Thursday, March 24, 2016

In Pursuit of Spring 3.

Further West, and birds.

The Lark Ascending, kind permission of Keith Tilley, Painting on the Edge blog.

So many birds in 'In Pursuit of spring' as in Thomas's poetry.

They represent  a form of language, a clear true language, and freedom. I remember Robert MacFarlane suggesting that, in contrast to, or balance with, the 'staying put' of trees, birds represent the drive to 'move on'. This was a constant tension for Thomas:  to leave home and then to long to be there again.
The movement is of course  especially true of the spring and summer visitors. It is these birds that receive special attention in 'In Pursuit...'

Still in London, rooks and blackbirds dominate. I associate Thomas with blackbirds - he mentions them often and as a Londoner they would have been very familiar in gardens, even more so than now.
British Trust for Ornithology.

The first birds he encounters are Londoners and prisoners - a parrot who 'sings sweet street songs of twenty years before', and the finches and linnets in cages, in a dismal shop. 'Battered ones a shilling, a neater one at eighteenpence.' Poor goldfinches bloodied from flinging themselves at the bars. The odd Other Man buys a finch, in a paper bag, and releases it. Is this Other Man really Thomas himself? I think he may be.

Here are four extracts from the novel in which both birds and trees feature and perhaps balance each other. There were many more.

He looked around. A trickle from a smaller stream entered Preston Brook. White chickens pecked among the roots of an ash tree; they squeezed through the hedge from a farmhouse he could just see through the elms. The hedge was blackthorn skilfully laid, the clean scars of the labourer’s hook still visible.  He listened. The only sounds were of the stream, the birds and the trees – their own pure and individual languages, never straining for effect, never false. He thought about the many languages, man’s one among many. Was it possible that a man’s words could have that kind of truthfulness?


He went for a walk in the misty stillness of evening. Something in the birds’ songs, the single spirit of their singing together, and the calm after London, was like a welcome. He had a sense that he and the birds of Steep were one, that his needs and pleasures were at one with theirs and that he was home. A labourer walked with a slow heavy tread and turned into the thatched wood-shed beside his white cottage. Soon afterward a rhythmic sound of sawing from the man’s shed and the birds had fallen silent. He was home, among country people and thrushes and chaffinches and the oaks and elms that were their homes.


He worked on new verses – a poem on beauty he began in January, another on sedge warblers, and one about a cuckoo. Birds had enormous significance, a kind of holy importance for him. He felt that their place in nature was always as it should be, not like man’s place, so often destructive, or false, or discontented, and that they were users of a language too as he was.


He kept a notebook-cum-diary of course, making observations about the surprises of spring, this spring that manifested itself even under fire. The birds especially seemed determined to sing, to mate, to soar in the sky, in spite of it all. For him and for many of the men, the countrymen among them, they were signs of hope and reminders of home. So too was the emerging landscape, the rounded chalk hills with small clumps of trees on their tops. It was as if he could take a sudden turn into a secret path and find himself in Steep.

In Pursuit of Spring: As he moves from suburbs into the country there are more birds - blackbirds of course, thrushes, jackdaws at Guildford castle, rooks everywhere - and so many larks. To me larks are relatively rare - I know where they can be found reliably, especially on Dorset hills near the sea, but  have to make a special effort to go to see and hear them.

Edward Thomas listens for the chiff-chaff call as a marker that spring is here, and remembers an early arrival when he was nineteen - no doubt recorded in 'The Woodland Life.'  After Bentley in Hampshire, in the park of a large house:
', and at eleven o'clock, I first heard the chiff-chaff saying, "Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff!"
My guide says:'Their song is heard from early March; birdwatchers listen eagerly for it as a sign of spring.'

As he travels over Salisbury Plain he hears and sees 'pewits' (peewits, lapwings) over a river : they 'wheeled over it with creaking wings and protests against the existence of man.'
Linnets twittered, thrushes sang and larks 'rose and fell unceasingly over Dean Hill.' Then near West Grimstead :
'A thrush and and several larks were singing and through their songs I heard a thin voice that I had not heard for six months, very faint yet unmistakeable, though I could not at first see the bird - a sand-martin. On such a morning one sand-martin seems enough to make a summer, and here were six, flitting in narrow circles like butterflies with birds' voices.'

British Trust for Ornithology- lapwing



The most numerous things on Salisbury plain  'next to the dead' - 'sheep, rooks, pewits and larks. Today they mingle their voices, but the lark is the most constant.'


                For a change  Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Sea and the Skylark
ON ear and ear two noises too old to end
Trench—right, the tide that ramps against the shore;
With a flood or a fall, low lull-off or all roar,
Frequenting there while moon shall wear and wend.
Left hand, off land, I hear the lark ascend, 5
His rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinèd score
In crisps of curl off wild winch whirl, and pour
And pelt music, till none ’s to spill nor spend.
How these two shame this shallow and frail town!
How ring right out our sordid turbid time, 10
Being pure! We, life’s pride and cared-for crown,
Have lost that cheer and charm of earth’s past prime:
Our make and making break, are breaking, down
To man’s last dust, drain fast towards man’s first slime.
 A marvellous account of the bird and its song (- the last line perhaps too strong, but for depression he could outdo even Edward Thomas.)

For Thomas's poem, there are several to choose from:The Thrush, The Cuckoo, The Owl, The Unknown Bird(rare for Thomas not to be able to identify), Sedge-Warblers, and Two Pewits.

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