The Falcon

“In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?”

—William Blake, The Tyger

Falcon, falcon, flying high
Over pines that scrape the sky,
What ingenious deity
Has framed your feathers, formed your flight?

Who the head, and what the wings?
How the graceful hoverings,
The virtuoso circlings
That bate my breath, amaze my sight?

From pine to pine you glide with ease,
Then soar above the tallest trees
With widened wingspan in the breeze—
Dark silhouette in summer’s light.

Where in the clouds’ vicinity
Is he who gave such dignity
To you, but left humanity
Enslaved to gravity, in spite

Of having crowned him king of bird
And every beast? He gave his word
That man would rule; is it absurd
That on the sky’s scroll you would write

With feathered pen, man’s question why
God’s image can’t, like falcons, fly?
Where is his unseen eagle-eye
Who overrides this regal right?

Why did your maker choose to fashion
Mankind with such thwarted passion
For your lofty flight’s elation:
Aching, craving to unite

With your unrestrained volition?
By his purposed prohibition,
We remain in adoration
Far below your lordly height.

Wounded fledglings, we are left
Of flight’s facility bereft,
Helpless by our human heft,
Imprisoned in our grounded plight.

Did he who made mankind, make you?
And when he shall make all things new,
Will the zenith of your view
At last be our intense delight?

Airborne falcon, drawing high
Semicircles in the sky,
What artistic Deity
Has carved the pathway of your flight?

 

 

Cynthia Erlandson is a poet and fitness professional living in Royal Oak, Michigan.  She has had poems published in First Things, Modern Age, Measure Journal, Anglican Theological Review, The North American Anglican, Forward in Christ, and the Anthologies The Slumbering Host (ed. Clinton Collister), and A Widening Light, (ed. Luci Shaw).

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9 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    There are some excellent and well-crafted passages in this poem, and one cannot fault the metrics.

    There is a difficulty in all poems that are presented as reflections of earlier, well-known poems. The informed reader will inevitably make invidious comparisons and judgments regarding the merits of the newer poem, and unless the newer poem is resoundingly excellent (I’m thinking of “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”), the earlier poem will have the edge.

    In this poem, I see a problem in theme. Blake’s “Tyger” is about a theological question — how is it possible that the same God who made the weak and helpless lamb could also make the frightening and savage tiger? It also raises a question about the fall of the angels (“And when the stars threw down their spears…”), and related points about the primordial source of evil. But here in this new poem, these profound issues are flattened into a simple question about why humans can’t fly the way a falcon does. There’s nothing wrong with a poem on that question, but when compared (as it inevitably will be by the reader) with the Blake poem’s frightening depth, it comes off as unimportant and trivial.

    I’m not criticizing the aesthetic work here. The poet shows a solid command of diction and metrics. It’s just that in the context of what the informed reader knows about Blake’s poem, this one comes across as derivative in a bad sense. There’s nothing wrong with a derivative poem, and in a literature as wide and as old as English, derivation is almost inevitable. But because Blake’s poem is so powerful and philosophically serious, this poem (which laments the fact that we can’t fly like birds) seems unserious.

    Reply
  2. James A. Tweedie

    Not do I question the aesthetic work here. While the theme is relatively simple it does touch on larger matters such as creation, the sovereignty of Man over creation, the innate desire of humanity to rise up and soar to new heights both literally and figuratively—in ways that may defy God, such as Babel, or glorify him, as in a medieval cathedral. And the new creation is also introduced in a speculative theological sense Where the question is raised as to whether the apparently God-given dreams and aspirations of our hearts, minds, and imaginations—so often frustrated in this life—might find find some measure of fulfillment in the life to come.

    There are also several lovely turns of phrase, none of which I like better than stanza 9 which introduces the idea of sin and fallen-ness (could it be that we have been “grounded” for our sin?

    Wounded fledglings, we are left
    Of flight’s facility bereft,
    Helpless by our human heft,
    Imprisoned in our grounded plight.

    This may not attain the heights of Blake’s Tyger, but, in its own way, expresses metaphysical thought with a naive innocence comparable to other selections from his Songs of Experience.

    I enjoyed the poem very much.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, the poem presents the standard religious topos about how present human weakness and frustration will eventually be redeemed by salvific faith. We will “fly” like falcons when we come to the afterlife. But this does not save the poem from the contextual problems that I mentioned.

      If the poem had merely talked of birds and flight as metaphorical suggestions of redemption and salvation in heaven, it would have done its job without the contextual problems. But by deliberately and formally linking itself with Blake’s profoundly antinomian and non-Christian poem (a poem which even today is frighteningly powerful in its effect), Ms. Erlandson’s poem sets itself up for a knockout haymaker, as they say in boxing. The religious suggestions come across as weak and tepid in comparison with Blake’s mystic vision of the inescapable polarity of good and evil, of vulnerability and strength, of God and the Adversary.

