Love’s in the Air

DoveLove

If romantic love has a holiday then it has to be St. Valentine’s Day. But this was not always the case. As strange as it may sound, we likely owe this popular notion in part to an English poem composed more than 600 years ago—a poem about a bunch of birds written for a 14-year-old monarch and his soon-to-be-wife.

Nature Calls

Although Valentine’s Day has ties to the wild, drunken festivities of the ancient Romans’ Lupercalia celebration (1), one of the first documented connections made between Valentine’s Day and romantic coupling actually comes from the late Middle Ages. During this time, around 1381, Geoffrey Chaucer—yes, that same chap responsible for The Canterbury Tales—penned his dedication to a young King Richard II and his fiancée, Anne of Bohemia (2, 3). A rather curious work, Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls”(4) sets out in exploration of love and its mysteries. The poem includes a dream populated with Roman divinities and heroes before eventually moving toward a beautiful pastoral setting where an assembly of talking birds are gathering. In fact, birds of various kinds are arriving there on Valentine’s Day, we are told, for the purpose of selecting a mate.

In Chaucer’s poem, all sorts of fowl—goose, duck, peacock, stork, kite, robin, owl, and more—congregate on this annual occasion. This year the creatures settle near the great goddess Nature for a debate involving several eagles. One after another, the birds are frequently introduced in association with a particular characteristic, not unlike the moralizing bestiaries of this period. As examples, the cormorant is described as gluttonous and the raven is noted for its intelligence and wisdom. Interestingly, Chaucer does not specifically name the vulture, which was believed by some people at the time capable of reproducing without need of a male partner.

Feathers of Lust, Love, and Lechery

Overall, the poet maintains traditional stereotypes when citing particular birds. For instance, he links the dove and the sparrow with the goddess of love. Historically, deities concerned with amorous relations, such as Aphrodite, Venus, and Ishtar, had long been depicted with these birds (5, 6). Chaucer was likely well aware of these non-Christian motifs. Even our language today reflects this age-old connection, as with the rhyming descriptor “lovey-dovey” (7). But both doves and sparrows signified more than just love; they also were metaphors for sexual desire (8, 9, 10).

The same could be said of the “popinjay” or parrot, a bird that may be interpreted in the poem as lecherous (11). Again, like the previously mentioned fowl, parrots have been associated with affectionate and lustful feelings, particularly in the East. In India, they were even popular as pets with courtesans (12). These birds, first domesticated in Asia and Africa, were introduced to Europe in the fourth-century BCE during the time of Alexander the Great (13). And, thanks to traders, parrots later found their way to England before the time of Chaucer, who also writes of a popinjay in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” of The Canterbury Tales.

The Dead-Beat Cuckoo

Of the many birds throughout “The Parliament of Fowls,” one is cast in particularly bad light: the Old World cuckoo. Chaucer describes her as “unkinde” and murderous. His assertions, though, come with ample reason. The poet is referring to the female cuckoo’s habit of placing her eggs in another unsuspecting bird’s nest, a practice referred to in biology as brood parasitism. This deceit in turn leads to the mother bird of that nest feeding an illegitimate hatchling. Worse yet, though, are the illegitimate offspring’s lethal actions. Eventually the young cuckoo will nudge the other birds out of the nest and to their deaths.

The cuckoo’s brood parasitism has led people to label it as lazy and irresponsible, as well as unfaithful. Interestingly, the bird’s name is linguistically related in several languages—though not in English—to either an adulteress (14) or to the word “cuckold,” a term for an obtuse man, particularly an older one, who’s oblivious to the affairs of his adulterous wife (15, 16). The word appears in The Canterbury Tales several times, rendered as “cokewold.” Furthermore, the cuckoo’s reputation as one who mocks love, resurfaces in English literature, such as in “The Cuckoo and the Nightingale” by Chaucer’s contemporary John Clanvowe and later in “O Nightingale” by John Milton.

The Affairs of Birds

Despite a few questionable aspects, Chaucer’s birds in general seem fitting enough for a love-themed poem. Like the poet, many of us still find avian metaphors appropriate today for romantic associations. In the United Kingdom, a significant other is referred to as my “duck,” while “dolly bird” is slang for a young, attractive woman (17, 18). There’s even the popular “birds and the bees” euphemism for sexual relations.

Clearly, though, there are several key ornithological inaccuracies within the central theme of “The Parliament of Fowls.” For starters, birds do not collectively select mates on one given day throughout the year, no matter whether it be February 14th or May 3rd, the day the young king’s engagement was announced (19). Also, our avian neighbors, especially songbirds, usually do not mate for life and are often unfaithful (20, 21, 22). Chaucer probably didn’t realize this; otherwise, he likely would have reconsidered using them in a matter related to royal matrimony!

