“Why was he gazing upwards from the steps of the porch, hearing their shrill twofold cry, watching their flight? For an augury of good or evil? A phrase of Cornelius Agrippa flew through his mind and then there flew hither and thither shapeless thoughts from Swedenborg on the correspondence of birds to things of the intellect and of how the creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons because they, unlike man, are in the order of their life and have not perverted that order by reason.
And for ages men had gazed upward as he was gazing at birds in flight.” (279)
Joyce, James. “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” Bookbyte Digital. iBooks.
A significant aspect of the novella is Stephen’s thoughts, weaved throughout the narration. This final thought, however, seems to be from the narrator, reflecting on Stephen’s actions, questioning “why?”. “The creatures of the air have their knowledge and know their times and seasons”. The symbolism of these birds, taking flight so gracefully, “like fine and falling threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools” may be something that Stephen wishes to pursue. He feels trapped in his mind, and the narrator acknowledges how he must certainly be thinking of how he too could take flight and be free. It’s unusual to refer to birds as “things of intellect”, but are possibly described as such because they are what Stephen wishes he could be: free.