In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.
In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).
In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)
I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.
I’ve spent the last couple of months devoted to re-writing the very first chapter I ever wrote for my PhD. In many ways, it’s been the hardest task. Returning to something I wrote five years ago was always likely to make me balk, but quality of writing and ideas aside, there is the accumulated mass of four other chapters to cohere with those original thoughts now, and all the developments in methodology and theory that come with that body of work. Needless to say it’s taking a while, but here’s the basic nub (which I offer now as much to clarify it to myself among the mess of sections and paragraphs that currently exists!)
The two Old English poems I discuss in this opening chapter, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, both expound a traditional Christian vision of the soul’s journey on earth to reach home (OE ham); heaven. Technically it’s the body that does the journeying, of course, but it’s for the soul’s sake. Whether we are to read the journey literally or not has been much discussed, but either way, the speakers of both poems are involved in a maritime pilgrimage of sorts – they take to the sea, probably voluntarily, to seek the ultimate destination. It’s not so far fetched to imagine this literally; certain monastic individuals (see here, entry for the year 891) did, in fact, do precisely this – set sail in flimsy coracles on sea-bound wanderings (peregrinatio pro amore Dei ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’), often headed for remote, pinhead islands in the Atlantic from which to live out bleak, ascetic lives (Robert Macfarlane discusses this practice and visits specific locations in the first chapter of The Wild Places).
What I’ve been researching and writing about, though, is the role of birds in all of this. The convention of representing souls as birds certainly predates both of these poems in Latin, Norse and Germanic cultures (and post-dates; think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It appears several times in scripture (as a sparrow [passer]), and almost certainly influenced one of the most famous instances of all time; Bede’s analogy of fleeting human life as a sparrow in his telling of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. The king’s councillor puts the case for converting thus:
“Such”, he said, “the present life of men on earth seems to me, king, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us: as if, while you were sitting at dinner with your leaders and ministers in the winter time, with the fire lit in the centre and the upper room filled with heat, with the raging winter storms of winter rains or snow everywhere outside, a sparrow were to arrive and fly swiftly through the house. As it enters through one door and soon exits through another, during the time when it is inside it is not touched by the winter storm, but nevertheless, after the briefest space of calm, when it has hastened forth, turning from winter and soon back to winter, it escapes your eyes. Thus this life of men appears for a moment; what follows, or what came before, we absolutely do not know.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.12, trans. B. Colgrave)
Just to indicate the legacy of Bede’s description, here’s how the twentieth-century poet Louis MacNeice reimagines the metaphor:
This indoors flying makes it seem absurd, Although it itches and nags and flutters and yearns, To postulate any other life than now.
(‘Dark Age Glosses’)
Given the religious content, and the popularity of Bede’s text, it seems likely that the poets (or poet – it’s possible one person wrote both; they appear in the same manuscript) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer were influenced by the sparrow-soul image. Moreover, though, these writers specifically include real birds in their texts, which preface the implicit references to bird-souls later on. In The Seafarer, we actually get birds named:
Hwilum yflete song dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera, mæw singende fore medodrince. Stormas þær stanclifu beotan þær him stearn oncwæð isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal urigfeþra … .
[Sometimes the swan’s song I did for my game, the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry for man’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answers them, icy-feathered; very often the eagle screams, dewy-feathered… .]
The Wanderer‘s reference is fleeting, and far less specific, but the birds are real and doing birdy things nonetheless:
[Then the friendless man wakes again, sees before him dark waves, bathing seabirds spreading feathers, falling rime and snow mingled with hail.]
What has particularly intrigued me is not just that the souls of humans might be depicted as birds, but that they are depicted as seabirds (brimfuglas). The type of birds may well have been suggested to the poets by the ‘life is like a tempestuous journey at sea’ trope, but both these poems, to me, draw their suitable metaphors for the wandering soul from wider Anglo-Saxon knowledge about birds, and seabirds specifically.
The migrating or pelagic seabird provides the poet(s) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer with a potent image for the migrating soul partly because these species inhabit liminal, coastal territories, the uneasy boundary between the joys associated with the earthly splendours for which the speakers in both poems yearn, and the paradoxically desired hardships sought on the rough waters. Seabirds breed on terrestrial margins, but travel for vast distances to feed, often for huge spans of time. They inhabit realms that might seem, well, otherworldly. The religious journeys of both human bodies and souls, that is, are so well depicted not only by birds generally, whose most noticeable ability is flying, but by birds who master this skill over nonhuman habitats – mysterious and dangerous seas that stretch beyond the human eye. That Anglo-Saxon poets responded to the natural aspects of these richly suggestive locations as part of their poetic imaginings seems very significant. Seabirds, it seems, did feature in the cultural identities of coastal areas in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a series of coinsdating from the eighth century, for instance, largely distributed in southern coastal regions, which portrays what appear to be tall waders. And zooarchaeological work on at least one coastal high-status site, has unearthed numerous sea or water bird species, including herring gull, common gull, kittiwake, dunlin and curlew (see here).
The Anglo-Saxons were certainly aware of birds’ ability to migrate, in the sense understood in ornithological terms. Aristotle’s observations on birds were available to churchmen through Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies(XII.7), the last of which comments, for instance, on how birds like the swallow and stork are ‘migratory and return at certain seasons’, whilst others ‘stay in the same location’. But the Anglo-Saxons, keenly aware of their own migrations over the ‘gannet’s bath’ (OE ganot’s bæþ; e.g., Beowulf, 1861) and wary of invasions from Nordic foreigners across the North Sea, must have understood and responded to birds’ migrations in the broadest sense, too, as creatures seemingly always on the move, soon to be gone and out of sight. In two riddles from the same manuscript of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a swan is defined by its unreachable flights far ofer folc ‘over people’, and a barnacle goose is described according to the myth that its unfathomable disappearance is explained by its origin as a mollusc. They are equated with frightening but compelling territories outside human knowledge, like the ‘wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia’ to which Isidore links birds’ unknowable wanderings in his introductory passages to birds and which leads to their most characteristic quality, that which gives them their Latin name (according to Isidore; a lot of his etymologies are highly dubious or downright ridiculous!)): ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’.
Seabirds, at home on the pathless oceans that the speakers of The Seafarer and The Wanderer perversely seek out, best embody this marvel of avian behaviour, and provide the ideal metaphor for human souls pursuing a mysterious celestial destination beyond known lands.
Postscript: the ideas explored in this post are now to be published in an article submitted to English Studies. For a copy of the pre-submission script, see here.