They came like house martins and like house martins went

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air,
The intellectual sweetness of those lines
That cut through time or cross it withershins.

Holed up for a fortnight recently in a west Somerset village, I acquired a new skill. I reckon I’m now able, for the first time in my life, to identify with confidence each member of that glorious scimitar-winged trinity: the swift, the swallow and the house martin.

I’m now starting to wonder whether WB Yeats was ever able to say the same. We’ll never really know for sure, obviously: so there’s no point me stating definitively that the gregarious birds he describes in Coole Park, 1929 were martins, not swallows.

Someone somewhere would be sure to put me right, pointing out that swallows sometimes behave in exactly the way he describes. Or that they were particularly prone to do so in County Galway during the 1920s. Or alternatively they’ll invoke Yeats’s poetic licence and say it’s hardly worth quibbling about. And, you know, they may well be right.

On the other hand, maybe this is an unlikely scenario, because the poem isn’t much talked about these days: for many Yeats scholars, it’s a source of awkwardness and embarrassment. After all, you can’t read it without being reminded, even in passing, of one of the 20th Century’s most shameful acts of cultural vandalism.

Coole Park was the house and estate of Augusta Gregory, prime mover in the Irish Literary Renaissance. As such, the building should have become a national treasure; instead, because of its emotive associations with the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a family seat in a time of civil war, it was bulldozed to make way for the Irish Republic. Celebrate that the next time you’re in Dublin for the Bloomsday craic.

Spookily, in the last stanza of the poem, Yeats offers us a vision of the building as a mound of rubble. He could hardly have guessed this would actually come to pass less than two years after he died.

So maybe he was fallible where swallows are concerned too. We have an odd attitude to writers, especially the ones we endow with god-like powers, who get things wrong. And this is not just a modern thing. Shakespeare, for instance, though steeped in country lore, often invoked the natural world in ways that tax the ingenuity of those minded to police his ex-Cathedra infallibility.

But such concerns have become even more marginalised in the wake of the English cultural revolution. Thanks in no small part to the subsequent rise of New Left Criticism, with its aggressively hostile attitude towards the English pastoral tradition, we’ve seen (to take one obvious example) the literary novel peppered, in recent decades, with all manner of shabby improbabilities. Daffodils in August, nuts in May.

So chuffing what, I hear you say. And, again, maybe you’re right. Maybe we’re all Magical Realists now. Literary people, and artistic people in general, are less curious about the natural world than they’ve ever been.

I’ve seen this at first hand several times. A decade ago, walking across Clissold Park in London with a couple of very talented painters, both newly anointed by the Royal Academy, I was astonished to discover that neither could identify a single one of the trees we passed.

Some were hard. It’s not everyone who knows what a grey poplar looks like. But they were confounded even by the humble horse chestnut.

It wasn’t their lack of knowledge that upset me at the time: more the fact that this didn’t give them pause for thought. Quite the opposite.

And indeed I witnessed a variant of this in Somerset. One afternoon, we came upon a man standing staring up under the high eaves of a derelict clapboard warehouse set back from the path by the old weir. We stopped to say hello. You tend to find yourself doing that sort of thing when you’re in west Somerset.

He said he was curious to see so many swallows coming and going and wondered what they were up to. We chatted for a while. He was colourfully dressed, flamboyantly so, urbane and cosmopolitan. Late 30s, middle class, affluent, well-educated. He was clearly a cultivated and curious and open-minded man. There was a compelling sense of mischief about him too: he had a giggling sort of laugh; and I could see he had that effortless knack, one I’ve always envied, of making instant friends.

We shared some of our own (admittedly limited) knowledge about what the birds were up to. We pointed out their nests, rough hemispheres of mud and twigs in the ragged shadow of the roofline. We told him if you looked carefully you could see the chicks peeking out. That’s what all the incessant coming and going was about. Swallows feeding their young.

We watched in silence for a while. Just the sound of water over the weir somewhere in the background.

And then, breaking the spell, I said: “But of course they’re not swallows, they’re martins.”

This seemed to irritate him; and what he did next, I realise now, should be regarded as a kindness. “Oh, come on,” he said as he turned to walk off. “Now you’re just being technical.”




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