A Lost Bird

A Lost Bird:

From the writings of the Venerable Bede, an analogy from an ancient British pagan. It comes from the period of the conversion of Northumbria, under St. Edwin, king of that land in part of the seventh century. (It happens that I was born on his feast day.) The conversion was by conquest, but the story is a fairly insightful image for thinking about the human condition:

The present life of man, O king, seems to me, in comparison with 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 amid your officers and ministers, with a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying 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 has emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before of what is to follow we are utterly ignorant.
So the bird flies into our hall, and we see it come; and we see it pass through our hall, lit by our fire; and then it flies out the other end, and we know no more of it. This is like the soul, which comes from who knows where? And where does it go?

G. K. Chesterton had one of his Danes re-tell the story in The Ballad of the White Horse:
‘For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell.

‘And a man hopes, being ignorant,
Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead;
And a man may still lift up his head
But never more his heart.
Chesterton's version goes beyond the pagan story, which begins and ends in honest mystery: it allows the soul extinguished, even as a concept, by 'cold truth' that comes at the end of 'being ignorant.' Guthram, the great king, has come to believe this. He sings that his wars are waged for no other reason than to try to drive the memory of this thought from his mind.

After his poem, Alfred takes the harp. He sings boldly, but:
And the King, with harp on shoulder,
Stood up and ceased his song;
And the owls moaned from the mighty trees,
And the Danes laughed loud and long.
The first time I read the Ballad of the White Horse, I found this entire book an annoying bit of sermonizing in an otherwise rousing tale of war and adventure. I've come to realize that, instead, this book is the heart of the work.

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