All through the winter, our local rookery has consisted of just one nest, like a single house with curtains up at the window in an otherwise derelict street. I was afraid the site had been abandoned. But this week I spotted a rook flying overhead with twigs and fluff in its beak, and 48 hours later the nest-count had reached 15.
I love to see the birds setting to work at the beginning of spring, but, just to be awkward, it always makes me think of a sonnet by Gerard Manley Hopkins, about disappointed hopes. It’s the beginning of the last stanza that sticks in my mind – a frustrated lament:
… birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
It must be a terrible thing to come towards the end of life (Hopkins died a few months after writing this, aged 44) and feel that nothing you’ve done is of any use or value. While uncomplicated creatures like birds just follow their instincts and get on with the yearly round of building, breeding, raising young and then… whatever birds do for the rest of the year… I guess most human beings have times when nothing seems to go right, plans fall apart, and inspiring projects fail or never really get off the ground.
It’s especially galling if, like Hopkins, you have a faith that (perhaps naively) seems to suggest God ought to be helping you along, not thwarting your efforts.
I like Hopkins’ choice of words in these lines. The simple alliteration of ‘birds build’ is beautifully memorable, and ‘one work that wakes’ is an even more musical phrase. The idea that our work should ‘wake’ links, I suppose, with the image of nature coming back to life after the long sleep of the winter months. It reminds me, too, of D.H. Lawrence’s praise of ‘things men have made with wakened hands’ – work that is not aimless, not sleepwalking, but conscious and focused and with a living warmth.
‘Time’s eunuch’ is an odd way to describe oneself but, again, there’s an obvious connection with ‘not breed’. The years of disappointment have sapped the poet’s vitality and creativity – or so he feels. As a celibate priest, perhaps Hopkins needed to feel that his work had to produce a legacy for him, a sort of offspring, but it was not doing so. Certainly, very few of his poems were published in his lifetime.
The happy irony is, of course, that despite his despair and sense of failure, Hopkins did ‘breed work that wakes’. Some of us are still reading his poetry and feeling the emotion of it today, more than 100 years later. And perhaps that has something to do with the very last line of the poem, which is a hopeful prayer:
Mine, O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.
Without the winter and spring rains, the trees in which the birds build would sicken and die – and human creativity, too, needs to be watered in some way. Sometimes, thankfully, it can spring to life even when the nesting-site seems to have been deserted.