“Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on 27 November 1799, Notebooks, I, 582
I took this picture in Aberystwyth in January 2011, while walking at dawn one dark morning towards the National Library. Starlings, migrants from Africa, had mustered in a tree at the edge of a car park, before launching themselves inland. Later in the day they would return, to spend the night on the underside of the pier. Huge massing clouds of the birds, 10,000 at a time, are a regular sight throughout the winter for spectators standing on the prom at twilight .
Coleridge returned three times in his notebooks to the image of a murmuration of starlings, with its multivalent meanings: many acting as one, force without direction, geometric form in constant flux, bright but darkly terrifying. Richard Holmes, in his biography of Coleridge, scents a self-reference and quotes Virginia Woolf, in her essay on him, ‘he seems not a man, but a swarm, a cloud, a buzz of words, darting this way and that, clustering, quivering, and hanging suspended’.