Friday, June 26, 2015

Agricola writes a poem about bird protection

Special to the New England Farmer (1838), this poem by "Agricola." It takes a while to get going.

The Birds

A poem, in metre free and easy 
O thou, who, story tellers say,
Taught old Triptolemus the way
To plough, and sow,
And reap, and mow,
The fields to beautify, and dress, and rig,
Just as a barber used to do the parson's wig;
To fall the forests, and the plains adorn
With herbage, and with wavy corn;
To speak in brief,
Bright mother of Ceres, of the golden sheaf,
Come, lend thy aid,
Else, I'm afraid,
I cannot, shall not, must not--"go ahead."
That's just enough of invocation:
I always hate a stuff'd oration,
The gods and goddesses to puff and daub:
I'll not, but others may perform the fulsome job.
Farmers, attend!
Poh! that's too blunt:--"I'll leave to amend,"
As lawyers say, when in a hobble,
And would an innuendo cobble.
Well then,
My most worthy gentlemen,
I've come to tell in fewest words
Something relating to the birds.
The birds I love,
E'en from the noble Eagle to the sweet Turtle-dove,
The Sparrow, Tomtit, and the twittering Wren.
Ay, and I would that truant boys and thoughtless men
Were not on murder bent,
Foul, barbarous intent,
Degrading all our nature
To a savage creature;
But yet, alas, how rife
This love of taking life!
Joyful sings the merry Lark to cheer his sitting mate,
Lest she should be disconsolate!
"I'm here, sweet Celia," is the tender strain;
And how it echoes o'er the blooming plain!
But hark! a shot!
The little warbler falls!
The cruel sportsman bawls,
And runs, exulting, to the fatal spot.
So caitiff, thou hast done the deed,
Hast caused a little bird to bleed,
The meanest feather of whose wing
Outweighs thy savage soul, thou brutal, barb'rous thing!
O, ye husbandmen and farmers,
Have ye no care, no thought for those little charmers,
That carol o'er your lawn,
From the first break of dawn,
"Discoursing music" tender, soft and sweet,
For ears in love with melody so meet?
Know ye not that birds protect your farms
From predatory millers, grubs, slugs and worms?
They are your friends indeed,
And, though upon your lands they feed,
Yes, gather daily, all their food,
It still is for your good.
So that well you might in truth,
As Boaz did for Ruth,
Order some gleamings of your bounteous fare,
Left purposely for birds to share.
Triptolemus, the husbandman of yore,
Of whom I spoke before,
He would no more
Allow a poaching rascal on his farm
The birds to harm,
Than he'd permit a knave to chouse
Him of his shield, or rob his house.
O, no; by bastinado or the knout
The rogue would soon repent of what he'd been about.
Farmers, then protect the feathered tribe:
I speak it, not intending jeer or gibe,
Soberly, sincerely,
Though you may think my verse runs queerly;
A very singular sort;--
Long pulls, and short;--
Somewhat like ploughing new ground, midst the stumps,
Now steady moving,--now by jerks and jumps.
Perhaps they'll say my muse
Wears tight shoes,
Or has great "corns upon her toes,"
And so she limping goes.
No matter, truth you'll often find
In verse of every sort and kind;
And you will have no squeamishness
About my manner of address.
Once more permit me just to day,
Save, Save the birds.--Mehercule!
Should e'er a popping loafer tread your grounds,
Let loose your hounds,
And chase the dastard villain from your utmost bounds. 
"Agricola" was the pen-name of John Young, an influential agriculturalist from Nova Scotia. It is not clear whether Young was the author of this poem.  He had passed away the previous year. It is possible, of course, that the poem was offered to the New England Farmer after his death. Young had been an honorary member of the Massachusetts Agricultural Society, an avid correspondent to newspapers on agricultural matters (his letters to the Acadian Recorder were collected in a popular book), and was known for his "oratorical" style. His Scottish roots would explain the use of British names for the bird species referenced in the poem. Whether Young himself, or a tribute to him, or just another writer making a Latin reference, it expresses well a certain stream of sentiment about bird protection (against "popping loafers") and even draws from classical tradition for support. (I have not found any classical references to bird protection connected to Triptolemus, Greek demi-god who taught Athenians how to farm, except for the fact that some traditions make him the son of Picus, famously turned into a woodpecker.)

This poem was reprinted in the Boston Musical Gazette, with the following, evocative, introduction:
At the late musical convention held in this city, in the course of debate, the cruel practice of hunting beast and bird, for the sake of sport, was alluded to, and the immoral tendency of music in praise of the chase; the following lines express the feelings of one who is decidedly opposed to the barbarous custom of bird-shooting, which has grown so fashionable. The music of the feathered tribes has nearly ceased. Where are those cheerful warblers? Alas, ask the heartless and cruel sportsman. 
The issue of bird protection had clearly slipped the bounds of the agricultural conversation. 

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