Birds and Poets by John Burroughs

This eBook was produced by Jack Eden. This etext was produced by Jack Eden THE WRITINGS OF JOHN BURROUGHS WITH PORTRAITS AND MANY ILLUSTRATIONS VOLUME III BIRDS AND POETS WITH OTHER PAPERS PREFACE I have deliberated a long time about coupling some of my sketches of outdoor nature with a few chapters of a more
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This eBook was produced by Jack Eden.

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I have deliberated a long time about coupling some of my sketches of outdoor nature with a few chapters of a more purely literary character, and thus confiding to my reader what absorbs and delights me inside my four walls, as well as what pleases and engages me outside those walls; especially since I have aimed to bring my outdoor spirit and method within, and still to look upon my subject with the best naturalist’s eye I could command.

I hope, therefore, he will not be scared away when I boldly confront him in the latter portions of my book with this name of strange portent, Walt Whitman, for I assure him that in this misjudged man he may press the strongest poetic pulse that has yet beaten in America, or perhaps in modern times. Then, these chapters are a proper supplement or continuation of my themes and their analogy in literature, because in them we shall “follow out these lessons of the earth and air,” and behold their application to higher matters.

It is not an artificially graded path strewn with roses that invites us in this part, but, let me hope, something better, a rugged trail through the woods or along the beach where we shall now and then get a whiff of natural air, or a glimpse of something to

“Make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs.”

ESOPUS-ON-HUDSON, March, 1877.


BARN SWALLOW (colored)
From a drawing by L. A. Fuertes
From a photograph by Herbert W. Gleason A RIVER VIEW IN APRIL
From a drawing by Charles H. Woodbury FLICKER
From a drawing by L. A. Fuertes Cows IN RURAL LANDSCAPE
From a photograph by Herbert W. Gleason VIEW FROM A HILLTOP
From a photograph by Herbert W. Gleason




“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.”

It 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 the 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 characterize the true and divine race of bards.

So had Wilson, though perhaps not in as large a measure; yet he took fire as only a poet can. While 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,–a bird that shows like a tricolored scarf among the foliage,–and it so kindled 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, holiday lives, 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 borne, And the green leaves they grow rarely.”

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 preëminently the sharp semi-tones of the sparrows and the 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 the 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 cranes, 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. Aeschylus 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 whinny 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 seashore, 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 of his letters, “the loud, solitary whistle of the curlew in a summer noon, or the wild mixing cadence of a troop of gray plovers in an autumnal morning, without feeling an elevation of soul like the enthusiasm of devotion or poetry.”

Even the Greek minor poets, the swarm of them that are represented in the Greek Anthology, rarely make affectionate mention of the birds, except perhaps Sappho, whom Ben Jonson makes speak of the nightingale as–

“The dear glad angel of the spring.”

The cicada, the locust, and the grasshopper are often referred to, but rarely by name any of the common birds. That Greek grasshopper must have been a wonderful creature. He was a sacred object in Greece, and is spoken of by the poets as a charming songster. What we would say of birds the Greek said of this favorite insect. When Socrates and Phaedrus came to the fountain shaded by the plane- tree, where they had their famous discourse, Socrates said: “Observe the freshness of the spot, how charming and very delightful it is, and how summer-like and shrill it sounds from the choir of grasshoppers.” One of the poets in the Anthology finds a grasshopper struggling in a spider’s web, which he releases with the words:–

“Go safe and free with your sweet voice of song.”

Another one makes the insect say to a rustic who had captured him:–

“Me, the Nymphs’ wayside minstrel whose sweet note O’er sultry hill is heard, and shady grove to float.”

Still another sings how a grasshopper took the place of a broken string on his lyre, and “filled the cadence due.”

“For while six chords beneath my fingers cried, He with his tuneful voice the seventh supplied; The midday songster of the mountain set His pastoral ditty to my canzonet;
And when he sang, his modulated throat Accorded with the lifeless string I smote.”

While we are trying to introduce the lark in this country, why not try this Pindaric grasshopper also?

It is to the literary poets and to the minstrels of a softer age that we must look for special mention of the song-birds and for poetical rhapsodies upon them. The nightingale is the most general favorite, and nearly all the more noted English poets have sung her praises. To the melancholy poet she is melancholy, and to the cheerful she is cheerful. Shakespeare in one of his sonnets speaks of her song as mournful, while Martial calls her the “most garrulous” of birds. Milton sang:–

“Sweet bird, that shunn’st the noise of folly, Most musical, most melancholy,
Thee, chantress, oft the woods among I woo, to hear thy evening song.”

To Wordsworth she told another story:–

“O nightingale! thou surely art
A creature of ebullient heart;
These notes of thine,–they pierce and pierce,– Tumultuous harmony and fierce!
Thou sing’st as if the god of wine Had helped thee to a valentine;
A song in mockery and despite
Of shades, and dews, and silent night, And steady bliss, and all the loves
Now sleeping in these peaceful groves.”

In a like vein Coleridge sang:–

“‘T is the merry nightingale
That crowds and hurries and precipitates With fast, thick warble his delicious notes.”

Keats’s poem on the nightingale is doubtless more in the spirit of the bird’s strain than any other. It is less a description of the song and more the song itself. Hood called the nightingale

“The sweet and plaintive Sappho of the dell.”

I mention the nightingale only to point my remarks upon its American rival, the famous mockingbird of the Southern States, which is also a nightingale,–a night-singer,–and which no doubt excels the Old World bird in the variety and compass of its powers. The two birds belong to totally distinct families, there being no American species which answers to the European nightingale, as there are that answer to the robin, the cuckoo, the blackbird, and numerous others. Philomel has the color, manners, and habits of a thrush,–our hermit thrush,–but it is not a thrush at all, but a warbler. I gather from the books that its song is protracted and full rather than melodious,–a capricious, long-continued warble, doubling and redoubling, rising and falling, issuing from the groves and the great gardens, and associated in the minds of the poets with love and moonlight and the privacy of sequestered walks. All our sympathies and attractions are with the bird, and we do not forget that Arabia and Persia are there back of its song.

_Our_ nightingale has mainly the reputation of the caged bird, and is famed mostly for its powers of mimicry, which are truly wonderful, enabling the bird to exactly reproduce and even improve upon the notes of almost any other songster. But in a state of freedom it has a song of its own which is infinitely rich and various. It is a garrulous polyglot when it chooses to be, and there is a dash of the clown and the buffoon in its nature which too often flavors its whole performance, especially in captivity; but in its native haunts, and when its love-passion is upon it, the serious and even grand side of its character comes out. In Alabama and Florida its song may be heard all through the sultry summer night, at times low and plaintive, then full and strong. A friend of Thoreau and a careful observer, who has resided in Florida, tells me that this bird is a much more marvelous singer than it has the credit of being. He describes a habit it has of singing on the wing on moonlight nights, that would be worth going South to hear. Starting from a low bush, it mounts in the air and continues its flight apparently to an altitude of several hundred feet, remaining on the wing a number of minutes, and pouring out its song with the utmost clearness and abandon,–a slowly rising musical rocket that fills the night air with harmonious sounds. Here are both the lark and nightingale in one; and if poets were as plentiful down South as they are in New England, we should have heard of this song long ago, and had it celebrated in appropriate verse. But so far only one Southern poet, Wilde, has accredited the bird this song. This he has done in the following admirable sonnet:–


Winged mimic of the woods! thou motley fool! Who shall thy gay buffoonery describe? Thine ever-ready notes of ridicule
Pursue thy fellows still with jest and gibe. Wit–sophist–songster–Yorick of thy tribe, Thou sportive satirist of Nature’s school, To thee the palm of scoffing we ascribe, Arch scoffer, and mad Abbot of Misrule! For such thou art by day–but all night long Thou pour’st a soft, sweet, pensive, solemn strain, As if thou didst in this, thy moonlight song, Like to the melancholy Jaques, complain, Musing on falsehood, violence, and wrong, And sighing for thy motley coat again.

