‘Humming-bird’ by D.H. Lawrence is a five stanza poem that is separated into two quatrains, or sets of four lines, two tercets, or sets of three, and one final two-line couplet. Although Lawrence has not structured this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm there are moments within the text that the end sounds match up. One should take note of the end words, “then” and “creation” in the second stanza. Dependent on pronunciation these are either half or full rhymes. There are also moments of repetition such as the use of “big” as an end word twice in the fourth stanza.
A reader should also take note of the casual style of verse used in ‘Humming-bird’. The language is easy to understand and the narrative fairly fluid. It was important to Lawrence to set this piece out clearly. His speaker seems to be telling this story without pretense to an interested listener, or perhaps even recording his own thoughts.
Summary of Humming-bird
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he is able to “imagine” a world that is “other” to earth. It is not a different planet, but just far in the past. These days were darker than those he lives in now. The animals were slow and soulless. All except for the hummingbird. This creature was far above the others. It flew wildly down the “avenues” and sucked from the veins of vegetables.
He concludes the poem by stating that humanity has gotten the history of this tiny bird wrong, and perhaps that is for the best. Their presence, even in the historical past, would’ve been too much for modern life to handle.
Analysis of Humming-bird
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
In the four-line first stanza, the speaker begins by stating that everything he’s about to say is imagined. From the first line, he makes the reader aware that he is going to be talking about something fantastical. The world he imagines is “other.” It is beyond that which humankind has access to. Before one can imagine another planet or universe the speaker interjects saying that the world he imagines is “Primeval-dumb, far back.” It is not located anywhere else but earth.
In the next two lines, Lawrence features the main subject of his poem, the “Humming-bird.” In the imagined world, the hummingbird is much different from how it is in our own. First, though, he states that there was an “awful stillness” that sat heavily on the earth. There was not the movement that one associates with contemporary life. The pace of existence was slower due to the lack of a human presence and “awful” because of the creatures that walked through it.
The most impressive of these, and the subject of ‘Humming-bird’, is the “Humming-bird.” It filled the air with “humm[ing]” and “gasp[ing]” as it “raced down the avenues.” This statement is an interesting one. One might associate hummingbirds with fast movements, but “rac[ing]?” That seems to be suggesting something more powerful. A reader should also take note of the use of the word “avenues.” This world might be slower, but it is still filled with creatures that move through defined pathways; creating what humans see as “avenues.”
Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chirped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.
In the second stanza, which also contains four lines, the speaker outlines a few more details of this extremely different world he imagines. In this place, nothing “had a soul.” This paints a darker image of the earth in which creatures exist on instinct alone, there is no deeper purpose to the progress of life.
He elaborates on this point, saying that life was “a heave of matter.” The creatures that lived here were simple mass and movement. They went from place to place without reason or purpose. They were “half inanimate.” These facts might apply to the majority of the life currently on earth, but it doesn’t apply to everything. There are hummingbirds which are little bits of “brilliance.” They shine in a way that the other creatures do not.
Rather than existing as purposeless bits of mass, the hummingbirds are “whizzing” through an otherwise “slow” world. They move from “vast, succulent stem” to “stem.”
I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where humming-birds flashed ahead of creation
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.
The third stanza of ‘Humming-bird’ contains three lines and picks up right where the previous left off. A reader might have assumed after reading the last line of the second stanza that the hummingbirds were flying through a field of flowers. The speaker adds in additional details that tell his reader that he does not “believe there were…flowers then.” Instead, he sees the hummingbirds as being larger, and more aggressive than those which exist today.
These ancient hummingbirds fed from the “slow vegetable veins.” They are far “ahead” of the rest of creation. Somehow, evolution or the hand of some divine being sped up their progress. They existed at a higher level than the other forms of life.
Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
The fourth stanza is also a tercet, meaning it contains three lines. The speaker is now looking at one particular hummingbird in his mind. He sees it and thinks, “Probably he was big.” His advanced evolutionary position allowed “him” to grow at a faster rate. The speaker’s claim about this imagined animal is not without precedent. He cites the research regarding the size of “little lizards” and “mosses.” These he knows “were once big,” so why not the hummingbird?
The final line brings this description further. Here, the speaker states that the hummingbird was a “jabbing, terrifying monster,” probably.
We look at him through the wrong end of the telescope of time,
Luckily for us.
In the last two lines, the speaker brings the narrative back to the present. He states that it is our fault that we do not perceive the hummingbird correctly. The human race has been looking “through the wrong end of the telescope of time.” Rather than seeing the hummingbird as less in the past, one should see it as being more.
Although this is an academic mistake, it is one that works in the favor of humanity. It would’ve been horrifying to know the truth about this creature. Or, even worse, see it for ourselves.