of the trees were already wrapped in the shadows of dusk. But the branches overhead were bathed in yellow sunlight, shining in the pale blue sky. The smallest twig was gilded in gold.
Bird in the Lighted Hall
The old poet to his lute:
"Bright door, black door,
Beak-and-wing hurtling through,
This is life.
(Childhood lucent as dew,
The opening rose of love,
Labour at plough and oar,
The yellow leaf,
The last blank of snow.)
Hail and farewell. Too soon
The song is mute,
The spirit free and flown.
But you, ivory bird, cry on and on
To guest and ghost
From the first stone
To the sag and fall of the roof."
George Mackay Brown, Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).
Due to our temperate climate, most of the robins stay here all winter. But their behavior changes: rather than living on their own, or as couples and families, they gather together in small flocks. They fly in a group from tree to tree, chattering all the while, with no quarrels. Now and then, they fly together out onto the meadows, where they hop and peck their way -- still amiably chattering -- across the green grass (thanks to the rain, our grass returns to green in the winter).
The Long Hall
The skald tuned his harp. The riff-raff
Lounged between the barrel
And the hearth (the Earl
That winter night
Sat with the Bishop, a golden
Cup between them, a loaf
Tasting of honey, flames
Eating the spitted ox).
Harp sang the swallowflight
Through the lighted hall,
A small troubling
Between two dark doors.
Barnmen came in. Fishermen
Shifted into the shadows.
A kitchen girl carried
A plate of bones
To the hungry hound. A keg
Was broached. Outside
Children went by, chanting
Of snowflakes and apples.
George Mackay Brown, The Wreck of the Archangel (John Murray 1989).
Walter Ashworth (1883-1952)
"Carnival Night, Memorial Park, Coventry" (1937)
"A small troubling/Between two dark doors."
As I returned home on one of my twilit walks this past week, I heard behind me -- over my right shoulder -- an unmistakable honking: a small flock of Canadian geese. I could not see them for the darkness. But I could follow them by the progress of their ancient cries. They flew low across the fields, curving down toward the bluffs above the waters of Puget Sound. As they headed south, their honking slowly faded away.
I kept walking. Beside the path were snowberry bushes, empty of leaves, but filled with cream-white berries, bright in the dusk. Far off, in the tall grass at the edge of a field, a solitary unknown bird clucked a few times and then fell silent.
Over the wintry fields the snow drifts; falling, falling;
Its frozen burden filling each hollow. And hark;
Out of the naked woods a wild bird calling,
On the starless verge of the dark!
Walter de la Mare, Inward Companion and Other Poems (Faber and Faber 1950).
Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), "Winter" (1892)