Aside from this sonnet, the mockingbird has got into poetical literature, so far as I know, in only one notable instance, and that in the page of a poet where we would least expect to find him,–a bard who habitually bends his ear only to the musical surge and rhythmus of total nature, and is as little wont to turn aside for any special beauties or points as the most austere of the ancient masters. I refer to Walt Whitman’s “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,” in which the mockingbird plays a part. The poet’s treatment of the bird is entirely ideal and eminently characteristic. That is to say, it is altogether poetical and not at all ornithological; yet it contains a rendering or free translation of a bird-song–the nocturne of the mockingbird, singing and calling through the night for its lost mate–that I consider quite unmatched in our literature:–

Once, Paumanok,
When the snows had melted, and the Fifth-month grass was growing, Up this seashore, in some briers,
Two guests from Alabama–two together, And their nest, and four light green eggs, spotted with brown, And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand, And every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them, Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

_Shine! Shine! Shine!
Pour down your warmth, great Sun!
While we bask–we two together._

_Two together!
Winds blow South, or winds blow North, Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home, Singing all time, minding no time,
If we two but keep together._

Till of a sudden,
Maybe killed unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouched not on the nest, Nor returned that afternoon, nor the next, Nor ever appeared again.

And thenceforward all summer, in the sound of the sea, And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather, Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day, I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird, The solitary guest from Alabama.

_Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore! I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me._

Yes, when the stars glistened,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scalloped stake, Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

He called on his mate:
He poured forth the meanings which I, of all men, know.

. . . . . . . . . . .

_Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind, And again another behind, embracing and lapping, every one close, But my love soothes not me, not me._

_Low hangs the moon–it rose late.
Oh it is lagging–oh I think it is heavy with love, with love._

_Oh madly the sea pushes, pushes upon the land, With love–with love._

_O night! do I not see my love fluttering out there among the breakers! What is that little black thing I see there in the white?_

_Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves: Surely you must know who is here, is here; You must know who I am, my love._

_Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow? Oh it is the shape, the shape of my mate! O moon, do not keep her from me any longer._

_Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, oh I think you could give my mate back again, if you only would;
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look._

_O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you._

_O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere! Pierce the woods, the earth;
Somewhere listening to catch you, must be the one I want._

_Shake out, carols!
Solitary here–the night’s carols! Carols of lonesome love! Death’s carols! Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon! Oh, under that moon, where she droops almost down into the sea! O reckless, despairing carols._

_But soft! sink low! Soft! let me just murmur; And do you wait a moment, you husky-noised sea; For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me, So faint–I must be still, be still to listen! But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me._

_Hither, my love!
Here I am! Here!
With this just-sustained note I announce myself to you; This gentle call is for you, my love, for you._

_Do not be decoyed elsewhere!
That is the whistle of the wind–it is not my voice; That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray; Those are the shadows of leaves._

_O darkness! Oh in vain!
Oh I am very sick and sorrowful._

. . . . . . . . . . .

The bird that occupies the second place to the nightingale in British poetical literature is the skylark, a pastoral bird as the Philomel is an arboreal,– a creature of light and air and motion, the companion of the plowman, the shepherd, the harvester,–whose nest is in the stubble and whose tryst is in the clouds. Its life affords that kind of contrast which the imagination loves,–one moment a plain pedestrian bird, hardly distinguishable from the ground, the next a soaring, untiring songster, reveling in the upper air, challenging the eye to follow him and the ear to separate his notes.

The lark’s song is not especially melodious, but is blithesome, sibilant, and unceasing. Its type is the grass, where the bird makes its home, abounding, multitudinous, the notes nearly all alike and all in the same key, but rapid, swarming, prodigal, showering down as thick and fast as drops of rain in a summer shower.

Many noted poets have sung the praises of the lark, or been kindled by his example. Shelley’s ode and Wordsworth’s “To a Skylark” are well known to all readers of poetry, while every schoolboy will recall Hogg’s poem, beginning:–

“Bird of the wilderness,
Blithesome and cumberless,
Sweet be thy matin o’er moorland and lea! Emblem of happiness,
Blest is thy dwelling-place–
Oh to abide in the desert with thee!”

I heard of an enthusiastic American who went about English fields hunting a lark with Shelley’s poem in his hand, thinking no doubt to use it as a kind of guide-book to the intricacies and harmonies of the song. He reported not having heard any larks, though I have little doubt they were soaring and singing about him all the time, though of course they did not sing to his ear the song that Shelley heard. The poets are the best natural historians, only you must know how to read them. They translate the facts largely and freely. A celebrated lady once said to Turner, “I confess I cannot see in nature what you do.” “Ah, madam,” said the complacent artist, “don’t you wish you could!”

Shelley’s poem is perhaps better known, and has a higher reputation among literary folk, than Wordsworth’s; it is more lyrical and lark-like; but it is needlessly long, though no longer than the lark’s song itself, but the lark can’t help it, and Shelley can. I quote only a few stanzas:–

“In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

“The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of heaven,
In the broad daylight
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,

“Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear,
Until we hardly see–we feel that it is there;

“All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when Night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflowed.”

Wordsworth has written two poems upon the lark, in one of which he calls the bird “pilgrim of the sky.” This is the one quoted by Emerson in “Parnassus.” Here is the concluding stanza:–

“Leave to the nightingale her shady wood; A privacy of glorious light is thine, Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood Of harmony, with instinct more divine; Type of the wise, who soar, but never roam, True to the kindred points of heaven and home.”

The other poem I give entire:–

“Up with me! up with me into the clouds! For thy song, Lark, is strong;
Up with me, up with me into the clouds! Singing, singing,
With clouds and sky about thee ringing, Lift me, guide me till I find
That spot which seems so to thy mind!

“I have walked through wilderness dreary, And to-day my heart is weary;
Had I now the wings of a Faery
Up to thee would I fly.
There is madness about thee, and joy divine In that song of thine;
Lift me, guide me high and high To thy banqueting-place in the sky.

“Joyous as morning
Thou art laughing and scorning; Thou hast a nest for thy love and thy rest, And, though little troubled with sloth, Drunken Lark! thou wouldst be loth
To be such a traveler as I.
Happy, happy Liver!
With a soul as strong as a mountain river, Pouring out praise to the Almighty Giver, Joy and jollity be with us both!

“Alas! my journey, rugged and uneven, Through prickly moors or dusty ways must wind; But hearing thee, or others of thy kind, As full of gladness and as free of heaven, I, with my fate contented, will plod on, And hope for higher raptures, when life’s day is done.”

But better than either–better and more than a hundred pages–is Shakespeare’s simple line,–

“Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings,”

or John Lyly’s, his contemporary,–

“Who is’t now we hear?
None but the lark so shrill and clear; Now at heaven’s gate she claps her wings, The morn not waking till she sings.”

We have no well-known pastoral bird in the Eastern States that answers to the skylark. The American pipit or titlark and the shore lark, both birds of the far north, and seen in the States only in fall and winter, are said to sing on the wing in a similar strain. Common enough in our woods are two birds that have many of the habits and manners of the lark–the water-thrush and the golden- crowned thrush, or oven-bird. They are both walkers, and the latter frequently sings on the wing up aloft after the manner of the lark. Starting from its low perch, it rises in a spiral flight far above the tallest trees, and breaks out in a clear, ringing, ecstatic song, sweeter and more richly modulated than the skylark’s, but brief, ceasing almost before you have noticed it; whereas the skylark goes singing away after you have forgotten him and returned to him half a dozen times.

But on the Great Plains, of the West there; is a bird whose song resembles the skylark’s quite closely and is said to be not at all inferior. This is Sprague’s pipit, sometimes called the Missouri skylark, an excelsior songster, which from far up in the transparent blue rains down its notes for many minutes together. It is, no doubt, destined to figure in the future poetical literature of the West.

