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







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.

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