Of Paradise and Light: Essays on Henry Vaughan and John Milton in Honor of Alan Rudrum

By Donald R. Dickson; Holly Faith Nelson | Go to book overview

“Winged and free”: Henry Vaughan's Birds

Glyn Pursglove

ONE OF EZRA POUND'S MANY ENTHUSIASMS WAS FOR THE PROSE of Richard of St. Victor (d.1173), the Scotsman who became Prior of St. Victor in Paris and one of the greatest of medieval contemplatives—“a considerar fu piú che viro, ” [who, in contemplation, became more than man] Dante wrote of him in canto 10 of the Paradiso. In 1956 Pound published a selection of quotations from Richard's writings (with translations). Among them is the following: “In avibus intellige studia spiritualia, in animalibus exercitia corporalia. Watch birds to understand how spiritual things move, animals to understand physical motion.1 It is a sentiment which, one suspects, Henry Vaughan would have been happy to endorse. Like Richard of St. Victor, Vaughan belongs in a long tradition which conceived of the soul as a winged creature and reciprocally, as it were, found in the actual birds of the air constant reminders of the human soul. The Ancient Egyptian Amulet of the Soul was made of gold and inlaid with precious stones representing a human-headed hawk. 2 The Egyptian Book of the Dead presents the newly dead as falcons in flight and in the “mythologies of Central Asia, Siberia, and Indonesia the birds perched on the branches of the World Tree represent men's souls.” 3 Plato's beautiful image of the soul in his Phædrus (246c) declares that “when it is perfect and fully feathered it roams in upper air, ” whereas “the soul that has lost its feathers is carried down till it finds some solid resting place.” 4 Celtic legend is particularly rich in such traditions. Indeed, the Celtic lore of birds is very diverse. It includes:

the birds of fairyland, singing everlastingly from the pure purple trees which stand at the Eastern door of the haunts of the blest. It is but a short step from this conception to that of the birds of Paradise, where a bird of red gold with its hundred wings sings from every golden cross which guards the entries, and the splendid bird-flock sustains a perfect melody from the flowering tree of life within the heavenly bounds . . . The souls of the blest take the forms of doves

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