The Caged Bird

Image result for the caged bird

Here is a story from Persia and three American poems that reference the tale.

The great 13th Century Persian poet called Rumi visited a village where a merchant asked   “Master Rumi, my favorite possession is my bird.   But her wings and head droop every day, and no longer is my house filled with her sweet song. I have brought medicine and healthy food, yet nothing seems to banish its illness. Will you come to my house and see this bird?”

Rumi saw into the man’s heart.   It was hardened all around like stone, for the merchant was desirous only of his own gain. “This man’s heart is imprisoned in a cage,” he thought to himself. The merchant led the poet to his fine house and there by the window stood a large cage with a lovely plumed bird inside.   True to the merchant’s words the bird appeared to possess little vitality as though ill.   Then Rumi began to sing a song and as his soothing words fell upon the ears of the bird, first it began to twitter then at last began to join its voice to the melody of the poet. Then it let off abruptly and returned to its former state.

Rumi said to the merchant, “the bird is unhappy because it longs for its freedom.”   To which the merchant replied, “I will give the bird anything that it asks for that is within my power, but I cannot grant its freedom. I am traveling tomorrow for India and will return in forty days. Ask the bird if there is something that I can bring to it from its homeland.”

The poet whispered quietly to the bird who immediately began to flap its wings and burst into a short song.   The merchant was overjoyed to see his favorite possession restored to health.   Rumi then told the merchant that the bird would be fully restored if he were to do the following: While he was in India, he should visit the nearby forest where birds similar to his own live, and announce to them that one of their sisters is captive within his home.

Several weeks later, when the merchant was in India, he hurried out to the nearby forest.   He announced to the birds there, “one of your sisters lives captive in a cage at my home.”   No sooner had the merchant spoken these words, then one of the wild birds fell senseless to the ground from one of the boughs of the trees.

When he returned home to his village he approached the cage and speaking softly to the bird told it of the misfortune that he had encountered in the forest. “I have sad news for you my friend, for when I told the others of your captivity, one of your sisters fell immediately to the ground dead.”

As soon as these words were spoken, the bird collapsed and fell to the bottom of the cage. The merchant was aghast. “What misfortune is this! Now my bird is dead too!” he exclaimed. Sorrowfully, he plucked the dead bird from the cage and placed it by the window sill. At once, the bird revived, flew out the window and perched on a branch far out of reach of the merchant. “What is the meaning of this?” he cried.   Then, through the power bestowed by the poet the bird began to speak and the merchant understood its language. “You brought not sad news to me, but the way to my freedom,” said the bird, “for my forest sister showed by her action what I had to do in order to free myself.   O man, may your heart be set free to fly from the cage of your greed before it perishes in its captivity.”

Then the bird flew away, free at last.

Born on this day in the year 1849 in Maine USA Sarah Orne Jewett knew nothing of why the caged bird sings.  Her Canary is like a pretty but oftimes petulant slave, kept safe and well fed by the master, but demaning the little luxuries of life. Despite growing up during the US Civil War and seeing emancipation first hand she experienced it as a WASP with none of the concerns of inequality, poverty, lack of education, opportunity or outright discrimination.

How different is the reply from Paul Laurence Dunbar in his poem “Sympathy” below.  He finishes with the iconic line “I know why the caged bird sings”. Dunbar was born in 1872 after the Civil War, after emancipation.  He was born in Ohio to parents who were Kentucky slaves before slavery was abolished.  Born free, but knowing so much about inequality.  Dunbar experienced the false promises of the Reconstruction Era and the gradual decline of Black Civil Rights into the Jim Crow laws.

The Dunbar line became the title of Maya Angelou‘s 1969 autobiography.  Born in 1928 Angelou is one of the most popular poets in the world today, and yet she also experienced the deep rooted inequality of the United States.  A century after emancipation the Civil Rights movement was still struggling for the rights of the slaves now free for 100 years.

A Caged Bird; by Sarah Orne Jewett

High at the window in her cage
the old canary flits and sings,
nor sees across the curtain pass
the shadow of a swallow’s wings.