      I don’t say that Erlandson’s poem is aesthetically bad — far from it. It shows mature skill in composition and style. And she is an accomplished and widely published poet. But you cannot fight Blake with a well-worn Christian topos. It only serves to make religious faith look weak.

      The real issue here is the attempt to write a poem that is deliberately connected to an older, well-known poem. As I see it, it is possible to be done in one of three ways:

      1) You write a comic parody or spoof of the original poem, deflating its language, style, form, and theme. This is the easiest option. And certain poets are easy to spoof, like Wordsworth, or Swinburne, or Edgar Lee Masters.

      2) You compose an “answer” to the poem, arguing with its message or theme. This is not so easy, because it almost always comes across as petulant whining. And when you write a bad or ineffective “answer” to a famous poem, you only add to the older poem’s prestige.

      3) You use the earlier poem as a point of takeoff, and you initiate some sort of dialogue or debate with it by raising new issues or refuting the earlier poem’s assumptions. This is the very worst option, because it is tedious, boring, and it tells the audience that you are afflicted with adolescent “earnestness.”

      I knew a man back in the 1990s, whose son had composed a very nice sonnet. But the man was for some reason enraged by what his son had written, and he composed an 800-line poetic answer to it! Can you believe that kind of pig-headed idiocy?

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        I am inclined towards your #1 example but disinclined to waste my time refuting a sonnet with 800 lines of poetry that no one will ever read–or enjoy! If I did write such a thing I wouldn’t go so far as to either put a stamp on it or hit the “send” button.

        In any case, it doesn’t help matters much that as far as Blake is concerned–although I have often quoted him, set several of his verses to music, and even referenced him in a hymn I wrote for worship–I am not a big fan of his poetry–although I am a fan his etchings/engravings which are strikingly beautiful in person (with post-printing watercolors) and much less so in reproduction.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    Actually, Mr. Tweedie, I tried option #1 myself fifty years ago, when I used Blake’s “The Tyger” as a template to pour vitriol on a book written by William O. Douglas, the stupidest and most unlearned member of the U.S. Supreme Court at that time.

    In 1970, Douglas had composed a dopey book titled “Points of Rebellion.” It was a pathetic left-liberal propaganda exercise, and mainly written to help Douglas pay off his sizeable alimony payments to various ex-wives. (Justice Douglas, besides being a brain-dead liberal, was also an incurable lecher.) No respectable “conservative” magazine would publish the piece, giving me their typical gentlemanly and cowardly evasions about “respect” and “decorum” and “the dignity of the man’s office.” So I had to send it to a very hard-right publication. Here it is again, after half a century:

    The Judicial Tiger

    (Justice Douglas’s new book “Points of Rebellion” proves that it is
    possible to be infantile and senile at the same time.)

    Douglas, Douglas, burning bright,
    With rebellion’s fiery light,
    What drunk hand, or what blind eye,
    Could frame thy book’s absurdity?

    What dull wits, devoid of art,
    Could bring about this verbal fart?
    And when the fart began to smell,
    Did your pride begin to swell?

    What the logic? What the chain?
    In what furnace was thy brain?
    Your helpless readers choke and gasp
    Attempting your daft text to grasp!

    And when you typed the final word,
    And sent to Random House the turd,
    Did they smile, this work to see?
    Did leftist publishers print thee?

    Douglas, Douglas, burning bright,
    With rebellion’s fiery light,
    What drunk hand, or what blind eye,
    Could frame thy book’s absurdity?

    –Joseph S. Salemi

    Here, of course, I am not parodying Blake’s poem, but simply using its familiar text as a way to create a lampoon of Douglas and his book. Blake is not the target. I simply weaponized his poem for my own polemical purposes.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Yep, that would be #1 for sure! Permeated with imagery utilizing three of the five senses. I tremble at the thought of how you might have further articulated your feelings using taste and touch!

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I have read the comments on your poem with interest and take all of the points on board. I have learned much from them. I am, however, viewing the poem from the perspective of a lover of words and birds, and from this angle your poem soars. I particularly like the second stanza; “… How the graceful hoverings,/ The virtuoso circlings/That bate my breath, amaze my sight?” tunes directly into my thoughts when I’m watching these avian wonders. For me, birds bridge the gap between heaven and earth and give me a glimpse into heaven and the wonder of our Creator, so your idea resonates with me. I’m also intrigued by the rhyme scheme – nothing like Blake’s, but very effective. Thank you, Cynthia, and welcome to SCP.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Dear Mrs. Bryant —

      Your feelings about birds match those of my mother. She too saw them as symbols of freedom, and release from human limitation.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Dr. Salemi, your mother’s lovely thoughts on birds are, indeed, in keeping with my own. I firmly believe that the wonder of nature has many positive facets that serve to inspire, heal, and assist us through difficult times. I am extremely lucky to live on a migration path here on the coastal plains. I’ve spent the last ten summers discovering new and beautiful birds and I’m grateful for every moment of my awesome avian journey.

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