As I wrote in my last ink spillage, The Most Dangerous Profession, poets are strange birds.
And, ironically perhaps, a common subject for poets is birds. The fancy scribblers do not often become inspired to wax poetic about other animals; it’s mainly birds which have their focus. I am unaware of any poems about bears (I’m deliberately leaving “Fuzzy Wuzzy” out of the equation here) or ducks or dogs or duck-billed platypuses or any of the dinosaurs.
It’s true that Thomas Gray (who penned Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard) wrote the rather awkwardly titled Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes but, for the most part, it is the prey of cats (birds, I mean) who have poems written about them. Walt Whitman wrote A Lonely, Patient Spider but again, for the most part, it is their predators (birds, I mean) who get top billing. And, full disclosure: William Blake wrote both The Lamb and The Tyger, and Robert Burns wrote To a Mouse (“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men…”).
But still, birds take the spotlight in the lion’s share of poems about critters. Am I able to present evidence proving my assertion? Check out this partial list of avian verse:
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy” (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover” (“Windhover” is another name for a Kestrel)
John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark”
Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
You have probably read at least one of those, willingly or un-, and heard of at least a couple more.
Why this fixation with birds on the part of the versifiers? Was it because they envied them? After all, most people, if the question is posed to them which animal they would most want to be, choose bird. Is it because they want to eat worms, build nests, and maintain constant vigilance so as not to be carried off as prey by owls, hawks, eagles, snakes, bobcats, and weasels? I doubt it. My theory (which is also based on empirical observation) is that people would choose to be a bird because of their ability to fly. Their gaudy garb or sartorial splendor may be a draw to some, too.
But it wasn’t just envy that caused the poets listed above to press quill to parchment in tribute to the sky dwellers. The bards also painted lessons learned by observing these “scorners of the ground,” as Shelley called the Skylark.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sympathy contains the line “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Dunbar had empathy for and felt sympathy with the imprisoned and mutilated bird; so did Maya Angelou, who used that line as the title for one of her autobiographies.
Dunbar also wrote of a mocking-bird in The Lesson, wherein the bird’s singing teaches by example that the listener’s state of extreme depression and loneliness can be alleviated by doing things for others—that his own passionate song from the deep dark wood can soothe a brother’s bleeding heart, causing his own woes to pass away.
Thomas Hardy’s The Darkling Thrush praises the indomitable little bird for its resolve to enjoy life rather than be overly influenced by its bleak surroundings. As do Shelley and others, Hardy even wonders if the bird possesses some superhuman knowledge, ending the poem with:
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
True to his nature, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven presents the big croaker as spooky and evil, a harbinger of doom. The connection with other avian poems is that the intimidating fowl appears to be otherworldly and omniscient.
In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To a Skylark, the bird is favorably (and enviously) compared to man. This tone is clear from the outset: Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
The skylark is a heavenly musician. Shelley wrote: “In profuse strains of unmeditated art” and “from thy presence showers a rain of melody.” It has supernatural prescience and wisdom:
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
. . .
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
According to Shelley, the bird is always happy and knows no pain:
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne'er knew love's sad satiety.
Getting more specific with his comparison, Shelley goes on to contrast the bird to a poet, and laments that he could never attain to the heights of avian perfection, finishing his ode with:
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!
Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
Last but certainly not least, Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird places the humble warbler in a baker’s dozen of different locales and situations (none of which include being the main ingredient in a pie). In all of these circumstances, the blackbird is the master of the game and the star of the show.
You can read it in its entirety here; for now, this excerpt may suffice:
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
Poets want to fly (as did Icarus) and sing like the proverbial bird.
Come to think of it, though, don’t we all dream of flying?