We look up to songbirds. Literally, of course, as when tilting our heads toward their tree-branch perches, but, moreover, metaphorically. Colorful bundles of energy, capable of such pleasant songs and distant journeys, these little creatures easily stir the imagination. What better symbols for the human spirit and its highest aspirations?
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”
Musicians and writers have often viewed our winged neighbors as emblematic of humankind’s greatest qualities, those aspects that inspire us, that make us feel whole. Feelings that lighten our state of being, for instance, can easily be likened to birds in flight. Such sensations people usually describe as elevated, as if no longer weighted, effortlessly able to rise up off the ground and towards the sky.
Joy is such an emotion, both beautiful and at times fleetingly whimsical. Birds are sometimes thought to embody it. You’ve likely heard of the bluebird of happiness. Well, Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird: A Fairy Play in Six Acts, an early twentieth-century children’s drama about the search for this small creature of delight, may have given birth to this now-popular expression in Western culture (1). Of course, many poems celebrate birds for the joy they provide. Percy Shelley’s “To a Sky-Lark” and William Ernest Henley’s “The Blackbird” are just a couple examples.
Compassionate and wishful aspiration is another emotional state that can be depicted as bird-like, descending to comfort us with its uplifting song. Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” speaks of how such optimism “perches in the soul”. Even as it provides its tune in the harshest of circumstances, the little one never begs for a “crumb” (2). Another poem of comparable sentiment, “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy, relates the comfort serendipitously discovered from a little creature’s “full-hearted evensong / Of joy”. Despite the cold winter wind and frost, the bird seems to offer “Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew / And I was unaware” (3).
Besides happiness and hope, birds can act as proxy-symbols of a naïve desire that’s unharnessed from reason and calculating restraint, as demonstrated in Robert Graves’s short poem “Love Without Hope”. Here larks in song fly away from their young romantic captor towards a sophisticated and unattainable love interest (4). Numerous examples in verse abound, of course, involving similar characteristics.
“For the caged bird sings of freedom”
The caged or ensnared songbird, in particular, ranks among the most powerful of metaphors. Symbolic of the desire to overcome oppression, the imprisoned creature can represent both the basic needs of the individual as well as a segment of society. Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” “sings of freedom” (5), a theme taken up in Alicia Keys’s song of the same title and the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “Sympathy”. To fly is to be free, to fully express one’s nature, unhindered by others’ imposing, self-serving agendas. The profoundly spiritual appeal of such sentiment is expressed by the Biblical author of Psalms 124. Employing a similar metaphor, the scriptural song likens the “soul” of an entire nation (Israel) to an escaped bird rescued by God from its enemy captors.
A few songs present the bird within a cage as a metaphor for a dualism in which the spirit or mind animates the body. In such a manner, for example, the necessity of being on good terms with one’s self is poignantly conveyed by a verse in Tori Amos’s “Crucify”. “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird”, she croons, suggesting the deadening effects of guilt and suffering. Another example looks beyond this life. The narrative within Sting’s “The Language of Birds” focuses on an elderly pigeon keeper whose “soul was still trapped in the cage” (6). Only upon death is the man at last released from his own “cage” of corporeal confinement.
“Planted on the starlit golden bough”
Also invoking bird imagery, William Butler Yeats’s poems “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium” address old age, death, and the quintessential search for the eternal. The first piece describes the speaker’s quest, alluding to some transcendent, avian-like form for his spirit, fashioned “as Grecian goldsmiths make” (7). Furthering this vision, the second poem expresses this figure as “More miracle than bird or handiwork” (8). What perhaps could we expect of a form that both seeks and represents the unbounded, the spiritual, the otherworldly? Regardless of this creature’s exact nature, Yeats taps into an allegorical power that has long associated birds with the soul, an idea that I’m hoping we can further explore later.
As Joseph Campbell noted in conversations a few decades ago with journalist Bill Moyers, “The bird is symbolic of the release of the spirit from bondage to the earth…” (9). Poets, musicians, and others within the arts have long understood this connection between our feathered neighbors and the heart’s profound yearning for freedom and happiness.
Included here are just several examples of this theme, most relatively recent. Next week’s post will look back thousands of years at some of the oldest.
- Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
- Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
- Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
- Leithauser, B. “A Poet of Piercing Valentines”, 2/13/2013. The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-poet-of-piercing-valentines.
- Angelou, M. “Caged Bird”, Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
- Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
- Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. First Scribner Paperback Poetry edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1996. pp. 193-194.
- Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
- Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.