A Storm Driven Sparrow

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Quotes

Two excerpts, one from H. Rider Haggard and one from Venerable Bede, that use a sparrow in flight as a metaphor for the evanescence of a man’s life.

A Storm Driven Sparrow

“Listen! what is life? It is a feather, it is the seed of the grass, blown hither and thither, sometimes multiplying itself and dying in the act, sometimes carried away into the heavens. But if that seed be good and heavy it may perchance travel a little way on the road it wills. It is well to try and journey one’s road and to fight with the air. Man must die. At the worst he can but die a little sooner. I will go with thee across the desert and over the mountains, unless perchance I fall to the ground on the way, my father.”  […]

“You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.”

Speech by Umbopa/Ignosi, Zulu Chief, in “King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard

The “storm-driven bird” phrase echoes an observation from the Venerable Bede’s “Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: A Revised Translation With Introduction, Life, and Notes By A. M. Sellar, published by George Bell and Sons, 1907) Book 2, Chapter 13

“The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all.”

“One thing hastens into being, another hastens out of it.”

This is a 2016 postscript to the original 2012 post: I came across this quote in section 15 of Book 6 of Marcus Aurelius Meditations and thought it was certainly congruent with the other two quotes and because it predated them it may have influenced one or both of them.

“One thing hastens into being, another hastens out of it.

Even while a thing is in the act of coming into existence, some part of it has already ceased to be.

Flux and change are forever renewing the fabric of the universe, just as the ceaseless sweep of time is forever renewing the face of the eternity.

In such a running river, where there is no firm foothold, what is there for a man to value among all the many things that are racing past him?

It would be like setting the affections on some sparrow flitting by, which in the selfsame moment is lost to sight.

A man’s life is no more than an inhalation from the air and an exhalation from the blood; and there is no true difference between drawing in a single breath, only to emit it again, as we do every instant, and receiving the power to breathe at all, as you did yesterday at your birth, only to yield it back one day to the source from which you drew it.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Book 6 Section 15, translated by Maxwell Staniforth

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