A poor deceit and copy, this,
of larger lives that mark their span,
unreckoning of wider worlds
or gifts that Heaven keeps for man.

She gathers piteous bits and shreds,
this solitary, mateless thing,
to patient build again the nest
so rudely scattered spring by spring;

and sings her brief, unlisted songs,
her dreams of bird life wild and free,
yet never beats her prison bars
at sound of song from bush or tree.

But in my busiest hours I pause,
held by a sense of urgent speech,
bewildered by that spark-like soul,
able my very soul to reach.

She will be heard; she chirps me loud,
when I forget those gravest cares,
her small provision to supply,
clear water or her seedsman’s wares.

She begs me now for that chief joy
the round great world is made to grow,
her wisp of greenness. Hear her chide,
because my answering thought is slow!

What can my life seem like to her?
A dull, unpunctual service mine;
stupid before her eager call,
her flitting steps, her insight fine.

To open wide thy prison door,
poor friend, would give thee to thy foes;
and yet a plaintive note I hear,
as if to tell how slowly goes

the time of thy long prisoning.
Bird! Does some promise keep thee sane?
Will there be better days for thee?
Will thy soul too know life again?

Ah, none of us have more than this:
If one true friend green leaves can reach
from out some fairer, wider place,
and understand our wistful speech!

 

Sympathy; by Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
when the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
and the river flows like a stream of glass;
when the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
and the faint perfume from its chalice steals —
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
for he must fly back to his perch and cling
when he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
and a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
and they pulse again with a keener sting —
I know why he beats his wing!

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!

 

Caged Bird; by Maya Angelou

A free bird leaps on the back of the wind
and floats downstream till the current ends
and dips his wing in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage
can seldom see through his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

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Happy Birthday Julia Ward Howe

Julia_Ward_Howe-_History_of_Woman_Suffrage_volume_2_page_793

Julia Ward Howe was born May 27th 1819.  Abolitionist, advocate for social justice in general and womens’ suffrage in particular.  Best remembered as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” which are lyrics she penned to the already popular song  “John Brown’s Body”.

The John Brown song was a collection of often bawdy verses cobbled together by Union soldiers.  John Brown is the famous abolitionist who was captured at Harpers Ferry in his attempt to raise the slaves of Virginia to rebellion.  He was hanged for treason.  On the day of his hanging he wrote prophetically:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

Folk history holds that there was also a Union sergeant by the name of John Brown, and you can guess what kind of verses are assigned to a sergeant by troopers.  So the market was rife for a cleaned up version of an already popular song.

John Browns Body actually began life as a hymn.  In the Christian meeting of the 19th and 19th century “Call and Response” hymns were popular games, and the faithful could add their own verses to a framework.  “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” remained the heart of this song.  It began life as “Oh Brothers will you meet me, on Canaan’s happy shore.”

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;

He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:

His truth is marching on.

 

(Chorus)

Glory, Glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.

 

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,

they have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:

His day is marching on.

 

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

His day is marching on.

 

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:

“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

Since God is marching on.

 

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Since God is marching on.

 

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;

Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

 

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Our God is marching on.

 

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.

As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

While God is marching on.

 

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Glory, glory, hallelujah!

While God is marching on.

Happy Birthday Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth_Barrett_Browning_2

Elizabeth Barrett was a slave to misfortune.  A prolific poet as a child she developed head and spinal pain that she carried with her most of her life.  She took laudanum for the pain and effectively became an opium addict.  Later in life she also developed lung problems which were possibly TB.

When she fell in love and married Robert Browning, six years her junior, she was disinherited by her father.  But the father disinherited all his children who married.

The family fortune came from West Indian Sugar Plantations, which relied on slavery.  EBB was fiercely anti-slavery and wrote anti-slavery poetry.

Her output of work is enormous and she was highly popular in her own lifetime.  He popularity was transatlantic as she was also a hit in the USA.  She was one of the rockstar poets of the Victorian era.   When Robert Browning met her she was the famous poet, not he.  At one point she was mooted as Poet Laureate, a post that fell to Tennyson.

