Owl’s Eyes


My daughter’s flight from Barcelona, due late in the evening, is delayed by two hours, so I sit up, well beyond my usual bedtime. ‘Night-owl’, people used to say, certainly my mother used to say, of those who kept late hours, though Edward Hopper’s famous 1942 painting of four people in a diner keeping very late hours, ‘the classic film noir Hopper’, as Robert Hughes calls it, is entitled Nighthawks.[1]


(Edward Hopper, Nighthawks: The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection)

Owls, though, I associate with at least three firsts in my life: in the pages of the brief travel journal I kept on my first trip to Greece some twenty years ago, I see several mentions of the call of the Scops owl, the Eurasian (or Common) Scops owl, known to a generation of young (and older) readers of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because Ron Weasley’s owl is a Scops. Similar in some ways to a Scops and, apparently, sometimes mistaken for it, is the Little Owl, Athene noctua, sacred owl of Athena. The goddess with the grey eyes, she was traditionally described as. When James Joyce talked to Sylvia Beach of his eye problems and mentioned glaucoma, Beach remembered: ‘It was the first time I had ever heard of this disease, with its beautiful name. “The gray owl eyes of Athena,” said Joyce.’[2] So said the author of Ulysses but, apparently, while Homer uses the word for an ‘owl’ (skops) only once, glaukopis—derived from glaux, the generic term for ‘owl’—occurs some ninety times in his work. It may have meant ‘sharp-eyed’ or ‘with gleaming eyes’.[3]


(Sylvia Beach and James Joyce via The Washington Times)

I was working on my thesis when my supervisor, the poet Charles Tomlinson, mentioned in conversation that John Ruskin had discussed the meaning of glaukopis in a book called The Queen of the Air (1869). ‘In her prudence, or sight in darkness, she is “Glaukopis,” owl-eyed’, he wrote of Athena. And a little later, Glaukopis ‘chiefly means grey-eyed: grey standing for a pale or luminous blue; but it only means “owl-eyed” in thought of the roundness and expansion, not from the colour; this breadth and brightness being, again, in their moral sense, typical of the breadth, intensity, and singleness of the sight in prudence’.[4]

I’d been reading Ezra Pound on Allen Upward and the pages to which Charles had directed me evolved into a large part of my first published essay.[5] Upward regarded with a severely critical eye the attempts of scholars thus far ‘to understand the word glaukopis, given to the goddess Athene. Did it mean blue-eyed, or gray-eyed, or—by the aid of Sanskrit—merely glare-eyed? And all the time they had not only the word glaux staring them in the face, as the Athenian name for owl, and the name of ox-eyed Hera to guide them, but they had the owl itself cut at the foot of every statue of Athene, and stamped on every coin of Athens, to tell them that she was the owl-eyed goddess, the lightning that blinks like an owl. For what is characteristic of the owl’s eyes is not that they glare, but that they suddenly leave off glaring, like lighthouses whose light is shut off. We may see the shutter of the lightning in that mask that overhangs Athene’s brow, and hear its click in the word glaukos. And the leafage of the olive, whose writhen trunk bears, as it were, the lightning’s brand, does not glare, but glitters, the pale under face of the leaves alternating with the dark upper face, and so the olive is Athene’s tree, and is called glaukos. Why need we carry owls to Oxford?’[6] (The many owls that were in Athens gave rise to the saying, ‘To bring owls to Athens’, an early forerunner of the English phrase, ‘to take coals to Newcastle’.)


The novelist Violet Hunt, who often received Ezra Pound at South Lodge, her home on Campden Hill Road, had an owl named Ann Veronica, after the novel by H. G. Wells, ‘a very pretty little owl’ but—‘She died untimely.’[7] The owl was part of a menagerie that included a bulldog, nine Persian cats, and several parrots that ‘shrieked “Ezra! Ezra!” whenever they saw him bouncing up the walk.’[8] Hunt’s partner for a decade was, of course, Ford Madox Ford, the other main focus of my research: the rest of my essay linked Upward and his double vortex, or waterspout, with Ford’s 1913 novel The Young Lovell. Ford published almost eighty books in his lifetime but the first of them all was a fairy tale called The Brown Owl, its frontispiece created by his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown.


The mountains being so tall
And forcing the town on the river,
The market’s so small
That, with the wet cobbles, dark arches and all,
The owls
(For in dark rainy weather the owls fly out
Well before four), so the owls
In the gloom
Have too little room
And brush by the saint on the fountain
In veering about.[9]


[1] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 427.

[2] Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company, new edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991), 39.

[3] Michael Ferber, A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 146. Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon has ‘epithet of Minerva’—Roman goddess identified with Greek Athene—‘with gleaming eyes’.

[4] The Works of John Ruskin, Library Edition, Volume XIX: The Cestus of Aglaia and The Queen of the Air with Other Papers and Lectures on Art and Literature, 1860–1870, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn (London: George Allen, 1905), 306, 381.

[5] Paul Skinner, ‘Of Owls and Waterspouts’, Paideuma, 17, 1 (Spring 1988), 59-68.

[6] Allen Upward, The New Word: An Open Letter addressed to the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on the meaning of the word IDEALIST (New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1910), 238.

[7] Violet Hunt, The Flurried Years (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1926), 109.

[8] Barbara Belford, Violet: The Story of the Irrepressible Violet Hunt and her Circle of Lovers and Friends—Ford Madox Ford, H. G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 166-167.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, ‘In the Little Old Market-place’, Selected Poems, edited and introduced by Max Saunders (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1997), 68.




