Sunday, December 9, 2018


In this part of the world, any clear day between November and April is considered a gift.  One feels compelled to walk out into it, for its like may not be seen again for who knows how long.

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.

                              Winter Evening

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)


Jennifer Osborne said...

I so look forward to your posts and would like to thank you for the pleasure and learning they bring me. It was a particular joy to open this one and see Bede. Off to a conference later this week on Anglo Saxon charters. No chance of a physical sparrow passing through our conference hall but the spirit of one will be with me. Thank you.

John Ashton said...


I was working at my allotment over the weekend, still there late in the afternoon as daylight ebbed away It’s often the noise of crows coming down to roost in the trees between the allotments and the nearby reservoirs that make me look up and notice the deepening blue-black of clouds signaling the onset of darkness and equally, the sudden awareness of just how cold my hands and feet are.

Thank you for the words of the Venerable Bede, I hadn’t read them in a very long time. I like the image of the sparrow’s flight. Sometimes I think of myself as a small pebble the earth has carried to the surface to lie in the light for a while.

And that time we have in the light has myriad compensations. We are surrounded in every moment if we take the time to notice. Walking in local woods a couple of days ago I could hear through the space in the woods now that most of the leaves have fallen the sound of the running stream more clearly and the openness gave new perspectives between the bare trunks.. In the soaked grasses countless fungi had sprung up and as always I was drawn to pause more than once by the colours and shapes of lichen and mosses, and the tiny birds, too small and fast to identify, flitting and chirruping among the bare branches.

The De La Mare poem is beautiful, the last two lines so evocative.

As we are now getting close to Christmas, though still a little early perhaps, may I take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year and thank you again for all the wonderful things you post here. It is always a delight to visit.

James said...

Headlights, Carnival, Winter… what picks…! Your walk with Puget Sound and geese for company is quite a deal… Voyages with its brief summary of human life… might as well be a candle as a sparrow and so I ended looking up something about Brown and found this little thumbnail of the man…

“Into this English idyll, it seemed, an alien had wandered. Scotland’s greatest living writer, my hero, sat on a garden seat resembling nothing so much as a drift of autumn leaves; or a yarn of his own familiar seaweed, washed up by a freakish tide. He is a thin, spare, boney man, with a quietness that is disconcerting. The neophyte would have his idol chatty, expansive, mouvementé. He has an islander’s eye, full of sky and distance, and he listens; listens so intently that it’s almost as though he were eavesdropping. He is a man harrowed, not hewn. By harrowed I mean not agonised, or tortured, but as if turned up out of the ground. He is as natural as the people and the things that he writes about.

All my carefully prepared questions fly out of my mind; they seem impertinent or trivial. It is restful being with him, for he is a man of great strength, a concealed strength forged by a knowledge of weakness. Kind, gentle, humorous – he is all these things. Magically (and there’s a deal of magic about George) they were all embodied there, briefly, in an Oxford garden.” Courtesy The Chesterton Review (1991), George Mackay Brown, A Brief Encounter …

Just the ‘sang the swallowflight’ … again another reference to our life, a swallowflight… and then I had to look up Hound of Heaven as George was way enamored… (For, though I knew His love Who followèd, Yet was I sore adread , Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside).

Damian said...

Perhaps a bit oblique, but the image of the sparrow briefly flitting through the hall reminds me of a thought I often have about people whom I meet in highly specific circumstances which are unlikely to ever be repeated. Sometimes, especially when traveling, I take notice of people and think about how I'll almost certainly never see them again. Practically speaking, they might as well be dead to me. But of course, they have many years of life on both sides of our brief meeting, experiences of which I can know nothing. It's sort of a humbling feeling to think about how much depth we experience as a subject in the world, but how little we can really know about the depth of other people. Which always makes me think of a section from one of Sam Hamill's poems, A Rose for Solitude:

And if, as I pass,
I should look you in the eye,
do not be afraid. I want
only to glimpse the emptiness
at the center of your heart,
I want to reach for you
because I know,
as you do,
we might never have met.

Speaking of birds and winter more generally, though, I have a personal tradition (the origins of which I don't even recall) where every New Year's Eve, I read Stephen Mitchell's translation of a Rilke poem. Something about the last verse in particular seems appropriate to me for reflection at year's end:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah, the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hands differently upon its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.

Esther said...

A particularly inspired post!

Unknown said...

This is such a beautiful post. It called to mine two other poems I like very much: Come In by Robert Frost and Tell Me a Story by Robert Penn Warren. The light over here in the north of England fades very quickly from 3.00pm. there is something alluring about the darkness but I prefer the long nights of May, June and July.

Come In
As I came to the edge of the woods,
Thrush music — hark!
Now if it was dusk outside,
Inside it was dark.

