Monday, January 5, 2015

A Sparrow. A Fluttering Thing.

Any time is a good time to contemplate the fleeting nature of our life.  But the beginning of a new year is an especially appropriate time to do so. There is a sense of the slate having been wiped clean (well, as much as it can be), and of a fresh opportunity to fully appreciate the yet-unused moments that lie before us.

I had first thought to write:  "Any time is a good time to contemplate the fleeting nature of our soul."  But I thought better of it.  There is no doubt that life is fleeting.  But is that true of the soul?

I realize that, for some moderns, the very idea of the existence of a "soul" is beyond the realm of possibility, and is viewed by them as an outdated superstition of which they have been disabused.  I'm afraid that I have not been disabused.  Thus, the following poem is not simply a historical curiosity for me.  Nor is it anachronistic.  And I find it worth a visit at the turning of the year.


"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 Abbie Findlay Potts, The Ecclesiastical Sonnets of William Wordsworth: A Critical Edition (Yale University Press 1922).

"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 scene took place during Paulinus's visit to King Edwin of Northumbria in 625 or thereabouts (the date is not certain).

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), "Mount Yuga in Bizen Province"

The incident upon which Wordsworth's sonnet is based is found in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (c. 731):

"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."

A. M. Sellar (translator), Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (G. Bell and Sons 1917), pages 116-117.

In her edition of The Ecclesiastical Sonnets, Potts suggests that, based upon certain verbal parallels in his sonnet, Wordsworth likely first encountered Bede's story in The Church History of Britain (1655) by Thomas Fuller (1608-1661).  Potts, The Ecclesiastical Sonnets of William Wordsworth: A Critical Edition, page 224.  Here is Fuller's version:

"Man's life," said he, "O King, is like unto a little sparrow, which, whilst your majesty is feasting by the fire in your parlor with your royal retinue, flies in at one window, and out at another.  Indeed, we see it that short time it remaineth in the house, and then is it well sheltered from wind and weather; but presently it passeth from cold to cold; and whence it came, and whither it goes, we are altogether ignorant.  Thus, we can give some account of our soul during its abode in the body, whilst housed and harbored therein; but where it was before, and how it fareth after, is to us altogether unknown.  If therefore Paulinus's preaching will certainly inform us herein, he deserveth, in my opinion, to be entertained."

Ibid, page 224.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Uraga in Sagami Province"

The flight of the sparrow in Bede's chronicle brings to mind the death-bed poem of the Emperor Hadrian (76-138), which begins with the line "animula vagula blandula."  The line has been variously translated as:  "My little wand'ring sportful Soule" (John Donne, 1611); "My soul, my pleasant soul and witty" (Henry Vaughan, 1652); "Little soul so sleek and smiling" (Stevie Smith, 1966).  Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995), pages 508-509.  Very sparrow-like.

The following two translations of the entire poem go together quite well with the sparrow in King Edwin's Northumbrian hall, I think.

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
    To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
     But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Hours of Idleness (1807).

Poor little, pretty, flutt'ring thing,
     Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling wing,
     To take thy flight thou know'st not whither?

Thy humorous vein, thy pleasing folly
     Lies all neglected, all forgot:
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
     Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know'st not what.

Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions (1709).

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Ishiyakushi"

As for the fate of the soul, this poem, which has appeared here before, is worth revisiting on this occasion.

                      The Soul's Progress

It enters life it knows not whence; there lies
A mist behind it and a mist before.
It stands between a closed and open door.
It follows hope, yet feeds on memories.
The years are with it, and the years are wise;
It learns the mournful lesson of their lore.
It hears strange voices from an unknown shore,
Voices that will not answer to its cries.

Blindly it treads dim ways that wind and twist;
It sows for knowledge, and it gathers pain;
Stakes all on love, and loses utterly.
Then, going down into the darker mist,
Naked, and blind, and blown with wind and rain,
It staggers out into eternity.

Arthur Symons, Days and Nights (1889).

There is no mistaking the vital stream that runs from Hadrian through Bede through Wordsworth through Symons.  This progression seems absolutely fresh and contemporary to me.  It makes modern irony and know-it-allness seem stodgy, old-fashioned, and -- no other word fits -- soulless.

Utagawa Hiroshige, "Snow Falling on a Town"


Fred said...