So the rain falls. Again. I don’t know that there’s a recognised function in history or myth entitled ‘Rainstopper’ or ‘Rainbreaker’; but there’s certainly plenty of scope for ‘Rainmaker’.

To people of a certain age and predilection, the word most likely conjures up the debut album of Michael Chapman, guitarist extraordinary, from Harvest Records, 1969. The (instrumental) title track followed the outstanding ‘It Didn’t Work Out’.

In a more literary frame of mind, the word—or rather, the idea—summons up the arresting opening of Allen Upward’s The Divine Mystery.

‘I was sitting like Abraham in my tent door in the heat of the day, outside a Pagan city of Africa, when the lord of the thunder appeared before me, going on his way into the town to call down thunder from heaven upon it.
‘He had on his wizard’s robe, hung round with magical shells that rattled as he moved; and there walked behind him a young man carrying a lute. I gave the magician a piece of silver, and he danced before me the dance that draws down the thunder. After which he went his way into the town; and the people were gathered together in the courtyard of the king’s house; and he danced before them all. Then it thundered for the first time for many days ; and the king gave the thunder-maker a black goat—the immemorial reward of the performing god.
‘So begins the history of the Divine Man, and such is his rude nativity. The secret of genius is sensitiveness. The Genius of the Thunder who revealed himself to me could not call the thunder, but he could be called by it. He was more quick than other men to feel the changes of the atmosphere; perhaps he had rendered his nervous system more sensitive still by fasting or mental abstraction; and he had learned to read his own symptoms as we read a barometer. So, when he felt the storm gathering round his head, he put on his symbolical vestment, and marched forth to be its Word, the archetype of all Heroes in all Mysteries.’[1]


Wonderful. Who wouldn’t feel curious enough to read on? This is also the passage with which Ezra Pound opened his review of Upward’s book, commenting then: ‘So begins the most fascinating book on folk-lore that I have ever opened. I can scarcely call it a book on “folk-lore”, it is a consummation. It is a history of the development of human intelligence.’[2]

Upward stresses the superior sensitivity of the seer, who ‘perceives as events in the future events which are already in existence as intentions or dispositions.’[3] He’d begun writing for The New Age in 1909, A. R. Orage, in Upward’s words, being ‘almost the only editor who has approached me of his own accord to ask for contributions, and he offered me an absolutely free hand’.[4] Upward outlined his philosophy of individual genius in a series of three articles entitled “The Order of the Seraphim”. In one of them, he writes: ‘Genius is the power of being sensitive to what is divine. The man of genius, the last delicate bud that sprouts from the tree of man, may be compared to the slender wire that rises from the receiving station to catch the unseen message that comes across the sea from an unseen continent. His duty, like the duty of the wire, is to record that message as he receives it.’[5]

That was written in 1910. Eight years earlier, Rudyard Kipling published ‘“Wireless”’, a mysterious story in which, while a chemist’s nephew is trying to pick up a signal on his wireless set, the chemist’s assistant takes medicine concocted by the narrator, who’s called in to see the ‘Marconi experiment’. The assistant, falling into a trance, starts to ‘compose’ fragments of poems by John Keats. In his diary for 1918, Kipling’s friend Rider Haggard quoted Kipling as saying: ‘We are only telephone wires.’[6]


(Rudyard Kipling in 1905: via BBC)

In his 1918 essay on Henry James, Pound wrote: ‘Artists are the antennae of the race’.[7] And Pound also had his rainmaking connections. He wrote in Canto 74:

‘I am noman, my name is noman’
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things

‘Noman’ refers to the Greek ‘ou tis’ (no man or nobody), used by Odysseus to trick the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. Ouan Jin—Chinese, ‘man of letters’—is rhymed with Wondjina, a rain god in Australian Aboriginal mythology. Later in the same Canto, Pound refers to the legend of Wagadu, the city destroyed four times, by vanity, falsehood, greed and dissension: reconstructed once more, it will live ‘now in the mind indestructible’.[8]


That story, ‘Gassire’s Lute’, was included in African Genesis:[9] Douglas Fox, who co-wrote it with by the German anthropologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius, told Pound of an old man who explained to him that, had Wondjina’s father not removed his mouth, his people would have been burdened with ‘the glittering claptrap of the white man’s culture’, unable to devote themselves to ‘the important things of life: conversation, dancing, hunting and warfare.’[10]

But wait a moment – yes, the rain has stopped. Again. Ah, and started again. I shall put a notice in the window, next to the election poster: ‘No rainmaker required’.



[1] Upward, The Divine Mystery: A Reading of the History of Christianity Down to the Time of Christ (Garden City Press, 1913; Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson, with an introduction by Robert Duncan, 1976).

[2] The New Freewoman, 15 November 1913; reprinted in Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 373; this volume also includes Pound’s 1914 essay ‘Allen Upward Serious’, 377-382.

[3] The Divine Mystery, 13.

[4] Upward quoted in Wallace Martin’s The New Age Under Orage: Chapters in English Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967), 34.

[5] The Divine Mystery, 376.

[6] Collected in Traffics and Discoveries (1904; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1987), edited by Hermione Lee, 181-199. See her notes on the story, 331-334, citing Haggard and including a wealth of other interesting material.

[7] Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), 297.

[8] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 426-427, 430.

[9] Leo Frobenius and Douglas C. Fox, African Genesis (1937; New York: Dover, 1999), 97-110.

[10] See the notes to Richard Sieburth’s edition of The Pisan Cantos (New York: New Directions, 2003), 120-121.