The soul of a blackbird

July 9, 2021 0 Comments

The other day, as I was coming home from an evening walk, a strange thing happened.  I was nearing a place where the road narrows and the pavement gives out and you need to take care before crossing to the safer side.  On a small patch of grass, outside the gate of the house called Havergal, stood a young male blackbird. 

Blackbird (oil on canvas) (Carys Evans)

I stopped, and so did he, just three feet or so away.  We looked at each other.  Then he took a move to the left, and stopped, and eyed me again.  I looked back.  He skipped to the left again.  I turned to face him, but my movement didn’t bother him.  We looked at each other, eyes locked.  He kept on moving until he’d almost done a complete circle around me and was standing in the road. Only then did he fly off, as a car approached.

Where the blackbird stood

It’s true that some birds, especially robins and blackbirds, like to share human company at close quarters, and show no fear.  But this blackbird wasn’t showing a passing curiosity, he was having an extended conversation.  It was a strange meeting, of eyes and minds.

As I walked on I wondered about what had happened.  There seemed no reason for the blackbird to be so talkative and engrossed.  He wasn’t trying to warn me off, or distract me from a nest.  Then another idea occurred to me: that inside that sleek dark body, behind that orange eye, might be the transmigrated soul of a human being.  Pythagoras, it was said, once urged someone to stop beating a dog, because he recognised in the sound it made the soul of dead friend. Perhaps the blackbird embodied the soul of the most notable former inhabitant of the house we were both standing outside? 

Frances Ridley Havergal

Her name was Frances Ridley Havergal.  Famous in her day, today she’s almost completely forgotten.  She was born in Astley, Worcestershire in 1836, the youngest of six children.  Her father was a clergyman.  She excelled academically, especially when the family lived in Germany, was a gifted linguist and musician, and a keen Alpine mountaineer.  But she devoted all her efforts to a stifling Victorian version of evangelical piety, after declaring herself ‘saved’ in 1850.  Her speciality was writing hymns and religious poems, which she published in a series of volumes, including The ministry of song (1869) and Coming to the king (1886).  Some of the hymns, including ‘Take my life, and let it be’, became standards in evangelical circles (sixteen of them were translated into Welsh).  Frances Havergal became a minor religious star.  In the first half of 1872 alone she received 600 letters of fan mail, and resorted to replying by printed circular, ticking the appropriate reply in each case.

What brought her to live in Mumbles isn’t clear, though they had been in the area before on holiday in 1855 (there were several holidays in other parts of Wales).  Havergal herself attributed the choice to divine intervention:

We have been most graciously guided here for God has not only supplied our need and our notions in a most wonderful way in the details of our little lodgings and their surroundings. We came the beginning of October, and consider it home till next June, and so far as we see at present, this arrangement is likely to last our lives! For I do not see how anything could suit us better.

Park Villa / Havergal

After her stepmother’s death she left her previous home, Leamington Spa, and with her sister Marie she came to live in Newton in October 1878.  The house was recently built and was then called Park Villa: it was renamed Havergal after her death.  In her memoirs her sister Marie left a picture of her study.  From the windows, we’re told, she could see Ilfracombe and Caswell Bay (actually, an impossibilty).  By the door was a motto, ‘For Jesus’ sake only’, and Frances’s temperance pledge card; on the walls, some pictures, including ‘The martyrs in prison’; many books, some scientific; a favourite chair and an American typewriter; a desk for correspondence and a study table for bible reading, which started at seven o’clock each day; a ‘harp-piano’ for composing sacred songs.  She would avoid ‘late hours and frittering talks at night’, in favour of ‘bible searching and holy communings’.

Park Villa / Havergal

Outside the house Havergal’s main occupation was trying to persuade local youths to ‘take the pledge’: an uphill task, one would have thought, in a place with so many pubs.  Those she did persuade she organised into a kind of praetorian guard, the ‘Newton Temperance Regiment’. She was active at Paraclete chapel (Newton church was yet unbuilt), invited the ‘cottagers’ for bible readings in her house, and herself preached in the open air.  At the local school she offered the children a new bible each if they could recite perfectly the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah: ‘though she would not excuse a single mistake, she gave some another trial’.  She was always on the look-out for people to convert.  Her biographer, Janet Grierson, writes,

It appears that O P was painting her study window, and when she opened it to ask how he was getting on, he said he had been longing to speak to her for months about his desire to be ‘out and out on the Lord’s side’.  Perched on a high ladder was hardly the place to continue such a conversation, so she wisely suggested he should step inside!  Then followed reading and prayer together, as a result of which he left her study ‘so glad that henceforth Jesus was his King as well as his Saviour.’

There was time for recreation, though God was never far away.  Marie remembered that that the two of them

… enjoyed the walks and scrambles on the cliffs; at low tide springing lightly over boulders to beds of seaweeds, and rocky pools bright with sea anemones …   Or, watching the vessels with all sails up entering the harbour, she would speak of the ‘the abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom.’

The locals were clearly in awe of the religious force of the newcomer. According to a later recollection, a ‘servant-man’ had an unfortunate encounter with Havergal outside her house:

Frances Ridley Havergal memorial

One evening some pigs got astray, and wandered on to the front lawn. He went in search of them, and on finding them attempted to drive them back to the yard.  But his efforts were in vain.  He became very much irritated, and he gave vent to rather unseemly expressions.  At last be looked round for help, when he espied a female form in the front window of the house.  Waving his hand to her, he shouted out, ‘Why the Beelzebub don’t you come and help me with these blaming, flaming pigs?  Quick. Jane, come!’ He evidently mistook the figure for one of the servants, and he waited to see what effect his entreaties would have.  Imagine his surprise when the window was raised and Miss Havergal stepped on to the lawn.  She wore a pained expression on her face, and laying her band on the man’s shoulders said, sadly, ‘I am sorry you have not yet given up the bad habit of swearing.’  The poor fellow looked completely abashed.  He hung his head, and played with his cap.  At last be blurted out, ‘I am sorry, too, miss. I did not know ’twas you I was calling.’  Looking tenderly and pitifully at him, she said, ‘It does not matter so much about me; but why will you swear?’  Her manner so overcame the wayward servant, that he answered that he would never swear again.           

Havergal lived in Mumbles for only seven months, before dying of peritonitis at the age of 42 on 3 June 1879; she was buried at Astley.  In 1903 a brass plaque was erected to her memory in Newton Church.  In 1937 a stone memorial was placed by public subscription in the garden wall at Havergal.  It commemorated a ‘Christian poetess and hymnwriter’, and quotes confidently the biblical line ‘she being dead, yet speaketh’.  Today the lettering is faded and the monument needs a share of the restoration that the house is currently receiving.  Havergal is a handsome, tile-fronted building hidden by trees; around it is a light verandah, and a graceful iron gate leads to the road.

By the time I reached home I’d realised the blackbird could not possibly have inherited the soul of Frances Ridley Havergal.  He didn’t show a trace of her relentless, grim Calvinism and suffocating devoutness. Besides, I guessed, metempsychosis would be anathema to her, and to all Calvinists.  The blackbird’s spirit was very different: secular, playful, inquisitive, generous.

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