This seems to be a world-wide idea, not limited to Europeans. Taoists say we come from the Void and return to the Void--or we don't know where we come from and where we go at the end.

And, of course, it's a common theme in the Rubaiyat, although to be honest, I'll have to check some other translations as FitzGerald really didn't do a strict translation much of the time.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: I would never say that age automatically makes one wiser, but it does perhaps allow one to see, through greater experience, that there is, as the saying goes, nothing new under the sun, and that most cultures arrive at similar conclusions about fundamental human matters.

Thus, I appreciate your drawing these parallels with Taoism and the Rubaiyat. It seems that all of us, as humans, are striving -- have always striven -- to make some sense of these things. Not that we ever achieve final answers, mind you.

Thank you very much for pointing out these particular connections.

Anonymous said...

"This is where we are in history -- to think
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it;

to think our bubble of good fortune will save us from the night -- a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears."
From "Where We Are"
by Stephen Dobyns

This is a rougher modern version of the theme -- fascinating how many versions there have been.

Fred said...


In line with your comment above, have you read Aldous Huxley's _The Perennial Philosophy_?

From the Wikipedia entry on the work:

"The Perennial Philosophy is an attempt to present this Highest Common Factor of all theologies by assembling passages from the writings of those saints and prophets who have approached a direct spiritual knowledge of the Divine,...

The book offers readers, who are assumed to be familiar with the Christian religion and the Bible, a fresh approach employing Eastern and Western mysticism:

Mr. Huxley quotes from the Chinese Taoist philosophers, from followers of Buddha and Mohammed, from the Brahmin scriptures and from Christian mystics ranging from St John of the Cross to William Law, giving preference to those whose writings, often illuminated by genius, are unfamiliar to the modern reader."

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: Greetings in the New Year! Thank you for stopping by, and thank you as well for sharing the passage from the poem by Stephen Dobyns.

I have tracked down the text of the full poem on the Internet: I like how he transforms Bede's anecdote. It is wonderful how the anecdote has survived over so many centuries. It obviously speaks to something we all can understand.

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for the recommendation: the book is new to me. After receiving your comment, I found a copy on the Internet Archive, and have been perusing it. A very interesting approach, isn't it?

I started with the chapter entitled "Silence," and immediately encountered these wonderful thoughts:

"What need of so much news from abroad, when all that concerns either life or death is all transacting and at work within us?" (William Law)

"A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker." (Chuang Tzu)

Great stuff! Thank you again for the recommendation.

Fred said...


That's how I read it. I just open to the TOC and select a topic.

B. Floyd said...

I read a short essay last night on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Reading the essay, I realized I had forgotten that Socrates (and Plato too) believed that the truth did not lie outside of man but inside. The Socratic dialogue proves this point. Ask questions, point out contradictions, and Socrates finally helps his interlocutor find the truth. What Plato, through Socrates, is saying is that education has the power to liberate one.

Here’s Plato on the power of education to liberate:

Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes . . .Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect is appropriately.

The below poem by Dickinson says pretty much the same thing. You will remember that Keats in one of his letters described life as a "vale of soul-making."

I'd like to think the soul is not static, that it is capable of growth. Perhaps the soul is conscious of itself and can, if it desires, expand, grow, improve itself. We train our bodies; I do not see why the soul cannot train itself, teach itself, as Plato says, to look the right way.

The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Auger and the Carpenter—
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life—
A past of Plank and Nail
And slowness—then the Scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you again for recommending it. It is, as you say, the type of book you can dip into at random and come away with something you haven't seen before. For instance, I now need to look further into William Law.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for the wonderful poem by Dickinson, which is new to me. It fits well with the passage from Plato which you quote, particularly: "Education takes for granted that sight is there . . ."

As you know, the Buddhist and Taoist traditions teach that everything we need to know is right there in front of our noses, but we remain ignorant. Plato's statement and Dickinson's poem bring to mind the experience of "enlightenment" in Buddhism. In fact, Dickinson sounds like a Zen Buddhist roshi: "the Props withdraw" and "the Scaffolds drop" sound exactly like a description of satori/enlightenment.

Thank you very much for your thoughts, and for providing us with these perfectly complementary passages. Greetings in the New Year!