Wednesday, August 04, 2010

`The Ornament of Beauty is Suspect'

From my seat in the shade at flag-folding class I could keep an eye on the picnic tables where we had eaten lunch an hour earlier. On Monday, when the area was human-free, crows walked in and helped themselves to leftovers including somebody’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich. This seemed reasonable and was about the closest most of the Cub Scouts got to learning something about nature. The leaders, however, issued a stern diktat about securing “food products.”

As an experiment I had placed six Thai Lime and Chili Cashews in a row under the picnic table where we had eaten lunch. They’re incendiary enough to make my nose run and I wondered how corvine sinuses would react. From my perch I watched three crows work the dining area, poking at the ground and tabletops but moving too speedily to suggest they had found much deemed toothsome – until they arrived at my table. One poked and threw his head back, the familiar gesture of a crow swallowing something. Without pause he took a couple of steps and repeated his actions. By then his pals arrived, cleaned up the rest of the hot cashews and resumed scavenging.

They might as well have been eating beetles or cracked corn. No reaction, hardly a pause in their dining. Crows, of course, feast on roadkill. They’re nearly as omnivorous as humans. I felt a certain proud solidarity with Corvus, already my favorite bird. I admire an enthusiastic trencherman of any species.

Packed with my Dickinson was my New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of The Sonnets, edited by Gwynne Blakemore Evans, with an introduction by Anthony Hecht. I read #70:

“That thou art blamed shall not be thy defect,
For slander's mark was ever yet the fair;
The ornament of beauty is suspect,
A crow that flies in heaven's sweetest air.
So thou be good, slander doth but approve
Thy worth the greater, being woo'd of time;
For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love,
And thou present'st a pure unstained prime.
Thou hast pass'd by the ambush of young days,
Either not assail'd or victor being charged;
Yet this thy praise cannot be so thy praise,
To tie up envy evermore enlarged:
If some suspect of ill mask'd not thy show,
Then thou alone kingdoms of hearts shouldst owe.”

“Suspect” is the antecedent to “crow.” As Evans says in the note to the avian reference: “The crow was considered a dirty, raucous, thievish, malicious, and ill-omened bird and was associated with the Devil.”

That sounds like an apt description not of crows but some Cub Scouts – and some of their leaders.


Ray Girvan said...

Interesting. I've never seen it in demonstrated in action, but it's down to birds not having receptors sensitive to capsaicin: see The Straight Dope.

Dave Lull said...

On birds and spicy food:

William A. Sigler said...

Clearly, the antecedent for “crow” in Sonnet 70 is “ornament,” which corresponds to the “slander’s mark,” connoting the perception of a something small but noticeable to challenge the youth’s perfection.

I don’t see a negative judgment of crows, here. For that I’d go to Ted Hughes, who wrote a whole book on crows as the most human of the animals, fooling itself, fighting creation, denied consciousness of immortality, living what he called “the story of mind exiled from nature.”

Here’s one in the series:

Crow’s Fall
When Crow was white he decided the sun was too white.
He decided it glared much too whitely.
He decided to attack it and defeat it.

He got his strength up flush and in full glitter.
He clawed and fluffed his rage up.
He aimed his beak direct at the sun's centre.

He laughed himself to the centre of himself

And attacked.

At his battle cry trees grew suddenly old,
Shadows flattened.

But the sun brightened—
It brightened, and Crow returned charred black.

He opened his mouth but what came out was charred black.

"Up there," he managed,
"Where white is black and black is white, I won."