Too dark in the woods for a bird
By sleight of wing
To better its perch for the night,
Though it still could sing.

The last of the light of the sun
That had died in the west
Still lived for one song more
In a thrush's breast.

Far in the pillared dark
Thrush music went —
Almost like a call to come in
To the dark and lament.

But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been

from Tell Me A Story
[ A ]
Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood
By a dirt road, in first dark, and heard
The great geese hoot northward.

I could not see them, there being no moon
And the stars sparse. I heard them.

I did not know what was happening in my heart.

It was the season before the elderberry blooms,
Therefore they were going north.

The sound was passing northward.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Osborne: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog and about this post. Bede's words are lovely, aren't they? A passage that, once read, is impossible to forget. A conference on Anglo Saxon charters sounds intriguing. After reading your comment, I did some Internet research. They certainly look beautiful!

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for your thoughts and observations. Your idea of thinking of yourself "as a small pebble the earth has carried to the surface to lie in the light for a while" is wonderful. The image captures the nature of our stay here perfectly. Your description of the things that can be seen and heard in the woods now that the leaves have fallen resonates with me: I have similar feelings when late autumn and winter arrive. For instance, like you, I was noticing recently the different views that open up in the woods in winter. I've grown to appreciate more and more the gains that accompany the losses as the seasons change. This may have something to do with aging, I suspect. I'm not complaining, but am grateful. As you say, "that time we have in the light has myriad compensations."

It's not too early, so I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year as well. I greatly value your long-time, and continuing, presence here.

Stephen Pentz said...

James: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you liked the post.

And thank you as well for sharing the passages from the article about Brown, which is new to me. The author's description of Brown is lovely and wonderful. "He is as natural as the people and the things that he writes about. . . . Kind, gentle, humorous -- he is all these things." For another evocative piece about Brown, I recommend "Going to Meet George" by Ronald Blythe, which appears in Blythe's collection Going to Meet George and Other Outings (Long Barn Books 1999).

Yes, "swallowflight" is beautiful, isn't it? I wonder if it is an indirect product of Brown's early interest in, and study of, Hopkins's poetry?

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Damian: Thank you very much for those thoughts, and for the lines by Hamill and the poem by Rilke, which are new to me. Both passages are lovely, and both go together well with Bede's sparrow.

Your observation about the people who pass through our lives is not "oblique" at all. Transience in all of its manifestations and varieties is something that deserves our attention. "Everything passes and vanishes;/Everything leaves its trace." (William Allingham) A truism, perhaps. But true.

Your thoughts about those who pass and vanish (i.e., all of us) place you in excellent company. A poem by Robert Herrick:

Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides (1648), Poem 671.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you. That's very nice of you to say. Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Unknown: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm happy you liked it. And thank you as well for sharing the poems, both of which I am quite fond of. They go well both with Bede's passage and with de la Mare's "Winter Evening." The sound of geese has always been very evocative for me: when I was a child in Minnesota, I used to hear hundreds of Canadian geese high in the sky, heading south for winter. The sound and sight have always stayed with me.

I am pleased to have the passage from Warren's poem appear here: I need to revisit his poetry; I have been away from it for too long, His lines "Long ago, in Kentucky, I, a boy, stood/By a dirt road" bring back a pleasant memory: I once visited Guthrie, Kentucky, where Warren was born, and visited his family's home, which is now the Robert Penn Warren Birthplace Museum.

Thank you very much for visiting.

Anonymous said...

I had a happy hour yesterday evening reading your new post, and the comments.
I have a poem to add to those posted by other commenters. It was in this poem that I first encountered The Venerable Bede & the Symbolic Sparrow. It is rougher, but powerful to me, & ends with a different slant on the picture:

Where We Are
Stephen Dobyns
A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf,
then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
at the long table, friends fill their mouths
with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from
pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering the man

looks to see a bird -- black with a white patch
beneath its beak -- flying the length of the hall,
having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams,
as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling.

The man pauses -- one hand holds the bread, the other
rests upon the table -- and watches the bird, perhaps
a swift, fly toward the window at the far end of the room.
He begins to point it out to his friends, but one is
telling hunting stories, as another describes the best way

to butcher a pig. The man shoves the bread in his mouth,
then slaps his hand down hard on the thigh of the woman
seated beside him, squeezes his fingers to feel the firm
muscles and tendons beneath the fabric of her dress.
A huge dog snores on the stone hearth by the fire.

From the window comes the clicking of pine needles
blown against it by an October wind. A half moon
hurries along behind scattered clouds, while the forest
of black spruce and bare maple and birch surrounds
the long hall the way a single rock can be surrounded

by a river. 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.

I'm sending you my wishes for a Merry Christmas and a healthful New Year, filled with the best of walks, Susan

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: As always, thank you very much for your kind words. I'm happy you liked the post.

