Coincidentally: The Time of the Singing of Birds

Any normal teenager who daydreams of becoming a famous feuilletonist will find no theme more promising than the coincidence of men and birds. Wild or domesticated or table fare, there has never been a high achievement without birds in bush or sky above. Keats’ fleet nightingale and Coleridge’s fetid albatross conspire and never go away.

On January 10, 236, a dove settled on the head of the previously inconspicuous Fabian, and the Roman clergy took it as a sign that he should succeed Anterus as pope. In June of 1846, a dove perched on the coach of Giovanni Cardinal Mastai-Ferretti, Bishop of Imola in the Romagna, who was passing through Fossombrone on his way to the conclave gathering to elect a successor to Pope Gregory XVI. Although the Papal Secretary of State, Luigi Cardinal Lambruschini, was thought the most papabile, Mastai-Ferretti became Pope Pius IX. When Angelo Cardinal Roncalli was Papal Nuncio to Paris (1944-1953), a dove circled around his head during a pilgrimage to Lourdes, an event recalled when he became Pope John XXIII in 1958, the centenary of the commencement of the medical practice in Bombay by the Anglo-Indian physiophillist, Sir George Birdwood.

Captious curmudgeons link Catholic cardinals with the sixth horn of the Dragon in the Apocalypse. Cardinals are more happily associated with the crested finch, Richmondina cardinalis. There is a winsome story of the valiant antislavery crusader, Charles Martial Cardinal Allemande-Lavigerie, who, as archbishop of Algiers, dismissed the objections of the French Consul General and married Prince Sidi Ahmed, a Shareefan ruler of southern Algeria, to Aurelle Piccard in 1871. The Prince, visiting Bordeaux, fell in love when he saw the housekeeper to Postmaster General Steenacker feeding pigeons. As the prince and the pigeon girl were wed, feudalism was abolished in Japan.

Another romantic saga links the homely chicken and lilting canary. Chicken Marengo was a dish concocted of the few available items during the Battle of Marengo in 1800, which was the reference in Sherlock Holmes’s noble line: “We have not yet met our Waterloo, Watson, but this is our Marengo.” Conspicuous in the battle was Maurice Dupin, a grandson of Marshall Saxe who was the most illustrious of the 360 illegitimate children of Augustus II “The Strong” of Saxony and Poland. Maurice married Sophie Delaborde, the daughter of a Parisian canary peddler, one month before the birth of a girl Aurore, the future virvestite Baroness Dudevant known by the pen name George Sand. Her friend Flaubert would create “Loulou,” the most notorious parrot in literature.

In 1810, the year of the birth of Sand’s lover Chopin, a clown named Barry of Astley’s Circus in London floated down the Thames as a publicity stunt in a washtub pulled by geese dressed in ribbons. As the spectacle was unfolding, the father of the American Circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum, serendipitously entered the world in Bethel, Connecticut. The term “serendipity” was coined by Horace Walpole, who kept an exotic aviary at his neo-Gothic castle outside Twickenham.

Into this chirping pastorale, a gloomier note intrudes. The year of Pope John XXIII’s coronation less the number of Augustus II’s illegitimate children is 1598; the birth year in Naples of the wunderkind Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. When his portrait bust of King Charles I was unveiled in the garden of Greenwich Palace on August 15 in 1630, a hawk flew overhead with a rodent in its mouth, dropping a bit of blood directly on the neck of the sculpture. As omens go, this one was invested with awful significance when the King was beheaded on January 30, 1649. The wife of Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven,” died of tuberculosis on January 30 as well, in 1847; and Poe himself died two years later in the third centenary year of the King’s calamity.

The year of Mrs. Poe’s death was also the year of the birth of James Anthony Bailey, who teamed up with Phineas Taylor Barnum. Rejoicing in the same family name was the naturalist Vernon Bailey, publisher in 1923 of Beaver Habits and Beaver Farming, a vade mecum for studying the rodent family Castoridae. His wife was Florence Merriam, whose Birds Through an Opera Glass in 1889 staked her claim as the leading ornithologist of western American wildfowl.

But the two most interesting items I know of birds is that their happiest trilling, at least the best I ever heard, was on the mount in Galilee where the Beatitudes were blessed, and one place where birds never sing or even perch is a patch of land in Verdun where war was infernal. This I cannot rank as coincidence.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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