Silver on the Wing

We were reading Psalm 68 at morning prayer and my attention was caught with the words of verse 12:  “Though you stayed among the sheepfolds, see now a dove’s wings covered with silver and its feathers with green gold.” This psalm has been described as, “The most picturesque - and obscure - of all the psalms”  in the introduction by Fr Alexander Jones to the wonderful translation of the Hebrew of the psalms, produced first in French, and then into English, as a result of the work of four French scholars: R Tournay, Raymond Schwab, J Gellineau (who produced his distinctive musical psalm settings too) and T.G.Chifflot.  In this psalm God rides on clouds, but traverses the desert on foot; he fights for his people; taking willing captives to his holy hill; feeds the destitute, but whose, “power is above the clouds.”


The silver and gold of the dove’s wings have been variously interpreted, but are all based on the pictorial idea of basking in light, whether of success in battle; brilliance of fine dress material or even the shining trophies of war.  As we struggle with the concepts of this psalm, and yet recognise the reality of all the outcomes of conflict; its pain and destruction as well as the sense in which it has been glorified and its stories, far more often than not, told by the victors, so we too dwell on the occasional, eye-catching, special quality and ability of light itself to reveal what we might otherwise miss.


Thinking on all of this, I remembered that I was talking of the silver-washed fritillary earlier this week, and catching sight of one on a sunny bank of creeper at Durlston.  Later, I happened upon these words in Walter J.C. Murray’s Copsford which has recently been reprinted by Little Toller Books:


“And the silver-washed fritillary, what can I say of that dashing gallant of the butterfly nobility?  It has such rich associations; the blazing July sun, the strong, warm smell of vigorous bracken, the hum of laden bees, boyish triumph above bare and bloody knees, golden days of carefree years.  So much is bound up with its buoyant, bold flight, its tigerish wings - tawny-orange and black, the choice silver on the underside of its hind wings, like sea-washed silver sand on a green-weed carpet - that I find myself at a loss to set any but a fraction of it down.”*


So Murray’s book goes on, from another age - post First World War, Sussex - but his words evoking high summer, the flash of silver catching the sun’s light on wings, took me in two directions, first to another of his books that I had to search my shelves for: A Sanctuary Planted, and then to the sun-touched music of Delius, and Ken Russell’s biographical film of the composer: “Song of Summer”.  But that is for another day……


John Mann


* Copsford by Walter J.C. Murray, introduced by Raynor Winn, new edition 2019 by Little Toller Books