halcyon days poetry

Halcyon Days

By my reckoning of the calendar, Storm Bella, which shook the British Isles with hundred mile an hour winds on 27 December, was right on schedule, or perhaps a day early. Halcyon Days traditionally run for seven days either side of the Winter Solstice, a period of calm decreed by ancient gods to allow kingfishers enough time to lay and hatch their eggs on a nest of tangled fish-bones floating on the sea. The kingfisher is also called the halcyon, its Latin name alcedo taken from the goddess Alcyone who drowned herself in grief for the loss of her lover in a stormy sea. After fourteen halcyon days, the gods allow the winter storms to resume their barrelling progress across the oceans.

Kingfishers are to be found in most temperate parts of the world and have inspired poems and legends in many different countries, including the ancient legend that they nested out at sea. As American poet Charles Olson tells us in ‘The Kingfishers’, the many legends about the halcyon bird are just that:

The legends
are legends. Dead, hung up indoors, the kingfisher
will not indicate a favoring wind,
or avert the thunderbolt. Nor, by its nesting,
still the waters, with the new year

Olson’s kingfishers are notable instead for riverbank nests that stink of excreted fish, and it is true that kingfisher nests are given away by their notorious smell. This ‘dripping, fetid mass’ of a nest is where the beautiful birds are born – a symbol in Olson’s enigmatic poem of how the world goes through cycles of decay and rebirth. 

The kingfisher is to be found in quiet and remote spots, its spectacular, brightly-coloured plumage prized for its beauty and made more precious still when it is fleetingly glimpsed in flight or dive. The birds have fascinated a number of other American poets including Amy Clampitt, Mary Oliver and T.S. Eliot, who was struck by the glimpse of a kingfisher on the River Trent at Kelham in England. He placed that vision at the heart of his majestic ‘Burnt Norton’:

After the kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.

Eliot’s light is a divine presence and invokes the thrilling opening line of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s untitled verse:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame…

Hopkins’s mystical poem is a celebration of divine grace, with the kingfisher a symbol of the joy of being and of self-hood, as all living creatures cry: ‘What I do is me: for that I came’.

Amy Clampitt too has the bird on fire, this time to conjure a more earthly love:

a kingfisher’s burnished plunge, the color
of felicity afire, came glancing like an arrow
through landscapes of untended memory

Other poems celebrate the kingfisher more simply for the delight it brings to anyone lucky enough to see one. The ‘modest halcyon’ seems to stop time for Andrew Marvell writing in 1651, just as it did for Eliot, while across the other side of the world there are numerous portraits of the kingfisher in Chinese poetry. Paul Kroll has made a study of the kingfisher in medieval Chinese verse. Here is his version of a quatrain by Lu Kuei-meng, who died in 881:

Crimson breast and halcyon quills – both riffled and ruffled;
Brushing straight through misty blossoms to light on a slender branch.
The springtime waters gradually swell – fish are easily taken;
Withdrawing not from wind and rain, for long he perches.

If a kingfisher poem is to make it into our Poems for the Earth anthology, it may well be the simple portrait of the bird by ‘supertramp’ poet W.H. Davies, first published in 1910. Like Marvell, Davies praises the bird’s humility in hiding away its beauty in secluded spots, when it could just as easily strut the pristine lawns of any stately home or palace:

Nay, lovely Bird, thou art not vain;
Thou hast no proud, ambitious mind;
I also love a quiet place
That’s green, away from all mankind;
A lonely pool, and let a tree
Sigh with her bosom over me.

WH-Davies by Laura Knight

Davies writes of an England we can now only imagine: a green land before it was ravaged by sprawling towns and road traffic, before industrialised farming depleted its biodiversity. But even he was being nostalgic and could see this world was changing. Perhaps that’s why I am also drawn to a harsher, less sentimental poem by the Canadian poet Harold Rhenisch, written towards the end of the twentieth century. On his daily drive through a post-industrial suburban landscape along the Okanagan River, the poet meditates on a kingfisher sitting on its perch:

As I swing into the traffic,
the kingfisher is always there,
with his blue crown,
half an hour before dusk,
in the roar of traffic,
staring over huge
rotting piles of milled wood
on the Reserve

The kingfisher is here not found in a secluded, sylvan glade safely ‘away from all mankind’, but by the side of a noisy, busy road running through an industrial waste-land and a ‘Reserve’ for threatened, indigenous human beings… A haunting image of nature on the run.

Scroll to Top