Born this day in 1806.

Sonnet 38: by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

First time he kissed me, he but only kissed
the fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
And ever since, it grew more clean and white,
slow to world-greetings, quick with its ‘Oh, list,’
when the angels speak. A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
than that first kiss. The second passed in height
the first, and sought the forehead, and half missed,
half falling on the hair. O beyond meed!
That was the chrism of love, which love’s own crown,
with sanctifying sweetness, did precede.
The third upon my lips was folded down
in perfect, purple state; since when, indeed,
I have been proud and said, ‘My love, my own.’

Radhanites

Fun fact:  20 years ago on this day the US state of Mississippi ratified the 13th Amendment and abolished slavery.  That Southern Anti-Slavery impetus is fast like molasses in winter.

This got me thinking about slavery and the slave trade through history.  Along the way I came across the history of the Radhanites, a group I never heard about before.  It seems Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta found their way to China by tramping a well worn path created by a group of enterprising Jews.

Radhanites were a bridge in time, space and culture.  Masters of language, they could trade from France to China.  As Jews they could move between the Christian and Muslim worlds in “relative” safety (they were equally hated in both spheres).  They were a bridge from China to Europe and the Middle East.

This is not to say that they were true blue nice guys.  They were canny businessmen.  Muslims were forbidden from enslaving other muslims.  The Radhanites made good money supplying Christian slaves to Muslim markets.  Mostly they dealt in high value goods that were easy to transport.  Spices, silks, gems and intellectual property.  They may have been instrumental in the introduction of paper and Arabic number systems to Europe.

They were pioneers of long range funds transfer through letters of credit.  It is almost certain that the Italians learned the fundamentals of banking from the Radhanites.  The enclosed and tribal nature of Jewish society, and the community focus on morality engendered the level of trust required to underpin the establishment of letters of credit.  The Italian finance families achieved the same end by a Mafiosi style culture of “loyalty to the death” and by administration of poisons, to which they controlled the antidote, to be taken on a regular basis.

The Radhanites were at their most influential from 500 AD to 1,000 AD.  They spanned the period between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the establishment of the Crusader Kingdoms.  The Radhanite control of the Silk road was undermined by the collapse of the Tang Dynasty in China and the Khazar Khaganate  in the 10th Century.  Central Asia became highly unstable until the rise of the Mongols.  In Europe and the near East their trade was wrested from them by Italian City States.

The Radhanite sea route to China, via the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, India, Indonesia, Malaysia etc is the basis for the stories of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.

Radhanites

The Slave’s Dream : Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again, in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
He saw once more his dark-eyed queen
Among her children stand;
They clasped his neck, they kissed his cheeks,
They held him by the hand!–
A tear burst from the sleeper’s lids
And fell into the sand.
And then at furious speed he rode
Along the Niger’s bank;
His bridle-reins were golden chains,
And, with a martial clank,
At each leap he could feel his scabbard of steel
Smiting his stallion’s flank.
Before him, like a blood-red flag,
The bright flamingoes flew;
From morn till night he followed their flight,
O’er plains where the tamarind grew,
Till he saw the roofs of Caffre huts,
And the ocean rose to view.
At night he heard the lion roar,
And the hyena scream,
And the river-horse, as he crushed the reeds
Beside some hidden stream;
And it passed, like a glorious roll of drums,
Through the triumph of his dream.
The forests, with their myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty;
And the Blast of the Desert cried aloud,
With a voice so wild and free,
That he started in his sleep and smiled
At their tempestuous glee.
He did not feel the driver’s whip,
Nor the burning heat of day;
For Death had illumined the Land of Sleep,
And his lifeless body lay

Pirates

Pirate King Barbarossa (Redbeard)

Pirate King Barbarossa (Redbeard)

Arrr, this be my favourite day of the year.  International talk like a pirate day!

All hands on deck, man the main brace, aloft me boys and loose the sheets, set courses, topsails, topgallants, royals, moonrakers and skyscrapers. Weigh anchor and cast off.  That be a sail on the horizon and she bears the look of a fat merchantman ripe for plucking.

