We continue our Lenten Journey through Herbert’s poem Prayer, using the sonnets in my new book After Prayer. If you want a feel for the book itself and for what moved me to write it there is a full interview Here, conducted by Lancia Smith for her excellent ‘Cultivating’ website.
Today we come to one of Herbert’s more intriguing emblems of prayer: he calls prayer the bird of paradise. Scholars tell us that in the seventeenth century it was believed that an exotic species called ‘the bird of paradise’ was unique in having no feet, no means of standing or perching, and it was thought therefore that it lived in perpetual flight, never stopping to rest, but ceaselessly beating its wings from birth to death. Of course this was a piece of folklore and mythologising, but the bird became proverbial, and it’s easy to see how Herbert might find in it an emblem of unceasing prayer. Perhaps too he thought of the bird as unable to rest in this world precisely because it was a bird of paradise, and could only rest at last in its eternal home. So it might be with our souls in prayer. All these thoughts were also in my mind as I wrote, but for me there was also something more. As I thought of that poor restless bird I suddenly remembered the beautiful lines in Bob Dylan’s heart-breaking song ‘Tangled Up in Blue’, lines in which he expresses our experience of brokenness and through it all out restless yearnings:
And when it all came crashing down
I became withdrawn
the only thing I knew how to do
was keep on keeping on
like a bird that flew
tangled up in blue.
So in my response I find Herbert and Dylan somehow singing together!
As always you can hear me read the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or the title
Poor bird of paradise: she finds nowhere
To rest or settle on her long flight home,
But circles the blue heavens endlessly,
Or so we once believed, and she became
A perfect emblem of unceasing prayer:
Born out of paradise and restlessly
Seeking return, pressing on steady wings,
Beating perpetual blessing through the air,
Which parts to give her passage, and still brings
Us echoes of the haunting song she sings.
I find in her a fitting emblem too,
She sings in me, but now she is the one
In Dylan’s song, who keeps on keeping on,
Like all of us, still tangled up in blue.