Throughout the northern and eastern parts of the Union the lark would find a dangerous rival in the bobolink, a bird that has no European prototype, and no near relatives anywhere, standing quite alone, unique, and, in the qualities of hilarity and musical tintinnabulation, with a song unequaled. He has already a secure place in general literature, having been laureated by no less a poet than Bryant, and invested with a lasting human charm in the sunny page of Irving, and is the only one of our songsters, I believe, that the mockingbird cannot parody or imitate. He affords the most marked example of exuberant pride, and a glad, rollicking, holiday spirit, that can be seen among our birds. Every note expresses complacency and glee. He is a beau of the first pattern, and, unlike any other bird of my acquaintance, pushes his gallantry to the point of wheeling gayly into the train of every female that comes along, even after the season of courtship is over and the matches are all settled; and when she leads him on too wild a chase, he turns, lightly about and breaks out with a song is precisely analogous to a burst of gay and self-satisfied laughter, as much as to say, _”Ha! ha! ha! I must have my fun, Miss Silverthimble, thimble, thimble, if I break every heart in the meadow, see, see, see!”_

At the approach of the breeding season the bobolink undergoes a complete change; his form changes, his color changes, his flight changes. From mottled brown or brindle he becomes black and white, earning, in some localities, the shocking name of “skunk bird;” his small, compact form becomes broad and conspicuous, and his ordinary flight is laid aside for a mincing, affected gait, in which he seems to use only the very tips of his wings. It is very noticeable what a contrast he presents to his mate at this season, not only in color but in manners, she being as shy and retiring as he is forward and hilarious. Indeed, she seems disagreeably serious and indisposed to any fun or jollity, scurrying away at his approach, and apparently annoyed at every endearing word and look. It is surprising that all this parade of plumage and tinkling of cymbals should be gone through with and persisted in to please a creature so coldly indifferent as she really seems to be. If Robert O’Lincoln has been stimulated into acquiring this holiday uniform and this musical gift by the approbation of Mrs. Robert, as Darwin, with his sexual selection principle, would have us believe, then there must have been a time when the females of this tribe were not quite so chary of their favors as they are now. Indeed, I never knew a female bird of any kind that did not appear utterly indifferent to the charms of voice and plumage that the male birds are so fond of displaying. But I am inclined to believe that the males think only of themselves and of outshining each other, and not at all of the approbation of their mates, as, in an analogous case in a higher species, it is well known whom the females dress for, and whom they want to kill with envy!

I know of no other song-bird that expresses so much self- consciousness and vanity, and comes so near being an ornithological coxcomb. The red-bird, the yellowbird, the indigo-bird, the oriole, the cardinal grosbeak, and others, all birds of brilliant plumage and musical ability, seem quite unconscious of self, and neither by tone nor act challenge the admiration of the beholder.

By the time the bobolink reaches the Potomac, in September, he has degenerated into a game-bird that is slaughtered by tens of thousands in the marshes. I think the prospects now are of his gradual extermination, as gunners and sportsmen are clearly on the increase, while the limit of the bird’s productivity in the North has no doubt been reached long ago. There are no more meadows to be added to his domain there, while he is being waylaid and cut off more and more on his return to the South. It is gourmand eat gourmand, until in half a century more I expect the blithest and merriest of our meadow songsters will have disappeared before the rapacity of human throats.

But the poets have had a shot at him in good time, and have preserved some of his traits. Bryant’s poem on this subject does not compare with his lines “To a Water-Fowl,”–a subject so well suited to the peculiar, simple, and deliberate motion of his mind; at the same time it is fit that the poet who sings of “The Planting of the Apple-Tree” should render into words the song of “Robert of Lincoln.” I subjoin a few stanzas:–


Merrily swinging on brier and weed, Near to the nest of his little dame, Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name: Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink:
Snug and safe is that nest of ours, Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln is gayly drest, Wearing a bright black wedding-coat, White are his shoulders and white his crest, Hear him call in his merry note:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink:
Look what a nice new coat is mine, Sure there was never a bird so fine. Chee, chee, chee.

Robert of Lincoln’s Quaker wife,
Pretty and quiet, with plain brown wings, Passing at home a patient life,
Broods in the grass while her husband sings. Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink:
Brood, kind creature; you need not fear Thieves and robbers while I am here. Chee, chee, chee.

But it has been reserved for a practical ornithologist, Mr. Wilson Flagg, to write by far the best poem on the bobolink that I have yet seen. It is much more in the mood and spirit of the actual song than Bryant’s poem:–


A flock of merry singing-birds were sporting in the grove; Some were warbling cheerily, and some were making love: There were Bobolincon, Wadolincon, Winterseeble, Conquedle,– A livelier set was never led by tabor, pipe, or fiddle,– Crying, “Phew, shew, Wadolincon, see, see, Bobolincon, Down among the tickletops, hiding in the buttercups! I know the saucy chap, I see his shining cap Bobbing in the clover there–see, see, see!”

Up flies Bobolincon, perching on an apple-tree, Startled by his rival’s song, quickened by his raillery. Soon he spies the rogue afloat, curveting in the air, And merrily he turns about, and warns him to beware! “‘T is you that would a-wooing go, down among the rushes O! But wait a week, till flowers are cheery,–wait a week,and, ere you marry,
Be sure of a house wherein to tarry! Wadolink, Whiskodink, Tom Denny, wait, wait, wait!”

Every one’s a funny fellow; every one’s a little mellow; Follow, follow, follow, follow, o’er the hill and in the hollow! Merrily, merrily, there they hie; now they rise and now they fly; They cross and turn, and in and out, and down in the middle, and wheel about,–
With a “Phew, shew, Wadolincon! listen to me, Bobolincon!– Happy’s the wooing that’s speedily doing, that’s speedily doing, That’s merry and over with the bloom of the clover! Bobolincon, Wadolincon, Winterseeble, follow, follow me!”

Many persons, I presume, have admired Wordsworth’s poem on the cuckoo, without recognizing its truthfulness, or how thoroughly, in the main, the description applies to our own species. If the poem had been written in New England or New York, it could not have suited our case better:–

“O blithe New-comer! I have heard, I hear thee and rejoice,
O Cuckoo! shall I call thee Bird, Or but a wandering Voice?

“While I am lying on the grass,
Thy twofold shout I hear,
From hill to hill it seems to pass, At once far off, and near.

“Though babbling only to the Vale, Of sunshine and of flowers,
Thou bringest unto me a tale
Of visionary hours.

“Thrice welcome, darling of the Spring! Even yet thou art to me
No bird, but an invisible thing, A voice, a mystery;

“The same whom in my schoolboy days I listened to; that Cry
Which made me look a thousand ways In bush, and tree, and sky.

“To seek thee did I often rove
Through woods and on the green; And thou wert still a hope, a love;
Still longed for, never seen.

“And I can listen to thee yet;
Can lie upon the plain
And listen, till I do beget
That golden time again.

“O blesséd Bird! the earth we pace Again appears to be
An unsubstantial, faery place;
That is fit home for thee!”

Logan’s stanzas, “To the Cuckoo,” have less merit both as poetry and natural history, but they are older, and doubtless the latter poet benefited by them. Burke admired them so much that, while on a visit to Edinburgh, he sought the author out to compliment him:–

“Hail, beauteous stranger of the grove! Thou messenger of spring!
Now Heaven repairs thy rural seat, And woods thy welcome sing.

“What time the daisy decks the green, Thy certain voice we hear;
Hast thou a star to guide thy path, Or mark the rolling year?

. . . . . . . .

“The schoolboy, wandering through the wood To pull the primrose gay,
Starts, the new voice of spring to hear, And imitates thy lay.

. . . . . . . .

“Sweet bird! thy bower is ever green, Thy sky is ever clear;
Thou hast no sorrow in thy song, No winter in thy year.”

The European cuckoo is evidently a much gayer bird than ours, and much more noticeable.

“Hark, how the jolly cuckoos sing ‘Cuckoo!’ to welcome in the spring,”

says John Lyly three hundred years agone. Its note is easily imitated, and boys will render it so perfectly as to deceive any but the shrewdest ear. An English lady tells me its voice reminds one of children at play, and is full of gayety and happiness. It is a persistent songster, and keeps up its call from morning to night. Indeed, certain parts of Wordsworth’s poem–those that refer to the bird as a mystery, a wandering, solitary voice–seem to fit our bird better than the European species. Our cuckoo is in fact a solitary wanderer, repeating its loud, guttural call in the depths of the forest, and well calculated to arrest the attention of a poet like Wordsworth, who was himself a kind of cuckoo, a solitary voice, syllabling the loneliness that broods over streams and woods,–

“And once far off, and near.”

Our cuckoo is not a spring bird, being seldom seen or heard in the North before late in May. He is a great devourer of canker-worms, and, when these pests appear, he comes out of his forest seclusion and makes excursions through the orchards stealthily and quietly, regaling himself upon those pulpy, fuzzy titbits. His coat of deep cinnamon brown has a silky gloss and is very beautiful. His note or call is not musical but loud, and has in a remarkable degree the quality of remoteness and introvertedness. It is like a vocal legend, and to the farmer bodes rain.

It is worthy of note, and illustrates some things said farther back, that birds not strictly denominated songsters, but criers like the cuckoo, have been quite as great favorites with the poets, and have received as affectionate treatment at their hands, as have the song-birds. One readily recalls Emerson’s “Titmouse,” Trowbridge’s “Pewee,” Celia Thaxter’s “Sandpiper,” and others of a like character.

