A summary and analysis of the play by Aristophanes

This document was originally published in The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 2. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 43-46.

The Birds fairly sparkles with the boldest and richest imagery within the province of the fantastic. It is a mirthful, buoyant creation, bright with the gayest plumage, a piece of the most harmless buffoonery, which had a fling at everything, gods as well as men, but without anywhere pressing toward any particular object. Yet some have found in it a complete historical allegory of the Sicilian expedition, and others an aspiration toward a new and purified Athens. All that was remarkable in the stories about birds in natural history, in mythology, in the lore of augury, in Aesop's fables, or even in proverbial expressions, the poet has ingeniously blended in this [dramatic] poem; he even goes back as far as the Cosmogony, and shows how at first black-winged Night laid a wind-egg, whence lovely Eros, with golden pinions, soared aloft, and then gave birth to all things. Two fugitives of the human species find their way into the domain of the birds, who are determined to revenge themselves for the many hostilities they have suffered from man; they are held as captives, but save themselves by proving clearly that the birds are preëminent about all creatures, and advise them to collect their scattered powers into one enormous State. Thus the wondrous city, Cloud-cuckoo-town, is built above the earth. All sorts of unbidden guests--priests, poets, soothsayers, geometers, lawgivers, sycophants--wish to feather their nests in the new State, but are bid go their ways. New gods are ordained, of course after the image of birds, as mankind conceived theirs as human beings; the frontier of Olympus is walled up against the old gods, so that no savor of sacrifice can reach them, whereby they are brought into great distress, and send an embassy, consisting of Hercules, Neptune and a Thracian god who cannot talk Greek in correct fashion, but discourses in gibberish. These, however, are compelled to accept whatever terms the birds please to offer, and they leave to them the sovereignty of the world. However like a farcical tale all this may seem, it has a philosophical significance; it casts a glance, as it were, on the sum of all things, which, once in a way, is all very proper, considering that most of our conceptions are true only from a human point of view.

In the subjoined extract the birds give their account of the creation of the world, which is in the poets most fantastic vein.

It was Chaos and Night at the first, and the blackness of darkness, and hell's broad border;
Earth was not, nor air, neither heaven; when in depths of the womb of the dark without order
First thing first born of the black-plumed Night was a wind-egg hatched in her bosom,
Whence timely, with season revolving again, sweet Love burst out as a blossom,
Gold wings glittering forth of his back, like whirlwinds gustily turning
He, after his wedlock with Chaos, whose wings are of darkness in hell broad-burning,
For his nestings begat him a race of birds first and upraised us to light new-lighted.

The swan-song is an excellent specimen of the poet's lyric verse:

Thus the swans in chorus follow,
On the mighty Thracian stream,
Hymning their eternal theme,
Praise to Bacchus and Apollo:
The welkin rings, with sounding wings,
With songs and cries and melodies,
Up to the thunderous Æther ascending,
Whilst all that breathe on earth beneath,
The beasts of the wood, the plain and the flood,
In panic amazement are crouching and bending
With the awful qualm of sudden calm,
Ocean and air in silence bleeding.
The ridge of Olympys is sounding on high,
Appalling with wonder the lords of the sky,
And the Muses and Graces,
Enthroned in their places,
Join in the solemn symphony.
Ouzel, and thou of the speckled wing,
Hazelhen, hazelhen, speed while I sing,
Come many, come any
With the halcyon brood that sweep
Surges of the watery deep,
Come and list to novel words,
Which to hear from far and near
We gather all the tribes of neck-extending birds.
Here is arrived a sharp old man
Of revolutionary mind,
To revolutionary deeds inclined;
Come all and listen to his plan.
Hither, hither, hither.

The following is an imitation of the tragic choruses of Phrynicus, of whom Aristophanes always speaks with respect:

Muse, that in the deep recesses
Of the forest's dreary shade,
Vocal with our wild addresses;
Or in the lonely lowly glade.
Attending near, art pleased to hear
Our humble bill tuneful and shrill.
When, to the name of omnipotent Pan,
Our notes we raise, or sing in praise
Of mighty Cybele, from whom we began;
Mother of Nature, and every creature.
Winged or unwinged, of birds or man.
Aid and attend, and chant with me
The music of Phrynicus, open and plain,
The first that attempted a lofty strain,
Ever busy like the bee, with the sweets of harmony.

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