10. The Death of the Bird: A.D. Hope 1973

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.9 Poems
Page
1.9.10

For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a speck on the map, divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come;
Season after season, sure and safely guided,
Going away she is also coming home.

And being home, memory becomes a passion
With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest,
Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart’s possession
And exiled love mourning within the breast.

The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;
The palm tree casts a shadow not its own;
Down the long architrave of temple or palace
Blows a cool air from moorland scarps of stone.

And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger;
That delicate voice, more urgent with despair,
Custom and fear constraining her no longer,
Drives her at last on the waste leagues of air.

A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place,
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space.

She feels it close now, the appointed season;
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will, the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign;
Immense, complex contours of hills and rivers
Mock her small wisdom with their vast design.

The darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.

 

I have chosen to finish Poems with ‘The Death of the Bird’ because its range, complexity and ambiguity serve as a fine summary of much of what has gone before in the whole of Section 1, Build the Nature-Human Relationship.

At the very least in part, the poem is about love and tenderness. The mother bird is explicitly identified by the use of ‘she’ and ‘her’ throughout, and with reference to her nest-building and her brood. Her behaviour, though, goes beyond mere mechanical parental duty to the emotions: the emotions of love and loss and mourning. There is reference to love three times and her heart twice, and she is no mere nature-robot, but a creature of passion. She is animated and feeling, and though driven by the great forces of Nature – “the cooling year” and “the invisible thread” – she is also propelled by “the whisper of love” and guided as much by “Love pricks the course in lights across the chart” as by “The guiding spark of instinct”. There is great tenderness here for her nascent consciousness, for the drives and emotions stirred within her that she is just aware of, but unable to comprehend. These are “The ghosts that haunt the heart’s possession” and they are but “the whisper of love” and “That delicate voice”.

If the poem is in part about humanised Nature, about love and yearning and sadness, it is also about a much colder Nature, about the great, unfeeling physical forces of the universe. As the poem progresses it becomes colder, less personal, and its scale expands to the great universe and eternity beyond. The tiny bird is now “A vanishing speck in those inane dominions/Single and frail”, “Alone”, and “Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space”. We feel her terror as “Immense, complex contours of hills and rivers/Mock her small wisdom with their vast design”. This is Nature unreadable, unanswerable. “And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice/Receives the tiny burden of her death.”

‘Bird’ is also a poem about bravery, about the courage and spirit of life. Even something as small and fragile and helpless as a bird can make life, can navigate the vast world and perhaps create, or testify to, love? Everywhere she is assailed by fate, driven by “the waste leagues of the air”, but she prevails: she lives, she raises young, she carries out vast migrations. She is indeed a “vanishing speck”, but she does it, and her life is the miracle of all life.

My initial responses to ‘Death of the Bird’ have tended more to an interpretation of the sad insignificance of life against the might of the universe, rather than of the warmth and tenderness of the first half of the poem. Weinfield (first name?), in an interesting paper –  http://www.australianpoet.com/docs/Weinfieldpaper-4.pdf – adheres more to the latter view, saying that it is primarily a Romantic poem about love and tenderness in the world and that it is not until the very end that she ‘surrenders’ to the cold might of the earth. I am not sure what side I come down on, but perhaps there is some reassurance, some elegiac acceptance in that pivotal word “receives” of the last line: “Receives the tiny burden of her death”. Yes, her death is infinitely tiny, but nonetheless it does matter, it is a “burden”, part of the infinite scheme of things, and is thus ‘received’.

 

As Simon and Garfunkel wrote at the end of their lovely little song, ‘Sparrow’, in 1964:

https://www.bing.com/search?q=youtube+Sparrow+Simon+and+garfunkel&cvid=ee60a9352e964ba5a7f130cd15d23629&aqs=edge..69i57j69i64.10002j0j1&pglt=2083&FORM=ANSPA1&DAF1=1&PC=ACTS

“Who will love a little Sparrow?
Will no one write her eulogy?
‘I will’, said the Earth
‘For all I’ve created returns unto me
From dust were ye made and dust ye shall be’ “.

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