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), ...)

TopicPoetry - TopicFaith - TopicLife - 2005-04-24

(correlates: Comments on Rider Haggard, ArborAvis, ThreeThoughts, ...)