Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the most popular American poet during the nineteenth century though as the years have passed his star has dimmed in comparison to other poets of the period. Many see his work as derivative of the European poets, unoriginal, and suitable only for children. His most famous work today is probably “Paul Revere’s Ride” though other poems, including “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “Evangeline” are also remembered.
Longfellow was born in Maine, then a part of Massachusetts, in 1807. He attended Bowdoin College, traveled extensively in Europe, and later returned to Bowdoin to teach before he moved on to Harvard. He outlived two wives and upon his death was buried next to both of them in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Longfellow’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts by Julie Zickefoose
“Birds of Passage” was the title poem in a short collection of poetry that Longfellow published in 1858. From what I can gather the poem was actually first published in 1845 but I haven’t been able to track down the original place he published it. As poems go it is fair-to-middling, with the simple conceit that the sounds that the poet hears overhead aren’t migrating birds, but “winged words” – poetry. And how can a birder who appreciates poetry not like that idea?
Before I go any further let me share the poem:
Birds of Passage
Black shadows fall
From the lindens tall,
That lift aloft their massive wall
Against the southern sky;
And from the realms
Of the shadowy elms
A tide-like darkness overwhelms
The fields that round us lie.
But the night is fair,
A warm, soft vapor fills the air,
And distant sounds seem near,
And above, in the light
Of the star-lit night,
Swift birds of passage wing their flight
Through the dewy atmosphere.
I hear the beat
Of their pinions fleet,
As from the land of snow and sleet
They seek a southern lea.
I hear the cry
Of their voices high
Falling dreamily through the sky,
But their forms I cannot see.
O, say not so!
Those sounds that flow
In murmurs of delight and woe
Come not from wings of birds.
They are the throngs
Of the poet’s songs,
Murmurs of pleasures, and pains, and wrongs,
The sound of winged words.
This is the cry
Of souls, that high
On toiling, beating pinions, fly,
Seeking a warmer clime,
From their distant flight
Through realms of light
It falls into our world of night,
With the murmuring sound of rhyme.
Any birder that studies migration, listens for flight calls, or has a poetic touch has to love this part of the poem, which is a pretty good description of what hearing birds migrating overhead is like: “I hear the cry / Of their voices high / Falling dreamily through the sky, / Though their forms I cannot see.”
The form of the poem is simple, with each stanza a clause, and the chain rhyme scheme of AAAB CCCB rolls off of the tongue even if, or perhaps because, the rhymes are so basic. The vocabulary is simple, with no words of more than three syllables and nothing that would send a 19th century reader to the dictionary. It is a straightforward work and only of interest to me because of the subject matter. What do you think of Longfellow’s poem?
a bird of passage pausing to refuel – a Rose-breasted Grosbeak
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