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BIRDS AND POETS.
"In summer, when the shawes be shene,
And leaves be large and long,
It is full merry in fair forest
To hear the fowlés' song.
The wood-wele sang, and wolde not cease,
Sitting upon the spray;
So loud, it wakened Robin Hood
In the greenwood where he lay."
Ir might almost be said that the birds are all birds of the poets and of no one else, because it is only the poetical temperament that fully responds to them. So true is this, that all the great ornithologists – original namers and biographers of the birds have been poets in deed if not in word. Audubon is a notable case in point, who, if he had not the tongue or pen of the poet, certainly had the eye and ear and heart "the fluid and attaching character"— and the singleness of purpose, the enthusiasm, the unworldliness, the love, that characterizes the true and divine race of bards.
So had Wilson, though perhaps not in as large a While measure; yet he took fire as only a poet can. making a journey on foot to Philadelphia, shortly
after landing in this country, he caught sight of the red-headed woodpecker flitting among the trees bird that shows like a tri-colored scarf among the
foliage, and it so Ridied his enthusiasm that his life was devoted to the pursuit of the birds from that day. It was a lucky hit. Wilson had already set up as a poet in Scotland, and was still fermenting when the bird met his eye and suggested to his soul a new outlet for its enthusiasm.
The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life-large brained, large lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song. The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds, how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holidaylives - and how many suggestions to the poet in their flight and song!
Indeed, is not the bird the original type and teacher of the poet, and do we not demand of the human lark or thrush that he "shake out his carols" in the same free and spontaneous manner as his winged prototype? Kingsley has shown how surely the old minnesingers and early ballad-writers have learned of the birds, taking their key-note from the blackbird, or the wood-lark, or the throstle, and giving utterance to a melody as simple and unstudied. Such things as the following were surely caught from the fields or the woods:
"She sat down below a thorn,
Fine flowers in the valley,
And there has she her sweet babe born,
Or the best lyric pieces, how like they are to certain bird-songs, clear, ringing, ecstatic, and suggesting that challenge and triumph which the outpouring of the male bird contains. (Is not the genuine singing, lyrical quality essentially masculine?) Keats and Shelley, perhaps, more notably than any other English poets, have the bird-organization and the piercing wild-bird cry. This of course is not saying that they are the greatest poets, but that they have preeminently the sharp semi-tones of the sparrows and larks.
But when the general reader thinks of the birds of the poets he very naturally calls to mind the renowned birds, the lark and nightingale, Old-World melodists, embalmed in Old-World poetry, but occasionally appearing on these shores, transported in the verse of some callow singer.
The very oldest poets, the towering antique bards, seem to make little mention of the song-birds. They loved better the soaring, swooping birds of prey, the eagle, the ominous birds, the vultures, the storks, and ranes, or the clamorous sea-birds and the screaming hawks. These suited better the rugged, warlike character of the times and the simple, powerful souls of the singers themselves. Homer must have heard the twittering of the swallows, the cry of the plover,
the voice of the turtle, and the warble of the nightingale; but they were not adequate symbols to express what he felt or to adorn his theme. Eschylus saw in the eagle "the dog of Jove," and his verse cuts like a sword with such a conception.
It is not because the old bards were less as poets, but that they were more as men. To strong, susceptible characters the music of nature is not confined to sweet sounds. The defiant scream of the hawk circling aloft, the wild whinney of the loon, the whooping of the crane, the booming of the bittern, the vulpine bark of the eagle, the loud trumpeting of the migratory geese sounding down out of the midnight sky; or by the sea-shore, the coast of New Jersey or Long Island, the wild crooning of the flocks of gulls, repeated, continued by the hour, swirling sharp and shrill, rising and falling like the wind in a storm, as they circle above the beach, or dip to the dash of the waves are much more welcome in certain moods than any and all mere bird-melodies, in keeping as they are with the shaggy and untamed features of ocean and woods, and suggesting something like the Richard Wagner music in the ornithological orchestra.
"Nor these alone whose notes
Nice-fingered art must emulate in vain,
But cawing rooks, and kites that swim sublime
In still repeated circles, screaming loud,
The jay, the pie, and even the boding owl,
That hails the rising moon, have charms for me."
says Cowper. "I never hear," says Burns in one