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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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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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The Today programme, the gift that keeps on giving...

Full grown lambs are, if anything hoggets, rather than sheep, surely? Or just full-grown lambs where, as you say, being full-grown means ready for slaughter: another example of ripeness and autumnal bounty.

Quite right about the hogget contingency! I think being ready for slaughter is more appropriate here, though, for the reasons you give.

Fascinating. I didn't know that modern knowledge of bird migration came that late. I still like this, on "To Autumn" and Shakespeare's Antony, in part.

I was very surprised about migration too, when I first heard it, which is probably why it stuck in my mind. But then, short of flinging an Ashanti spear into a stork's gullet, how would one have been able to find it out? I'd like to know what Keats suspected concerning the matter: presumably he wasn't under any illusion that swallows hibernated or flew to the moon in winter, but perhaps he was content to deploy his considerable powers of negative capability in this case.

Thanks so much for the link to that article! I found it very persuasive. That speech of Cleopatra's is a convincing ur-text for Autumn, and it has an emblematic quality that suggests Shakespeare may well have been channelling Spenser in turn. (I spent a whole chapter of my PhD thesis wondering about the consciousness of Spenser's allegorical figures, so this is right up my street.)

This is one of those both right and wrong things. Migration patterns are a new study, and the ultimate destinations of swallows is not ancient knowledge, but that swallows fly south into the warmer weather is much older. The earliest package holidays I know about were medieval (late-ish, I think) pilgrimages. Get yourself to Venice and a package tour will take you to the Holy Land.

Thank you.

It turns out that the Rostock museum has that stork, stuffed!

IIRC, which I may not, Paul Fry saw in "gathering swallows" a punning echo of the kind of trouble with swallowing someone gradually getting sicker and sicker might potentially face.

To say nothing of the choughs...

I remember he talks about "singest of summer in full-throated ease" wrt Keats's complaints of a soar throat a few months earlier. Don't remember that about his reading of "To Autumn," though it sounds right, and like him (he directed my senior thesis).

Oh, hey! I didn't have to write any thesis when I was getting my MA at Yale, but his course on the younger Romantics (which was meant to be a seminar but was actually a lecture, and which was quite possibly the most impressive course I've taken in my life) was where I think I remember this from. Very jealous that you got to do a more lengthy collaboration with him :)

I don't see going off to fetch coconuts as being that great a vacation.