Times afield during decades now gone may evoke again a divergent view or convey reminiscences worth remembering again. For birds there were flighty antics with an effusive song or maybe some vivid glimpse of a colorful bit of feathered wonders. Whether at the seashore, among the dank forest, while heaving across the surreal prairie, or across the indomitable mountains, birds in their regular lives of natural glory were captured in a so many manners of prose.
Subtle birds of different lands were remembered among printed verse. Birds of so many places have been presented in words worked by scribes through the ages, even though only some wrote their thoughts in a distinct form of abbreviated words ... especially a poem to appreciate.
Some 1870s prose of John Burroughs is an apropos introduction to poetic expressions of birds known by many scribes of their times, although there were earlier, profound writings, especially from across the great Atlantic Ocean.
"It might almost be said that the birds are all birds of the poets and of no one else, because it is only the poetic temperament that fully responds to them. So true is this, that all the great ornithologists - original namers and biographers of the birds - have been poets in deed if not in word," he wrote, then mentioning John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson, who was apparently inspired by the majesty of flight by a red-headed woodpecker.
In his article "The Birds of the Poets" Burroughs set forth personal thoughts on essential characteristics for birds based on their inspiration for one person:
"The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense in his life - large brained, large lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song. The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds - how many human aspirations are realized in their free holiday-lives - and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!"
A notable example of one flighty vagabond within the poetical literature, was the mockingbird. Then there were the sonnets of the thrushes among the trees. The skylark of the west, or Sprague's lark, was another notable species. Not forgotten was the bob-o-Lincoln, or the reed-bird, a species of such unmutable song that is was a profound sighting distinctly remembered and recalled by many bird watchers during former eras.
"He affords the most marked example of exuberant pride, and a glad, rollicking, holiday spirit that can be seen among our birds. Every notes expresses complacency and glee. He is a beau of the first pattern, and, unlike any other bird of my acquaintance, pushes his gallantry to the point of wheeling gayly into the train of every female that comes along, even after the season of courtship is over and the matches all settled; and when she leads him on too wild a chase, he turns lightly about and breaks out with a song that is precisely analogous to a burst of gay and self-satisfied laughter, as much as to say, 'Ha! ha! ha! I must have my fun, Miss Silverthimble, thimble, thimble, if I break every heart in the meadow, see, see, see!'"
The prose continued by revealing a personal view of the lore of the bobolink. In the article, the poems "Robert of Lincoln" and "The O'Lincoln Family" were given in entirety.
"I know of no other song-bird that expresses so much self-consciousness and vanity, and comes so near being an ornithological coxcomb. The red-bird, the yellow-bird, the indigo-bird, the oriole, the cardinal grosbeak and others, all birds of brilliant plumage and musical ability, seem quite unconscious of self, and neither by tone nor act challenge the admiration of the beholder."
Burroughs continued to espouse, writing on the cuckoo and wood-pewee; then he presented the illustrative poem "The Sandpiper" by Celia Thaxter, of the coastal islands and their expansive character. The last page of the article was a brief bunch of words and how they might also be a muse for poetic expression of the feathered wonders of the natural world.
Burroughs continued to espouse, writing on the cuckoo and wood-pewee; then he presented the illustrative poem "The Sandpiper" by Celia Thaxter, conveying the coastal islands and expansive character of the Atlantic shore. The last page of the article was a brief bunch of words and how they might also be a muse for poetic expression of the feathered wonders of the natural world.
His article had this ending sentence:
"I only know the birds all have a language which is very expressive, and which is easily translatable into the human tongue."
The quality of that expression varied, but was certainly ongoing in various means and manners by subsequent writers.
Birds as an inspiration were discussed by another writer some years later.