Charge your pistols with fresh powder and give your cutlass a keen edge, it’s time to do what pirates do.

Here is a poem about real pirates.  There was a famous raid on Baltimore in West Cork in 1631 by Barbary pirates from Algeria.  The pirates captured 108, mostly English settlers who worked in the fishing industry in the town.  Only 3 were ever ransomed.  The poem is in a style I find overblown and turgid, in the Victorian tradition.  Arr, but it be what it be.

The Sack of Baltimore ; by Thomas Osborne Davis

The Summer sun is falling soft on Carbery’s hundred isles,
The summer sun is gleaming still through Gabriel’s rough defiles;
Old Innisherkin’s crumbled fane looks like a moulting bird,
And in a calm and sleepy swell the ocean tide is heard:
The hookers lie upon the beach; the children cease their play;
The gossips leave the little inn; the households kneel to pray;
And full of love, and peace, and rest, its daily labor o’er,
Upon that cosy creek there lay the town of Baltimore.

A deeper rest, a starry trance, has come with midnight there;
No sound, except that throbbing wave, in earth, or sea, or air!
The massive capes and ruin’d towers seem conscious of the calm;
The fibrous sod and stunted trees are breathing heavy balm.
So still the night, these two long barques round Dunashad that glide
Must trust their oars, methinks not few, against the ebbing tide.
Oh, some sweet mission of true love must urge them to the shore!
They bring some lover to his bride who sighs in Baltimore.

All, all asleep within each roof along that rocky street,
And these must be the lover’s friends, with gently gliding feet—
A stifled gasp, a dreamy noise! “The roof is in a flame!”
From out their beds and to their doors rush maid and sire and dame,
And meet upon the threshold stone the gleaming sabre’s fall,
And o’er each black and bearded face the white or crimson shawl.
The yell of “Allah!” breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar:
O blessed God! the Algerine is lord of Baltimore!

Then flung the youth his naked hand against the shearing sword;
Then sprung the mother on the brand with which her son was gor’d;
Then sunk the grandsire on the floor, his grand-babes clutching wild;
Then fled the maiden moaning faint, and nestled with the child:
But see! yon pirate strangled lies, and crush’d with splashing heel,
While o’er him in an Irish hand there sweeps his Syrian steel:
Though virtue sink, and courage fail, and misers yield their store,
There ’s one hearth well avenged in the sack of Baltimore.

Midsummer morn in woodland nigh the birds begin to sing,
They see not now the milking maids,—deserted is the spring;
Midsummer day this gallant rides from distant Bandon’s town,
These hookers cross’d from stormy Skull, that skiff from Affadown;
They only found the smoking walls with neighbors’ blood besprent,
And on the strewed and trampled beach awhile they wildly went,
Then dash’d to sea, and pass’d Cape Clear, and saw, five leagues before,
The pirate-galley vanishing that ravaged Baltimore.

Oh, some must tug the galley’s oar, and some must tend the steed;
This boy will bear a Scheik’s chibouk, and that a Bey’s jerreed.
Oh, some are for the arsenals by beauteous Dardanelles;
And some are in the caravan to Mecca’s sandy dells.
The maid that Bandon gallant sought is chosen for the Dey:
She ’s safe—she’s dead—she stabb’d him in the midst of his Serai!
And when to die a death of fire that noble maid they bore,
She only smiled, O’Driscoll’s child; she thought of Baltimore.

’T is two long years since sunk the town beneath that bloody band,
And all around its trampled hearths a larger concourse stand,
Where high upon a gallows-tree a yelling wretch is seen:
’T is Hackett of Dungarvan—he who steer’d the Algerine!
He fell amid a sullen shout with scarce a passing prayer,
For he had slain the kith and kin of many a hundred there.
Some mutter’d of MacMurchadh, who brought the Norman o’er;
Some curs’d him with Iscariot, that day in Baltimore.

