If you weren’t careful, a day like today could persuade you that spring is here. It’s temperate, bright, and intoxicating. Two days ago I was one impulsive mouse click away from booking a flight to Las Vegas that would have departed O’Hare in an hour. The impulse dissolved, click I did not, and instead of milling about an airport gate in heels and sunglasses, I’m at my desk watching the motes in the sunlight and listening to the birds dotting the tree branches outside my window. They’re as pleased with the day as I am.
W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, which I am lately rediscovering, has one entry each under “Sparrows” and “Swallows.” The sparrows are John Clare’s:
3 sorts The common house Sparrow The Hedge Sparrow & Reed Sparrow often calld the fen sparrow The common sparrow is well known but not so much in a domesticated state as few people think it worth while bringing up a sparrow When I was a boy I kept a tamed cock sparrow 3 years it was so tame that it would come when calld & flew where it pleasd when I first had the sparrow I was fearful of the cat killing it so I usd to hold the bird in my hand toward her & when she attempted to smell of it I beat her she at last woud take no notice of it & I ventured to let it loose in the house they were both very shy at each other at first & when the sparrow venturd to chirp the cat woud brighten up as if she intended to seize it but she went no further than a look or smell at length she had kittens & when they were taken away she grew so fond of the sparrow as to attempt to caress it the sparrow was startld at first but came to by degrees & ventured so far at last as to perch upon her back puss would call for it when out of sight like a kitten & woud lay mice before it the same as she woud for her own young & they always livd in harmony so much the sparrow woud often take away bits of bread from under the cat’s nose & even put itself in a posture of resistence when offended as if it reckoned her no more than one of its kind. In winter when we coud not bear the door open to let the sparrow come out & in I was allowd to take a pane out of the window but in the spring of the third year my poor tom Sparrow for that was the name he was calld by went out & never returnd I went day after day calling out for tom & eagerly eying every sparrow on the house but none answerd the name for he woud come down in a moment to the call & perch upon my hand to be fed I gave it out that some cat which it mistook for its old favourite betrayed its confidence & destroyed it.
As the publication of Jonathan Bate’s biography last year made better-known, Clare was a Romantic-era English peasant-poet who found some fame in his lifetime but lived in poverty and eventually went mad, deteriorating and dying in obscurity in an asylum. The facts of Clare’s biography magnify the pathos of the remembrance above, with its discovery of the danger of mistaking the familiar social operations of one’s native locale for the less forgiving, sometimes inscrutable laws of the wider world. In the light of Clare’s unhappy life, it’s a sobering little brief for staying at home, letting natural enmities be, and trusting no one.