Friday, May 9, 2008

Flannery O'Connor writes of peacocks

That Flannery O'Connor was clearly interested in, preoccupied with, and loved peafowl has not escaped the literary critics. Indeed, these mysterious and magnificent creatures (the peafowl, not the critics) have become to some a metaphor for the author herself and for her work. This is seen in such titles as The Voice of the Peacock (Kathleen Feeley, 1972) and The Invisible Parade (Miles Orvell, 1973).

Here are four short excerpts from her story, The Displaced Person, that mention her favorite creatures:

The peacock stopped just behind her, his tail--glittering green-gold and blue in the sunlight--lifted just enough so that it would not touch the ground. It flowed out on either side like a floating train and his head on the long blue reed-like neck was drawn back as if his attention were fixed in the distance on something no one else could see....

"What a beauti-ful birrrrd!" the priest murmured.
"Another mouth to feed," Mrs. McIntyre said, glancing in the peafowl's direction.
"And when does he raise his splendid tail?" asked the priest.
"Just when it suits him," she said. "There used to be twenty or thirty of those things on the place but I've let them die off. I don't like to hear them scream in the middle of the night."
"So beauti-ful," the priest said. "A tail full of suns," and he crept forward on tiptoe and looked down on the bird's back where the polished gold and green design began. The peacock stood still as if he had just come down from some sun-drenched height to be a vision for them all....

“Where is that beautiful birrrrd of yours?” [the priest] asked and then said, “Arrrr, I see him?” and stood up and looked out over the lawn where the peacock and the two hens were stepping at a strained attention, their long necks ruffled, the cock's violent blue and the hens' silver-green, glinting in the late afternoon sun....

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping....

and here are three more from her essay, The King of the Birds:

“ or eight screams in succession as if this message were the one on earth which needed most urgently to be heard.”

“To the melancholy this sound is melancholy and to the hysterical it is hysterical. To me it has always sounded like a cheer for an invisible parade.”

“When the peacock has presented his back, the spectator will usually begin to walk around him to get a front view; but the peacock will continue to turn so that no front view is possible. The thing to do then is to stand still and wait until it pleases him to turn. When it suits him, the peacock will face you. Then you will see in a green-bronze arch around him a galaxy of gazing, haloed suns.”

Perhaps you will see my French blogger friend's photo in a new light:


  1. Pour qui sait regarder, le paon est tout aussi beau à voir de dos et souvent d'ailleurs, les êtres révèlent, vus de dos, leur personnalité la plus authentique. De face, ils cherchent à se faire valoir, de dos ils laissent entrevoir leurs faiblesses et c'est au moins aussi intéressant.
    (I hope that a frend may translate my comment to you).
    Amitiés !

  2. My friend who helped me understand is, an online instant translator site. He, she, or it (mon ami nouveau) provided the following translation:

    "For which can look at, the peacock is quite as beautiful to see back and often besides, the beings reveal, seen back, their most authentic personality. Of face, they seek to be put forward, of back they show the possibility for their weaknesses and it is at least also interesting."

    Close enough to get your meaning, though probably not as finely as a human translator would deal with idioms, for example, "from the back" and "from the front" in English. Thank you once again for commenting!

    I also gave my friend your name to translate....

  3. I enjoyed your peacock quotes from Flannery O'Connor.....and am pondering the thought of a sound that is melancholy to the melancholy and hysterical to the hysterical.

    Also interesting, the comment translated from the French, especially that the peacock is revealing his most authentic personality by showing his back.


    Because I love coincidences, even those little tiny ones, I have to tell you this:

    Yesterday, you mentioned W.D.Auden in a comment you left on my blog. I had never before in my life heard of W.D. Auden. A few minutes after reading your comment, I went through the day's snail mail. Included in it was the June/July "First Things" magazine. I opened to the table of contents and chose to read an article called "The End of Art". Amazingly, it included quotes from W.D. Auden!!

    Here they are:

    "There can no more be a 'Christian' art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work."

    "We cannot have liberty without license to abuse it. The secularization of art enables the really gifted artist to develop his talents to the full; it also permits those with little or no talent to produce vast quantities of phony or vulgar trash."


    Since I'm telling every blog I visit this today, I'll tell you, too, even though you're not a mother: Happy Mothers Day!! (Pass the wish on to Ellie.)

  4. Peacock Display
    by David Wagoner

    He approaches her, trailing his whole fortune,
    Perfectly cocksure, and suddenly spreads
    The huge fan of his tail for her amazement.

    Each turquoise and purple, black-horned, walleyed quill
    Comes quivering forward, an amphitheatric shell
    For his most fortunate audience: her alone.

    He plumes himself. He shakes his brassily gold
    Wings and rump in a dance, lifting his claws
    Stiff-legged under the great bulge of his breast.

    And she strolls calmly away, pecking and pausing,
    Not watching him, astonished to discover
    All these seeds spread just for her in the dirt.

  5. What a great poem by David Wagoner! Thanks for posting it, anonymous. I think it captures the confidence of the male and the indifference of the female (regardless of species) very well.

    Of course, I did a search for information about David Wagoner, and in the process found a great blog by Loren Webster who had taken college courses taught by David. I didn't suspect when I began blogging how much my horizons were going to be expanded.

  6. As a senior level English major we are studying O'Connor for senior seminar. I'm about to write a short analytical essay about the peacock as a metaphor for the writer.
    Can't wait to get back to Oregon!
    All the best from West Virginia!