“The chaffinch, a nice subject”. So said the school inspector, a gentle man who had published a book of poems in his youth. Whether it was entitled the Ivory Plectrum or the Silver String or the Nine Holed Flute, no one remembers; but he hasn’t forgotten; he smiles at his youthful ambition, and without bitterness. The teacher, however, is completely absorbed in his work. For the last month the children have been observing Mr and Mrs Chaffinch; they all had something to say; but the teacher has some firm ideas on the art of writing. He dislikes commonplaces; the children’s perceptions are rich but their language is poor. His current task is to write on the blackboard, and in the right order, the words from which they will then make a selection. All the nuances of bright colours, all the nuances of pink, of blue, all the nuances of song, rhythmic, modulated, varied, reedy, sonorous; all the ways of walking, like running, trotting, jumping, hopping. The Inspector betrays some impatience; this was not how he wrote in his youth; he drifted from one word to another. “If I’ve read the timetable correctly,” he says, “today’s lesson should not be a vocabulary exercise, but prose composition.”
But the children were already at work. And Mr Chaffinch was described first; his slate-grey beak, his blue crest, his salmon pink chest, and the white bars on his wings; and his gait, a little awkward and swaying, for chaffinches don’t hop. On the other hand, he has a swirling flight, with swerves and bounds in the air, diving and climbing, playing, and then back on the ground, gravely parading his ceremonial costume. Now observe him perched and immobile; with open beak, and swollen throat; he launches his spring song, which is neither varied nor long; a short prelude, then a sequence of identical and hurried sounds; a short modulation at the end. It’s more language than music; but the voice is strong, striking, rich, full of life and joy. All of this was carefully described. Sometimes they hesitated over a word, but it was clear they all had a perfect knowledge of the thing. All, except the Inspector, who had some poetical ideas about it. So, not finding an opportunity to say anything relevant, he simply made this comment: “This should be an exercise in prose composition, not an exercise in observation. Let’s not confuse the two.”
“But,” said the teacher, “they’re not old enough to describe something they haven’t seen. They’re children.” Now they were pursuing a discussion of Mrs Chaffinch, a person little known to poets. She is a small woman, modestly and simply dressed, wearing tawny grey with a clearer stripe dividing the feathers on the head; she looks like a schoolgirl with flattened coils of hair. More alert in running and walking, less vigorous in flight than the brilliant Mr Chaffinch. No one would recognise her as a female chaffinch without the white bars on the wing. No one could say whether she sang, nor how.
“Certainly,” said the Inspector, “that was a good lesson in natural history; but prose composition is something quite different, it seems to me. It is the play of imagination, freer, depending more on individual fantasy, but disciplined in another way, according to custom and good taste. The character of the writer should show through rather than the character of the object; for it is the very soul of the writer, the human soul which is expressed in composition. Believe me, our feelings, our joys, our hopes, the springtime within us, all the joys and memories that the song of a bird awakes in us, are after all more interesting than the colours of a chaffinch.”
He was pleased with this improvisation; he thought about it when he left. But the man’s severe trade had taught him some bitter truths, and what he really meant to say emerged: “Where will it lead”, he said to himself, “if the compositions of the poor aim at truth rather than politeness?” Meanwhile, he was following with his short-sighted eyes the movement of a chaffinch along the road and some forgotten rhymes came back to him. In fact the chaffinch was a sparrow. But what did that matter to the poet?
June 12, 1921
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram