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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Poetry XII (and Jane Eyre XXVIII) -- JANE EYRE IS A BIRD

For brevity's sake, I am not including the full poems I reference here.  Also, and as I've done before (even just last week), I'm going to leave the majority of dot-connecting to you.

The topic comes from our most recent Jane Eyre installment, chapter 27, which in its reference to birds as "emblems of love" throws back in a contrary manner (opposite really, but birds still the same) to chapter 1, where Jane is reading from Bewick's History of British Birds.  Before we get into the direct application to the book, however, I want to look at some more birds.

Birds, symbolically, are a lot like that of trees, at least on the positive end of things, where they can represent nature and God (often, and particularly in the case of Jane Eyre, the same thing) and love, and, in their movement between earth and Heaven, they can represent prayer and angels or spirits.  However, they have a freedom impressionistically lacking in trees, and their folkloric connection to deity is stronger than that of trees.  (Look at Quetzalcoatl and, on the less dramatic side, Mr. Stork -- video below.)

There is also a darker element to birds, which seems more appropriate, at least by first impression, to Jane Eyre.  Birds are often carrion eaters--consumers of the dead.  Blend this with their naturally spiritual element, and you have a symbol well worthy of Jane Eyre, and particularly chapter 1.  Crows, owls, vultures, etcetera are not birds associated with that which is pleasant and beatific and uplifting.  I posted this picture yesterday:

Here a man--one unlucky soul from the Book of Samuel--after being stoned gets taken apart by the birds.  It reminds me of that moment in Pirates of the Caribbean shortly before Jack SPARROW escapes (see? "sparrow": freedom -- though also, perhaps, idiocy -- in that name) where we see crows poking at the eye of some woebegone sailor in a cage.

Gustave Dore'
Pirates and birds, not to mention the illustrator of the above engraving, Gustave Dore (one of my very favorite illustrators, by the way, and thank goodness he was so spectacularly prolific!), brings us to Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (short version HERE; complete poem HERE (and, really, read the whole thing; it's worth it and will only put you out about ten or fifteen minutes).  Here we see the curse that follows the destruction of nature, and in this case, an albatross, symbol of good fortune as well as symbol of Jesus Christ (consider its shape against the sky, sun up and behind it, viewed from the deck of a ship far below).

What interests me here is the combination of hopefulness (the albatross as Christ) with the migratory nature, almost aimlessness, of the sea bird.  This and other sea birds are the subject of the chapter of Bewick's, which young Jane Eyre is reading.  But what about the most recent chapter we've read, where the birds are all about the Love?

Certainly that--love--fits birds just fine.  Read the smackingly sappy (sorry) Ode to a Nightingale, by Keats: HERE.

Note the mention of the dryad in the first stanza: bolster, as if it were needed, to the connection mentioned above between birds and trees (beside the fact that so many birds frickin' LIVE in trees!).

Joseph Severn
While I think these two poems do a good job reflecting at least a little of what Bronte was intending in their respective chapters, it does little to make connection between the two, because birds are such facile and even capricious symbols; they can be practically anything.  But perhaps if we forget about the individual symbolics of specific species or varieties, then we might make a general definition for birds (easy -- they fly, right? and flying is freedom, unfettered and irresponsible), and apply it to Jane.

Look at her circumstances in each chapter as they apply to freedom.  In chapter 1, she craves it, but freedom appears to be impossible, unreachable; hence the birds are dark, migratory, and carnivorous--drawn haunts of the derelict and dead.  In chapter 27, she is faced with the necessity of taking up her a new and undesired freedom, but she doesn't want to go!  She sees love--tweedly little birds, cute and white (I'm making that up)--but it, the love, is as unreachable--keen to fly just beyond her grasp--as was freedom back at the beginning.

Maybe this is stretching, but it works.  Birds are such instinctive symbols that, I think, even if Bronte didn't intend their application here, it works nonetheless.  What might not work, though I'm putting it out there anyway, is Jane's name:

JANE EYRE.  (And this is how totally I am going from the mark.  Read Ancestry.com's derivation of the last name Eyre, from Ayer: "English: from Middle English eireyer ‘heir’ (Old French (h)eir, from Latin heres ‘heir’). Forms such as Richard le Heyer were frequent in Middle English, denoting a man who was well known to be the heir to the main property in a particular locality, either one who had already inherited or one with great expectations.")  But say the last name aloud.  Eyre.  Say it.  Eyre; Air.  Birds!  Jane Eyre is a bird, folks!  Take her first name (which means gracious and merciful, by the way) and we've really got a pretty good description of Jane's character: a forgiving and benevolent bird.  Does she not travel here and there spreading the good of her soul?

I welcome you thoughts.


  1. Going along with the birds name theory, "Eyre," also looks close to "Eyrie," an alternative spelling of, "Aerie."

    The poems are really cool. So many phrases that have either become part of speech, or in the case of, "Tender is the night," a book title. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is simply amazing. Without having read it, I had always understood the albatross to be a bad thing from the way it is used in speech. However, it's not really the albatross that's bad; it's the fact that he kills it for no good reason--sort of like "The Black Cat".

    Anyway, I think that you're on the right track with the bird analogy.

  2. Awesome, James, about "aerie;" I didn't catch that. Sort of strengthens the argument, doesn't it? Also, Romanticism is strongly connected to nature (if you couldn't tell in both the poems I included, each of which is a hallmark of the movement), so it works there as well. I can imagine Bronte looking for foundation for her character and lighting upon (get it?) birds.


    Sometimes--well, every time I look back on it--I really wish I'd taken more care and put more effort in my undergrad. I remember reading this then, but it wasn't until I wanted to teach it that I really dug into "Ancient Mariner." The poem is truly remarkable--one of my very favorites. I've got a copy (gifted to me when I left SASA, actually) with all Dore's illustrations. It's gorgeous.

    Another connection: what if Rochester is the ancient mariner and Jane is the albatross? Kinda fits....


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