The Quarantine Diaries 12: The House of Life

In today’s entry, I take a look at another poem by Seamus Heaney, ‘The Blackbird of Glanmore,’ and the extended metaphor of the ‘house of life’ presented therein. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot during this strange period of quarantine, with a little time and stillness to reflect upon my life and re-evaluate my belief systems.

The Blackbird

Heaney’s blackbird is depicted as a kind of totem animal: there when he enters and leaves his house and, as an extended metaphor, ‘the house of life’:

On the grass when I arrive,

Filling the stillness with life,

But ready to scare off

At the very first wrong move.

In the ivy when I leave. 

It’s you, blackbird, I love.

Though his neighbour once regarded the blackbird as a bird of ill-omen, to the poet, the bird represents the spirit of his lost brother, and by extension, the spirit of life itself.

Later in the poem, Heaney draws parallels between ‘the house of death’ (line 11) and his ‘house of life.’ (line 30) As an old man, part of him ‘wants away to the house of death,’ to which he is drawing so close that he appears ‘A shadow on raked gravel/In front of my house of life.’

The Sparrow

Bird as a symbol of immortality

Heaney, the translator of Beowulf, took great inspiration from Old English literature. The idea of ‘the house of life’ is an important part of the Anglo-Saxon world-view, as poignantly depicted in this passage from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

The description is given by one of the king’s advisors regarding the ‘new teaching’ of Christianity, in the 7th Century AD.

My view has long conformed with that of the ‘thegns and counsellors’ in the banqueting hall: This life, and any joy we might be able to get out of it, is all we can hope for. As a child, however, I imagined there might be an even greater light beyond our current existence. Later in life, I abandoned this worldview because I didn’t think it ‘made sense.’ But there’s a form of innate and childish wisdom beyond the sense we learn as we grow older, which perhaps we would be wise to recollect.

Intimations of Immortality

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy

So wrote Wordsworth in his ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.’

What if we are able to reverse ‘the parable of the sparrow’ and imagine the bird entering the darkened perception of human existence from the light beyond shut out by human ignorance?

Blake poses the same question far more eloquently in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:’

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/Is an immense World of Delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Heaney’s blackbird perhaps represents the immortality of the spirit, or the spirit of poetry, in opposition to the mortality of the poet as a human being. The bird is free to fly through the air and is therefore closer to God and heaven. For this same reason the soul is often represented as a bird in literature: the living soul a caged bird within the prison of the mortal body, until the dying soul departs this prison, returning to the realm of heaven from which it came. To return to Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar

Where we come from, and where we go when we die, remains a mystery to us. However, I believe that when we see the light within ourselves, and the beauty of nature without, we see God, however briefly, and we glimpse heaven on earth.

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