It is also worthy of note that the owl appears to be a greater favorite with the poets than the proud, soaring hawk. The owl is doubtless the more human and picturesque bird; then he belongs to the night and its weird effects. Bird of the silent wing and expansive eye, grimalkin in feathers, feline, mousing, haunting ruins” and towers, and mocking the midnight stillness with thy uncanny cry! The owl is the great bugaboo of the feathered tribes. His appearance by day is hailed by shouts of alarm and derision from nearly every bird that flies, from crows down to sparrows. They swarm about him like flies, and literally mob him back into his dusky retreat. Silence is as the breath of his nostrils to him, and the uproar that greets him when he emerges into the open day seems to alarm and confuse him as it does the pickpocket when everybody cries Thief.

But the poets, I say, have not despised him:–

“The lark is but a bumpkin fowl;
He sleeps in his nest till morn; But my blessing upon the jolly owl
That all night blows his horn.”

Both Shakespeare and Tennyson have made songs about him. This is Shakespeare’s, from “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” and perhaps has reference to the white or snowy owl:–

“When icicles hang by the wall,
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail, And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail; When blood is nipped and ways be foul, Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! a merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

“When all aloud the wind doth blow, And coughing drowns the parson’s saw, And birds sit brooding in the snow,
And Marian’s nose looks red and raw; When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl, Then nightly sings the staring owl,
Tu-whit! Tu-whoo! a merry note, While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.”

There is, perhaps, a slight reminiscence of this song in Tennyson’s “Owl:”–

“When cats run home and light is come, And dew is cold upon the ground,
And the far-off stream is dumb, And the whirring sail goes round,
And the whirring sail goes round; Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.

“When merry milkmaids click the latch, And rarely smells the new-mown hay, And the cock hath sung beneath the thatch Twice or thrice his roundelay,
Twice or thrice his roundelay; Alone and warming his five wits,
The white owl in the belfry sits.”

Tennyson has not directly celebrated any of the more famous birds, but his poems contain frequent allusions to them. The

“Wild bird, whose warble, liquid sweet, Rings Eden through the budded quicks, Oh, tell me where the senses mix,
Oh, tell me where the passions meet,”

of “In Memoriam,” is doubtless the nightingale. And here we have the lark:–

“Now sings the woodland loud and long, And distance takes a lovelier hue, And drowned in yonder living blue
The lark becomes a sightless song.”

And again in this from “A Dream of Fair Women:”–

“Then I heard
A noise of some one coming through the lawn, And singing clearer than the crested bird That claps his wings at dawn.”

The swallow is a favorite bird with Tennyson, and is frequently mentioned, beside being the principal figure in one of those charming love-songs in “The Princess.” His allusions to the birds, as to any other natural feature, show him to be a careful observer, as when he speaks of

“The swamp, where hums the dropping snipe.”

His single bird-poem, aside from the song I have quoted, is “The Blackbird,” the Old World prototype of our robin, as if our bird had doffed the aristocratic black for a more democratic suit on reaching these shores. In curious contrast to the color of its plumage is its beak, which is as yellow as a kernel of Indian corn. The following are the two middle stanzas of the poem:–

“Yet, though I spared thee all the spring, Thy sole delight is, sitting still, With that gold dagger of thy bill
To fret the summer jenneting.

“A golden bill! the silver tongue Cold February loved is dry;
Plenty corrupts the melody
That made thee famous once, when young.”

Shakespeare, in one of his songs, alludes to the blackbird as the ouzel-cock; indeed, he puts quite a flock of birds in this song:–

“The ouzel-cock so black of hue,
With orange tawny bill;
The throstle with his note so true, The wren with little quill;
The finch, the sparrow, and the lark, The plain song cuckoo gray,
Whose note full many a man doth mark, And dares not answer nay.”

So far as external appearances are concerned,–form, plumage, grace of manner,–no one ever had a less promising subject than had Trowbridge in the “Pewee.” This bird, if not the plainest dressed, is the most unshapely in the woods. It is stiff and abrupt in its manners and sedentary in its habits, sitting around all day, in the dark recesses of the woods, on the dry twigs and branches, uttering now and then its plaintive cry, and “with many a flirt and flutter” snapping up its insect game.

The pewee belongs to quite a large family of birds, all of whom have strong family traits, and who are not the most peaceable and harmonious of the sylvan folk. They are pugnacious, harsh-voiced, angular in form and movement, with flexible tails and broad, flat, bristling beaks that stand to the face at the angle of a turn-up nose, and most of them wear a black cap pulled well down over their eyes. Their heads are large, neck and legs short, and elbows sharp. The wild Irishman of them all is the great crested flycatcher, a large, leather-colored or sandy-complexioned bird that prowls through the woods, uttering its harsh, uncanny note and waging fierce warfare upon its fellows.
The exquisite of the family, and the braggart of the orchard, is the kingbird, a bully that loves to strip the feathers off its more timid neighbors such as the bluebird, that feeds on the stingless bees of the hive, the drones, and earns the reputation of great boldness by teasing large hawks, while it gives a wide berth to little ones.

The best beloved of them all is the phoebe-bird, one of the firstlings of the spring, of whom so many of our poets have made affectionate mention.

The wood pewee is the sweetest voiced, and, notwithstanding the ungracious things I have said of it and of its relations, merits to the full all Trowbridge’s pleasant fancies. His poem is indeed a very careful study of the bird and its haunts, and is good poetry as well as good ornithology:–

“The listening Dryads hushed the woods; The boughs were thick, and thin and few The golden ribbons fluttering through; Their sun-embroidered, leafy hoods
The lindens lifted to the blue; Only a little forest-brook
The farthest hem of silence shook; When in the hollow shades I heard–
Was it a spirit or a bird?
Or, strayed from Eden, desolate, Some Peri calling to her mate,
Whom nevermore her mate would cheer? ‘Pe-ri! pe-ri! peer!’

. . . . . . . .

“To trace it in its green retreat I sought among the boughs in vain; And followed still the wandering strain, So melancholy and so sweet,
The dim-eyed violets yearned with pain. ‘T was now a sorrow in the air,
Some nymph’s immortalized despair Haunting the woods and waterfalls;
And now, at long, sad intervals, Sitting unseen in dusky shade,
His plaintive pipe some fairy played, With long-drawn cadence thin and clear,– ‘Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer!’

“Long-drawn and clear its closes were– As if the hand of Music through
The sombre robe of Silence drew A thread of golden gossamer;
So pure a flute the fairy blew. Like beggared princes of the wood,
In silver rags the birches stood; The hemlocks, lordly counselors,
Were dumb; the sturdy servitors, In beechen jackets patched and gray, Seemed waiting spellbound all the day That low, entrancing note to hear,– ‘Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer!’

“I quit the search, and sat me down Beside the brook, irresolute,
And watched a little bird in suit Of sober olive, soft and brown,
Perched in the maple branches, mute; With greenish gold its vest was fringed, Its tiny cap was ebon-tinged,
With ivory pale its wings were barred, And its dark eyes were tender-starred. “Dear bird,” I said, “what is thy name?” And thrice the mournful answer came, So faint and far, and yet so near,– ‘Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer!’

“For so I found my forest bird,– The pewee of the loneliest woods,
Sole singer in these solitudes, Which never robin’s whistle stirred, Where never bluebird’s plume intrudes. Quick darting through the dewy morn, The redstart trilled his twittering horn And vanished in thick boughs; at even, Like liquid pearls fresh showered from heaven, The high notes of the lone wood thrush Fell on the forest’s holy hush;
But thou all day complainest here,– ‘Pe-wee! pe-wee! peer!'”

Emerson’s best natural history poem is the “Humble-Bee,”–a poem as good in its way as Burns’s poem on the mouse; but his later poem, “The Titmouse,” has many of the same qualities, and cannot fail to be acceptable to both poet and naturalist.

The chickadee is indeed a truly Emersonian bird, and the poet shows him to be both a hero and a philosopher. Hardy, active, social, a winter bird no less than a summer, a defier of both frost and heat, lover of the pine-tree, and diligent searcher after truth in the shape of eggs and larvae of insects, preëminently a New England bird, clad in black and ashen gray, with a note the most cheering and reassuring to be heard in our January woods,–I know of none other of our birds so well calculated to captivate the Emersonian muse.

