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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang’

Birds in Literature

by Leonard Lutwack
University Press of Florida, 286 pp., $29.95

In the middle years of this century the British firm of Collins published a distinguished sequence of titles called “The New Naturalists Series.” The publishers’ expressed aim was “to interest the general reader in the wild life of Britain by recapturing the inquiring spirit of the old naturalists.” The processes of nature in the forms of furniture beetles and the foxing of paper have already advanced claims upon several volumes of the series which I am happy still to have, among them Edward A. Armstrong’s The Folklore of Birds (1958), which is mentioned in Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature and listed in his bibliography, and the novelist John Buxton’s lovingly meticulous The Redstart (1950), which is not. But the works themselves, and the passions of which they are evidence, have remained with me so assuredly that I realize I have taken them for granted as accounts of immutable worlds.

Several recent books remind me how the apparent assumptions of the publishers of the New Naturalists Series have been assailed in the intervening decades. I think first of Robert Pogue Harrison’s brilliant Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (1992) which seems to me a work of primary importance.* Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature is another indication of present circumstances.

The publishers of The New Naturalists Series did not say whether they imagined the spirit of the old naturalists (whoever they were thinking of); or inquiring into a world that was substantially the same as the earlier observers had known, or whether that world and the responses to it might be very different. Naturalists (and the word itself has received new consideration) have been aware of change, usually meaning deterioration, for as long as their words have been recorded. Lutwack quotes Lucretius, in the first century BC, lamenting the senescent decline of the physical world. If Americans such as William Bartram and Audubon count as old naturalists, it would be easy to cite their recognition of the shrinking of the rest of life as a direct consequence of human enterprise.

On Lutwack’s last page he quotes Audubon, writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century and of the industrial era, lamenting that “neither this little stream, this swamp, this grand sheet of flowing water, nor these mountains will be seen in a century hence as I see them now.” And of course the threat to the life that he is part of is never absent from Thoreau’s quickened awareness. Yet the writing of The New Naturalists Series, forty-odd years ago, when compared with Harrison’s, or with the last section of Lutwack’s book, seems to emerge from a relative confidence that the world the writers were describing was more or less constant and might be expected to remain so. Armstrong is, reasonably enough, concerned with preserving and learning from the past. By the time Harrison and Lutwack address their subjects they have been touched by a growing doubt about our having a future.

Part of the shift has been made by the phenomenon that appears now to be pure acceleration, of which the multiplying forms of devastation radiating from us are manifestations. The number of our own species living on the earth now is more than five times what it was when Bartram and Audubon were watching the animals vanish and the forests retreat, and by the present date three humans are born every second, extinctions of other species are increasing at an unprecedented rate, deforestation, pollution of elements, exhaustion of soils are following the same curve, which resembles that of an onshore climbing wave.

The oppressive awareness of this process has been forced upon us despite obstinate and understandable denial. But the knowledge stirs in the minds of people, of whom increasing numbers spend their lives in cement cubicles many times the height of a human being above the sealed surface at ground level, where crowds of metal containers are rapidly carrying other humans elsewhere. Some have the luck to know a domesticated animal or two, and can glimpse part of a tree of an unknown kind far away through a window. This is the habitat regularly referred to now as the real world, and is doubtless the waking landscape of many, perhaps of most, of the prospective readers of Harrison’s Forests and Lutwack’s Birds in Literature. It is not surprising that both books, in different ways, end pondering the question of what may survive.

Lutwack’s intent is more modest than Harrison’s, who sets out to trace the sense of the forest in the psyche that evolved the images of Western civilization. As Lutwack’s title informs us, his field is birds as subjects of literature. But of course the subject of literature leads us back out of literature into the flying world itself. A discussion of birds in writing inevitably involves considering what they represented to writers. Lutwack’s concern is not so much with naturalists as with poets and writers of fiction, but the distinction is less impermeable than it is sometimes taken to be even when the examples are drawn, as he draws his, mostly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the age of positivism, in which scientific and personal writing were often assumed to be mutually exclusive. Inevitably, Lutwack turns to Thoreau, and not only the Thoreau of Walden but to the author of the Journals; and it is the quality of mind and feeling in Thoreau’s observations that continually reveal in words the link between looking and seeing.

The focus of Lutwack’s project is on writing that was conceived as literature, writing that employs what he calls “a power of imagination.” To say what that is, he makes use of one of the less interesting and more questionable statements, I think, Coleridge—who said so many revealing and illuminating things on the topic—made about the imagination. (But I was caught at an early age by I.A. Richards’s Coleridge on Imagination and probably have been influenced by it ever since.) In the quotation Lutwack uses, the imagination “acts by impressing the stamp of humanity, and of human feelings, on inanimate or mere natural objects.” And Lutwack tells us at the start that he is limiting his attention

to creative writing in which natural fact, literary art, and human significance are appropriately balanced. I do not propose, of course, to do a history of the immense volume of literature dealing with birds but rather to demonstrate how writers have adapted that tradition for the significance it may have for our times.

