When Edmund Spenser sent his hero, Sir Guyon, on a perilous sea voyage in The Faerie Queen (1590), he dotted the cliffs with voracious birds.
- For thy, this hight The Rock of vile Reproach,
A daungerous and detestable place,
To which nor fish nor fowl did once approach,
But yelling Meawes with Seagulles hoars and bace,
And Cormoyrants, with birds of ravenous race,
Which still sit waiting on that wastfull clift.
(Hmmm...How much better would The Birds have been if du Maurier and later Hitchcock had subjected their characters to ordeal by cormorant?** There's a remake I'd like to see.)
William Shakespeare missed no opportunities to besmirch them***. His reference in Love's Labours Lost to time passing rapidly as if devoured by a cormorant was relatively benign compared to his use of the bird in Richard II.
- With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
And after that line, John of Gaunt praises England.
- This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise
... and so on. You know the quote. Funny that he should mention Eden because that's exactly where things get worse.
In Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton depicted Satan as a bird. What sort of bird? A chaffinch, perhaps? A weebill?
- Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
To them who liv'd
What bird could recover from that slander?
But it's not all greed and demonic machinations. There's another side to the bird. Christopher Isherwood went some way to rehabilitating its good name.
- The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.
* For very small values of every.
** Although it's a long time since I've read the story, so du Maurier may well have crammed it with wall-to-wall cormorants.
*** Cormorants, that is. Not du Maurier and Hitchcock.