Emerson himself is a northern hyperborean genius,–a winter bird with a clear, saucy, cheery call, and not a passionate summer songster. His lines have little melody to the ear, but they have the vigor and distinctness of all pure and compact things. They are like the needles of the pine–“the snow loving pine”–more than the emotional foliage of the deciduous trees, and the titmouse becomes them well:–

“Up and away for life! be fleet!– The frost-king ties my fumbling feet, Sings in my ears, my hands are stones, Curdles the blood to the marble bones, Tugs at the heart-strings, numbs the sense, And hems in life with narrowing fence. Well, in this broad bed lie and sleep,– The punctual stars will vigil keep,– Embalmed by purifying cold;
The wind shall sing their dead march old, The snow is no ignoble shroud,
The moon thy mourner, and the cloud.

“Softly,–but this way fate was pointing, ‘T was coming fast to such anointing, When piped a tiny voice hard by,
Gay and polite, a cheerful cry, _Chick-chickadeedee!_ saucy note,
Out of sound heart and merry throat, As if it said ‘Good day, good sir!
Fine afternoon, old passenger!
Happy to meet you in these places, Where January brings few faces.’

“This poet, though he lived apart, Moved by his hospitable heart,
Sped, when I passed his sylvan fort, To do the honors of his court,
As fits a feathered lord of land; Flew near, with soft wing grazed my hands Hopped on the bough, then darting low, Prints his small impress on the snow, Shows feats of his gymnastic play,
Head downward, clinging to the spray.

“Here was this atom in full breath, Hurling defiance at vast death;
This scrap of valor just for play Fronts the north-wind in waistcoat gray, As if to shame my weak behavior;
I greeted loud my little savior, ‘You pet! what dost here? and what for? In these woods, thy small Labrador,
At this pinch, wee San Salvador! What fire burns in that little chest, So frolic, stout, and self-possest?
Henceforth I wear no stripe but thine; Ashes and jet all hues outshine.
Why are not diamonds black and gray, To ape thy dare-devil array?
And I affirm, the spacious North Exists to draw thy virtue forth.
I think no virtue goes with size; The reason of all cowardice
Is, that men are overgrown,
And, to be valiant, must come down To the titmouse dimension.’

. . . . . . . .

“I think old Caesar must have heard In northern Gaul my dauntless bird,
And, echoed in some frosty wold, Borrowed thy battle-numbers bold.
And I will write our annals new And thank thee for a better clew.
I, who dreamed not when I came here To find the antidote of fear,
Now hear thee say in Roman key, _Poean! Veni, vidi, vici.”_

A late bird-poem, and a good one of its kind, is Celia Thaxter’s “Sandpiper,” which recalls Bryant’s “Water-Fowl” in its successful rendering of the spirit and atmosphere of the scene, and the distinctness with which the lone bird, flitting along the beach, is brought before the mind. It is a woman’s or a feminine poem, as Bryant’s is characteristically a man’s.

The sentiment or feeling awakened by any of the aquatic fowls is preëminently one of loneliness. The wood duck which your approach starts from the pond or the marsh, the loon neighing down out of the April sky, the wild goose, the curlew, the stork, the bittern, the sandpiper, awaken quite a different train of emotions from those awakened by the land-birds. They all have clinging to them some reminiscence and suggestion of the sea. Their cries echo its wildness and desolation; their wings are the shape of its billows.

Of the sandpipers there are many varieties, found upon the coast and penetrating inland along the rivers and water-courses, one of the most interesting of the family, commonly called the “tip-up,” going up all the mountain brooks and breeding in the sand along their banks; but the characteristics are the same in all, and the eye detects little difference except in size.

The walker on the beach sees it running or flitting before him, following up the breakers and picking up the aquatic insects left on the sands; and the trout-fisher along the farthest inland stream likewise intrudes upon its privacy. Flitting along from stone to stone seeking its food, the hind part of its body “teetering” up and down, its soft gray color blending it with the pebbles and the rocks, or else skimming up or down the stream on its long, convex wings, uttering its shrill cry, the sandpiper is not a bird of the sea merely; and Mrs. Thaxter’s poem is as much for the dweller inland as for the dweller upon the coast:–


Across the narrow beach we flit,
One little sandpiper and I;
And fast I gather, bit by bit,
The scattered driftwood bleached and dry. The wild waves reach their hands for it, The wild wind raves, the tide runs high, As up and down the beach we flit,–
One little sandpiper and I.

Above our heads the sullen clouds Scud black and swift across the sky; Like silent ghosts in misty shrouds
Stand out the white lighthouses high. Almost as far as eye can reach
I see the close-reefed vessels fly, As fast we flit along the beach,–
One little sandpiper and I.

I watch him as he skims along,
Uttering his sweet and mournful cry; He starts not at my fitful song,
Or flash of fluttering drapery; He has no thought of any wrong;
He scans me with a fearless eye. Stanch friends are we, well tried and strong, The little sandpiper and I.

Comrade, where wilt thou be to-night When the loosed storm breaks furiously? My driftwood fire will burn so bright! To what warm shelter canst thou fly? I do not fear for thee, though wroth The tempest rushes through the sky; For are we not God’s children both,
Thou, little sandpiper, and I?

Others of our birds have been game for the poetic muse, but in most cases the poets have had some moral or pretty conceit to convey, and have not loved the bird first. Mr. Lathrop preaches a little in his pleasant poem, “The Sparrow,” but he must some time have looked upon the bird with genuine emotion to have written the first two stanzas:–

“Glimmers gay the leafless thicket Close beside my garden gate,
Where, so light, from post to wicket, Hops the sparrow, blithe, sedate:
Who, with meekly folded wing, Comes to sun himself and sing.

“It was there, perhaps, last year, That his little house he built;
For he seems to perk and peer,
And to twitter, too, and tilt The bare branches in between,
With a fond, familiar mien.”

The bluebird has not been overlooked, and Halleek, Longfellow, and Mrs. Sigourney have written poems upon him, but from none of them does there fall that first note of his in early spring,–a note that may be called the violet of sound, and as welcome to the ear, heard above the cold, damp earth; as is its floral type to the eye a few weeks later Lowell’s two lines come nearer the mark:–

“The bluebird, shifting his light load of song From post to post along the cheerless fence.”

Or the first swallow that comes twittering up the southern valley, laughing a gleeful, childish laugh, and awakening such memories in the heart, who has put him in a poem? So the hummingbird, too, escapes through the finest meshes of rhyme.

The most melodious of our songsters, the wood thrush and the hermit thrush,–birds whose strains, more than any others, express harmony and serenity,–have not yet, that I am aware, had reared to them their merited poetic monument, unless, indeed, Whitman has done this service for the hermit thrush in his “President Lincoln’s Burial Hymn.” Here the threnody is blent of three chords, the blossoming lilac, the evening star, and the hermit thrush, the latter playing the most prominent part throughout the composition. It is the exalting and spiritual utterance of the “solitary singer” that calms and consoles the poet when the powerful shock of the President’s assassination comes upon him, and he flees from the stifling atmosphere and offensive lights and conversation of the house,–

“Forth to hiding, receiving night that talks not, Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness, To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.”

Numerous others of our birds would seem to challenge attention by their calls and notes. There is the Maryland yellowthroat, for instance, standing in the door of his bushy tent, and calling out as you approach, _”which way, sir! which way, sir!”_ If he says this to the ear of common folk, what would he not say to the poet? One of the peewees says _”stay there!”_ with great emphasis. The cardinal grosbeak calls out _”what cheer” “what cheer;”” the bluebird says _”purity,” “purity,” “purity;”_ the brown thrasher, or ferruginous thrush, according to Thoreau, calls out to the farmer planting his corn, _”drop it,” “drop it,” “cover it up,” “cover it up”_ The yellow-breasted chat says _”who,” “who”_ and _”tea-boy”_ What the robin says, caroling that simple strain from the top of the tall maple, or the crow with his hardy haw-haw, or the pedestrain meadowlark sounding his piercing and long-drawn note in the spring meadows, the poets ought to be able to tell us. I only know the birds all have a language which is very expressive, and which is easily translatable into the human tongue.



WHEREVER Nature has commissioned one creature to prey upon another, she has preserved the balance by forewarning that other creature of what she has done. Nature says to the cat, “Catch the mouse,” and she equips her for that purpose; but on the selfsame day she says to the mouse, “Be wary,–the cat is watching for you.” Nature takes care that none of her creatures have smooth sailing, the whole voyage at least. Why has she not made the mosquito noiseless and its bite itchless? Simply because in that case the odds would be too greatly in its favor. She has taken especial pains to enable the owl to fly softly and silently, because the creatures it preys upon are small and wary, and never venture far from their holes. She has not shown the same caution in the case of the crow, because the crow feeds on dead flesh, or on grubs and beetles, or fruit and grain, that do not need to be approached stealthily. The big fish love to cat up the little fish, and the little fish know it, and, on the very day they are hatched, seek shallow water, and put little sandbars between themselves and their too loving parents.