I suppose that is reasonable, and what anyone would have been likely to do in one way or another. The repeated invocation of “significance” and “human significance” gives me pause, just the same, as though the word might be there partly as justification or reassurance. I am inclined to the notion that significance is a matter first and last of relation, and that relation of human beings to birds, to one another, to the past, to words, to all appearances is the source of whatever significance they have to us, and whatever significance we have to them. References recurring throughout Lutwack’s writing lead me to suspect that he is an experienced and informed observer of actual, living birds, and that an interest in them, perhaps indeed a love of them, led him to this subject to begin with. Occasionally I wonder whether he has not been overly shy about revealing his own sympathies.

It may be inhibition that leads him to speak of his subject here and there as though he were speaking up for it. There was little need, surely, after a chapter full of examples from several centuries of responses to bird song and the nightingale, to tell us that birds have “aroused deep feelings in poets and supplied them with forceful symbols of moral and philosophicalvalues.”

Having decided to concentrate chiefly on the literature of Europe, particularly English, in the past two centuries, Lutwack approaches literary works thematically and then roams through his successive chapters according to no obtrusively obvious plan. His themes are not surprising. There is an early section, “Birds, Poetry, and the Poet,” in which he discusses, for example, how “in trying to account for the haunting song of the nightingale, an ancient storyteller links the song with the grief of a tragic maiden, and then that association… becomes available to generations of writers.” A second section concerns birds and the supernatural:birds and deities, birds and souls, modern resurrections of bird gods. Another section deals with caged, hunted, killed birds, physical and sacred, and a fourth with birds and the erotic. Finally, there is a concluding section, which was shadowing the others all the way, on literature and the future—the future, as he puts it, of birds.

The arrangement, and the treatment of the examples chosen, give the book some of the characteristics of an anthology with comments, and some of the criticisms it suggests are of the sort that apply to most new anthologies—disappointments about what has been put in or what has been left out. It would be easy to follow that course, and obviously other choices could have been made—for the field, in fact, is vast. But Lutwack has assembled a remarkable group of selections. His quotations from Whitman include the rarely cited passage from the 1870s addressed to a snow bunting in the Arctic:

Of that blithe throat of thine from arctic bleak and blank,

I’ll mind the lesson, solitary bird—let me too welcome chilling drifts,

E’en the profoundest chill, as now—a tropic pulse, a brain unnerv’d,

Old age land-lock’d within its winter bay—(cold, cold, O cold!)

These snowy hairs, my feeble arm, my frozen feet,

For them thy faith, thy rule I take, and grave it to the last;

Not summer’s zones alone—not chants of youth, or south’s warm tides alone,

But held by sluggish floes, pack’d in the northern ice, the cumulus of years,

These with gay heart I also sing.

And his note tells of the poem’s sources in Greely’s Three Years of Arctic Service (1886),

an account of the Lady Franklin Bay expedition of 1881-84. On an Easter Sunday Greely and his crew, some of whom were dying of starvation, heard “a snowbird chirping loudly”; it was taken as “a good omen, and did much to cheer us through the day.” Greely’s feet were in “horrible condition.” From 1873 Whitman suffered from paralysis.

His examples from Dickinson, Lawrence, Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, Roethke, are apt. His range of prose writers is more eclectic. His comments on his quotations, on the poems more than the prose, sometimes suggest plain speculation rather than insight. Of Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” he says, referring to the line:

A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,

On sidelong wing, around and round and round.

A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,

Grown tired of flight.

The pigeons…illustrate the attempt, perhaps of the young artist, to go beyond the limits of the real world and the necessity, perhaps for the aging artist, to stay within them.

Even in the rich rush of identifications in Eliot’s “Cape Ann”—

Oquick quick quick, quick hear the song-sparrow,

The swamp sparrow, fox-sparrow, vesper sparrow

At dawn and dusk. Follow the dance

Of the goldfinch at noon. Leave to chance

The Blackburnian warbler, the shy one. Hail

With shrill whistle the note of the quail, the bob-white

Dodging by bay-bush. Follow the feet

Of the walker, the water-thrush. Follow the flight

Of the dancing arrow, the purple martin. Greet

In silence the bullbat. All are delectable. Sweet sweet sweet.

