In Ted Hughes' "Crow and the Birds", the lines before the ending read:

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud

And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun

And the wryneck crooked in the moon

And the dipper peered from the dewball

I need help understanding two things:

  1. I Googled the word "dewball", but couldn't find too much (I did find these: 1, 2). My guess is that it's simply a description of a "single unit" of a dew. But is it? Another guess is that it's some play on the (valid) word "dewfall". But if that so, what's that "ball"?
  2. What does it mean to peer from a dewball? I'd understand alternatives such as "through", or something close, but can't figure out the imagery meaning of from here.

I may be peering reading too much into this single line, but I'm not a native speaker and hence I afraid I'm missing something simple. What do you think?

  • Interesting question!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Feb 20, 2019 at 7:06
  • If a bullfinch can plump in an apple bud, why can't a dipper peer from a dewdrop?
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 20, 2019 at 12:20

2 Answers 2

  1. ‘Dewball’ is rare, but means ‘dewdrop’ as you guessed. Your first linked example is:

    I looked upon you when the April moon
    Sprinkled your forms with light, and the dewball lay
    All night upon the branch

    Henry Alford (1835). ‘The School of the Heart’.

    and here’s another example, found on Google Books:

    They can learn for themselves that dewball-decorated grass at sunrise is merely wet grass an hour later; and still later this grass is dry.

    Bertha Stevens (1941). How Miracles Abound.

  2. It is indeed odd that the dipper peers ‘from’ the dewball. But all the lines in the poem, except for the last, have some kind of odd or obscure aspect, whether it’s vocabulary (‘bulb’ meaning ‘swell’) or reference (‘Bessemer upglare’ meaning the light from a steel mill, though Bessemer converters had been superseded by other processes by the mid-20th century when Hughes was writing).

    The dipper line is one of the easier ones to interpret: perhaps the dipper peers into the dewball and its reflection peers out. It is harder to come up with an explanation for how the bullfinch ‘plumped in the apple bud’. Bullfinches do eat buds but normally one would use ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ if that was what was meant.

    The obscurities associated with the other birds contrast with the straightforward sense of Crow’s line, but this is just one of several contrasts that Hughes sets up. Lines 1-4 have lyrical flights of poetic fancy, contrasting with Crow’s plain words; the birds in lines 7–10 flee human civilization (as represented by steel mills, washing lines, farms and shops) whereas Crow is found ‘head-down’ in its detritus; and the nouns in lines 11–14 (‘bud’, ‘sun’, ‘moon’ and ‘dewball’) are clean, while Crow sprawls in garbage.

    Building an allegorical interpretation from these structural contrasts, we could take the lyricism of lines 1–4 to represent the Romantic poets; the abstract elements of lines 5–6 and the concern with civilization and machinery in lines 7–10 to represent the Modernists; and the concision and obscurity of lines 11–14 to represent the Imagists. Thus Hughes, represented by Crow, places himself in opposition to all of these poetic schools, trying to create something new.

  • Brilliant answer, thanks!
    – HeyJude
    Feb 20, 2019 at 21:43

Caveat that this is speculative rather than authoritative...

In this poem Hughes clearly relates some of the birds to his own memories in the earlier lines and it is usually clear what kind of occurrence he is recalling, a swallow in a cave, a bluetit dodging past a washing line…, the action of the bird is clearly described. But in this set of four lines the descriptions seem more obscure, how does a bullfinch plump in an apple bud? How does a goldfinch ‘bulb’, be it in the sun or anywhere else? What does it mean for a wryneck to ‘crook in the moon’?

Perhaps the difference is that the swallow and the bluetit are fitting themselves around human activity and the Finches, Wryneck and Dipper are interacting only with the natural world even if those interactions seem more the work of imagination or myth than natural science. Apple bud, sun and moon in which the finches and Wryneck are all very rounded forms, albeit ones that the birds cannot literally be in. I think this frees us from the need to see the Dipper as literally being situated within a ball of dew.

I explored the idea of mythology, the Wryneck is apparently associated with the moon in Egyptian mythology and Native American Myths tell of Goldfinches being painted with sunlight. I couldn’t sift anything relevant from search results for mythology of Bullfinches (for predictable reasons) or for Dippers. But the trouble with birds and mythology is that ever culture and subculture has its tales about birds and it would be impossible to light with any certainty on one myth and declare it to be Hughes’ source.

But, since the poem is effectively ‘scenes from a life’ it leaves me wondering if the references are part of such a personal mythology that an outsider to that life could never hope to recognise them. The descriptions sound almost like the coded memories of families. I recall in some novel a family’s habit of specifying the amount of drink they wanted by numbers of birds rather than ‘fingers’ as the shared recollection of a childhood glass with chickens up the side became their family metric, ‘Whiskey? Just to the second bird!’

I could imagine these lines being references to artworks, misremembering the tree from Hokusai’s Bulfinch and Weeping Cherry or some series of artworks where the round shapes of the bud, sun, moon and dewball provide a connected structural theme. It could be anything.

But a Dipper peering out from a ball of dew is only an impossibility because of its scale. Dippers feed underwater, but not being long legged wading birds, when they stand on the bed of s stream their whole body is under the surface and they use their wings as aerofoils (aquafoils?) to create downward pressure from the current to counteract their feathery buoyancy.

I used to watch one feeding in the stream under the window in my parents’ house and can attest that a dipper can appear to be peering from under the water.

If a Bulfinch can perhaps plump near an apple bud, rather than in one, a Goldfinch could no doubt ‘bulb’ in the light of the sun not in the fiery ball and a Wryneck might twist to gaze at the moon rather than reside in it then perhaps a Dipper can peer through the waters of a stream and sprinkle dewballs as it emerges and shakes water from its feathers.

Or, more prosaically, my final piece of research may undermine all of the above... It seems that Dippers make small, enclosed, round nests close to the water and cover them with moss. Dipper nest between rocks, covered in moss Water spray will bead up on moss, so it may be that a Dipper's nest can look like a ball of dew. Which makes me wonder if the Apple-bud, sun and moon have all been called the nests of their respective birds in Folklore...

  • Outstanding answer, thanks!
    – HeyJude
    Feb 20, 2019 at 21:45

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