Longing for the swifts

Sabrina’s Stream at Kempsey on Severn by Benjamin Williams Leader

High summer approaches. For me this time of year is very much associated with that most aetherial of birds, the swift. I’m waiting eagerly for them to arrive.  Remembering sitting in the garden at peace on summer afternoons; looking upwards into depth upon depth of blue, where the screaming swifts are seen looping through the sky in their great, unhindered gyres. So sad that their numbers have declined in recent years, not enough people have proper wooden eaves under which they can make their nests anymore.

The poet Geoffrey Hill, once in old age sitting on the banks of the Severn, wanted also to celebrate them, as part of his rich meditation on love, old age, the contradictions of reason and desire, and the alchemical power of imagination – Scenes from Comus. Earlier in the sequence, in the depths of winter, where a harsh Icelandic light seemed to irradiate the scene with nuclear intensity, he had established ‘that we are / at once rational, irrational, possessed by reason. / That this is no reason for us to despair.’ Then later in the year, by the river that holds so many associations for him, the high aerobatics of those birds seem to figure for him both reason in coils and in liberating guise:

Sharpened, sharpening, the swifts’ wings

track and loop back clear skeins

through vanished arches.

See in what ways the river

lies padded – no, dashed – with light.

Show whether the imaged clouds

are litanies or escorts.

A White Throated Swift

The scene is half real, half imagined. He appears to remember some long vanished branch line railway over the river through which the swifts in his mind are still swooping. ‘Clear skeins’ – the ambivalence of being knotted and yet without substance, the looping of memory around things invisible yet present, the V of the swan’s flying formation (its more normal useage for birds) echoing the arrowed V of the swift’s wings. And the light on the River too is ambivalent – both soft and sharp, revealing and concealing what it partly reflects of the sky above. So these things of the mind, clouds in the sky, may be litanies – the heart’s repetitions, past habits of petition & condemnation, or escorts, leading us onwards to the unknown future. Geoffrey Hill has helped me to understand why I love this bird and its looping flight so much. They are both the past in its coiling gyres and the unknown future with all its possibilities, searing the air with wild, joyful screams.

Railway viaduct over the River Severn with Shrewsbury in the background by Agnes Blunt







Published by urthonamag

Essays on art, consciousness and radical transformation, with an East West perspective

2 thoughts on “Longing for the swifts

  1. Lovely article. I too love watching the swifts. Last time I saw them they were swooping and diving across a filed of corn. It was a beautiful sight in the sunshine. Still have difficulty in telling them apart from swallows.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Reconstructionary Tales

Modern literature; occasional straying into other paths.

Norfolk Tales, Myths & More!

Stories From Norfolk and Beyond - Be They Past, Present, Fact, Fiction, Mythological, Legend or Folklore.

Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

Shiny New Books

What to Read Next and Why


Curiosities, exploration, strange things and history

The Smell of Water

Dark and True and Tender is the North

Julian Beach :: Writing

Poems | England | Staffordshire | East Anglia | Northern Ireland | The Needwood Poems.


art & poetry for spiritual evolution


Exploring Time Travel of Place


Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me

Richly Evocative

Places, books & other diversions

Writing the World

Nature writing for the ecological crisis

The Solitary Walker

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

Psychogeographic Review

The Art of Psychogeography


art & poetry for spiritual evolution


Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me

Brian David Stevens

art & poetry for spiritual evolution

Murdo Eason - From Hill to Sea

walking / writing / between world and word

geo poetry –

Reviews and essays on poetry, art and landscape

Matthew Kunce Photography

A journey into photography and life.

%d bloggers like this: