Lent with Herbert Day 23: The Bird of Paradise

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I became withdrawn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

The Bird of Paradise

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.

the bird of paradise


Filed under imagination, Poems

10 responses to “Lent with Herbert Day 23: The Bird of Paradise

  1. Benet Haughton

    Dear Malcolm, It is good to receive these sonnets and comments of yours..has been over some years now but with covid 19 i have time to appreciate more fully! In these dark and difficult times they are a way of keeping in touch with the deeper and, in this case paradisal, reality of it all. So many thanks. Ben >

  2. bgulland72

    beautiful thought & photo. And I love that song – even sang it in a Bradford karaoke bar last summer!

  3. Bethan Scotford

    Beautiful – with v.interesting use of words: the opening sentence -hope and pathos of the little bird; fragile and doing what it must in order to survive.
    Prayer, like truth, is a priceless grace – beautiful and seemingly fragile, but it has its own means of power and sustenance. Sisyphus, Odysseus. Flying Dutchman -fated to endure unceasingly -without any assurance of resolution.
    Prayer, fervent and unceasing, is a fragment of the being of God; and it will find its resolution in God, for it is in God we live and move and have our being.Prayer, truth and the other spiritual virtues endures, like the little bird, on trust;

  4. Letitia Mason

    This poem echoes my thoughts today, feeling a little blue and cut off but held up by online prayers with groups of friends, and knowing my family are safe in God’s hands.

  5. Born out of paradise and restlessly

    Seeking return, pressing on steady wings,

    Beating perpetual blessing through the air,
    ~ Malcolm Guite

    Beating perpetual blessing through the air … I receive that blessing Malcolm. Thank you for this. That is what I will think as I go outside today and breathe them in.


  6. Katharine Venour

    Beautiful, and gracefully speaks into the wide swath of days.

  7. Pingback: Prayer and ‘After Prayer’, a Hypertext | Malcolm Guite

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