The Blackbird in Movement and Song

Rebecca Welshman

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In Jefferies’ writings the blackbird appears in different environments – often in the garden, but also in the hedges as he walks among the fields. In The Amateur Poacher, when he is out at night near water meadows, Jefferies spots a blackbird roosting:

“In the thick blackthorn bush a round dark ball indicates the blackbird, who has puffed out his feathers to shield him from the frost, and who will sit so close and quiet that you may see the moonlight glitter on his eye.”

This more unusual depiction of a blackbird – at rest, and ‘quiet’ – offers an insightful alternative to the movement and song usually associated with its daytime activity. The bird is so motionless that the moonlight glitters on the stillness of his eye. That he roosts alone and waits patiently for the cold night to pass suggests his stoicism and independence. There is resilience in the puffing out of his feathers which ‘shield him from the frost’.

To the human onlooker, birds’ daily activities can express certain qualities. In one of Jefferies’ early novels the garden birds contribute to the mood of the scene. Here, the blackbird displays qualities of defiance and fearlessness:

“The starlings marched to and fro upon the lawn; the blackbird washed himself in the fountain before the door, fearless, unhesitatingly.” (Restless Human Hearts)

And again, in the same novel, “a great blackbird with his ‘tawny bill’ splashed himself in a rill not three yards from their feet, and then sat on a bough, and plumed his feathers, and uttered his loud and defiant cry.”

Elsewhere the Blackbird is a symbol of the latent potential of the present moment and the determination needed to move forward and embrace the future. In Field and Hedgerow the movement of the blackbird among the apple blossom reminds Jefferies that spring is changing into summer:

“Blackbird and thrush commence to sing as the heavy heat decreases; the bloom on the apple trees is loose now, and the blackbird as he springs from the bough shakes down flakes of blossom.”

The suddenness and purity of the blackbird’s melody never fails to incite wonder. As a performer the blackbird is “fully conscious” and confident of his individuality:

“Like a great human artist, the blackbird makes no effort, being fully conscious that his liquid tone cannot be matched. He utters a few delicious notes, and carelessly quits the green stage of the oak till it pleases him to sing again.” (‘The Pageant of Summer’)

The “green stage of the oak” may symbolise the larger stage of life upon which we all briefly appear. Contrary to human displays of fear or nervousness, the Blackbird exhibits qualities of strength, stoicism, and independence, and as seen in the earlier examples, is not afraid to defend himself when necessary. The Blackbird lives life in the present and responds to all that it holds.

In a leafy hollow at Long Ditton, Surrey, Jefferies is conscious of the unfolding summer. In this “valley…of music” every oak tree has a blackbird. Perched in the uppermost branches, concealed by foliage, each bird voices its own exquisite song. In the blackbird’s melody Jefferies perceives something human – the bird expresses the beauty of the moment, and encourages a similar form of recognition in Jefferies:

“The blackbird’s whistle is very human, like a human being playing the flute; an uncertain player, now drawing forth a bar of a beautiful melody and then losing it again. He does not know what quiver or what turn his note will take before it ends; the note leads him and completes itself. It is a song which strives to express the singer’s keen delight, the singer’s exquisite appreciation of the loveliness of the days; the golden glory of the meadow, the light, the luxurious shadows, the indolent clouds reclining on their azure couch. Such thoughts can only be expressed in fragments, like a sculptor’s chips thrown off as the inspiration seizes him, not mechanically sawn to a set line. Now and again the blackbird feels the beauty of the time, the large white daisy stars, the grass with yellow-dusted tips, the air which comes so softly unperceived by any precedent rustle of the hedge, the water which runs slower, held awhile by rootlet, flag, and forget-me-not. He feels the beauty of the time and he must say it. His notes come like wild flowers, not sown in order. The sunshine opens and shuts the stops of his instrument.” (‘The Coming of Summer’)

As a person can feel and express emotion through playing an instrument, the Blackbird is able to feel and express beauty through song. The Blackbird, however, is closer to the life of the sun – so close that he responds instinctively to the appearance and disappearance of the sun from behind cloud. He does not plan his notes but surrenders entirely to the spontaneity of the moment.

The flute’s association with the ancient Greek Goddess Athena, who invented the first bridle, first chariot, and built the first ship, connects the Blackbird with the human ability to harness energy and embrace the present. In Jefferies’ natural scene, the harmonious surroundings work subtly together to create a symphony of beauty, with each part bearing its own intrinsic and equal value. Jefferies’ observations of the Blackbird implicitly encourage us to embrace the present more fully through expanding our awareness and mindfulness. How often do we take time to remember that the present knows nothing of the moments which have preceded it, or of the moments yet to come? Like the Blackbird’s song, ‘the beauty of the time’, and all that it holds for us, is complete in itself.

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