Loved this ever since I first read it over forty years ago! I first saw him at Sydney University in 1964, already at that time a man with an enormous reputation as a poet, critic — he called Patrick White’s prose “verbal sludge” — and enemy, in most respects, of modernism, while really being thoroughly modern in content if not always in style. “The Death of a Bird” was inspired by an article in a scientific journal. Hope said it was at one stage abandoned, only being taken up and completed some years later. He wondered if people could see where he had broken off.
For every bird there is this last migration;
Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;
With a warm passage to the summer station
Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.
Year after year a speck on the map divided
By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come;
Season after season, sure and safely guided,
Going away she is also coming home;
And being home, memory becomes a passion
With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest;
Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart’s possession
And exiled love mourning within the breast.
The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;
The palm-tree casts a shadow not its own;
Down the long architrave of temple or palace
Blows a cool air from moorland scraps of stone.
And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger,
That delicate voice, more urgent with despair,
Custom and fear constraining her no longer,
Drives her at last on the waste leagues of air.
A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,
Single and frail, uncertain of her place.
Alone in the bright host of her companions,
Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space.
She feels it close now, the appointed season:
The invisible thread is broken as she flies;
Suddenly, without warning, without reason,
The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.
Try as she will the trackless world delivers
No way, the wilderness of light no sign,
The immense and complex map of hills and rivers
Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.
And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,
And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,
And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,
Receives the tiny burden of her death.
— A. D. Hope (1907-2000)
Hope seemed very old to me in 1964! To the young Australian poets of the “generation of ’68” he seemed not only old but positively archaic. I met him at a dinner at Sydney University in 1978; Professor Rob Eagleson was kind enough to sit me next to him. He was quite charming, for I have to admit I had been feeling somewhat over-awed. We talked about trains! I did however ask him what it was like being “studied” for the HSC. He told me that one day he had gone to his office at the ANU where he was a professor. Several teenagers were waiting for him. “You A D Hope? We’ve got to ‘do’ you. Your poems are too hard.” “Not at all,” he replied. “They are perfectly plain to me. Let me tell you all about them.” So he invited them in.
The landscape of “The Death of a Bird” is European and African rather than Australian, but what a great Australian voice is in those beautifully polished lines! If you have never met this poem before I hope you find in it pleasure such as I have found these past forty years.
You may recall the poem recurred in January 2007 when I was seeing Lord Malcolm so much at the Hospice. Poems can stay with you in good and bad times.