Tag Archives: birds

“Ghost House” by Robert Frost

Image Source: Princeton Landing News

Image Source: Princeton Landing News

I dwell in a lonely house I know
That vanished many a summer ago,
And left no trace but the cellar walls,
And a cellar in which the daylight falls
And the purple-stemmed wild raspberries grow.

O’er ruined fences the grape-vines shield
The woods come back to the mowing field;
The orchard tree has grown one copse
Of new wood and old where the woodpecker chops;
The footpath down to the well is healed.

I dwell with a strangely aching heart
In that vanished abode there far apart
On that disused and forgotten road
That has no dust-bath now for the toad.
Night comes; the black bats tumble and dart;

The whippoorwill is coming to shout
And hush and cluck and flutter about:
I hear him begin far enough away
Full many a time to say his say
Before he arrives to say it out.

It is under the small, dim, summer star.
I know not who these mute folk are
Who share the unlit place with me—
Those stones out under the low-limbed tree
Doubtless bear names that the mosses mar.

They are tireless folk, but slow and sad—
Though two, close-keeping, are lass and lad,—
With none among them that ever sings,
And yet, in view of how many things,
As sweet companions as might be had.

This poem drips melancholy from each stanza. I get the impression of a man in his later years, who is basically living in the past. His life is nothing but the ruined remnants of what he was in his youth. The images of the raspberry growing in the ruins of what was once the cellar (a symbol for the foundation upon which his life was once built) is particularly poignant. While the raspberries are delicious summer berries, representing the sweetness of his youth, the brambles on which the berries grow are full of thorns, and the vines are like painful memories, sharp and prickly, entwined in his brain.

Several types of birds appear in the poem, and each one symbolizes a part of his memory. The woodpecker is the constant tapping, tapping, tapping of his past, reminding him of what is lost. The bats are the memories which haunt him at night, fluttering through his dreams. The other birds—whippoorwill, hush, and cluck—symbolize the happier memories of his childhood, calling back to him.

I feel there is a larger overarching theme here. Nature reclaims all that is created. The house is reclaimed by nature, overgrown and reduced to little more than a crumbling foundation. Likewise, the man knows that nature is about to reclaim him, and like the house, all that will remain of him will be an old, crumbling, neglected gravestone, covered with brambles.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 9” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

As for holding to fullness,
Far better were it to stop in time!

Keep on beating and sharpening a sword,
And the edge cannot be preserved for long.

Fill your house with gold and jade,
And it can no longer be guarded.

Set store by your riches and honour,
And you will only reap a crop of calamities.

Here is the Way of Heaven:
When you have done your work, retire!

This is very practical advice for living life in the material world. We are spiritual beings having an earthly experience, and we must work and do certain things to take care of ourselves in this life. But what Lao Tzu is saying here is that we should not let our earthly desires dominate our lives. We all must work, and we all need a certain amount of wealth in order to survive, but the key to happiness and the “Way to Heaven” is to be content with just enough, and not to keep constantly striving for more. When we reach fullness, it is time to stop and rest. When a bird has finished building a nest, it does not keep building other ones. Likewise, when the bird has eaten enough, it stops eating. If it were to continue eating after it was full, it would no longer be able to fly.

We can spend our lives chasing after things that mean nothing in the end, but will that bring us happiness? I personally do not think so. I encourage you to pause, rest, and reflect on what is really important in your life. I suspect that it will not be material gains.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XXII – Death in the Great Hall

OdysseusSuitors

In this episode, Odysseus essentially cleans house (pun intended). With the help of Telemachus, Eumaeus, Philoetius, and the goddess Athena near the end, Odysseus kills all the suitors and spares only the minstrel and the herald, who were deemed innocents. Odysseus then has Telemachus put the disloyal maids to death.

I have a lot to say about this episode, which is clearly the climax of the epic. The first section I want to point out is when Athena appears. She acts quite differently from when she appears in other parts of the text. Throughout, she always offers assistance to Odysseus immediately, but not this time. Now, in his most dire hour, she withholds bestowing power upon him. Odysseus must now prove himself worthy of the goddess. It is as if this is Odysseus’ true test, almost like he is on trial and must demonstrate that he deserves to have divine power bestowed upon him.

For all her fighting words
she gave no overpowering aid—not yet;
father and son must prove their mettle still.
Into the smoky air under the roof
the goddess merely darted to perch on a blackened beam—
no figure to be seen now but a swallow.

(Fitzgerald Translation: pp. 416 – 417)

When Athena finally reveals herself and prepares to join the battle, the suitors are thrown into panic. The description of the scene draws on imagery of birds of prey swooping down on their victims, which echoes the imagery seen in the omens and visions presented throughout the text.

And the suitors mad with fear
at her great sign stampeded like stung cattle by a river
when the dread shimmering gadfly strikes in summer,
in the flowering season, in the long drawn days.
After them the attackers wheeled, as terrible as falcons
from eyries in the mountains veering over and diving down
with talons wide unsheathed on flights of birds,
who cower down the sky in chutes and bursts along the valley—
but the pouncing falcons grip their prey, no frantic wing avails,
and farmers love to watch those beaked hunters.
So these now fell upon the suitors in that hall,
turning, turning to strike and strike again,
while torn men moaned at death, and blood ran smoking
over the whole floor.

