Friday, May 13, 2011

Joseph Addison's Blackbirds (and Richard Steele's Tom-tits)

I value my Garden more for being full of Blackbirds than Cherries, and very frankly give them Fruit for their Songs.
Joseph Addison Spectator #477 September 6 1712

Addison's blackbirds-over-cherries admission is widely quoted today, though I have no evidence it was very influential in the early days of bird protection. Nevertheless, it provides a different basis for protection than the strict utilitarianism of the economic ornithologist. And pre-dates Richard Bradley's arguments in favor of the house sparrow in the history of pro-bird discourse. [Note: the European blackbird, a splendid songster (essentially a black thrush), is no relation to the red-winged blackbirds and grackles that so harried the colonists in the New World]

The context for the Addison quote is a longer piece in the Spectator in which he describes his admittedly idiosyncratic garden preferences.
There is another Circumstance in which I am very particular, or, as my Neighbours call me, very whimsical: As my Garden invites into it all the Birds of the Country, by offering them the Conveniency of Springs and Shades, Solitude and Shelter, I do not suffer any one to destroy their Nests in the Spring, or drive them from their usual Haunts in Fruit-time. I value my Garden more for being full of Blackbirds than Cherries, and very frankly give them Fruit for their Songs. By this means I have always the Musick of the Season in its Perfection, and am highly delighted to see the Jay or the Thrush hopping about my Walks, and shooting before my Eye across the several little Glades and Alleys that I pass thro'.
Addison's attachment to his birds is less sentimental than aesthetic. They help to complete the picturesque effect of his garden, adding movement and sound to the overall scene. This WILL be a theme that we will see repeatedly in the agricultural literature--the importance of bird life to the ideal rural picturesque.

While Addison cannot really be called a natural historian, it is clear that he, and his publishing partner Richard Steele, were interested in a variety of natural history topics, including the question of reason and instinct. Addison was curious and knowledgeable about bird life, able to identify various species by sight and song, and admits he has been "caught twice or thrice looking after a bird's nest" (Spectator 120 July 18 1711). Steele, of course, would publish one of the foundational texts in the animal rights movement, Alexander Pope's essay "Against Barbarity to Animals" in the May 21, 1713 edition of the Guardian.
I fancy too, some advantage might be taken of the common notion, that it is ominous or unlucky to destroy some sorts of birds, as Swallows or Martins; this opinion might possibly arise from the confidence these birds seem to put in us by building under our roofs, so that it is a kind of violation of the laws of hospitality to murder them. As for Robin-red-breasts in particular, it is not improbable they owe their security to the old ballad of the Children in the Wood. However it be, I do not know, I say, why this prejudice, well improved and carried as far as it would go, might not be made to conduce to the preservation of many innocent creatures, which are now exposed to all the wantonness of an ignorant barbarity.
It is worth noting how Pope uses existing popular protection of swallows, martins, and robins as a model for animal protection generally. And that the final cause is not innate cruelty as much as ignorance, a theory of motivation that would determine the course of communication in favor of bird (and animal) protection in the future.

Steele, in fact, had raised the issue of cruelty to animals some years earlier in the Tatler (under the persona of Isaac Bickerstaff). In a February 16, 1709 article, on "Cruelty to Animals," he responds to a note from "Job Chanticleer," delivered by an "ancient Pythagorean." Chanticleer petitions Bickerstaff to save him and his fellow roosters from the barbarism of Shrove Tuesday (which featured "cock throwing.") This becomes a jumping off point for Bickerstaff to consider and condemn other acts of cruelty, including bear baiting and the like. Two passages are of particular interest for our purposes, however. First, Chanticleer is encouraged to petition Bickerstaff because of his "great humanity toward Robin Red-breasts and Tom-tits." In other words, "Bickerstaff"/Steele was already renowned for his (idiosyncratic?) protection of birds. Second, he has the Pythagorean relate stories of the "East," where, for example, "nothing is more frequent than to see a Dervise lay out a whole year's income for the redemption of larks or linnets, that had unhappily fallen into the hands of bird-catchers." [This figure is repeated later in the year (Dec 27, 1709) when Bickerstaff praises a young boy who "has given his brother three half-pence, which was his whole estate, to spare the life of a Tom-tit."] The "Pythagorean" position, at its most literal, was based on the idea of the transmigration of souls, and the fear that birds caged, tortured, or eaten might house the souls of former human beings. At a less literal level, it simply presented the commonalities of human and non-human and the slippages between the categories. (Addison, it should be noted, was responsible for a popular translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses).

As far as I can tell the Pythagorean perspective per se wouldn't really play a strong role in American agricultural press discourse about bird protection, though it certainly was present in early anti-cruelty movements generally in the United States. Nevertheless it is useful to consider as a very early precursor of the public debates to come.

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