Sunday, July 18, 2010

Joanna Baillie, from "A Winter's Day"

Strutting before, the cock leads forth his train,
And chuckling near the barn-door 'mid the straw,
Reminds the farmer of his morning's service.
His grateful master throws a liberal handful;
They flock about it, while the hungry sparrows,
Perched on the roof, look down with envious eye,
Then, aiming well, amidst the feeders light,
And seize upon the feast with greedy bill,
Till angry partlets peck them off the field.
But at a distance, on the leafless tree,
All woe-begone, the lonely blackbird sits;
The cold north wind ruffles his glossy feathers;
Full oft he looks, but dare not make approach,
Then turns his yellow beak to peck his side
And claps his wings close to' his sharpened breast.
The wandering fowler from behind the hedge,
Fastens his eye upon him, points his gun,
And firing wantonly, as at a mark,
Of life bereaves him in the cheerful spot
That oft hath echoed to his summer's song.

This brief passage comes from Joanna Baillie's poem "A Winter's Day," published in 1790. The poem fits neatly within the "loco-descriptive" genre, and it is reminiscent of the landscape paintings of artists like Constable who were flourishing at roughly the same time. As Baillie's title suggests, the poem as a whole is a diurnal sketch of rural life—it follows a farm family from the rooster's cry at first light until the farmer himself gives one last check on the weather before retiring for the night. As such, the poem is organized temporally—an obvious enough point, perhaps, though note that this contrasts with Coleridge's "Eolian Harp" or Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." These more famous and canonical Romantic poems, while still in one sense descriptive of specific natural scenes, are organized according to the poet's association of ideas rather than according to the temporal or spatial patterns of the objective world being described.

The body of Baillie's poem is made up of a series of scenes that usually seem "merely" descriptive, but that occasionally offer some sense of a figurative meaning that goes beyond the mere descriptive content. The passage presented here is one such instance. Much of the poem is devoted to the hard work of the laboring "hind," but also to the sustaining care with which he treats his family and his livestock and his broader community of neighbors. This is a world of harmonious interdependence, where the comical strut of the rooster is appreciated for what it is, and where the "grateful master" rewards the chickens (and the hungry but opportunistic sparrows) with a "liberal handful" of corn. It's an image of a joyful, ecological interdependence—the rooster and his brood depend on the farmer who is in turn "grateful" for their contribution to the life of the farm.

Nearby, however, we find a less fortunate bird—the "lonely blackbird" who is apparently too skittish to join in the farmyard feast. Instead, this wind-ruffled songbird sinks into himself, tightening his wings as though to better keep out the cold. The next figure, the "wandering fowler"—perhaps some passing sportsman with leisure time and resources enough to divert himself with hunting—apparently comes from outside this close-knit rural circle. Upon seeing the blackbird, he fires "wantonly, as at a mark," and kills him. It seems an act of senseless and impersonal violence: the blackbird provides no food or any other value for the "fowler." He is nothing more than a target and is killed without a thought. The poet, of course, recalls how the blackbird had contributed a song that made this place a "cheerful spot," but this positive engagement with the well-being of the place is lost on the hunter.

It is perhaps an easy and sentimental point, but clearly Baillie is drawing a contrast between the engaged, charitable, and ecologically sustaining lives of the laborer and his family as opposed to the wanton destruction wrought by the (presumably) leisure-class hunter. The social, cultural, and political implications of the observation are clear enough. This peasant laborer—like Wordsworth's Michael—represents a deeply grounded, ecologically engaged way of life that was quickly disappearing in the face of an increasingly cosmopolitan commercial and industrial England, and Baillie's poem is an elegy of sorts to this vanishing way of life.