On one important positive note, research has discovered a few stellar examples of avian faithfulness, as Australian ravens, mute swans, and several species of geese—and especially albatrosses—were found to rank among those birds with the lowest “divorce rates” (23, 24). They even appear to enjoy better conjugal success than human couples in the U.S.! So perhaps albatrosses are the birds most worthy of our adulation on Valentine’s Day, even if they fail to receive proper due in Chaucer’s poem.

Sources:

  1. Seipel, A. “The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day,” 2/13/2011. NPR: http://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day.
  2. Tearle, O.M. “The Literary Origins of Valentine’s Day,” 2/13/2014. Interesting Literature: A Library of Literary Interestingness: http://interestingliterature.com/2014/02/13/the-literary-origins-of-valentines-day/.
  3. Simpson, J. “Valentines.” The Folklore Society (of London): http://www.folklore-society.com/miscellany/valentines.
  4. Chaucer, G. “The Parliament of Fowls.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature (The Online Archive): http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/08Fowls_1_17.pdf.
  5. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. p. 37.
  6. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 47.
  7. Tate, P. p. 37.
  8. Tate, P. p. 37.
  9. Mastin, L. “Passer, Deliciae Meae Puellae” (Catullus 2). Classical Literature: http://www.ancient-literature.com/rome_catullus_2.html.
  10. Eugenides, J. “Excerpt: ’My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead’,” 2/13/2008. NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18927224.
  11. Chaucer, G. The Parliament of Fowls. Kline, A.S., (translator) Poetry in Translation: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/Fowls.htm.
  12. Bhatt, P.M. “Birds and Nature in the Stepwells of Gujarat, Western India.” Tidemann, S., Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology: Birds, Indigenous Peoples, Culture and Society. Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2011. p. 146.
  13. Chamberlain, S. “Parrot History: Yesterday & Today,” 10/21/2013. Bird Channel: http://www.birdchannel.com/bird-news/bird-entertainment/bird-history.aspx.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. p. 203.
  15. Williams, J. “Cuckolds, horns, and other explanations,” 7/4/2009. BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/world/europe/8133615.stm.
  16. Tate, P. p. 29.
  17. “Duck”. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/duck.
  18. “Lovey-dovey.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lovey-dovey.
  19. Tearle, O.M.
  20. Milius, S. “When Birds Divorce: Who splits, who benefits, and who gets the nest” http://people.eku.edu/ritchisong/birddivorce.html.
  21. “Who’s the daddy?”, British Trust for Ornithology: http://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/gardens-wildlife/garden-birds/behaviour/infidelity.
  22. Krulwich, R. “Introducing A Divorce Rate For Birds, And Guess Which Bird Never, Ever Divorces?”, 4/22/2014. Krulwich Wonders, NPR: http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2014/04/22/305582368/introducing-a-divorce-rate-for-birds-and-guess-which-bird-never-ever-divorces.
  23. Milius, S.
  24. Krulwich, R.
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A Brief Flight through Horror: Birds of the Dead and the Damned

bloodySparrows

A tenant’s missing rent payment leads to a tough, street-smart property owner’s ghastly discovery. She enters the apartment unit to collect her money, but quickly realizes that she has stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene. Overcome with shock, the landlady screams. Then she faints. On the wall near a savagely mutilated body, a mysterious message is finger-scrawled in blood:

THE SPARROWS ARE FLYING AGAIN.

A ruthless homicidal rampage in Stephen King’s The Dark Half thus continues. It can only end with the inevitable showdown between the novel’s main character, author Thad Beaumont, and the killer George Stark (1). The connection between the two characters is complicated, with readers gradually finding out that Stark is much more than just Beaumont’s more successful and darker pseudonym come-to-life. As the story progresses, we learn more, too, about the mysterious and ever-growing number of sparrows.

“Back to Endsville”

The birds turn out to be escorts to the realm of the dead, an underworld which King at times calls “Endsville.” Such guides, known traditionally as pyschopomps, have historically taken on various forms in religion, folklore, and literature. These can include human or human-like beings. For example, Charon, the ferryman of the Greek/Roman underworld, is probably the most notable and familiar of psychopomps. Animals, angels, and other beings, however, can also fulfill these roles.

