Monday, December 21, 2015
A little something for the Solstice
Last week I went book shopping with friends and came upon a copy of W.H. Auden's A Certain World, which is a "commonplace book" — that is, a personal collection of quotations, notes, observations, etc. Auden describes A Certain World as a kind of autobiography, though I can't say I gleaned any sense of him from it that can't be found in his poems. It is a lovely assemblage of stuff, though, and I was especially moved by an excerpt from a Loren Eiseley essay, "The Judgment of the Birds." The essay has been widely circulated, but I'd never encountered it before, and in any case it strikes me as a piece well worth revisiting, especially at this darkest moment of the year.
Here is a portion of the bit Auden quotes, which describes the reaction of songbirds to a raven preying on one of their nestlings:
No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.
And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.
That little passage is beautiful and stirring, but the complete essay is something deeper. It touches the mysteries of consciousness as gracefully as anything I've ever read. You can download it at the link below:
The Judgment of the Birds by Loren Eiseley
"The Judgment of the Birds" is included in Eiseley's book The Immense Journey.
Photo by BitterGrace