Last August one day Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac features a poem by Stephen Dobyns titled "Where We Are (after Bede)". It begins with a scene from 14 centuries ago:
|A man tears a chunk of bread off the brown loaf,|
then wipes the gravy from his plate. Around him
at the long table, friends fill their mouths
with duck and roast pork, fill their cups from
pitchers of wine. Hearing a high twittering, the man
looks to see a bird---black with a white patch
beneath its beak---flying the length of the hall,
having flown in by a window over the door. As straight
as a taut string, the bird flies beneath the roofbeams,
as firelight flings its shadow against the ceiling.
That electric image drives me to find its source: a report in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England, Book 2, Chapter XIII, on the expedition in 627 AD to Northumbria by Saint Paulinus of York. At a meeting with the King of Northumbria one of the participants says:
"The present life of man, O King, seems to me, in comparison of that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant. ..."
A striking metaphor—made yet more vivid by the specifics that Dobyns paints into his poetic retelling. He concludes:
|... This is where we are in history---to think|
the table will remain full; to think the forest will
remain where we have pushed it; to think our bubble of
good fortune will save us from the night---a bird flies in
from the dark, flits across a lighted hall and disappears.
(translation of Bede by L. C. Jane from the 1903 Temple Classics edition; cf. NimbusHaloGloryAureole (15 Nov 2001), Writer's Almanac (22 Aug 2003), PoeticCompression (27 Jan 2004), InMyJournal (29 Jan 2005), ...)