(ibid: pp. 418 – 419)

Homer uses the metaphor of cattle when describing the suitors. Throughout the text, cattle are generally offered as sacrifices to the gods. I cannot help but seeing the suitors as sacrificial beasts, slaughtered to appease the gods. Also, the falcons seem to symbolize divine justice. As I read this, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

(Excerpt from “The Second Coming”)

One passage that I found particularly fascinating was the scene where the minstrel and the herald are spared. It is Telemachus, the son, who is the one who can bestow forgiveness.

Telemakhos in the elation of battle
heard him. He at once called to his father:

“Wait: that one is innocent: don’t hurt him.
And we should let our herald live—Medon;

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 420)

I see a connection here between Telemachus and Christ. Both are figures who can offer mercy and intervene on behalf of a person. Forgiveness can only be attained through the son.

The last section from this episode that I want to look at also contains imagery and symbolism that we find in the Christian Bible.

Odysseus answered:

“Let me have the fire.
The first thing is to purify this place.”

With no more chat Eurykleia obeyed
and fetched the fire and brimstone. Cleansing fumes
he sent through court and hall and storage chamber.

(ibid: p. 425)

Whenever I hear about fire and brimstone, I cannot help but envision the Christian hell. I had always viewed fire and brimstone as symbols for punishment, when actually, they are symbols of purification, as expressed here. This changes my interpretation of biblical hell. It is not a place of punishment as some would assert, but a symbolic cleansing of the soul, a purification of the spirit before it is reunited with the divine source.

This book is definitely the climax of the epic, and it works on many levels. The symbols, metaphors, and the pace of the text all work together to create the climactic sequence, which has been steadily building throughout the tale.

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“Odyssey” by Homer: Book XV – How They Came to Ithaka

Image Source: Wikipedia

Image Source: Wikipedia

In this episode, Athena travels to Sparta and instructs Telemachus to go back to Ithaca. She also warns him about the trap that the suitors have set to kill him before he gets home. She tells him how to avoid the trap and says that he should go to the house of the swineherd Eumaeus before returning to his home. As this is taking place, Odysseus is still at the home of Eumaeus where they continue to share stories.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular book. It seems like pieces are being set in motion and moved into place. There did seem to be an emphasis on omens, though, especially concerning birds. Telemachus is presented with two omens. The first one is interpreted by Helen.

Listen:
I can tell you—tell what the omen means,
as light is given to me, and as I see it
point by point fulfilled. The beaked eagle
flew from the wild mountain of his fathers
to take for prey the tame house bird. Just so,
Odysseus, back from his hard trials and wandering,
will soon come down in fury on his house.
He may be there today, and a black hour
he brings upon the suitors.

(Fitzgerald Translation: p. 273)

The second omen is interpreted by Theoklymenos.

A god spoke in this bird-sign on the right.
I knew it when I saw the hawk fly over us.
There is no kinglier house than yours, Telemakhos,
here in the realm of Ithaka. Your family
will be in power forever.

(ibid: p. 285)

I have personally had some life-changing events happen in my life following “unusual” encounters with birds. I’ve come to believe that when you have an encounter with a bird that is out of the ordinary, it is definitely a sign. I’m curious—have any of you had an encounter with a bird and had something significant happen afterwards? Feel free to share your stories.

Cheers!

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“Dust of Snow” by Robert Frost

Hemlock Tree: Source - Wikipedia

Hemlock Tree: Source – Wikipedia

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Although this is a short, it is very powerful.

The crow as a symbol represents death. This is heightened by the fact that the crow is in a hemlock tree, which also represents death. The reference to snow means the poem is set in winter, which is also symbolic of death. So in the first stanza, we have a triple death image that sets a dark and somber mood. But this changes in the second stanza.

Frost clearly states that his heart has “A change of mood.” I think that he is describing a scene at a cemetery where a hemlock is growing. It is likely he is actually attending a funeral, but there is no definitive evidence of that. What is clear, though, is that the crow knocking the snow from the hemlock branches has given him hope. My guess is that it is because hemlock is an evergreen tree and stays green throughout the winter. This would symbolize that life continues after death. So the hemlock tree becomes a symbol of death as well as a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. This alleviates the sadness he feels at the loss of his loved one.

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“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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“Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads” by W. H. Auden

WHAuden

I read this poem today on a fellow blogger’s site. Rather than post the poem here, I will direct you to her site, which is fantastic.

Symbol Reader: Auden Poem

The crossroads is a very powerful symbol. In voudou, it represents the point where the worldly and the spiritual realms meet. I believe that the Christian crucifix is a visual form of the crossroads. Finally, I interpret the crossroads as the place in the psyche where the conscious and the subconscious intersect.

The woman in the poem is suffering the loss of a loved one. She is at the crossroads, hoping to encounter his spirit. The birds in the second stanza are the messengers that can move between realms. The bribe could be either to bring her lover a message or to silence them from letting Heaven know that someone has crossed the threshold between realms.

Being at the crossroads also implies that one must make a choice. The woman must make a choice: does she take the road that continues into the future of her human existence, or does she take the road that ascends to Heaven, where she will reunite with her love?

In the end, she decides to take her life and join with her love.

Put your hand behind the wainscot,
You have done your part;
Find the penknife there and plunge it
Into your false heart.

I feel that there is also another meaning to this ending. Metaphorically speaking, the woman may be symbolically opening her false heart to the divine being. If the crossroads are where Heaven and Earth intersect, then she may be opening her heart to the divine presence, allowing the divine essence to fill her. I personally like this interpretation, but as with all great poems, you can interpret them in many ways.

Thanks again to Symbol Reader for sharing this today. I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I did.

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