Friday, 7th October, 2011

In book II of The Odyssey, Zeus sets forth two eagles from a mountaintop. The birds fly for a while upon the will of the air currents, watched from beneath by the assembled party of suitors, but then

they turned on each other suddenly in a thick shudder
of wings, and swooped over the heads of all, with eyes glaring
and deadly, and tore each other by neck and cheek with their talons,
then sped away to the right across the houses and city.

The Odyssey, Richard Lattimore (trans.), II.151-4.

All eyes are on the birds, astonished by the spectacle: ‘their hearts half guessed things that indeed were to come to pass’ (trans. Walter Shewring, p.15). We are, of course, talking about a people that believe in augury – the ability to read the will of the Gods and to predict future events – by the flight patterns of birds.

Narratologically, it’s a very interesting moment in the story, which is why I turn to the Shewring translation to demonstrate this. At this point in the poem, we’re following the story of Telemachus. We’re yet to even meet Odysseus in the poem – all that is yet to come (though chronologically the majority of the story’s events have already happened, to be told later on in flashback). The bard has a peculiar vantage point in the poem; omnipresent, they are able to see both back through time, and forwards. The bard knows how the story will end, even though we, the listeners, perhaps do not.

As such, in terms of the narrative, the bard shares a similar position to that of the auger. Both can tell what is about to come, and this is what the Shewring translation makes clear: as much as the suitors do not want it confirmed to them, ‘their hearts half guessed things that indeed were to come to pass.’

It is that word ‘indeed’ that lays out the bard’s vantage point. Though in the ‘present’ point of his narrative the auger’s prediction of a ‘great wave of trouble’ (Shewring, p.16) is yet to occur, the word ‘indeed’ confirms the accuracy of these predictions, of the ‘half guessed things’ that the suitors dread might come. In so doing, the bard effectively confirms to accuracy of augury.

We tend not to give much heed to augury in our modern age. Aside from noticing the onset of seasonal change from the migration of birds – Vs of geese, the first summer’s swallows – it’s mainly in the superstitious counting of magpies that the belief echoes on. DEFRA pays attention to surveys of field birds in order to chart the effect that agriculture is having upon the countryside, and while we may predict some aspects of the future from this data, I am not sure it amounts to augury.

Nonetheless, we can learn a lot from what the birds are doing, mainly because they pay us little attention and get on with their own thing. The suitors’ undoing comes because Eurymachus does not pay heed to it, but attempts to shape the augury of the fighting eagles into a prediction to their advantage. But we cannot control what birds do. As God tells Job, man cannot shape the will of birds at all:

Doth the hawk fly by thy wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?
Doth the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest on high?
She dwelleth and abideth on the rock, upon the crag of the rock, and the strong place.
From thence she seeketh the prey, and her eyes behold afar off.
Her young ones also suck up blood: and where the slain are, there is she.

Job, 40:26-30

The point of augury is that birds – like fate – lay beyond our hands.

If all of this seems terribly distant, cast your mind back to last year when fate – the eruption of a volcano in Iceland – cleared the skies of aircraft over Britain. Remember how that felt. ‘But these are planes,’ you say, ‘we thought you were talking about birds.’

In 1937, Mervyn Peake, produced a startling poem which re-imagines Job’s eagle in the ‘to-day’ above a meadow. That he centres ‘The Metal Bird’ in ‘to-day’ is important, it’s a moment akin to Homer’s bard bridging the past to the future. In the poem, he calls it ‘Job’s eagle’ though of course the wording is ironic– what God is pointing out to Job is that he has no ownership of the eagle. The eagle follows her own path, finding out the slain, and in so doing may be thought to have more control over man, than man does over it.

It is important also that the ‘to-day’ of the poem is in April 1937, or rather, it is not surprising that Peake had these thoughts at that time. It is a poem of ‘half guessed things’ that ‘indeed’ will come to pass by the end of the decade. It is a poem written at a time when many writers were looking to the skies to conduct their own augury:

O hawk with naked eyes!
O bloody eagle circling the dark skies!
Our century has bred a newer beauty,
The metal bird from the cold factory.

‘The Metal Bird’ considers the birds of the past replaced by aircraft. Like the eagles fighting over the suitors’ heads they have a foreboding menace:

    Her shadow swarms the cold Welsh hill.
The hawk hangs like an unloos’d bomb
And fills the circular sky with doom.

As readers today, we have the bard’s vantage point; we know that these images will come to pass. But at this point Peake is simply looking up as an auger; reading the flight paths, feeling the menace. By the time the war began, Peake’s skies ‘now’ were filled with ministering deathly angels:

Now are gathering in the skies
Round the gates of Paradise
Those white angels who shall come
And gently bear her spirit home

Peake, from ‘Now are gathering in the skies’.

‘Oh, yes,’ says George Bowling bitterly in Orwell’s Coming up for Air, ‘I know you knew what was coming. But I didn’t. You can say I was a bloody fool not to expect it, and so I was. But it hadn’t even occurred to me.’

Peake was not alone in reading the metal birds of the 1930s. Coming up for Air published in June 1939, abounds with such premonitions:

suddenly a heavy shadow swept across me and gave me a bit of a start.
I looked over my shoulder. It was only a bombing plane which had flown between me and the sun. The place seemed to be creeping with them.

p.201

There is a dark comedy to that wording of ‘only a bombing plane’, and the novel, which contrasts the years of peace at the start of the century with those of fear in the late-30s, ends with cruel bathos as one of these planes drops a bomb upon the town ‘by mistake’. By June 1939, the augury can have been hard to ignore – more preparation than premonition.

W.H. Auden’s poem ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ written in January of that year opens with ‘the airports almost deserted’ aware that this is a brink, of sorts, between an old world and a new:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

The aeroplane, the airport, marks that shift between the old and the new world. The metal bird with its ‘unloos’d bomb’, becomes an emblem for that shift between birds being outside of our control and – subtle distinction – outside our control and yet of our own making.

In building such planes we have taken ownership of our own fates, produced a new eagle that we can hardly control: ‘where the slain are, there is she.’

Orwell’s novel opens in the suburbs, the machine for living, and ends imagining their destruction – the bomb loos’d when a pilot on bombing practice accidentally touches the lever. In Auden’s poem, ‘Silence invaded the suburbs’ of Yeats’ mind.

In 1936, a young John Betjeman acted as augur of the metal birds himself in his poem on the ‘Death of King George V’. In this piece the shift between generations is less of a fierce earthquake than in Orwell’s novel.

The future will be one in which men don’t wear hats, and the past represented by the King’s ‘long dry’ stamp collection – but it is a poem of augury nonetheless:

Spirits of well-shot woodcock, partridge, snipe
Flutter and bear him up the Norfolk sky:
In that red house in a red mahogany book-case
The stamp collection waits with mounts long dry.

The big blue eyes are shut which saw wrong clothing
And favourite fields and coverts from a horse;
Old men in country houses hear clocks ticking
Over thick carpets with a deadened force;

Old men who never cheated, never doubted,
Communicated monthly, sit and stare
At the new suburb stretched out beyond the run-way
Where a young man lands hatless from the air.

As with Peake’s poem Betjeman points out the transposition of birds into planes, opening the first stanza with a surfeit of dead fowl. The plane is a private passenger flight, not one with an ‘unloos’d bomb’, but the signs of what is to come is all there, spelled out in the ‘new suburb stretched beyond the run-way’.

The birds are out of our hands, but to understand the future we must look to the skies.

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