By Eamon Corbett
Birds have the power to evoke strong emotions in those who watch them. Their mastery of flight, their exuberant songs, and their bright plumage cause fascination, awe, and often envy among their human observers. Birders have long known this, and it’s one of the main reasons why we watch birds. But there is another group that also has a long history of watching and writing about birds: poets. Being a particularly eloquent bunch, many poets have succeeded in capturing some of the intangible aspects of birds in their poems. In fact, because of the emotions that they can evoke, birds are one of the most popular topics for poets, and you would have a hard time thinking of a poet who has never penned a verse about a bird.
Each of us sees birds differently, so it is unsurprising that poets focus on a variety of aspects of birds. Emily Dickenson symbolized hope as a bird: “Hope is the thing with feathers—That perches in the soul.” In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman compared his freedom to that of a “spotted hawk,” saying “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” W.B. Yeats, in describing a peaceful island in the poem Lake Isle of Innisfree, writes of “evenings full of the linnets’ wings,” a vision of paradise that birders would definitely agree with.
Many famous poets have written about specific bird species, and birders who have seen the birds can relate to these poems. Below are nine famous poets, and a bird species that they wrote about. See if you can match them up, and scroll down for the answers.
1- (Wandering?) Albatross
A- Emily Dickenson
2- Common Raven
B- Robert Frost
4- Common Cuckoo
D- Walt Whitman
5- Golden Eagle
E- Edgar Allan Poe
F- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
7- Common Nightingale
G- John Keats
8- Common Skylark
H- Samuel Coleridge
9- Baltimore Oriole
I- Percy Shelley
1-H: Albatross – Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Coleridge: This poem, in which a sailor who kills an albatross is forced to wear the carcass of the bird around his neck, gave us the expression “an albatross around their neck,” referring to a burden. But despite its grim topic, the poem gives a good depiction of the majesty of an albatross in the air:
It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
2-H: Common Raven – The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe: Perhaps the most famous poem about a bird ever written, this dark piece gave us the coolest sports team name: the Baltimore Ravens, from Poe’s hometown. The whole thing is well worth reading, but this stanza is particularly excellent:
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art
sure no craven,
Ghastly, grim and ancient Raven wandering from the
Tell me what the lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
3-B: Ovenbird – The Ovenbird, by Robert Frost: Not many people, other than birders, would be able to identify an Ovenbird, but Frost reads great meaning in its ringing song, which is a familiar summertime sound in rural New England, where Frost lived and wrote.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminishing thing.
4-C: Common Cuckoo – To the Cuckoo, by William Wordsworth: An English romantic poet, Wordsworth wrote many bird poems. Like Frost’s The Ovenbird, he writes about the voice of a common songbird, in his case, the cuckoo.
The lordly eagle-race through hostile search
May perish; time may come when never more
The wilderness shall hear the lion roar;
But, long as cock shall crow from household perch
To rouse the dawn, soft gales shall speed thy wing,
And thy erratic voice be faithful to the Spring!
5-F: Golden Eagle – The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: This very short, six-line “fragment” perfectly captures the majesty of an eagle perched on a cliff.
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
6-D: Magnificent Frigatebird – To the Man-of-War Bird, by Walt Whitman: while the frigatebird seems like a less well-known subject than a robin or lark, it symbolizes Whitman’s philosophy about independence and freedom. Who wouldn’t like to be able to fly like a frigatebird?
Thou born to match the gale, (thou art all wings,)
To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane,
Thou ship of air that never furl'st thy sails,
Days, even weeks untired and onward, through spaces, realms gyrating,
At dusk that lookest on Senegal, at morn America,
That sport'st amid the lightning-flash and thunder-cloud,
In them, in thy experiences, had'st thou my soul,
What joys! what joys were thine!
7-G: Common Nightingale – Ode to a Nightingale, by John Keats: Another poet inspired by the beautiful song of a common garden bird. There seem to be a lot of these types of poems, but they each have their own brilliance. The mournful tone of this poem sets it apart, and it should really be read in full (so follow the link!). The last stanza is especially powerful.
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam'd to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now 'tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?
8-I: Common Skylark – To a Skylark, by Percy Shelley: Some birds inspire awe with their flight, others with their song. The Skylark does both, and Shelley describes its aerial song magnificently:
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O'er which clouds are bright'ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight
9-A: Baltimore Oriole – One of the ones that Midas touched, by Emily Dickenson: Anyone who has watched a brilliant male Baltimore Oriole can attest that Dickenson was not exaggerating much when she compared the oriole to a bird turned gold by Midas’s touch.
The splendor of a Burmah
The Meteor of Birds,
Departing like a Pageant
Of Ballads and of Bards–
I never thought that Jason sought
For any Golden Fleece
But then I am a rural man
With thoughts that make for Peace–
But if there were a Jason,
Tradition bear with me
Behold his lost Aggrandizement
Upon the Apple Tree–
Those are nine of my favorite bird poems, and I would definitely recommend reading them all (or as many as you can) in full, as I only took excerpts here. But there are more than just nine bird poems! If you have a favorite that I didn’t list, let us know in the comments. Also, if any of you are bird poets, or poet birders, feel free to share your work.
About the author: Eamon Corbett is a 15-year-old birder and bird blogger from Pelham, New York, and one of the new Student Blog Editors of The Eyrie. He has been birding for almost as long as he could talk, thanks in part to regular family facations to Florida, where Osprey and Turkey Vultures first caught his eye. Read more of Eamon’s writing on his blog, Flight Log (www.birdersflightlog.blogspot.com).