18 February 2009

Poetic Expressions Evoke Wonders of Flighty Vagabonds of the Skies

The Nest. May.
When oaken woods with buds are pink,
And new-come birds each morning sing,-
When fickle May on Summer's brink
Pauses, and knows not which to Ming,
Whether fresh bud and bloom again,
Or hoar-frost silvering hill and plain -
Then from the honeysuckle gray
The oriole with experienced quest
Twitches the fibrous bark away,
The cordage of his hammock-nest,—
Cheering his labor with a note
Rich as the orange of his throat.
High o'er the loud and dusty road
The soft gray cup in safety swings,
To brim ere August with its load
Of downy breasts and throbbing wings,
O'er which the friendly elm-tree heaves
An emerald roof with sculptured eaves.
Below, the noisy World drags by
In the old way, because it must,—
The bride with trouble in her eye,
The mourner following hated dust:
Thy duty, winged flame of Spring,
Is but to love and fly and sing.
Oh, happy life, to soar and sway
Above the life by mortals led,
Singing the merry months away,
Master, not slave of daily bread,
And, when the Autumn comes, to flee
Wherever sunshine beckons thee I
Palinode - December
Like some lorn abbey now, the wood
Stands roofless in the bitter air;
In ruins on its floor is strewed
The carven foliage quaint and rare,
And homeless winds complain along
The columned choir once thrilled with song.
And thou, dear nest, whence joy and praise
The thankful oriole used to pour,
Swing'st empty while the north winds chase
Their snowy swarms from Labrador:
But, loyal to the happy past,
I love thee still for what thou wast.
Ah, when the Summer graces flee
From other nests more dear than thou,
And, where June crowded once, I see
Only bare trunk and disleaved bough,
When springs of life that gleamed and gushed
Run chilled, and slower, and are hushed,—
I'll think, that, like the birds of Spring,
Our good goes not without repair,
But only flies to soar and sing
Far off in some diviner air,
Where we shall find it in the calms
Of that fair garden 'neath the palms.
Anonymous. 1858. Atlantic Monthly, page 523.

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.

The song-sparrow has a joyous note,
The brown thrush whistles bold and free;
But my little singing-bird at home
Sings a sweeter song to me.
The cat-bird, at morn or evening, sings
With liquid tones like gurgling water;
But sweeter by far, to my fond ear,
Is the voice of my little daughter.
Four years and a half since she was born,
The blackcaps piping cheerily, —
And so, as she came in winter with them,
She is called our Chicadee.
She sings to her dolls, she sings alone,
And singing round the house she goes, —
Out-doors or within, her happy heart
With a childlike song o'erflows.
Her mother and I, though busy, hear, —
With mingled pride and pleasure listening, —
And thank the inspiring Giver of song,
While a tear in our eye is glistening.
Oh I many a bird of sweetest song
I hear, when in woods or meads I roam;
But sweeter by far than all, to me,
Is my Chicadee at home.
Anonymous. 1859. Atlantic Monthly, page 52.

