Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The caged bird of the soul

Michael Dahl (1659-1743), Cockatoo

I have done several posts about the symbolism of birds, whether that appears in art, mythology, religion or your own dreams. These posts usually get tons of hits, compared to my regular birding in Illinois stuff, and while I wish my daily rambles were more exciting (go, Prairie State! and its prairies! and their birds!), I can't really blame anyone.

Let's face it, birds are powerful symbols. They can be interpreted as cruel and powerful, objects of fear; or on a much happier note, as divine messengers of symbols of the soul.

"Beata beatrix," Dante Gabriel Rossetti
In this post, I am thinking specifically of birds as symbolizing our soul or spirit. Birds have a fascination for us because they can fly; a few flaps of their wings, and there they go, disappearing into the beyond. Of course, insects and bats also fly; but birds have the additional advantages of beauty and song.

Free as a bird, the expression goes. There is something quite compelling in that combination of beauty and flight. I could try to analyze it, but I probably wouldn't be very successful. This post I found on the Internet, where a mother dreamed of her stillborn child's spirit as a bird, shows the power of this symbol better than a dozen academic texts.

The flip side of the symbol of birds as freedom incarnate is the piteous image of the caged bird. To some extent, there is always a tension between our idealization of "wild" creatures and these creatures in captivity. For some of us, going to a zoo is a guilty pleasure. On the one hand, we enjoy seeing the animals, and experiencing that vicarious touch of the wild in our domesticated lives, and we appreciate that many zoos are actively engaged in captive breeding or conservation projects. But still, we somehow know that these creatures were meant to roam freely though vast expanses of habitat. Seeing them behind bars is seeing them stripped, not only of their freedom, but of something significant in what wildness means to us.

I will let one of my favorite poets take over now:

The Panther --by Rainer Maria Rilke

His vision, from the constantly passing bars,
has grown so weary that it cannot hold
anything else. It seems to him there are
a thousand bars; and behind the bars, no world.

As he paces in cramped circles, over and over,
the movement of his powerful, soft strides
is like a ritual dance around a center
in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils,
lifts, quietly.-- An image enters in.
rushes down through the tense, arrested muscles, 
plunges into the heart and is gone.

Take the symbolism and energy of the caged panther, and give it to a wild creature that was literally meant to fly. Humans have enjoyed the company of captive birds for centuries. We enjoy their beauty and their songs, and also, as anyone who has ever kept company with a parrot or a cockatiel can attest, their wacky personalities; but we also sense, at some level, that the caged bird is an affront to our symbolic order.

As Carl Jung expressed in his work Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, "What use now is his lofty perch and his wide horizon, when his own dear soul is languishing in prison?" Thus, in the book and card deck The Wisdom Well by Ivarna Kalinkova, based on the Jung's ideas, the archetype of the prisoner or "caged spirit" is illustrated by a caged bird.

Our souls or spirits are symbolic birds. George Bernard Shaw has expressed our plight in humorous terms, but still, I think many of us might see our daily routines, or even our heavy flesh and bones, as a sort of cage from which our spirit, bird-like, would like to escape.

In any event, I can think of no more piteous image than that of the imprisoned bird, such as this historical photo of a captive cockatoo.

The difference between art and academia is, perhaps, that artists try to show us the truth of symbols, and academics seek to analyze it. The problem with analysis is that, if we are not careful, it becomes yet another cage. If the words "caged bird of the soul" conjure up an image or a feeling for you, then really, no further explanation is needed.

I think Jim Harrison's poem "Birds Again" is another powerful snapshot of this metaphor. I can read it over and over, and still find something that resonates.

Still, perhaps setting our metaphorical caged bird free is not the wisest thing to do. As this poem by Hector Saint-Denys-Garneau (1912-1943) shows, that bird might be the last flight that we ever take. (I found it in Graeme Gibson's The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany, which I highly recommend if you like art and literature about birds.)

Bird-Cage -- Hector Saint-Denys-Garneau

I am a bird cage

A cage of bones
With a bird in it

That bird in the bony cage
is death, building his nest

When nothing goes on
We can hear his wings clashing

After a good deal of laughter
If we stop suddenly
We can hear him cooing
Deep down
Like a smart bell

Death is a captive bird
Kept in the cage of my bones

Wouldn't he like to fly away
Is it you who keep him
Is it I
What is it

He will not leave until
He has eaten all of me
My heart
The source of blood
And the life inside

He will have my soul in his beak


  1. Perhaps setting our metaphorical caged birds free might not be something we really want to do, but I've come to believe that caging living birds, especially sensitive, intelligent birds like those in the parrot family, is wrong. The photo of the cockatoo is heartbreaking. With love and good intentions, we become jailers. "Birds Again" is a beautiful poem, as is "Bird-Cage", if a little disturbing! Great post! MOM

  2. I left you a message on IBF. Thanks, Susy