How easily a bird’s tail, or that of any fowl, or in fact any part of the plumage, comes out when the hold of its would-be capturer is upon this alone; and how hard it yields in the dead bird! No doubt there is relaxation in the former case. Nature says to the pursuer, “Hold on,” and to the pursued, “Let your tail go.” What is the tortuous, zigzag course of those slow-flying moths for but to make it difficult for the birds to snap them up? The skunk is a slow, witless creature, and the fox and lynx love its meat; yet it carries a bloodless weapon that neither likes to face.

I recently heard of an ingenious method a certain other simple and slow-going creature has of baffling its enemy. A friend of mine was walking in the fields when he saw a commotion in the grass a few yards off. Approaching the spot, he found a snake–the common garter snake–trying to swallow a lizard. And how do you suppose the lizard was defeating the benevolent designs of the snake? By simply taking hold of its own tail and making itself into a hoop. The snake went round and round, and could find neither beginning nor end. Who was the old giant that found himself wrestling with Time? This little snake had a tougher customer the other day in the bit of eternity it was trying to swallow.

The snake itself has not the same wit, because I lately saw a black snake in the woods trying to swallow the garter snake, and he had made some headway, though the little snake was fighting every inch of the ground, hooking his tail about sticks and bushes, and pulling back with all his might, apparently not liking the look of things down there at all. I thought it well to let him have a good taste of his own doctrines, when I put my foot down against further proceedings.

This arming of one creature against another is often cited as an evidence of the wisdom of Nature, but it is rather an evidence of her impartiality. She does not care a fig more for one creature than for another, and is equally on the side of both, or perhaps it would be better to say she does not care a fig for either. Every creature must take its chances, and man is no exception. We can ride if we know how and are going her way, or we can be run over if we fall or make a mistake. Nature does not care whether the hunter slay the beast or the beast the hunter; she will make good compost of them both, and her ends are prospered whichever succeeds.

“If the red slayer think he slays, Or if the slain think he is slain, They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.”

What is the end of Nature? Where is the end of a sphere? The sphere balances at any and every point. So everything in Nature is at the top, and yet no _one_ thing is at the top.

She works with reference to no measure of time, no limit of space, and with an abundance of material, not expressed by exhaustless. Did you think Niagara a great exhibition of power? What is that, then, that withdraws noiseless and invisible in the ground about, and of which Niagara is but the lifting of the finger?

Nature is thoroughly selfish, and looks only to her own ends. One thing she is bent upon, and that is keeping up the supply, multiplying endlessly and scattering as she multiplies. Did Nature have in view our delectation when she made the apple, the peach, the plum, the cherry? Undoubtedly; but only as a means to her own private ends. What a bribe or a wage is the pulp of these delicacies to all creatures to come and sow their seed! And Nature has taken care to make the seed indigestible, so that, though the fruit be eaten, the germ is not, but only planted.

God made the crab, but man made the pippin; but the pippin cannot propagate itself, and exists only by violence and usurpation. Bacon says, “It is easier to deceive Nature than to force her,” but it seems to me the nurserymen really force her. They cut off the head of a savage and clap on the head of a fine gentleman, and the crab becomes a Swaar or a Baldwin. Or is it a kind of deception practiced upon Nature, which succeeds only by being carefully concealed? If we could play the same tricks upon her in the human species, how the great geniuses could be preserved and propagated, and the world stocked with them! But what a frightful condition of things that would be! No new men, but a tiresome and endless repetition of the old ones,–a world perpetually stocked with Newtons and Shakespeares!

We say Nature knows best, and has adapted this or that to our wants or to our constitution,–sound to the ear, light and color to the eye; but she has not done any such thing, but has adapted man to these things. The physical cosmos is the mould, and man is the molten metal that is poured into it. The light fashioned the eye, the laws of sound made the ear; in fact, man is the outcome of Nature and not the reverse. Creatures that live forever in the dark have no eyes; and would not any one of our senses perish and be shed, as it were, in a world where it could not be used?


It is well to let down our metropolitan pride a little. Man thinks himself at the top, and that the immense display and prodigality of Nature are for him. But they are no more for him than they are for the birds and beasts, and he is no more at the top than they are. He appeared upon the stage when the play had advanced to a certain point, and he will disappear from the stage when the play has reached another point, and the great drama will go on without him. The geological ages, the convulsions and parturition throes of the globe, were to bring him forth no more than the beetles. Is not all this wealth of the seasons, these solar and sidereal influences, this depth and vitality and internal fire, these seas, and rivers, and oceans, and atmospheric currents, as necessary to the life of the ants and worms we tread under foot as to our own? And does the sun shine for me any more than for yon butterfly? What I mean to say is, we cannot put our finger upon this or that and say, Here is the end of Nature. The Infinite cannot be measured. The plan of Nature is so immense,–but she has no plan, no scheme, but to go on and on forever. What is size, what is time, distance, to the Infinite? Nothing. The Infinite knows no time, no space, no great, no small, no beginning, no end.

I sometimes think that the earth and the worlds are a kind of nervous ganglia in an organization of which we can form no conception, or less even than that. If one of the globules of blood that circulate in our veins were magnified enough million times, we might see a globe teeming with life and power. Such is this earth of ours, coursing in the veins of the Infinite. Size is only relative, and the imagination finds no end to the series either way.


Looking out of the car window one day, I saw the pretty and unusual sight of an eagle sitting upon the ice in the river, surrounded by half a dozen or more crows. The crows appeared as if looking up to the noble bird and attending his movements. “Are those its young?” asked a gentleman by my side. How much did that man know–not about eagles, but about Nature? If he had been familiar with geese or hens, or with donkeys, he would not have asked that question. The ancients had an axiom that he who knew one truth knew all truths; so much else becomes knowable when one vital fact is thoroughly known. You have a key, a standard, and cannot be deceived. Chemistry, geology, astronomy, natural history, all admit one to the same measureless interiors.

I heard a great man say that he could see how much of the theology of the day would fall before the standard of him who had got even the insects. And let any one set about studying these creatures carefully, and he will see the force of the remark. We learn the tremendous doctrine of metamorphosis from the insect world; and have not the bee and the ant taught man wisdom from the first? I was highly edified the past summer by observing the ways and doings of a colony of black hornets that established themselves under one of the projecting gables of my house. This hornet has the reputation of being a very ugly customer, but I found it no trouble to live on the most friendly terms with her. She was as little disposed to quarrel as I was. She is indeed the eagle among hornets, and very noble and dignified in her bearing. She used to come freely into the house and prey upon the flies. You would hear that deep, mellow hum, and see the black falcon poising on wing, or striking here and there at the flies, that scattered on her approach like chickens before a hawk. When she had caught one, she would alight upon some object and proceed to dress and draw her game. The wings were sheared off, the legs cut away, the bristles trimmed, then the body thoroughly bruised and broken. When the work was completed, the fly was rolled up into a small pellet, and with it under her arm the hornet flew to her nest, where no doubt in due time it was properly served up on the royal board. Every dinner inside these paper walls is a state dinner, for the queen is always present.

I used to mount the ladder to within two or three feet of the nest and observe the proceedings. I at first thought the workshop must be inside,–a place where the pulp was mixed, and perhaps treated with chemicals; for each hornet, when she came with her burden of materials, passed into the nest, and then, after a few moments, emerged again and crawled to the place of building. But I one day stopped up the entrance with some cotton, when no one happened to be on guard, and then observed that, when the loaded hornet could not get inside, she, after some deliberation, proceeded to the unfinished part and went forward with her work. Hence I inferred that maybe the hornet went inside to report and to receive orders, or possibly to surrender her material into fresh hands. Her career when away from the nest is beset with dangers; the colony is never large, and the safe return of every hornet is no doubt a matter of solicitude to the royal mother.

The hornet was the first paper-maker, and holds the original patent. The paper it makes is about like that of the newspaper; nearly as firm, and made of essentially the same material,–woody fibres scraped from old rails and boards. And there is news on it, too, if one could make out the characters.

When I stopped the entrance with cotton, there was no commotion or excitement, as there would have been in the case of yellow-jackets. Those outside went to pulling, and those inside went to pushing and chewing. Only once did one of the outsiders come down and look me suspiciously in the face, and inquire very plainly what my business might be up there. I bowed my head, being at the top of a twenty- foot ladder, and had nothing to say.

