Snipe in Haiku – Survey of Japanese Literature

In my literary wanderings, seeking poems and prose that include reflections on the snipe, I have found there is a veritable cornucopia of haiku on the diminutive game bird.  There must be something universal in the solitary nature of the snipe and its habits and habitation.

Here I reference the Japanese poet Issa, and his modern translator David G. Lanoue, for this haunting poem:

all people must
grow old…
the snipe rises

–Issa, 1804

Snipe - Japanese Print

From David’s translation notes “This is an enigmatic haiku. Since the snipe is an autumn bird, perhaps Issa sees it as a sign of his own growing old.”

Reference http://haikuguy.com/issa/index.html

 

 

“The Hammer-Bleat” from The Birds of Old English Literature by Charles Huntington Whitman

In my snipe meanderings, I recently stumbled across a Cornell University Library reference book from 1898 titled “The Birds of Old English Literature”, which provides some language background to the bird’s name.

Most will be familiar with the old name “snite“, as described in the first reference:

 

"Gen. Gallinago. True Snipes. 

LI I. I. snite. Snipe. ME. snite, snyte ; perhaps allied 
to snort, probably having reference to the bird's long bill. 

WW. 285. 12, 344. 38, Cp. C. 138: acegia, snite; WW. 132. 20: aceta, 
snite uel wudecocc."

However, I think I was most charmed by an earlier name derived from the male snipe’s courtship call, which renders in modern English as “hammer-bleat”, among others:

"2. hzeferbljlte. Snipe. This word does not appear in 
ME. but is preserved in Mod.E. as hammer-bleat and 
heather-bleat, a snipe. In the dictionaries it is variously 
termed sea gull, bittern, and hawk. Once it appears as 
hcefenblcete (' haven-screamer,' gull) but this is probably for 
hmferblcEte, the usual form ; <C hosfer, a he-goat (L. caper) + 
blcetan, to bleat, lit. a ' goat-bleater.' This seems to describe 
accurately the male snipe, whose love song resembles the 
bleatmg of a goat. Hence in many languages the snipe is 
known by names signifying ' flying goat,' ' heaven's ram,' 
as in Scotland the ' heather-bleater.' Cf. Diet, of Birds." 

 

Interesting background information for the curious snipe hunter.  Facsimile edition and full text of this reference book can be found at the Internet Archive:

https://archive.org/details/cu31924031439544

Great Snipe Engraving

 

 

Under “Different Plans for Shooting Snipes” – Dr. Elisha J. Lewis

“The American Sportsman: Containing Hints to Sportsmen, Notes on Shooting and the Habits of the Gamebirds” and Wildfowl of America, by Elisha J. Lewis, M.D. was  published by J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1863.  The book is illustrated with engravings by George G. White, and special attention for my purposes is drawn to “Chapter XI – Wilson’s or English Snipe.  Scolopax Wilsonii–Scolopax Gallinago”.  This chapter is complete in its description of the snipe as a game bird, but as seems so common with sporting writings of the 18th and 19th century, includes poetic fragments, which I’ve selected for today’s posting.

“Next for the snipe you must prepare:

He darts like lightning through the air,

With devious wing; a moment wait,

You’ll see the rover travel straight.”

And further

“When’er you beat for snipes, implore

Old Æolius o’er marsh and moor

Boldly to breathe ; yet always mind

You turn your back upon the wind.”

Sound advice!

Shooting_from_Hide_tail-piece_in_Bewick_British_Birds_1804

“Snipe Shooting” – Sporting Magazine, 1798.

When gelid frosts encrust the faded ground,
And dreary winter clouds the scene around ;
The timid snipes fly to the sedgy rills,
Or seek the plashes on the upland hills.
The sportsman, now, wakes with the gleaming morn,
His gun makes fit, refills his pouch and horn,
And to the swampy meadow takes his way,
With sport and exercise to crown the day.
See first how curiously he scans the sedge,
Then warily proceeds along the edge :
His piece is cock’d, and in position right,
To meet his shoulder readily and light.
But yet more cautiously he treads beside
The well-known plash, where most he thinks to hide
The dappled bird – and from the rushy stream
Frighten’d she rises, with a piercing scream.
His tube the fowler points with steady sight,
And seeks to trace her thro’ her rapid flight ;
Whilst o’er the field she tries each artful wile,
And crooked turn, his level to beguile.
Her slender wings swift cut the buoyant air,
‘Till distance gives her as a mark more fair :
Now glancing, just the marksman gets his aim,
His ready finger doth the trigger strain.
He fires—the fatal shot unerring flies,
The Snipe is struck, she flutters, bleeds, and dies.

