Waterside Birds, Part VI: Swans and Cranes

by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Sosui)

.. Wild swans come from Siberia to winter on the northern lakes of Japan. Lake Hyoko in Niigata Prefecture and Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture are famous as their winter homes. However, we do not often see wild swans on Japanese rivers, probably because Japanese rivers are too fast for them.  Most British rivers, however, flow gently, and therefore, we can see many wild swans swimming there. Here I am reminded of the famous words of Edmund Spenser: ‘Sweet Thames! run softly, till I end my song’. These words appear in Prothalamion, a poem which celebrates the nuptials of two gentle ladies. In this poem, Spenser compares the brides to ‘two swans of goodly hue’ and tells them to ‘come softly swimming down along the Lee’. The Lee is probably the tributary that runs into the Thames at Greenwich. When I visited the ruins of Spenser’s castle at Kilcolman in Ireland, I saw swans swimming peacefully in a small marshy lake in front of it. Here, Spenser wrote his Faerie Queene, but lost his estate and some of his family when Tyrone’s Rebellion destroyed the castle. Knowing this, I could not help wondering if the peaceful swans were the ghosts of the dead, who had somehow transcended the glory and tragedy of the past.
.. Shakespeare was called ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ by Ben Jonson. When I visited Stratford- upon-Avon, I saw two swans swimming gently in the river close by Holy Trinity Church, where he was buried. In his writings, Shakespeare often associates the swan with death. This is because of the traditional belief that the swan sings immediately before its death. In the final scene of Othello, Shakespeare makes Emilia say, ‘I will play the swan and die in music.’ The pathos of these words is very impressive, but actually swans do not sing beautifully at their death. On the contrary, their voices are rather ugly. I am afraid that ugly voices are common to most waterside birds.

Pale blue-gray like lead,
The lake where a flock of swans
Nestles in winter.

………. The tears of the swans
………. Come down in sudden showers
………. At Kilcolman Castle.

.. In Japan, cranes are more familiar than swans. Moreover, they are regarded as auspicious birds. For a long time, Japan Airlines used a crane emblem on their airplanes, and this was recently revived. Some cranes migrate between Siberia and Japan, but red-crested cranes  stay in Hokkaido all the year round. I once visited Kushiro in the eastern part of Hokkaido to see the monuments of Takuboku, whom I admire as a poet. This town is known for its severe winter, but fortunately, I had a relatively warm day with some sunshine. Takuboku’s monument in Yonemachi Park was impressive, against a backdrop of rough sea. I visited his museum near the river, and his statue nearby. A sea gull came and perched on his head while I was there. Watching this bird, I suddenly had a burning desire to see the red-crested cranes. So I extended my stay.
.. I first went to the Red-crested Cranes Park, a kind of zoo, where I was able to see the birds at very close quarters, but was rather disappointed that they were caged. I was surprised to see numerous kites and hawks perching on the nearby trees. I thought they were after the food provided for the cranes. I then went to the Cranes Observation Point, where I was glad to see a crowd of red-crested cranes in the open wilds, with snow on the ground. While I was watching, a pair of cranes came down and landed unexpectedly. Their elegant flight is something that I shall never forget. Soon, several cranes put their heads together, and raising their long necks, began to cry loudly up at the sky, as if in emulation. Even there, though, I was not watching the cranes in a completely natural environment, for the farmers there had been feeding them in order to attract them. What I had really wanted to see was the cranes going to sleep standing in the marshy rivers. This proved impossible. So I had to satisfy myself with pictures in the museum.

.. With snow all around
.. The crimson berets of cranes
.. Stand out in the sun.

………. Evening fog setting in,
………. Red-crested cranes go to sleep
………. In a marshy stream.

9 responses to “Waterside Birds, Part VI: Swans and Cranes

  1. Personal, and thus more interesting. A nice blend of natural history and travelogue, with some literary allusion thrown in. It might have been good to have a pertinent line or two of Takuboku’s, for contrast with those of Spenser and Shakespeare quoted earlier? The final haiku image of the swans sleeping in the fog is spell-binding! The best haiku of all are little spells.
    Like the birds you depict, this series of haibun has imbued the Icebox these past two years with a contemplative grace. Thank you.
    If readers would like to access all six parts, simply type in the word ‘Waterside’ to the search box on the right.

  2. Thank you for this most literary and erudite survey. I enjoyed the references to Spenser’s castle since I too made the pilgrimage there to view the ruined tower. Seamus Heaney once gave a talk about the ‘Three Towers’ of Irish literature, placing it alongside those of Yeats and Joyce as symbolic monuments. Unfortunately I missed the swans there, but you make the link very skilfully with the Faerie Queene. Not many people are familar with that these days. As for the cranes, your writing has inspired me to aim for eastern Hokkaido, though if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s caged birds…. I don’t think anyone with a poet’s heart could fail to be moved by their inhuman plight, certainly not Maya Angelou…

    I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
    When he beats his bars and he would be free;
    It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
    But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
    I know why the caged bird sings!

    • Thank you for your kind comments about my haibun. Your irritation with the caged birbds reminded me of the following famous words of William Blake:
      A robin readbreast in a cage
      Puts all Heaven in a rage.
      I hope you will be able to enjoy wild life when you go to Hokkaido. N.Y.

    • The poet being Paul Laurence Dunbar. The caged bird in this poem which is titled: Sympathy; is a symbol for the chained black slave in America.

      Maya Angelou used the phrase ‘I know why the caged bird sings” from Dunbar’s poem as a title for a novel about her life as a child growing up in the southern part of the united states.

      • Dear Gerald,
        Thank you very much for your information about Dunbar, an American poet. I remember the above two lines from William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, which is an interesting poem mainly cosisting of couplets. The poem as a whole sounds like a collection of Blake’s proverbs. Blake himself was against slavery.

  3. In this haibun, I was particularly drawn into the poet’s actual encounter with the swans, the seagull, and those pair of cranes, and how those personal moments seemed to trigger memories, and or, a desire seek more of the nature of wild birds. With this in mind I felt that the ending of not being able to see what was desired the most was wonderful.

    Also, the first line in the first haiku in this piece was interesting “Pale blue-gray like lead” . Is it a description of the lake? Or is it a description of the of the day as it ends? The ambiquity of this line, combined with the word “Nestles” in the final line, seems to fit in both cases.

    • To me, the comma at end of first line denotes omission of ‘is’. In other words, it describes the lake, surely?
      Nice point about ending with unsatisfied desire. I agree that the lack of satisfaction is interesting. Basho wrote of a visit when he could not see Mt. Fuji as being OK, too. 霧時雨富士を見ぬ日も面白き. Blyth categorized this mentality as ‘grateful acceptance’.

  4. Thank you for your series’ ‘swan song’, Sosui. I took this opportunity to read all the Waterside Birds pieces in order, and what I noticed is the acuity of your observations of the natural world, conveyed with a deceptive lightness of phraseology and deftly interwoven with relevant Western references at times. There is a lot to be learnt about the craft of the haibun from observing a master observer with a lifetime of observations upon which to draw, and a great knack for educing the poetry within them.

  5. It was a pleasure to read this.

    Light touch, graceful transitions– lovely shift from the sublime to the wryly humorous: the ugly voice of the swans, the seagull on the statue’s head, the impossibility of seeing cranes asleep standing in the marshes, despite the popularity of such a motif in art.

    In pre-modern English poetry, the nightingale’s voice appears frequently, but I, for one, have never heard one sing. Have any of you?

    Thank you for posting this lovely series!