Hemingway’s Sea Swallows

Dec. 17, 2013: After Thanksgivig, on a lazy evening, well after my daughter had gone to bed, I was working on a wood burning in front of the fireplace, a full goblet of wine withing arms reach and my husband lounged on the couch. To ease the silence, but in hopes not to end the peacefulness, I put on ‘ Old Man and the Sea’, an audiobook written m Ernest Hemingway and read by Donald Sutherland. (A reading well portrayed and worth the effort to find.)

As the first disc came to a close, my woodburned picture began to show depth. The evening took on a timeless quality. I reached for a second glass of wine. One passage captured, I believe, on that first disc read…

In the dark the old man could feel the morning coming and as 
he rowed he heard the trembling sound as flying fish left 
the water and the hissing that their stiff set wings made 
as they soared away in the darkness. He was very fond of 
flying fish as they were his principal friends on the ocean. 
He was sorry for the birds, especially the small delicate 
dark terns that were always flying and looking and almost 
never finding, and he thought, the birds have a harder 
life than we do except for the robber birds and the heavy 
strong ones. Why did they make birds so delicate and fine 
as those sea swallows when the ocean can be so cruel? 
She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel 
and it comes so suddenly and such birds that fly, dipping 
and hunting, with their small sad voices are made 
too delicately for the sea.


Hemingway seems to be communicating the duality of beauty and vastness of the sea, the greatness of the winds, and sun and elements, and the smallness and ultimately helplessness of this sea swallow to them. (Much like the beauty and cruelty of life.) And as genteel as this sentiment is, I want to defend this sea swallow. This creature making its existence near and on the expanse. Frailty I think not. But then again, I don’t think Hemingway meant for this paragraph to inform us about sea swallows. How one interprets this passage probably speaks more about the reader and less about the swallows.