“To The Snipe” – John Clare (1793 – 1864)

Lover of swamps,
The quagmire overgrown
With hassock-tufts of sedge — where fear encamps
Around thy home alone

The trembling grass
Quakes from the human foot
Nor bears the weight of man to let him pass
Where he alone and mute

Sittest at rest
In safety ‘neath the clump
Of huge flag-forest that thy haunts invest
Or some old sallow stump

Thriving on seams
That tiny islands swell.
Just hilling from the mud and rancid streams
Suiting thy nature well –

For here thy bill,
Suited by wisdom good
Of rude unseemly length, doth delve and drill
The gelid mass for food,

And here, mayhap,
When summer suns hath dressed
The moor’s rude, desolate and spongy lap,
May hide thy mystic nest –

Mystic indeed,
For isles that ocean make
Are scarcely more secure for birds to build
Than this flag-hidden lake.

Boys thread the woods
To their remotest shades,
But in these marshy flats these stagnant floods,
Security pervades

From year to year,
Places untrodden lye
Where man nor boy nor stock hath ventured near
– Nought gazed on but the sky

And fowl that dread
The very breath of man,
Hiding in spots that never knew his tread –
A wild and timid clan,

Widgeon and teal
And wild duck, restless lot
That from man’s dreaded sight will ever steal
To the most dreary spot.

Here tempests howl
Around each flaggy plot
Where they who dread man’s sight, the waterfowl,
Hide and are frighted not.

‘Tis power divine
That heartens them to brave
The roughest tempest and at ease recline
On marshes or the wave;

Yet instinct knows
Not safety’s bounds – to shun
The firmer ground where skulking fowler goes
With searching dogs and gun

By tepid springs
Scarcely one stride across:
Though brambles from its edge a shelter flings,
Thy safety is at loss.

And never choose
The little sinky foss
Streaking the moors whence spa-red water spews
From puddles fringed with moss:

Freebooters there,
Intent to kill and slay,
Startle with cracking guns the trepid air
And dogs thy haunts betray.

From danger’s reach
Here thou art safe to roam
Far as these washy flag-sown marshes stretch,
A still and quiet home.

In these thy haunts
I’ve gleaned habitual love;
From the vague world where pride and folly taunts
I muse and look above.

Thy solitudes
The unbounded heaven esteems
And here my heart warms into higher moods
And dignifying dreams.

I see the sky
Smile on the meanest spot,
Giving to all that creep or walk or fly
A calm and cordial lot.

Thine teaches me
Right feelings to employ:
That in the dreariest places peace will be
A dweller and a joy.

Introductions

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – Wm. Shakespeare, Henry V

Those of us who chase after snipe seem to be a rare breed.  In the United States, it can be hard to convince people, unless they are sportsmen or naturalists, that the bird actually exists, and that it’s not just some mythical thing made up for playing pranks.  But all the better for the snipe hunter – it leaves us plenty of space and opportunity for us to pursue our sport.

Like most snipe hunters, I think of myself as an avid sportsman.  I enjoy fly fishing, upland game shooting and large game hunting whenever I can take the opportunities to do so.  But when the snipe season ends and my sporting pursuits change with the seasons, my mind will wander back to reflections on the snipe – how the last season went, what can I do to improve my shooting before next season, and counting the months, weeks and days until I can get out again.  More often than not, I will find myself thinking about snipe miles up a river late in the winter steelhead season, or by the campfire after a long day of hunting.

I also reflect on the excellent writings I’ve come across over my years of wingshooting that have provided so much inspiration and joy.  There are many classics that talk about snipe and snipe shooting, from the incredible seasonal tallies of  J.J. Pringle, to Lord Walsingham and Sir Ralph Payne-Gallway, who note on snipe shooting that “this subject is indeed a puzzler”, to so many others.  In particular, my off-season reading will cycle through Worth Mathewson’s excellent “Reflections on Snipe.  Highly recommended if you have not read it.

Far less frequently encountered is the snipe in literature, and for this reason I’ve decided to assemble any and all literary references, short stories, poems and the like into one place for others who may find them of interest.  Along the way, I hope to share some pictures and reflections of my own and of friends who share the love of snipe.

I’m far from being a literary professional, and at times I feel barely literate.  But I do enjoy reading, especially when it comes to the outdoors.  So I make no pretenses about being expert on the topic; I just want to share the literary references to the game bird I love best with others who are smitten with the same passion.