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 Pewee
The listening Dryads hushed the woods;
The boughs were thick, and thin and few
The golden ribbons fluttering through;
Their sun-embroidered, leafy hoods
The lindens lifted to the blue:
Only a little forest-brook
The farthest hem of silence shook :
When in the hollow shades I heard —
Was it a spirit, or a bird ?
Or, strayed from Eden, desolate,
Some Feri calling to her mate,
Whom nevermore her mate would cheer ?
"Pe-ri! Pe-ri! Peer !"
Through rocky clefts the brooklet fell
With plashy pour, that scarce was sound,
But only quiet less profound,
A stillness fresh and audible:
A yellow leaflet to the ground
Whirled noiselessly: with wing of gloss
A hovering sunbeam brushed the moss,
And, wavering brightly over it,
Sat like a butterfly alit:
The owlet in his open door
Stared roundly : while the breezes bore
The plaint to far-off places drear, —
"Pe-ree I pe-ree ! peer!"
To trace it in its green retreat
I sought among the boughs in vain ;
And followed still the wandering strain,
So melancholy and so sweet
The dim-eyed violets yearned with pain.
'T was now a sorrow in the air,
Some nymph's immortalized despair
Haunting the woods and waterfalls ;
And now, at long, sad intervals,
Sitting unseen in dusky shade,
His plaintive pipe some fairy played,
With long-drawn cadence thin and clear, —
"Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer!"
Long-drawn and clear its closes were, —
As if the hand of Music through
The sombre robe of Silence drew
A thread of golden gossamer:
So sweet a flute the fairy blew.
Like beggared princes of the wood,
In silver rags the birches stood ;
The hemlocks, lordly counsellors,
Were dumb; the sturdy servitors,
In beechen jackets patched and gray,
Seemed waiting spellbound all the day
That low entrancing note to hear, —
"Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer! "
I quit the search, and sat me down
Beside the brook, irresolute,
And watched a little bird in suit
Of sober olive, soft and brown,
Perched in the maple-branches, mute:
With greenish gold its vest was fringed,
Its tiny cap was ebon-tinged,
With ivory pale its wings were barred,
And its dark eyes were tender-starred.
"Dear bird," I said, "what is thy name?"
And thrice the mournful answer came,
So faint and far, and yet so near, —
"Pe-wee! Pe-wee! Peer! "
For so I found my forest-bird, —
The pewee of the loneliest woods,
Sole singer in these solitudes,
"Which never robin's whistle stirred,
Where never bluebird's plume intrudes.
Quick darting through the dewy morn,
The redstart trills his twittering horn,
And vanisheth : sometimes at even,
Like liquid pearls fresh showered from heaven,
The high notes of the lone wood-thrush
Fall on the forest's holy hush :
But thou all day complainest here, —
"Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer !"
Hast thou too, in thy little breast,
Strange longings for a happier lot, —
For love, for life, thou know'st not what, —
A yearning, and a vague unrest,
For something still which thou hast not ? —
Thou soul of some benighted child
That perished, crying in the wild !
Or lost, forlorn, and wandering maid,
By love allured, by love betrayed,
Whose spirit with her latest sigh
Arose, a little winged cry,
Above her chill and mossy bier!
"Dear me! dear me! dear!"
Ah, no such piercing sorrow mars
The pewee's life of cheerful ease!
He sings, or leaves his song to seize
An insect sporting in the bars
Of mild bright light that gild the trees.
A very poet he! For him
All pleasant places still and dim :
His heart, a spark of heavenly fire,
Burns with undying, sweet desire :
And so he sings; and so his song.
Though heard not by the hurrying throng,
Is solace to the pensive ear:
"Pewee! pewee! peer !"
J.W. Trowbridge. 1863. Atlantic Monthly. Page 451-453.
The White-throated Sparrow.
Hark! 'tis our Northern Nightingale that sings
In far-off, leafy cloisters, dark and cool,
Flinging his flute-notes bounding from the skies !
Thou wild musician of the mountain-streams,
Most tuneful minstrel of the forest-choirs,
Bird of all grace and harmony of soul,
Unseen, we hail thee for thy blissful voice !
Up in yon tremulous mist where morning wakes
Illimitable shadows from their dark abodes,
Or in this woodland glade tumultuous grown
With all the murmurous language of the trees,
No blither presence fills the vocal space.
The wandering rivulets dancing through the grass,
The gambols, low or loud, of insect-life,
The cheerful call of cattle in the vales,
Sweet natural sounds of the contented hours, —
All seem less jubilant when thy song begins.
Deep in the shade we lie and listen long ;
For human converse well may pause, and man
Learn from such notes fresh hints of praise,
That upward swelling from thy grateful tribe
Circles the hills with melodies of joy.
A. West. August, 1863. Atlantic Monthly, page 224.

  [Music of white-throated sparrow]

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.
C.P. Cranch. 1866. Atlantic Monthly, volume 18, page 321-322.
The salt sea-wind is a merry-maker,
Rippling the wild bluff's daisied reach;
The quick surf glides from the arching breaker,
And foams on the tawny beach.
Out where the long reef glooms and glances,
And tosses sunward its diamond rain,
Morn has pierced with her golden lances
The dizzy light-house pane.
Gladdened by clamors of infinite surges,
Heedless what billow or gale may do,
The white gulls float where the ocean-verges
Blend with a glimmer of blue.
I watch how the curtaining vapor settles
Dim on their tireless plumes far borne,
Till faint they gleam as a blossom's petals,
Blown through the spacious morn.
Anonymous. 1868. Atlantic Monthly, volume 22, page 584.

  [Barn swallow]

The Swallow.
The swallow twitters about the eaves, —
Blithely she sings, and sweet and clear;
Around her climb the woodbine leaves
In a golden atmosphere.
The summer wind sways leaf and spray,
That catch and cling to the cool gray wall;
The bright sea stretches miles away,
And the noon sun shines o'er all.
In the chamber's shadow, quietly
I stand and worship the sky and the leaves,
The golden air and the brilliant sea,
The swallow at the eaves.
Like a living jewel she sits and sings:
Fain would I read her riddle aright;
Fain would I know whence her rapture springs, —
So strong in a thing so slight!
The fine clear fire of joy that steals
Through all my spirit at what I see
In the glimpse my window's space reveals, —
That seems no mystery!
But scarce for her joy can she utter her song;
Yet she knows not the beauty of skies or seas;
Is it bliss of living, so sweet and strong?
Is it love, which is more than these?
О happy creature! what stirs thee so?
A spark of the gladness of God thou art.
Why should we strive to find and to know
The secret of thy heart?
Before the gates of his mystery
Trembling we knock with an eager hand;
Silent behind them waiteth he;
Not yet may we understand.
But thrilling throughout the universe
Throbs the pulse of his mighty will,
Till we gain the knowledge of joy or curse
In the choice of good or ill.
He looks from the eyes of the little child,
And searches souls with their gaze so clear;
To the heart some agony makes wild
He whispers, "I am here."
He smiles in the face of every flower, —
In the swallow's twitter of sweet content
He speaks, and we follow through every hour
The way his deep thought went.
Here should be courage and hope and faith;
Naught has escaped the trace of his hand;
And a voice in the heart of his silence saith,
One day we may understand.
Celia Thaxter. July, 1870. Atlantic Monthly, volume 26, page 106-107.

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.

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