steepholm (steepholm) wrote,
steepholm
steepholm

Gathering Swallows

Yesterday, the Today programme celebrated the equinox by having Juliet Stevenson read Keats' "To Autumn", which was probably my favourite poem when I was a teenager (when autumn was my favourite season, and when the water meadows near Winchester - which inspired the poem - were among my favourite haunts). I still love it. Has anyone ever made better use of the word "clammy" than in these lines, for example?

to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.


But I slightly digress. After the reading, they produced Prof. Peter Swaab of UCL to talk about the poem. At one point he and Stevenson had a slight disagreement about the tone of the final line, "And gathering swallows twitter in the skies." You can hear it from 2.26.00 on the link above, but I've written out the relevant part for your convenience. Swaab was making the point that the final stanza includes positive and livelier notes along with the expected elegaic, and cited the "gathering swallows" (along with the gnats and the lambs) as "assertive and vigorous" voices competing with and counterbalancing the poet's own sense of decline.

JS: I don't know though, you know that "gathering swallows" thing is about departure, it's about leaving, and going south, and heading off to a completely different... It's always about the end of summer, isn't it, seeing the swallows gather, so I don't know that it's... I don't think it is that cheerful, I think it's...

PS: If you're a swallow, though, you're going to summer south.

[Presenter]: You're going to other things, you're looking forward to your holiday.

JS: But it's not written from the swallows' point of view, is it?

PS [audibly trying not to tell Stevenson she's stupid]: Well, it's in there, I think.


Personally I'm with Juliet Stevenson on this. Also, I don't really see "full-grown lambs" as a positive image. They're going to be slaughtered soon, after all! (If indeed we're being asked to look at it from the animals' point of view.) And as for the gnats...

But soft, what's that about the swallows going south for the winter? I mean, yes they do, but isn't that a rather anachronistic piece of knowledge? After all, solid evidence about patterns of bird migration only dates from 1822 (three years after the poem was written), and the remarkable discovery of a stork in Mecklenburg with an African spear through its neck (for pics and the whole story, see here). Where migratory birds went in the winter was, before that date, something of a mystery, as I understand it. I'm sure some people had considered the possibility that they migrated somewhere, but I doubt whether "gathering swallows" would have had the same "package holiday" connotations for Keats that it has for the Today presenter or indeed for Prof. Swaab.

(On the other hand... what if the swallow used a strand of creeper, held under the guiding dorsal feathers?)
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