Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE BIRD FANCIER, by WILLIAM ROSE BENET



Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE BIRD FANCIER, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Overhead a bleak and sinful sky
Last Line: Through a feathery storm of unholy hues!
Subject(s): Birds


Overhead a bleak and sinful sky
Muttered with thunder; and thick and rolling
In from the bay the fog came billowing,
Blurring out outlines, yellowing
Pave and front, to deep vague bells tolling;
And still that shop drew the Stranger's eye!

Each sagging house, a crouched suspect, eyes him;
But the window he peers at, like a spectrum
Flashed full on one, or a sudden plectrum
Plucked across strong chords -- how its panes enveigle!
Its smeared, bleared panes! Each dares -- defies him;
For, within? 'Tis alive, to enchant and surprise him
With cockatoo, oriole, owl and eagle!

And more marvelous birds, all in gorgeous feather,
Snap eyes, stretch necks, ruffle wings and preen them
Giddy before him, on swings, in cages.
Days of the Sultans! Days of the Mages!
Who before in such array has seen them,
Or where before? How they ruffle and lurch
And swing and cock on each swaying perch
And peck and yawn golden beaks and stare,
Like viziers, like rajahs imprisoned there
Of their haughty lineage well aware!

He chills to the fog. He stamps and shuffles.
The sound strikes through, and each proud bird ruffles --
Startled, inquiring, perchance conspiring --
Each inky bead of an eye upon him,
Ready to flock to, attack or shun him.
He stamps again. At their backs a curtain
Of crimson moves. Does a gray face show
In just a glance of disturbance so?
A wizened face? Well -- he is not certain!

Beyond all cause perturbed he stepped away.
Straight a last glimmer from the smothered day
Badged in raw gold that nameplate on the door.
Nearer he craned, forward he stepped, and more;
And knocked, even while his pulses said him nay.

A thing to remark at least, as that door swung slowly,
Silently inward. On such a view it gave!
Out of the street as out of a mouldering grave --
Into a chamber enchanted, bedizened wholly
With birds, birds, birds! From the ceiling they sang and swung.
Cages on cages, a clutter of cages hung
So crowded upon the walls they seemed wrought of wings,
Shimmering color, gilt wires, and crests and breasts
Of sleek iridescence -- close-woofed of all fluttering things.

And his host before him; a vivid body
(Striped waistcoat, blue tail-coat, black skullcap!)
Surely spirited forth from some antique cuddy
Of Time's lumbered store-room; a quaint, brisk chap,
His tight black breeches bursting their stitches:
"Eh? Pray you be seated! I heard your rap.
Just in time for a ra-are bird, sir, you are;
A grass-green Surinam jacamar!"

Carmine, maroon, turquoise, orange, yellow:
Such variegation as rustled around him
Ached on his eyes, came to quite confound him!
He reeled to a chair. Curse that bent old fellow
With eyes so brilliant and strange he thought them
Topaz! A Mogul might have brought them
In his high-swung howdah from some Orient court;
Gouged them into that yellow old skull for sport!
And this cheeping, chattering, chirping, flustering
Of birds -- here, there, all about him clustering! . . .
Then sudden some far throat swelled and sent
One golden carol forth, jubilant,
Swelling, welling, -- gay, gay, gay.
Lackaday!
Full-orbed, it found him, --
Spun and wove till its sweet toils bound him!

Over a cage of brassy wires
The Fancier bent in a mothering way ...
The Stranger stared in a golden daze.
Pulsed through that song's spun gauze a haze
Of faint, far strumming, of phantom lyres
From the dream-thralled courts of lost empires
Zoning, zoning,
In rumorous moaning,
His heart with strains of an ancient day.

"Song in sunset valleys!
Song in Cockagne!
We know
In Yvetot
Now no such songs reign.

"Our arbors in Yvetot,
Sere they are and brown,
Yet once what carols, carols,
Carols, carols, carols,
Carols, carols, carols
Sang the sun down!"

"So linnet sings and starling --
But phoenix -- pheasant -- we,
Peacocks and lyre-birds
From far over sea!
Guinea- and Malaccan-born,
Javan-plumed and dyed!
Oh the jungles, the jungles,
The tropic-fruited jungles,
The heavy-bowered jungles
Where we sing at eventide!"

"Now here's a flamingo" (he heard the Fancier)
"From Mesopotamia, complected clever!"
A scarlet neck coiled around in answer;
Two humorous bird eyes made him shiver.
They winked at him with no fear whatever,
And the wide bill split in an eerie -- smile? ...
A cold hand closed on the Stranger's liver.
He shook to a sense of impending guile!

Why, the shop was -- queer; but -- bosh! He was drowsy!
With a cough he straightened and stared at the ceiling.
A canary -- chuckled? A bullfinch frowsy,
Like a coy girl over her muff, (revealing
What?) looked away. The room had changed feeling!
Something lurked and entrenched itself -- here -- you -- there;
In each cage, on each perch, sensed double-dealing;
A poise of mystery in the air!

And here once more the Fancier hobbled
With a green-glossed, goggling, glaring treasure.
It shook its crest, it strutted, gobbled,
Eyed the Stranger -- aye, seemed to take his measure!
And -- he felt a sudden and frightful seizure,
For out of the tail of his eye he saw
At the back of the shop emerge with leisure
Sudden-from-nowhere -- a bird of Awe!

From the jacamar shuttled his gaze, rose owl-like
To this further wonder, as nearer came
The cassowary, approaching fowl-like.
But fowl-like he thought it only in name!
He felt his pulses shorten and thicken,
He felt his loud heart-beats press and quicken,
As it stalked him, like some colossal chicken --
A tufted chicken -- yet not the same!

Then a screech-owl screeched from some cock-loft hidden,
A macaw flapped down at his ear to tweak,
And a gold-breasted trumpeter squawked unbidden
His battle-call through a gaping beak!
An ostrich loomed forth in his scaly gaiters,
Three jackdaws grinned from the wall like satyrs.
The Stranger's gaze flamed with suns and craters,
And a spoonbill's spatula chilled his cheek!

Then his eyesight cleared, and his host (as josses
Might smile on their slaves) rubbed his hands with glee:
"For I wished to remark that albatrosses
Go fast this season. We've left but three --"
"Not so fast! Not so fast!" cried the paling Stranger
As he leapt to his feet all alive to danger.
But the Fancier leered like a money-changer
And gripped him. "You'll buy one and you'll pay me!"

His topaz eyes glared. Did he fluff bedizened?
His long nose sharpened. He cocked his head.
Like awls those eyes bored their prey imprisoned,
To sunbursts they grew as the moment sped,
Till doubt no longer the fact dissembled:
On the Fancier's arms the feathers assembled!
The Stranger trembled and looked and trembled ...
His fight to the door took a year of dread.

The sky hung grayer. Bleak rain was falling.
Fog eddied on through that shale-gray mews.
Weak stumbled the Stranger from thought appalling.
The cobbles stuttered beneath his shoes.
Down backstreets squalid and dark and narrow
His eyes swam color, he shook to the marrow!
He shied and ran from a hopping sparrow
Through a feathery storm of unholy hues!





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