CHILDREN ARE noted for their dislike of school. I was no exception. My dislike centered upon the study of English, especially poetry. Try as I might, I couldn't understand it. Oh, I had no trouble with "Hickory, dickory dock" or "The boy stood on the burning deck." But how about "Hail to thee, Blythe Spirit! Bird thou never wert?" How about that?
The name of this poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley (and which provided the title for one of Noel Coward's cleverest plays) is "To a Sky-lark" -- which leads one to ask if not a bird, then what the devil wert "thou?" The rest of the stanza throws little light on the matter. I quote:
That from Heaven or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Even at my tender age, I knew that coupling "spirit" with "near it" made for a sloppy rhyme. For that matter "unpremeditated" didn't seem to fit in a work by one of England's most lyrical poets. Finally, in an effort to clean up the "blythe spirit" thing, I consulted a footnote to this stanza as printed in the Norton Anthology of English Literature. This is how Norton interpreted it:
The bird, freed from the bonds of
earth and soaring beyond
the reach of all the physical senses
except hearing, is
made the emblem of a non-material
spirit of pure joy,
beyond the possibility of empirical
Undaunted, I continued my explorations and discovered to my surprise that much of the poetry of the 19th century was -- quite literally -- for the birds.
During more or less the same period that Percy Bysshe was extolling sky-larks, several of his contemporaries were getting in their licks along similar lines. Among these were John Keats ("Ode to a Nightingale"), Alfred Lord Tennyson ("The Eagle"), Matthew Arnold ("Hark! Ah, the Nightingale"), Thomas Hardy ("The Darkling Thrush").
All the poets mentioned above are English but the madness knew no geographical boundaries. In America, Edgar Allen Poe was flitting with "The Raven," while William Cullen Bryant was carrying on with a different feathered friend "To a Waterfowl," a poem which begins:
Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the
last steps of day,
Far through their rosy depths dost
Thy solitary way?
My dictionary describes a waterfowl as "a swimming bird, as a duck or goose, usually frequenting freshwater areas." Can it be that Bryant here (always keeping Disney's Donald in mind) was inspired by a duck?
Alan Jay Lerner once told me that at the beginning of his career he had made a promise to himself -- that he would never compare a piece of human anatomy to a bird. Yet in the lyrics to "I Could Have Danced All Night," he permitted himself the line "my heart took flight."
He shouldn't have worried, since countless poets before him have proved that the temptation to mess around with birds was too strong to resist. The mere contemplation of them has thrown many writers into such euphoria that their work has approached the state of incoherence. Consider these lines by one of the most intellectual of them, T. S. Eliot:
@4 O quick quick quick quick hear the song sparrow,
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 bobwhite
Dodging by baybush. Follow the feet
Of the walker, the water thrush. Follow the flight
Of the dancing arrow, the purple martin. Greet
silence the bullbat.
In quoting the above passage I mean no disrespect to either birds or poetry which continues to impress me (what little I understand of it) as the most divine expression of the soul. So let me end these reflections with a paraphrase of Shakespeare's opening to "Twelfth Night" --
If poetry be the wings of joy, fly on.
R. H. "Hal" Gardner, former theater and film critic for The Sun, died a week ago at age 76.