2. The Birds

Geoffrey Heptonstall

The birds begin as an isolated shower

Over the next county…

(New Weather)

Paul Muldoon’s image is striking. The poet looks out of the window at an everyday scene. He refashions it in memorable lines.

Everyone knows Hitchcock’s chilling The Birds, but the original du Maurier story is even more haunting. Hitchcock took only the theme, transferring the scene to California, and giving the characters a more glamorous style than is usually the case with people on a Cornish farm. It is the mundane setting that gives the published story its disturbing air. Extraordinary things may happen in ordinary lives.

Un Coeur Simple is Flaubert’s tenderly sympathetic tale of an old woman, uneducated and unaware of things. In youth her naivety in love led to a betrayal. Her son in maturity left for foreign parts. She expected the map to show her the place itself, but all she could see were symbolic diagrams that made no sense. She never understood the world with its sophisticated arrogance and cunning deceptions. So much of life for her was heartbreak.

The simple soul had her parrot and her faith in God. She came to see the parrot, her faithful companion, as an embodiment of the Holy Spirit. How easily a reader might laugh at this absurd notion, but Flaubert’s masterly style confers exceptional dignity on the old woman’s childlike mind. Her heart is so innocent that we are touched. We are moved, perhaps, to regret our own sophistication. Do we believe as she did?

The usual symbol of the Holy Spirit is a dove. It was a dove bringing back an olive branch that told Noah the waters of the Flood were receding and that the ark could sail to land again. ‘The Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters’, says the Book of Genesis recounting the Creation. We may think of a bird in flight.

A caged bird on a street in Arles pleaded for its freedom. It was a freedom we could not, dared not grant. Released into the air wild birds would attack it. And so the tiny bird cage was a cruel imprisonment which at least guaranteed it life, a life that was no life. The shame of it remains haunting.

The caging of birds is the grounding of flight which surely comes from human envy of avian freedom. To fly has been the dream of humankind since antiquity. We have found the ability to take to the air in machines, but still we look in both admiration and envy at birds. They are natural and graceful in flight, alone and unaided. They can fly at will. That is a freedom we can never have. And so birds are caged as if the freedom of flight could be captured. The practice is as self-defeating as it is cruel.

Accompanying the envy of freedom is the human fear of those strange creatures who possess a power no human can attain. They fly through our dreams. They haunt wild places. What is not tamed appears as a potential threat. There is a sinister aspect to the way we see birds. One only has to think of Venetian carnival masks. We see not revellers but creatures from some dark nether world, an image so appropriate to a city of labyrinthine passages.

Reflected in the waters of Venice are cloaked figures in their bird masks. They are symbols of death, and not only of death but of a godless afterlife we hardly dare imagine. Even in open spaces the birds of Piazza San Marco can be as threatening as the waters that spill onto the streets as if to engulf the human city in the elemental void.

As every child learns at school, it was a flock of geese that saved ancient Rome from an enemy incursion. Geese are no friends of people. Their determined violence is alarming. It was not by chance that Cromwell’s troops marched in the goosestep (which they devised). This is the origin of the nursery rhyme Goosy, Goosy Gander. That sharp cut of boot heel in the ground was intended to intimidate.

The royal fugitive Charles Stuart, when king, recounted to Pepys the sight of Cromwell’s troops passing beneath the Boscobel Oak where he had hidden himself. Oak trees had been sacred in druidic lore. That sacral sense was renewed in Royal Oak Day, once celebrated every year. The goosestep continues to instil alarm.

The successful taming of a bird requires a respect for the bird, for its beauty, its ability and its power. A Kestrel for a Knave, Barry Hines’s effective and affecting novel, explores the development of the relationship between a kestrel and a poor and underachieving country boy. The kestrel is tamed, and the boy finds a purpose in life which is liberating. The boy learns how to fly in his thoughts about life. He seeks a way of escape into fulfilment – until the kestrel is killed by another’s spite. Hopes are grounded, perhaps for always.

Birds inspire ambivalent responses from human instincts. We know that birds came before us. They may have a greater claim on the world than we have. Humanity is perpetually at the mercy of nature. The birds seed the earth. So much grows because of the seeds that fall from the mouths of birds in flight. We are at their mercy however much we may seek to hunt them for food, or tame them for pleasure.

It is the way that birds take flight without warning. They seem to have a purpose that is indifferent or even hostile to human affairs. They have been on earth since time immemorial. Human life is only a transient phase in the long history of birds. They can be traced back 150 million years to the Archaeopteryx of the Jurassic period. Hominins are at most 7 million years old. We are newcomers to the earth.

In the wilder places we may feel to be intruders. We do not have to be too far from the city to experience an awareness of our lowliness when faced with the vastness of the earth on which we walk beneath an ominous sky. The birds are watching us. We do not impress them. We may tame them only if we discover within ourselves a sense of ourselves not as masters of nature but as a part of nature, perhaps not so great a part as we suppose.

Geoffrey Heptonstall

Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven's Invention, a novel (Black Wolf 2017) and three poetry collections published by Cyberwit: The Rites of Paradise (2020), Sappho’s Moon (2021) and The Wicken Bird (2022). A new collection will appear soon.

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