06 November 2013

November is Poetry Month

In recognition of the wonderful diversity of poetic expression about wildbirds, an expansive sampler of historic poetry is being presented this month as a special feature. Each poem distinctly represents a tidbit associated with bird history of the period between 1786 and 1885.

Each of the examples — conveyed in their entirety — were published in a newspaper issued during this one hundred year period — except for the contributions written by Alexander Wilson in the early 1800s, which certainly could not be excluded. Often, these prosaic examples were prominent atop a column of the front page, most often beneath a banner title of "Poetry" or less often, "Original Poetry" or "Select Poetry." Unique headlines also used were "Temple of the Muses" or "Poetic Recess" as well as "Literary." Typically these verses were presented atop the page, above the numerous other subjects of text spread about a paper's pages. It was a special feature, presented with particular attention.

More than 140 poems — including a few designated as sonnets — are included with this unique presentation. They are from across continental America, because poetry was a regular feature in so many newspapers.

The common theme is obviously wild birds of various sorts. Either the subject of the writing was entirely about birds or there was a particular mention of them. Examples include:

  • An oldtime poem of the latter 1700s refers to a captive paroquet, which was the common term used at the time for the Carolina Parakeet;
  • Tributes to the different seasons — especially the Spring and Autumn seasons — which often refer to notably prominent species singing in the meadow or woods or some other local place;
  • Personal perspectives on life and living, and other profound travails;
  • Stories told in verse, expressed as a personal perspective of a particular place or setting, including an depective indication of the birds and hunting at Long Island; and
  • Results of a vicious cat attacking a bird (the first instance in 1803), or a plea to not shoot the birds.
  • Tributes to particular species, especially some the well-known song birds of the east, including the bluebird, robin and bobolink.

In many instances the original author was not given, but when the actual author was indicated it only adds to the uniqueness of the prose.

Alice Cary can be recognized for having scribed four examples (including one about a captured bird being released by a young boy). Alfred B. Street and John G. Whittier both authored three. Professor Longfellow wrote poems which mentioned birds. Often only the initials were given, or at times just a pseudonym was used. In one instance, two editors were co-authors, with the headline indicating the verse was the result of "two voices."

There are certainly other poems issued during these years in sources other than newspapers. Poems were prominent in many publications.

Each of these examples wonderfully convey the overall variety of styles used during various years, and how different authors indicated their message in a manner that actively included birds as a prominent feature of their lines of verse. Overall, these unique depictions are worthy of further consideration in association with with any interest in historic ornithology, as well as bird poetry of these years. Indications of authorship could be opportunities to investigate any biographic details for the authors, and consider their particular location and any number of ancillary details.

Modern-era folks interested in poetic interpretation might compare poems of a similar subject from the 21st century to those written 225 to 125 years in the past.

Poems are terse capsules of thought that exquisitely convey common thoughts using the language practices of their time. How has the language changed.? The use of terms such as "dost" and then "doth." There are numerous examples where "thou" was essential portion of the word's flow. It is worthwhile considering words commonly used in the past which are now scarcely used on pages of any current newspaper or online news outlet. There were various uses of an apostrophe to abbreviate words, which might indicate a "shortcut" for a type-setter, or perhaps a norm of the times.

Most of prose presented came from either the Early American Newspapers site or Chronicling America, and found using a variety of search options. The term "poetry" was especially essential, since it was prominently indicated on the paper pages and indicative to an extent that it could be readily parsed by modern internet word-search methods and then presented among search results. A few other appropriate sites were searched, which yielded a few more items of pertinence. The primary hindrances to a thorough search are fee-based access and limitations on search options, for which there is no consistent methodology.

There is certainly other poetic prose available in other sources which were not searched. Additional newspaper issues digitally archived would undoubtedly indicate other worthy examples worthy of recognition due to their distinct presentation or other features that might convey their special significance.

Newspaper sources well-represented by their contributions include the Farmer's Cabinet, Highland Weekly News, New York Daily Tribune, Norwich Courier and Washington D.C. Evening Star. Especially interesting from the plains were some examples of original verse from Bellevue, Nebraska in 1857 and 1858, when a four-page newspaper was issued at this settlement on the west bank of the Missouri River, which — at the time — was near the edge of an expanding western frontier.

It is intriguing to think what other poetic treasures have been written and are among the newspaper chronicles! Any consideration of bird history henceforth should also consider this particularly and uniquely expressive manner of writing about wildbirds.


Each article included in this sampler was carefully and individually considered for its significance. Once it met a wandering criteria, a copy was printed, then it was transcribed with care and converted into a web-suitable format. This poetic prose provides a version that can be electronically searched and are presented as a group in a consistent format.

Any errors in transcription may have been due to a lack of legibility in the photocopy of the source material, or a transcription error. For the era around 1800, the typographic "f" used to indicate an "s" was changed. Other apparent and minor typographic errors were changed, since newspaper type-setters did make errors. Layout was standardized, and somewhat simplified due to the manner of presentation imposed by limitations in text formatting and presentation imposed by the website host. This is especially indicated by a variance in indentation, in comparison to the original, printed version.

To ensure an absolutely accurate version, any reader should refer to the primary source which is included in detail with each poem.

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