The cotton was chewed and moistened about the edges till every fibre was loosened, when the mass dropped. But instantly the entrance was made smaller, and changed so as to make the feat of stopping it more difficult.


There are those who look at Nature from the standpoint of conventional and artificial life,– from parlor windows and through gilt-edged poems,–the. sentimentalists. At the other extreme are those who do not look at Nature at all, but are a grown part of her, and look away from her toward the other class,–the backwoodsmen and pioneers, and all rude and simple persons. Then there are those in whom the two are united or merged,–the great poets and artists. In them the sentimentalist is corrected and cured, and the hairy and taciturn frontiersman has had experience to some purpose. The true poet knows more about Nature than the naturalist because he carries her open secrets in his heart. Eckermann could instruct Goethe in ornithology, but could not Goethe instruct Eckermann in the meaning and mystery of the bird? It is my privilege to number among my friends a man who has passed his life in cities amid the throngs of men, who never goes to the woods or to the country, or hunts or fishes, and yet he is the true naturalist. I think he studies the orbs. I think day and night and the stars, and the faces of men and women, have taught him all there is worth knowing.

We run to Nature because we are afraid of man. Our artists paint the landscape because they cannot paint the human face. If we could look into the eyes of a man as coolly as we can into the eyes of an animal, the products of our pens and brushes would be quite different from what they are.


But I suspect, after all, it makes but little difference to which school you go, whether to the woods or to the city. A sincere man learns pretty much the same things in both places. The differences are superficial, the resemblances deep and many. The hermit is a hermit, and the poet a poet, whether he grow up in the town or the country. I was forcibly reminded of this fact recently on opening the works of Charles Lamb after I had been reading those of our Henry Thoreau. Lamb cared nothing for nature, Thoreau for little else. One was as attached to the city and the life of the street and tavern as the other to the country and the life of animals and plants. Yet they are close akin. They give out the same tone and are pitched in about the same key. Their methods are the same; so are their quaintness and scorn of rhetoric. Thoreau has the drier humor, as might be expected, and is less stomachic. There is more juice and unction in Lamb, but this he owes to his nationality. Both are essayists who in a less reflective age would have been poets pure and simple. Both were spare, high-nosed men, and I fancy a resemblance even in their portraits. Thoreau is the Lamb of New England fields and woods, and Lamb is the Thoreau of London streets and clubs. There was a willfulness and perversity about Thoreau, behind which he concealed his shyness and his thin skin, and there was a similar foil in Lamb, though less marked, on account of his good-nature; that was a part of his armor, too.


Speaking of Thoreau’s dry humor reminds me how surely the old English unctuous and sympathetic humor is dying out or has died out of our literature. Our first notable crop of authors had it,– Paulding, Cooper, Irving, and in a measure Hawthorne,–but our later humorists have it not at all, but in its stead an intellectual quickness and perception of the ludicrous that is not unmixed with scorn.

One of the marks of the great humorist, like Cervantes, or Sterne, or Scott, is that he approaches his subject, not through his head merely, but through his heart, his love, his humanity. His humor is full of compassion, full of the milk of human kindness, and does not separate him from his subject, but unites him to it by vital ties. How Sterne loved Uncle Toby and sympathized with him, and Cervantes his luckless knight! I fear our humorists would have made fun of them, would have shown them up and stood aloof superior, and “laughed a laugh of merry scorn.” Whatever else the great humorist or poet, or any artist, may be or do, there is no contempt in his laughter. And this point cannot be too strongly insisted on in view of the fact that nearly all our humorous writers seem impressed with the conviction that their own dignity and self- respect require them to _look down_ upon what they portray. But it is only little men who look down upon anything or speak down to anybody. One sees every day how clear it is that specially fine, delicate, intellectual persons cannot portray satisfactorily coarse, common, uncultured characters. Their attitude is at once scornful and supercilious. The great man, like Socrates, or Dr. Johnson, or Abraham Lincoln, is just as surely coarse as he is fine, but the complaint I make with our humorists is that they are fine and not coarse in any healthful and manly sense. A great part of the best literature and the best art is of the vital fluids, the bowels, the chest, the appetites, and is to be read and judged only through love and compassion. Let us pray for unction, which is the marrowfat of humor, and for humility, which is the badge of manhood.

As the voice of the American has retreated from his chest to his throat and nasal passages, so there is danger that his contribution to literature will soon cease to imply any blood or viscera, or healthful carnality, or depth of human and manly affection, and will be the fruit entirely of our toploftical brilliancy and cleverness.

What I complain of is just as true of the essayists and the critics as of the novelists. The prevailing tone here also is born of a feeling of immense superiority. How our lofty young men, for instance, look down upon Carlyle, and administer their masterly rebukes to him! But see how Carlyle treats Burns, or Scott, or Johnson, or Novalis, or any of his heroes. Ay, there’s the rub; he makes heroes of them, which is not a trick of small natures. He can say of Johnson that he was “moonstruck,” but it is from no lofty height of fancied superiority, but he uses the word as a naturalist uses a term to describe an object he loves.

What we want, and perhaps have got more of than I am ready to admit, is a race of writers who affiliate with their subjects, and enter into them through their blood, their sexuality and manliness, instead of standing apart and criticising them and writing about them through mere intellectual cleverness and “smartness.”


There is a feeling in heroic poetry, or in a burst of eloquence, that I sometimes catch in quite different fields. I caught it this morning, for instance, when I saw the belated trains go by, and knew how they had been battling with storm, darkness, and distance, and had triumphed. They were due at my place in the night, but did not pass till after eight o’clock in the morning. Two trains coupled together,–the fast mail and the express,–making an immense line of coaches hauled by two engines. They had come from the West, and were all covered with snow and ice, like soldiers with the dust of battle upon them. They had massed their forces, and were now moving with augmented speed, and with a resolution that was epic and grand. Talk about the railroad dispelling the romance from the landscape; if it does, it brings the heroic element in. The moving train is a proud spectacle, especially on stormy and tempestuous nights. When I look out and see its light, steady and unflickering as the planets, and hear the roar of its advancing tread, or its sound diminishing in the distance, I am comforted and made stout of heart. O night, where is thy stay! O space, where is thy victory! Or to see the fast mail pass in the morning is as good as a page of Homer. It quickens one’s pulse for all day. It is the Ajax of trains. I hear its defiant, warning whistle, hear it thunder over the bridges, and its sharp, rushing ring among the rocks, and in the winter mornings see its glancing, meteoric lights, or in summer its white form bursting through the silence and the shadows, its plume of smoke lying flat upon its roofs and stretching far behind,–a sight better than a battle. It is something of the same feeling one has in witnessing any wild, free careering in storms, and in floods in nature; or in beholding the charge of an army; or in listening to an eloquent man, or to a hundred instruments of music in full blast,–it is triumph, victory. What is eloquence but mass in motion,–a flood, a cataract, an express train, a cavalry charge? We are literally carried away, swept from our feet, and recover our senses again as best we can.

I experienced the same emotion when I saw them go by with the sunken steamer. The procession moved slowly and solemnly. It was like a funeral cortege,–a long line of grim floats and barges and boxes, with their bowed and solemn derricks, the pall-bearers; and underneath in her watery grave, where she had been for six months, the sunken steamer, partially lifted and borne along. Next day the procession went back again, and the spectacle was still more eloquent. The steamer had been taken to the flats above and raised till her walking-beam was out of water; her bell also was exposed and cleaned and rung, and the wreckers’ Herculean labor seemed nearly over. But that night the winds and the storms held high carnival. It looked like preconcerted action on the part of tide, tempest, and rain to defeat these wreckers, for the elements all pulled together and pulled till cables and hawser snapped like threads. Back the procession started, anchors were dragged or lost, immense new cables were quickly taken ashore and fastened to trees; but no use: trees were upturned, the cables stretched till they grew small and sang like harp-strings, then parted; back, back against the desperate efforts of the men, till within a few feet of her old grave, when there was a great commotion among the craft, floats were overturned, enormous chains parted, colossal timbers were snapped like pipestems, and, with a sound that filled all the air, the steamer plunged to the bottom again in seventy feet of water.