—he feels the need to insist upon a somewhat literal significance. Often his examples need little or no comment, and their isolation and arrangement make their point by themselves, as in the paragraph from Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

After this season of congealed dampness came a spell of dry frost, when strange birds from behind the North Pole began to arrive silently on the upland of Flintcombe-Ashe, gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes—eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being had ever conceived, in curdling temperatures that no man could endure; which had beheld the crash of icebergs and the slide of snowhills by the shooting light of the Aurora; been half blinded by the whirl of colossal storms and terraqueous distortions; and retained the expression of feature that such scenes had engendered. These nameless birds came quite near Tess and Marian, but of all they had seen which humanity would never see, they brought no account.

The most telling section of Birds in Literature is the last one, not simply for its selections, though those are pertinent, but for what it reveals about the present moment and its prospects in the mind of an informed and concerned observer.

Birds, as Lutwack reminds us to begin with, have appeared to the human imagination, since the unremembered past, as our elders, our originals, our predecessors in life and death. He notes the wonder expressed in early written records at the great number of birds. The modern writer, he says, is more likely to notice the depletion than the munificence of nature. And it is not hard to present modern expressions—he uses Dickinson and Jeffers—of compassion and grief at the suffering and death of birds. He provides dramatic examples of outrage at their destruction, including haunting passages from Margaret Atwood about killing them and about human self-deception concerning them.

He makes extensive and telling use of the young hero of Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America, of his complex and painful process of disillusionment, and his delirious dream in a hospital, where he is recovering from an allergic attack brought on by an antibiotic administered after he has been gashed by a swan. In the dream the young man is visited by “a small man, scarcely five feet high” who had traveled “all the way from Königsberg” to say “something important.” Which was not, as the young man first thought, that “God is dead.” “Mankind can live without God,” his visitor said. “Nature is dead, mein kind.” The speaker is Kant, who stated in the Critique of Judgment that what we do for our own purposes must be “in accordance with the purpose that nature has along with us,” and that whatever man may suppose about his superiority, “nature has not in the least excepted him from its destructive or its productive powers.”

In this section Lutwack tries repeatedly to persuade himself and his readers that the situation may not be quite as bad as he knows it is. “The loss of the great wilderness areas of the past,” he says, “may not be as hard to take as we now imagine.” One hears the reassurances of the anesthetist. And for whom will it not be so hard?For the fauna whose habitats vanish around them?There are certain to be many human beings who will neither know nor care about such losses and who would never willingly have visited places beyond the claims of human control, but even so the human experiment in solipsism may not have a long or cozy future. “Birds,” Lutwack points out, “have long been the measure of our fate.”

How language and the revelatory visions of the human imagination may be able to continue without a relation to other life outside human knowledge and domination is the question of Richard Wilbur’s poem “Advice toa Prophet.”But if we were able to survive without what we continue to call nature, what kind of creatures would we be, and what kind of future would await us?What would our literature be like, and what would the word “human” mean? Lutwack cannot avoid the conclusion that the accelerating dying-out of birds has been “portending disaster for mankind.”

The present relation between birds and literature, as his final section suggests, is much more than a cultivated exchange. It may be receiving more attention, formally and informally, than it did a few decades ago, when many people for whom literature was important took little interest in such things. The living presence of birds—not only their numbers but the range of their variety, their habits, their vitality—is an index of the well-being of the entire life around them, including ours, both physical and imaginative. Most bird species are declining, some rapidly. Some are dying out. They are all mine canaries now. The migratory birds, adapted to immense journeys, dangers, and deprivations, are being forced into extinction. Pesticides, habitat loss, pollution—none of the birds can avoid them, and the migrants travel from one set of them to another, with no end except their own. “The birds’ wings fail them,” Howard Youth wrote in Worldwatch of January/February 1994; “there is no refuge to which they can escape.” And each one of them, Blake told us, that “cuts the airy way” may be “an immense world of delight clos’d by your senses five.”

For ages we have read in their flight itself the auguries of our destiny, sometimes as simply as in the Venerable Bede’s likening of a human life to the flight of a bird through the King’s banquet hall, from the dark doorway at one end, and out of the dark doorway at the other. It is not hard to guess now where the birds are going before us. Isaiah, whose words have been preserved as prophecies, assures us that when the land becomes burning pitch “there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.” But the remnant of them that is with us still has become a kind of indication of what hope there is. Besides the good fortune that their presence has brought to our lives, in our literature, arts, dreams, traditions, and etymologies, what they continue to tell us is that their life and what we do not begin to know of it, and our own life, are distinct but not independent of each other.

  1. *

    University of Chicago Press, 1992; see Anne Barton’s review in these pages, May 26, 1994.

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