Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Longfellow's "Plea for the Birds" (1863)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's highly anticipated Tales of a Wayside Inn was published on November 25, 1863. Among the poems in the collection was "Birds of Killingworth," from which this blog gets its name. We have finally arrived at the end of this project (though there will be a few epilogue-style posts to come).

In celebration of this fact, I have prepared an annotated version of the poem, making links between it and various posts on this blog, via the open-source annotation service, hypothesis. One point of note: historians of the poem have assumed that Longfellow was accurate when recalling the inspiration of poem. He reported that it was based on legislative debate in Connecticut about a bounty on blackbirds. In fact, I am convinced that the inspiration was debate on the small bird law in 1851. Please read the annotations for details.

Annotated Birds of Killingworth.

The poem, which also appeared in the December issue of The Atlantic, was immediately recognized as a major contribution to the bird protection effort. The editors of Well's Commercial Express, a statistics-oriented Chicago paper, printed a long excerpt on December 9. The front page announced this fact:

This paper is not much given to poetry, but such a strain as that in which the ripe scholar and truly American poet LONGFELLOW pleads for the birds (see page 7) should find readers in every human habitation. An article of bare fact and no poetry, which may therefore operate more strongly with some minds in favor of the birds, will also be found in our columns this week.
The factual article was a piece on British economic ornithology drawn from the American Agriculturist, titled "Looking into birds' stomachs." On page 7, the paper reprinted 7 1/2 stanzas from "Birds of Killingworth" under the headline "Plea for the Birds." The extract comprised the speech the preceptor gives before the town committee advocating the protection of birds: from the middle of the 12th stanza ("From the ballad-singers and the Troubadours") to the end of the 19th stanza ("And crying havoc on the slug and snail"). In other words, the poeticized, fictional plea based on decades of "spare the birds" stories was drawn into the very public sphere it depicted. 

From this point on, Longfellow's poetic condensation of bird protection discourse would be deployed as a resource by advocates and would need to be taken into account by opponents. For example, a correspondent to the Country Gentleman (O.H. Peck, "Bird Shooting," September 14, 1865), invoked the poem to endorse his own religious-based condemnation of "he who sacrilegiously murders God's forest choir." In the same year, a revisionist fruit-grower at the Illinois Horticultural Society invoked Longfellow's poem in order to dismiss its conclusions as "poetic license," representative of the "poetical...beauty-filled" farmer not the practical farmer. (Prairie Farmer, March 4, 1865). 

Eventually "Birds of Killingworth" would be canonized as a key poem for school children to recite during "Bird Day" in the Audubon movement era. (see Angela Sorby, 2011). 

No comments:

Post a Comment