I am glad to observe that all the poetry of the midsummer harvesting has not gone out with the scythe and the whetstone. The line of mowers was a pretty sight, if one did not sympathize too deeply with the human backs turned up there to the sun, and the sound of the whetstone, coming up from the meadows in the dewy morning, was pleasant music. But I find the sound of the mowing- machine and the patent reaper is even more in tune with the voices of Nature at this season. The characteristic sounds of midsummer are the sharp, whirring crescendo of the cicada or harvest fly, and the rasping, stridulous notes of the nocturnal insects. The mowing- machine repeats and imitates these sounds. ‘T is like the hum of a locust or the shuffling of a mighty grasshopper. More than that, the grass and the grain at this season have become hard. The timothy stalk is like a file; the rye straw is glazed with flint; the grasshoppers snap sharply as they fly up in front of you; the bird-songs have ceased; the ground crackles under foot; the eye of day is brassy and merciless; and in harmony with all these things is the rattle of the mower and the hay-tedder.


‘T is an evidence of how directly we are related to Nature, that we more or less sympathize with the weather, and take on the color of the day. Goethe said he worked easiest on a high barometer. One is like a chimney that draws well some days and won’t draw at all on others, and the secret is mainly in the condition of the atmosphere. Anything positive and decided with the weather is a good omen. A pouring rain may be more auspicious than a sleeping sunshine. When the stove draws well, the fogs and fumes will leave your mind.
I find there is great virtue in the bare ground, and have been much put out at times by those white angelic days we have in winter, such as Whittier has so well described in these lines:–

“Around the glistening wonder bent The blue walls of the firmament;
No cloud above, no earth below, A universe of sky and snow.”

On such days my spirit gets snow-blind; all things take on the same color, or no color; my thought loses its perspective; the inner world is a blank like the outer, and all my great ideals are wrapped in the same monotonous and expressionless commonplace. The blackest of black days are better.

Why does snow so kill the landscape and blot out our interest in it? Not merely because it is cold, and the symbol of death,–for I imagine as many inches of apple blossoms would have about the same effect,–but because it expresses nothing. White is a negative; a perfect blank. The eye was made for color, and for the earthy tints, and, when these are denied it, the mind is very apt to sympathize and to suffer also.

Then when the sap begins to mount in the trees, and the spring languor comes, does not one grow restless indoors? The sun puts out the fire, the people say, and the spring sun certainly makes one’s intellectual light grow dim. Why should not a man sympathize with the seasons and the moods and phases of Nature? He is an apple upon this tree, or rather he is a babe at this breast, and what his great mother feels affects him also.


I have frequently been surprised, in late fall and early winter, to see how unequal or irregular was the encroachment of the frost upon the earth. If there is suddenly a great fall in the mercury, the frost lays siege to the soil and effects a lodgment here and there, and extends its conquests gradually. At one place in the field you can easily run your staff through into the soft ground, when a few rods farther on it will be as hard as a rock. A little covering of dry grass or leaves is a great protection. The moist places hold out long, and the spring runs never freeze. You find the frost has gone several inches into the plowed ground, but on going to the woods, and poking away the leaves and debris under the hemlocks and cedars, you find there is no frost at all. The Earth freezes her ears and toes and naked places first, and her body last.

If heat were visible, or if we should represent it say by smoke, then the December landscape would present a curious spectacle. We should see the smoke lying low over the meadows, thickest in the hollows and moist places, and where the turf is oldest and densest. It would cling to the fences and ravines. Under every evergreen tree we should see the vapor rising and filling the branches, while the woods of pine and hemlock would be blue with it long after it had disappeared from the open country. It would rise from the tops of the trees, and be carried this way and that with the wind. The valleys of the great rivers, like the Hudson, would overflow with it. Large bodies of water become regular magazines in which heat is stored during the summer, and they give it out again during the fall and early winter. The early frosts keep well back from the Hudson, skulking behind the ridges, and hardly come over in sight at any point. But they grow bold as the season advances, till the river’s fires, too, I are put out and Winter covers it with his snows.


One of the strong and original strokes of Nature was when she made the loon. It is always refreshing to contemplate a creature so positive and characteristic. He is the great diver and flyer under water. The loon is the genius loci of the wild northern lakes, as solitary as they are. Some birds represent the majesty of nature, like the eagles; others its ferocity, like the hawks; others its cunning, like the crow; others its sweetness and melody, like the song-birds. The loon represents its wildness and solitariness. It is cousin to the beaver. It has the feathers of a bird and the fur of an animal, and the heart of both. It is as quick and cunning as it is bold and resolute. It dives with such marvelous quickness that the shot of the gunner get there just in time “to cut across a circle of descending tail feathers and a couple of little jets of water flung upward by the web feet of the loon.” When disabled so that it can neither dive nor fly, it is said to face its foe, look him in the face with its clear, piercing eye, and fight resolutely till death. The gunners say there is something in its wailing, piteous cry, when dying, almost human in its agony. The loon is, in the strictest sense, an aquatic fowl. It can barely walk upon the land, and one species at least cannot take flight from the shore. But in the water its feet are more than feet, and its wings more than wings. It plunges into this denser air and flies with incredible speed. Its head and beak form a sharp point to its tapering neck. Its wings are far in front and its legs equally far in the rear, and its course through the crystal depths is like the speed of an arrow. In the northern lakes it has been taken forty feet under water upon hooks baited for the great lake trout. I had never seen one till last fall, when one appeared on the river in front of my house. I knew instantly it was the loon. Who could not tell a loon a half mile or more away, though he had never seen one before? The river was like glass, and every movement of the bird as it sported about broke the surface into ripples, that revealed it far and wide. Presently a boat shot out from shore, and went ripping up the surface toward the loon. The creature at once seemed to divine the intentions of the boatman, and sidled off obliquely, keeping a sharp lookout as if to make sure it was pursued. A steamer came down and passed between them, and when the way was again clear, the loon was still swimming on the surface. Presently it disappeared under the water, and the boatman pulled sharp and hard. In a few moments the bird reappeared some rods farther on, as if to make an observation. Seeing it was being pursued, and no mistake, it dived quickly, and, when it came up again, had gone many times as far as the boat had in the same space of time. Then it dived again, and distanced its pursuer so easily that he gave over the chase and rested upon his oars. But the bird made a final plunge, and, when it emerged upon the surface again, it was over a mile away. Its course must have been, and doubtless was, an actual flight under water, and half as fast as the crow flies in the air.

The loon would have delighted the old poets. Its wild, demoniac laughter awakens the echoes on the solitary lakes, and its ferity and hardiness are kindred to those robust spirits.


One notable difference between man and the four-footed animals which has often occurred to me is in the eye, and the greater perfection, or rather supremacy, of the sense of sight in the human species. All the animals–the dog, the fox, the wolf, the deer, the cow, the horse–depend mainly upon the senses of hearing and smell. Almost their entire powers of discrimination are confined to these two senses. The dog picks his master out of the crowd by smell, and the cow her calf out of the herd. Sight is only partial recognition. The question can only be settled beyond all doubt by the aid of the nose. The fox, alert and cunning as he is, will pass within a few yards of the hunter and not know him from a stump. A squirrel will run across your lap, and a marmot between your feet, if you are motionless. When a herd of cattle see a strange object, they are not satisfied till each one has sniffed it; and the horse is cured of his fright at the robe, or the meal-bag, or other object, as soon as he can be induced to smell it. There is a great deal of speculation in the eye of an animal, but very little science. Then you cannot catch an animal’s eye; he looks at you, but not into your eye. The dog directs his gaze toward your face, but, for aught you can tell, it centres upon your mouth or nose. The same with your horse or cow. Their eye is vague and indefinite.

Not so with the birds. The bird has the human eye in its clearness, its power, and its supremacy over the other senses. How acute their sense of smell may be is uncertain; their hearing is sharp enough, but their vision is the most remarkable. A crow or a hawk, or any of the larger birds, will not mistake you for a stump or a rock, stand you never so still amid the bushes. But they cannot separate you from your horse or team. A hawk reads a man on horseback as one animal, and reads it as a horse. None of the sharp-scented animals could be thus deceived.

The bird has man’s brain also in its size. The brain of a song-bird is even much larger in proportion than that of the greatest human monarch, and its life is correspondingly intense and high-strung. But the bird’s eye is superficial. It is on the outside of his head. It is round, that it may take in a full circle at a glance.

All the quadrupeds emphasize their direct forward gaze by a corresponding movement of the ears, as if to supplement and aid one sense with another. But man’s eye seldom needs the confirmation of his ear, while it is so set, and his head so poised, that his look is forcible and pointed without being thus seconded.