Animal Magnetism

Animal Magnetism

17 July 2020: Poet’s Day 16

This week, I have chosen poems about animals. William Blake starts us off with his awestruck hymn to “The Tyger”, then Gerard Manley Hopkins describes the joy of watching a bird of prey in flight in “The Windhover” and Kenneth Grahame entertains us with Ratty’s poem about the ducks on the river from “The Wind in the Willows”.

Poem 46. The Tyger

“What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”

William Blake (1757—1827)

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And, when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

This poem of Blake’s perhaps ties with “And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time” (better known as the words of “Jerusalem”) as his most publicly recognised works, but he wrote a lot of verse that was deeply symbolic, like “The Sick Rose”. The Tyger, however, has been described as “the most anthologized poem in English”. This poem appears in “Songs of Experience” and is twinned with “The Lamb” from “Songs of Innocence”.

The poem is touched with a kind of awed wonder: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” suggests Blake’s incredulity that the God that gave his son to the world could have made such a savage beast (note the capital letter on Lamb—a dual reference to the other poem and to Christian myth). The poem suggests that only a Creator that is incomprehensible to a mortal could make a creature that is, to casual observation, a dangerous and ferocious predator. The motivation for such an act must necessarily be obscure to any human consciousness.

William Blake was an English artist and poet who lived in obscurity all his life—many of his contemporaries considered him mad, but his fame grew after his death as critics began to appreciate his tremendous vision and creativity. The Bible formed an early influence that retained its hold on him until he died.

He was taught to draw at a school in the Strand, in London and was subsequently apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, becoming a professional engraver himself when his apprenticeship terminated. He married Catherine Boucher three years later and taught her to read and write, and the art of engraving. She was a tremendous support to him all their married life and when he died, made sure he was buried with the appropriate obsequies. Afterwards she became housekeeper to Frederick Tatham, one of Blake’s disciples, but continued to sell her husband’s artwork, conducting no business transaction that was not blessed by the intangible hand of “Mr. Blake” who she believed visited her regularly.

Poem 47. The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord

“My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844—1889)

I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstacy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

This is another of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s lovely musical productions—the beautiful use of alliteration and choice of words to describe the emotions felt when watching this bird of prey’s effortless command of the air. Hopkins loves to show us how beautiful the natural world is: the joyful flight of the bird and the sight of the newly-turned earth brought up by the plough—apparently sillion is the exact word for this—and the flashes of fire from stirred embers. A windhover is a kestrel, incidentally.

The poem is dedicated “To Christ Our Lord” and it has been suggested that Hopkins uses the bird’s freedom and control as a metaphor for Christ.

Poem 48. Ducks Ditty

“Everyone for what he likes! We like to be heads down, tails up, dabbling free!”

Kenneth Grahame (1859—1932)

All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!

Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roach swim—
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.

Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!

High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call—
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!

I started going out for a walk round the village twice (and occasionally three times) a day at the end of May. I can walk down the lane and circle round where the new houses face the canal, and when I do, I generally see the ducks waddling around in search of food. As I pass, they all jump through the fence and head for the canal—presumably to go a-dabbling!

I have also picked this poem because ducks were my Nicola’s favourite animal and if we’d had a pond in the garden, I’d probably be looking after a paddling of them still! One of my abiding memories is of visiting Coniston Water in the Lake District and watching her in transports of delight, surrounded by these comical waterfowl, all quacking desperately for a nice morsel.

The poem comes from the book that is inextricably linked with Kenneth Grahame, “The Wind in the Willows” which he wrote in 1908 and was illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard of Winnie-the-Pooh fame. It is composed by the Water Rat after he has been upbraided by the ducks for eyeing them as they pursue their daily activities.

Grahame was a Scottish writer who also wrote “The Reluctant Dragon”. He lost his mother at the age of five and afterwards lived with his grandmother, as his father was an alcoholic. His grandmother’s house at Cookham Dean is supposedly the inspiration for the setting of The Wind in the Willows. Grahame was unable to go to university as his guardian considered the cost prohibitive; he began work at the Bank of England instead, rising to become Secretary before retiring in 1908 due to ill health. He married nine years previously and had a son named Alastair who suffered from a variety of health problems, eventually committing suicide at the age of 19. As a boy, Alastair was headstrong, and his father apparently based Mr Toad on him; the character of Ratty was based on Grahame’s friend Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Grahame died at Pangbourne in 1932.