Thursday, August 4, 2016

Birds as Poetry (Country Gentleman, 1855)

Mocking-Bird from Wood's Illustrated Natural History
The Country Gentleman, "A journal for the farm, the garden and the fireside. Devoted to improvement in agriculture, horticulture, and rural taste; to elevation in mental, moral, and social character, and the spread of useful knowledge and current news," offered a combination of farm and garden information and leisure-time reading material. Since its inception as part of Luther Tucker's agricultural publishing enterprise in 1853, it had offered a regular nature column, first titled "Scraps from a Naturalist's Note Book," and then just, "The Naturalist." Bird accounts were regularly featured, though by 1855 many of them seemed like excuses to run images of exotic species such as flamingos and kiwis drawn from Woods' Illustrated Natural History.

On February 8, 1855, it offered "A Column about Birds," as part of its "Fireside" section. I have copied it in full below. I challenge anyone to find writing about birds that is more overwrought with sentiment. [Actually, this one, from the author of the Hunter-naturalist, comes close.]
Borne down with no weight of gross mortality,— clad in a silken down, as free from earth's harshness as their song is full of heaven's melody, Birds seem really of some celestial clime,—visitants to earth from a purer and more spiritual home. With superhuman speed, they fly from zone to zone, or with gentler wing, and casting quick gleams from their radiant hues, they seem creatures of the sunshine, with which their fairy dance is interwoven. With the pure snow-flakes they hover around our homes in winter—with the sunbeam, they greet the opening buds and sweet perfumes of spring. On the trackless ocean, they bring good tidings of land and haven to the storm-tossed sailor;
-"in bush or tree," [Sir Walter Scott]
with happy notes, they sing the summer's dayspring and the fulfillment of God's promise, to the toilers in the field. They claim the shelter of our old, over-hanging eaves,—they nestle warmly in our biggest, broadest chimneys,—they glad us with their joyful hymns, even though we shut iron bars around, to confine the ethereal essence within them. Their beauty is inexplicable in its variety, as they are themselves varied in form and color. They are the Flowers of the animal kingdom and they were made, as truly as those in the vegetable world,
"To minister delight to man,
To beautify the earth.
To comfort man, to whisper hope
When'er its faith is dim;
For who so careth for the flowers,
Will much more care for him!" [Mary Howitt: "The Use of Flowers"]
That poets have sung of them—that prophets have gathered inspiration from their flight.—that beautiful and lovely fancies are intermingled in all their history, is no wonder. Murder must be in his soul who loves not to have them about and near him, who turns not to them as exemplars of purity, and charity, and peace—spending their lives in song and yet prudent to build, and knowing the times and seasons—careful of their progeny, but not omitting parental severity that they may learn to wing their own way and repose on their own pinions—dwelling with no more discord in their lives than in their music, and dying—how? Who has ever seen one dead, unless murdered by man or chance? Are they not rather translated to the home that only lent them to us? 
We are sure that all will at least sympathize in what has been said of birds. Though cold utilitarianism sneer, they must be worshippers of greed only, who have no perception of and love for the beauty of the feathered race. Beauty is found in its purest forms in nature, and a reverence for it there can but ennoble.—In art it may degenerate to sensuality, but in God’s handiwork it ever retains the seal and spirit of its first loveliness.
 The article ends by offering images from Wood of the skylark and the mockingbird accompanied by James Hogg's poem, "Bird of the Wilderness" about the former, and Richard Henry Wilde's sonnet about the latter.

The topic of birds and poetry is impossibly large. It might be sufficient to say that birds were not only considered an ideal topic of poetry--along with flowers they were often considered "poetry" of the earth itself. Only those with the proper aesthetic sensitivity (i.e., those "with poetry"), could appreciate birds in this way. Boorish utilitarians could not. Nathaniel Hawthorne, famously, had declined to write about songbirds on these grounds:
The smaller birds—the little songsters of the woods, and those that haunt man’s dwellings and claim human friendship by building their nests under the sheltering eaves or among the orchard trees—these require a touch more delicate and a gentler heart than mine to do them justice.  ("Buds and Bird-voices," 1843)
Of course, writing in verse was a much more common activity during this period, not the province of special poetic genius. Farm periodicals regularly included poems from correspondents, often including lines about birds and birdsong. Wilson's American Ornithology featured poems about birds; his verses about the bluebird were commonly reprinted in farm papers. But during this period there was a growing bifurcation in writing about birds and nature: on the one hand the drier scientific ornithological species account; on the other hand, represented by Wilson Flagg, and later John Burroughs, the more literary appreciation. 

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