Bittersweet

Niyi Osundare
Came across an interesting poem about the impact of Sugar on peoples lives.  Sugar was the killer app of its day.  Fortunes were made on it.  But the millionaires who thrived on this sweetest of substances built their empires on the pain and misery of fellow human beings.

Slavery is a terrible wrong.  It is a great sorrow that slavery exists today all over the world.  Not only in the places you might expect.  Highly paid diplomats in embassies in Western nations are guilty of keeping household slaves.  It is happening in cities like London, Washington and Dublin this very day.  They employ their diplomatic immunity to avoid national law.  This is merely symptomatic of the culture that exists in their home nations.

Last year a group of homeless and vulnerable men were found enslaved in a traveller camp in England.  Thousands of girls are enslaved in western nations by the sex trade every year.  If countries like England, Ireland and the USA cannot eliminate slavery what hope is there for war torn impoverished nations like Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sudan and Somalia?

Here’s an idea to serve two aims – western obesity and type 2 diabetes on the one hand and slavery on the other.  Let’s introduce a tiny tax on all sugar production, and put it to use in a global fight against slavery.

Ode to the Sugar Cane: by Niyi Osundare

Rasp-throated one,

How many oceans groaned under your feet

On your journey to this land

What winds abetted your prowl

How large your sail of leaves

What idiom broke your silence to a stolen soil?

Your pidgin prattle; grating grammar

Of your mastertongue when

History stammered through

Your text, mouth crowded with missing vowels

The segmented stanza of your song,

Its juicy joints, eloquent rings multi-

Plying like the green gossip of talkative moons

The syrupy drawl of your orders

Chaffy echoes of extracted lives

Sticky fingers at the water’s edge

And the mansions which festered on your sweetness

The bitter joy of their rooms

Banks which farmed their fortunes

In the swineyard of your lust.

You sun-slaying, blood-chewing

Bone-sucking runner on shoeless shores

You pallid phallus of empire

Of rapier thrusts drilling through

The innocence of bewildered twilights

Whips whistled to please your ears

Bent backs pronounced your height

Your armada sailed on oceans of sweat

Shallow-rooted cousin of the millet

Brother of the elephant grass

Though roughly rich, your clumpy tribe

Your I-land of strangered selves

Your archipelago of floating husks

Drifting theatre of dreams in flight

Stiltdancer, your shadow,

Chattel hands flailing in the wind

Blacker than the feverish fear of sunset fires

Cutlassed into courtesy, imperial fronds bow

To earth, ever so mindful of the fragile distance

Between dripping wounds and the open sore

Rasp-throated one

Where did you put the sky

Where did you leave the sea

What did History whisper in your ears

The last time you met in the green furrows?

Harriet Beecher Stowe

HBStowe

A little exercise for International Womens Day tomorrow:  Nominate your “most influential woman” in history.

A teacher and an active abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe might seem an unlikely choice.   As a response to the 1850 passage of the second Fugitive Slave act she wrote a story instead of a diatribe.  She presented her argument in an insightful way, based on real life stories, through the eyes and mouths of the slaves themselves. An early advocate of #tainment

Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in The National ERA, an abolitionist periodical, in  June 5, 1851, issue. Because of the story’s popularity, the publisher encouraged Stowe to turn it into a book.

In the first year 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies were sold in Great Britain.

In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day”

It was widely pirated with illegal print copies in circulation all over the world.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book in the USA of that century, following the Bible. By 1857, the novel had been translated into 20 languages.

Reactions were both literary and physical.  Objectors published their own books, drove out booksellers who sold Uncle Toms Cabin and amongst the threatening letters sent to Stowe was one including a package containing a slave’s severed ear.

Ten times as many Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most-filmed book of the silent movie era.

12 Years a Slave (1853), bestselling narrative of free negro Solomon Northrup published soon after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).  The movie of the book won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014.

The novel heavily influenced later protest literature.  Two books which owe a large debt to Uncle Tom’s Cabin include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

The American civil war started in 1861, and effectively ended slavery.  Stowe may not have started the Civil War, but she created an atmosphere in the North to pursue the war to its end.

She is my vote as the most Influential woman of the 19th Century