Günter Eich follows a well-established tradition when he assigns the birds an important place in his poetic idiom….
His use of this motif provides an interesting example of the way in which old topoi survive by adaptation to the concepts of successive generations of writers. Moreover, the treatment of the bird motif in Eich's work is very characteristic of this author and reveals salient features of his worldview and literary style. However, because, on the whole, Eich's images are highly symbolic in Goethe's sense, their full significance cannot be deduced from isolated instances. Only by studying the usage of a given metaphor in various contexts can its symbolic value be expressed in abstract terms.
In the case of the bird motif, such an inquiry can best take as its starting point the radio-play Sabeth, not only because it has a bird as its leading character and title figure, but also because this non-lyrical treatment of the topos contains some explicit remarks on the significance it has in this work. (p. 246)
The bird [in Sabeth] represents eternity, and eternity is, naturally, not subjected to the law of inexorable progression along a temporal dimension. The entire concept of time depends on a peculiarly human delusion, caused by the fact that man through his reflective attitude experiences himself as an individual who is born and dies, instead of as an integral part of a larger, timeless whole.
The idea of temporality thus appears as a translation of a dimension of eternity into finite terms consistent with man's individuation. In this dimension which transcends humanity's time-bound perception, eternal beings move with the same freedom as man does in space. Or, to put it differently, sub specie aeternitatis time and space merge into one "absolute" dimension, of which Sabeth is an embodiment. (p. 247)
In Eich's poems, too, birds are frequently introduced to symbolize eternity. In Der GroBe Lübbe-See the cranes indicate the metaphysical position through which the essence of the universe is comprehended…. The poem Belagerung introduces the birds as spies, which betray humanity to the universal forces poised to destroy it. (pp. 247-48)
The pigeons [in Tauben] are related to infinity when the author warns himself not to trust in the appearance of superiority which his purely physical mastery over these birds may create. In realms beyond his cognizance the pigeons are one with the forces which control the universe….
[In Eich's poems] the significance of the birds is repeatedly based on the observation of their appearance, actions and movements. The frequent reference to the flight of birds, singly or in flocks, aims at evoking the visual impression of a line being drawn across the expanse of the sky, marking out a dimension in space. (p. 248)
Instead of accentuating the movement of the bird in space, the poet may concentrate on the wingbeat as such. By means of this approach Günter Eich is able to employ the bird motif to visualize the category of time. The regular, metronome-like motion of the wings marks the passage of time for instance in the poem Ende eines Sommers. This aspect of the bird image is directly equated with temporal progress….
In Tage mit Hähern the jay not only seems to bring about the alternation of night and day with his monotonous hammering, but also through the rhythm of his wingbeats reminds the poet of a pulsating heart, symbolizing the irrevocable passing of man's allotted time…. (p. 249)
The wingbeat of birds can also be associated with the passage of time in a negative context. Whereas in the previously mentioned poems...
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an absolutely binding time experience is expressed in the image of a regular, rhythmical wing movement such as that of the jays, inMittags um zwei the absence of an awareness of inexorable temporal advance is symbolized in the fluttering of sparrows. Their wings "schwirren im Sand;" they lack the measured slowness of the ticking metronome, and are more reminiscent of the crazily racing hands of a broken clock which has ceased to measure the flow of time.
The above examples show that on the basis of its physical appearance the bird may symbolize the category of space as well as that of time. Wingbeat and flight are basically aspects of one and the same action and attributes of one and the same creature. The image is therefore capable of expressing—not only time or space, depending on which visual aspect is stressed—but also a state of being in which these concepts are replaced as separate systems of coordinates by one all-embracing category.
Geisenhausen lyrically states the fundamental identity of winging and flying, of time and space, in a context which demonstrates very clearly that the value of the bird motif depends on this ability to symbolize a realm which cannot be described. In the actions of birds, the concepts of "when" and "where" are symbolically characterized as the reflections in which one absolute dimension manifests itself to the limited perception of man. (pp. 249-50)
When the poet, largely with the aid of the symbolic value he assigns to birds, reduces time and space to their common origin, he momentarily has an intimation of eternity. (p. 251)
Egbert Krispyn, "Günter Eich and The Birds," in The German Quarterly (copyright © 1964 by the American Association of Teachers of German), Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, May, 1964, pp. 246-56.