Another well-known psychopomp is the “ominous bird of yore” in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” who may be deemed a messenger from Hades or “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (2, 3). Has the raven not taken off with the protagonist’s spirit, swept away all hope of the narrator ever joining his deceased mistress (“my soul… shall be lifted—nevermore!”)? Or maybe something more sinister has occurred—perhaps the late mistress has been consigned to hell, and her lover learns from this ebony feathered “devil” that he, too, is to be ushered there but, as part of his torment, forever denied her presence. Having destroyed the thing that has sustained the speaker in his life, he is left at the very least in the raven’s “shadow” of despair, what could be interpreted as either a literal or metaphorical land of the dead.

“Screaming of vast flocks”

As one of the characters (a folklore professor and Beaumont’s colleague) in The Dark Half explains, whippoorwills and loons are among the birds most commonly identified as psychopomps. Swallows are also mentioned. And although ravens do not appear in the novel, King interestingly credits his inspiration to the sighting of a massive flock of crows, as well as to an H.P. Lovecraft poem (4). Psychopomps are a theme in several of Lovecraft’s works. For instance, whippoorwills assume this role in his short story “The Dunwich Horror,” of which below is a brief excerpt:

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandemoniac cachinnation which filled all the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down (5).

The story remains one of Lovecraft’s most popular works. His poem “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme” (perhaps the one to which King is referring) doesn’t mention whippoorwills, crows, or sparrows. Instead, it features a sinister “howling train” of wolves “that rend the air” to collect a dead boy’s soul from his parents (6). The description, though, is clearly evocative of the Wild Hunt stories often linked with Gabriel’s Hounds and the Seven Whistlers (7). These feared creatures were believed to ride out at night, particularly around the winter solstice, and snatch off with victims’ souls. Perhaps a combination of this poem and the whippoorwills of “The Dunwich Horror” actually influenced King.

“The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy”

As the name suggests, the Seven Whistlers consist of seven birds who make loud, frightful, piping/blowing noises. The types most often associated with the deadly flock are curlews, widgeons, golden plover, and wild geese (8). Many poets have expressed fascination with the legend. William Wordsworth, for instance, refers to it in his sonnet “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares”:

He the seven birds hath seen, that never part,
Seen the Seven Whistlers in their nightly rounds,
And counted them: and oftentimes will start—
For overhead are sweeping Gabriel’s Hounds
Doomed, …. (9)

As the ornithologist Edward Armstrong also notes, English poet Edmund Spenser in his sixteenth-century epic The Faerie Queene cites the notorious flock among the “fatall birds”: “The whistler shrill, that who so heares doth dy” (10, 11). The creatures are the subject of Victorian poet Alice E. Gillington’s “The Seven Whistlers” (12). However, despite the similarities in Whistler lore with the poem by Lovecraft, he does not mention any birds by name that were commonly thought of as Whistlers in his “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme.”

Of course, none of birds connected with the legends of the Great Hunt seem nearly as menacing as those in King’s The Dark Half. His sparrows brandish a viciousness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet surpassing in their ferocious intensity. Who knew that birds could be so terrifying?

In the hands of great horror writers, any animal may well assume a frightening presence, in this case a small bird commonly found throughout the world and occasionally deemed a pest. The sparrow may be an appropriate choice for psychopomp due to its near-universal presence, a symbolic reminder that death, though it may seem hidden in the backdrop of our lives, remains close by.

So along with the haunting figure of Poe’s demonic raven and the screaming whippoorwills of Lovecraft, let’s not forget the flesh-devouring sparrows of Stephen King this Halloween.

Sources:

  1. King, S. The Dark Half. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989.
  2. Poe, E.A. “The Raven,” The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178713.
  3. Cross, R.T. “Psychopomp,” 11/29/2011, The Etyman Language Blog: http://etyman.wordpress.com/tag/psychopomp/.
  4. King, S. “The Dark Half: Inspiration,” Stephen King’s official web site: http://stephenking.com/library/novel/dark_half_the_inspiration.html.
  5. Lovecraft, H.P. “The Dunwich Horror,” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/fiction/dh.aspx.
  6. Lovecraft, H.P., “Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme,” The H.P. Lovecraft Archive: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/poetry/p139.aspx.
  7. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press. pp. 217-220.
  8. Armstrong, E.A. pp. 217-220.
  9. Wordsworth, W. “Though Narrow Be that Old Man’s Cares,” William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (1999): http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww339.html.
  10. Armstrong, E.A.. pp. 217-218.
  11. Spenser, E. The Faerie Queene (Book II, Canto XII, Stanza XXXVI), Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works. Bartleby.com (2010): http://www.bartleby.com/153/55.html.
  12. Gillington, A.E. “The Seven Whistlers,” A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria. Edmund Clarence Stedman (editor). Bartleby.com (2003): http://www.bartleby.com/246/1159.html.