"We find rarest delight in listening to the varied bird-notes; the robin's song, clear and buoyant as the air of a spring morning; the tender coo of the turtle-dove, soothing the senses as the murmur of the brooklet - and even the defiant caw of the crow and the scream of the jay are not altogether inharmonious; the hum of insects, the rustling of leaves of the trees, the sparkle and shimmer of sunlight upon the waters, or the lurking shadows which haunt the still, dark pools, the ever-changing lights and shades which play over the landscape, and, in short, all the glorious sights and sounds of the great out-door world, are but inspirations that touch some responsive chord in our natures, and lift us out of the narrowness of human life, - as it were, cramped within square walls, - making us for a time forget that the world in which we move is not always bright and blithe and beautiful." - Sherman Richards, 1885
"Nature is the mother of the poet. ... Nature is the poet's true ally; she lends herself to all his moods, and, if he is sympathetic, she suggests some of his loftiest strains. Every poet, not deflected from the natural course of his genius, turns to her for inspiration help, and companionship. Most poetical natures seem to be born with the observant spirit fully fledged, and no slightest glance of their great instructress is unregarded."
Here is a bit of a sampler of poetic expressions of a birdly theme that convey an ultimately unmatchable aspect of historic ornithology.
- The Bobolinks.
- When Nature had made all her birds,
- And had no cares to think on,
- She gave a rippling laugh — and out
- There flew a Bobolinkon.
- She laughed again,— out flew a mate.
- A breeze of Eden bore them
- Across the fields of Paradise,
- The sunrise reddening o'er them.
- Incarnate sport and holiday,
- They flew and sang forever;
- Their souls through June were all in tune,
- Their wings were weary never.
- The blithest song of breezy farms,
- Quaintest of field-note flavors,
- Exhaustless fount of trembling trills
- And demisemiquavers.
- Their tribe, still drunk with air and light
- And perfume of the meadow,
- Go reeling up and down the sky,
- In sunshine and in shadow.
- One springs from out the dew-wet grass,
- Another follows after;
- The morn is thrilling with their songs
- And peals of fairy laughter.
- From out the marshes and the brook,
- They set the tall reeds swinging,
- And meet and frolic in the air,
- Half prattling and half singing.
- When morning winds sweep meadow lands
- In green and russet billows,
- And toss the lonely elm-tree's boughs,
- And silver all the willows,
- I see you buffeting the breeze,
- Or with its motion swaying,
- Your notes half drowned against the wind,
- Or down the current playing.
- When far away o'er grassy flats,
- Where the thick wood commences,
- The white-sleeved mowers look like specks
- Beyond the zigzag fences,
- And noon is hot, and barn-roofs gleam
- White in the pale-blue distance,
- I hear the saucy minstrels still
- In chattering persistence.
- When Eve her domes of opal fire
- Piles round the blue horizon,
- Or thunder rolls from hill to hill
- A Kyrie Eleison,—
- Still, merriest of the merry birds,
- Your sparkle is unfading, —
- Pied harlequins of June, no end
- Of song and masquerading.
- What cadences of bubbling mirth
- Too quick for bar or rhythm!
- What ecstasies, too full to keep
- Coherent measure with them!
- O could I share, without champagne
- Or muscadel, your frolic,
- The glad delirium of your joy,
- Your fun un-apostolic,
- Your drunken jargon through the fields,
- Your bobolinkish gabble,
- Your fine anacreontic glee,
- Your tipsy reveller's babble!
- Nay, — let me not profane such joy
- With similes of folly, —
- No wine of earth could waken songs
- So delicately jolly!
- O boundless self-contentment, voiced
- In flying air-born bubbles!
- O joy that mocks our sad unrest,
- And drowns our earth-born troubles!
- Hope springs with you: I dread no more
- Despondency and dullness;
- For Good Supreme can never fail
- That gives such perfect fullness.
- The Life that floods the happy fields
- With song and light and color
- Will shape our lives to richer states,
- And heap our measures fuller.
There are many more of these in the Atlantic Monthly editions available on the internet. It would seem an anthology that would compile the known bird poems from the first history of ornithology would be a worthwhile endeavour. What pleasure to read the glorious and artistic expressions in poems written more than a century in the past.