Thank you also for sharing the poem, which is new to me. It captures well the feelings evoked by Bede's sparrow. It's good to see that the passage still remains resonant today for many of us. Our common fate has never changed.

Thank you for the holiday wishes. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you! As I hope you know, I greatly value your presence here over the years -- through a great deal of change. I hope we continue our conversation for many years to come. I too wish you many wonderful walks in the coming year. And lovely journeys as well. Take care.

John Bagley said...

Stephen: Thank you, as always, for the post.

I'm afraid I have the poetic equivalent of a "tin ear" - apart from some John Betjeman and a few Haiku, for some reason it fails to touch me. Music, Literature, Painting - Yes, they can move me (to tears on occasion!). However I do appreciate your musings and your excellent selection of paintings.

I was especially pleased to see the painting of Carnival Night in The Memorial Park Coventry, having walked there many times myself. Whilst a beautiful open space close to the city centre it does have a sad aspect. As its' name suggests it is a memorial to those Coventrians, civilian or military, who lost their lives in the World Wars and conflicts since. Besides the 90ft high portland stone memorial itself, each tree has in front of it a small brass plaque bearing the name of one of the fallen, a poignant reminder of our own little sparrow flight.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Bagley: Thank you very much for your kind words.

I'm pleased you liked the painting. Of course, the beauty of most paintings lies in how they capture the light, but I was particularly taken with the glow of this painting: the yellow-green light of the park under the trees, leading up into the darker tree boughs and the sky -- and, finally, those fireworks sparkling high in that patch of night sky. The people standing or walking beneath the trees. All of it quite evocative.

Thank you for sharing the background about The Memorial Park, which I was not aware of. The brass plaques in front of the trees are a lovely touch. As you say, "a poignant reminder."

Thank you for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts. I hope you will return soon.

Thomas Parker said...

We are indeed uneasily suspended between the past and the future ; Bede's image of the bird made me think of this poem by the unjustly neglected Longfellow:

Mezzo Cammin

Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet.
Not indolence, nor pleasure, nor the fret
Of restless passions that would not be stilled,
But sorrow, and a care that almost killed,
Kept me from what I may accomplish yet;
Though, half-way up the hill, I see the Past
Lying beneath me with its sounds and sights,—
A city in the twilight dim and vast,
With smoking roofs, soft bells, and gleaming lights,—
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.

Thank you so much for this site and what you share on it and may you have a blessed Christmas.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Parker: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you for sharing Longfellow's poem. I confess that I am one of those who have neglected his poetry. But this is a lovely poem, and tells me I ought to make an effort to rectify that ignorance. I presume that the title is taken from the first line of Dante's Inferno. I do know that Longfellow translated The Divine Comedy, and found his translation of the first two lines of The Inferno: "Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark." Lovely as well. Ah, to be back at the "mezzo cammin" of one's life. But perhaps not.

Thank you very much for the Christmas wishes. Merry Christmas to you. Thank you for visiting again, and I hope you will return in the coming year.

Mathias Richter said...

Dear Mr Pentz,

I very much appreciate the way you highlight those poetical visions offered by kindred spirits across the centuries by your own delicate and unobtrusive musings.
Thank you especially for drawing my attention to the small poem by Walter de la Mare.
All too easy gems like this one tend to escape attention.
It begins like a poetical winter scene but by introducing the wild bird the poet attempts to bridge the space between our homely idyll and the vast unknown. Does he offer solace? I don‘t know. But by articulating these ambivalent thoughts he seems to say: here I am, dear reader. You are not alone with your fears.

Thank you for a rich year of poetical walks in your company!
I wish you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Richter: I'm delighted to hear from you again. I'm pleased you liked the poem by de la Mare. It is one of my favorites by him. (Although I have many.) You precisely articulate why I am so fond of his poetry. Your description of how "Winter Evening" works for us, as readers, applies, I think, to nearly all of de la Mare's poetry: "Here I am, dear reader. You are not alone with your fears." This is a lovely and wonderful way to put it, and goes to the heart of de la Mare's poetry, in my opinion.

I also completely agree with your thought: "All too easy gems like this one tend to escape attention." Gems like this are found throughout de la Mare's poetry, as you know. The same is true of a poet who I know you are quite fond of: Andrew Young. Although they are each unique, I think they are, to use your phrase, "kindred spirits." It is not surprising that de la Mare admired Young's poetry.

As for "small poems," I suspect that you and I may agree (although I shouldn't be presumptuous) that the heart of poetry lies in "small poems" such as those written by de la Mare and Young. They may be "small," but they contain the World.

Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. I greatly value your long-term presence here. Thank you very much for visiting again, and I hope you will continue to return. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you as well!