Monday, 24 July 2017

Circling in the Mist - Poetry of Swallows

 We are lucky in the Valley to see swallows fairly often, gliding through the skies above the River Calder, swooshing over the moors, or dotting the telegraph wires like lucky charms, their navy-blue faces and blade-like wings shining in the sunshine.  Sometimes they even swoop right past my window, disappearing over the roof or arcing back like circus knives to vanish among the treetops.  They are exciting birds, enticingly low flying and apparently unafraid of people,  yet their quicksilver flight gives them a transient, elusive edge, and and air of mystery.


Hirundo rustica, the so-called "Barn Swallow", is the most frequent member of the Hirundinidae (swallow) family, and has featured frequently in poetry, often in the context of its northward migration, as a motif of summer.  Perhaps the earliest literary reference to the swallow comes from Aristotle - his famous advisory dictum "For as one swallow or one day does not make a spring, so one day or a short time does not make a fortunate or happy man" - and yet, despite this statement's air of caution, the appearance of these Blue-dark knots of glittering voltage, to coin Ted Hughes's phrase, has long symbolized the coming of warmer times, and Shakespeare refers to this in The Winter's Tale, when introducing Daffodils, That come before the swallow dares. Elsewhere, the bird is remarked on for its speed of flight, as in Richard the Third, when Richmond reflects that True hope is swift, and flies with swallow's wings, and in Titus Andronicus: I have horse will follow where the game Makes way, and run like swallows o'er the plain.
While Keats was to illustrate the coming of autumn with gathering swallows twitter(ing) in the skies, thus inverting the typical poetic metaphor, John Clare maintained a traditional perspective in his meditation on the birds.  An otherwise rather twee account turns heart-warmingly pictorial and domestic in this concluding segment of his poem The Swallow:

 Whewing by the ladslove tree
For something only seen by thee;
Pearls that on the red rose hing
Fall off shaken by thy wing.

On that low thatched cottage stop,
In the sooty chimney pop,
Where thy wife and family
Every evening wait for thee. 




Unsurprisingly, swallows appear regularly in haiku, far too numerously to do credit to here, but in the recent Wingbeats - British Birds in Haiku (Snapshot Press, 2008) I noticed several beautiful haiku which seemed to crystallize the swallow's unique beauty and simultaneously evocative and calming presence:

solitary swallow
warmth lingers in the wind
that blusters the moor
(Keith Coleman)

tin mine
a pair of swallows dart
between the chimneys
(Alison Williams) 

Above a ton of firewood
the last of our swallows
circling in the mist
(Ken Jones)






My own first sighting of  swallow was not here amid the moors of post-industrial chimneys of the North, but in the sunlit glow of a Cornish dawn, as I waded the margin of the sea at Kynance Cove in early September, 2006.  Warming my bare feet in the almost-tropical waters, which seemed to gently bubble above the pebbly sands, I looked out at a pristine sweep of turquoise sea, rolling slowly in marbly waves, the horizon glittering in the soft mists of sunrise. About thirty metres ahead I could see a slab of rocks, as if piled upon each other like some disjointed totem pole erected for the worship of aquatic gods.  Swallows swooped round it, tiny planets in orbit, two, four, six, maybe half a dozen of them, gliding in circles, tilting towards the beckoning spire of stone, before swerving back towards the bay,  meandering the crannies of the cliffs.  My poem came drifting into flight that morning on the sands, and was almost fully formed by the time I scribbled it that evening, in my room overlooking the vast embrace of the English Channel, to the intermittent hoot of the Lizard Lighthouse, echoing against the sound of swelling waves.

SWALLOWS

In pairs they shoot
cliff bound
skating mists
which sheathe the seas
in silk

like gems upon a pebbled shore,
smooth sandy shapes
   emerging from
       the early morning clouds

see them thread the mangled crags,
glide above an island's edge,

split, converge

and tuck themselves inside
the nooks of cliffs,
tiny atoms camouflaged
in eternities of stone. 


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