If the Human Spirit Had Wings

cagedBluebirds

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.

Sources:

  1. Martin, L.C. The Folklore of Birds (1st Edition). Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 12.
  2. Dickinson, E. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171619.
  3. Hardy, T. “The Darkling Thrush,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173590.
  4. 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.
  5. Angelou, M. “Caged Bird,” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178948.
  6. Sting (official website), “Language of Birds” (lyrics): http://sting.com/discography/lyrics/lyric/song/596.
  7. 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.
  8. Yeats, W.B., Finneran, R.J. (Editor). pp. 248-249.
  9. Campbell, J., with Moyers, B. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Book, Doubleday, 1991. p. 23.
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Migrations to the Moon: When Common Sense Flies South

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Three to four hundred years ago many people actually thought birds were capable of flying to the moon or hibernating on the seafloor. Of course, some folks at that time also believed barnacles could grow into a particular species of goose. Yes, a lot of strange ideas existed before the advances of modern science. Popular but erroneous beliefs included notions that smaller birds caught rides on the bigger birds, and that cranes, in their annual travels, preyed on Pygmies.

Under the Sea or Beyond the Sky?

Obviously, the understanding of birds’ migratory habits was rudimentary at best. Certain birds, such as the cuckoo and swallow, would appear around spring and disappear during the winter. People noticed this cycle, but as to how and why the birds vanished and came back was not so clear. One idea was that some birds, like several mammals, simply slept away the winter. Olaus Magnus, Swedish historian and archbishop, in his 1555 work Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, appeared to think this about swallows, for he writes that fishermen had been known to pull these hibernating birds up from the sea with nets (1, 2, 3).

Magnus’s report on swallows, of course, seems today nearly as incredulous as the 1703 pamphlet “An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming.” This document actually claimed that birds migrate to the moon (4, 5). And, no, this is not a joke!

Imagining our winged friends on a lunar flight or residing under the sea is quite far fetched today. The strained logic behind such mistaken notions, however, is still understandable. After all, the last time some people may have seen certain birds was probably as they were flying over a large expanse of water or beyond the horizon at evening time. Folklore, with its strong associative leanings, could have simply connected the birds’ destination with the last place they were observed.

What was Aristotle Thinking?                           

Even the ancient Greeks, despite their many contributions to science and philosophy, were susceptible to incredible stories. One of the most fascinating accounts of bird migration comes from Homer’s Iliad (Book 3: 1–6), which describes cranes attacking Pygmies (6). Moreover, Aristotle—yes, the great classical philosopher—notes the Pygmies’ African location in his History of Animals (Book 8: Chapter 14). Actually, in his landmark work, the first extensive biology book of antiquity, Aristotle provides the most original detail of any classical writer on birds. Unfortunately, he promotes quite his share of misconceptions, too.

To account for the annual appearance and vanishing of different birds, Aristotle cites migration, but he does so along with a couple other alternate means. For instance, some feathered creatures, he claims, can morph from one species into another, such as redstarts transmuting into European robins and back again (Book 9: Chapter 26). Also, according to Aristotle, several birds, including turtledoves, thrushes, starlings, and some swallows, hide away slumbering for months in seclusion, basically hibernating until warmer weather arrives (Book 8: Chapter 18). Interestingly enough, notwithstanding such off-the-wall notions, Aristotle wasn’t completely wrong about hibernation. Scientists have recently learned that a few birds, such as the common poorwill and swallow, can rest in torpor during brief cool periods (7). Of course, though, they don’t sleep under water, as Magnus asserted.

Despite numerous missteps, our ancestors were clearly not clueless. Thousands of years ago, many people realized that at certain times bird populations traveled from one region to another. References to such cycles can be found in other ancient texts, such as the Bible (e.g., Job 39:26–30, Jeremiah 8:7), Herodotus’s The Histories (e.g., Book 2: Chapter 22), and Aristophanes’s plays The Birds and The Knights. So, at the very least, ancient people seemed aware when seasonally certain birds arrived and departed.

Of course, by today’s standards our knowledge of bird migration has matured considerably. For more on the intriguing history of how this understanding has developed, including a particular white stork’s important role in the process, please check out this blog post from a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Sources:

  1. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  2. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  3. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  4. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”
  5. Bond, A.
  6. Armstrong, J., Lienhard. R.
  7. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration.”