Book Reviews

The Bird-lovers' Anthology

The Bird-lovers' Anthology
edited by Clinton Scollard, Jessie Belle Rittenhouse
Houghton Mifflin, 1930 (Original from University of California),
299 pages Digitized: 28 Nov 2007

While reading Harper Lee’s (1926-2016) classic of 1960 “To Kill a Mockingbird” I was more intrigued by the noun   Mockingbird rather than the protagonist of the novel, Atticus Finch. The title To Kill a Mockingbird wasn't Harper Lee's first choice. Originally she called the book Atticus. I was wondering why she changed the title   and what significance this bird represented because this bird has almost no connection with the plot of the novel. Then, in chapter 10 of the book, a character called Miss Maudie  says, “Mockingbirds don't do one thing but make music for us to enjoy…but sing their hearts out for us. That's why it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."  This bird has a symbolic weight of innocence to the story. 

By the way, Finch is also a song bird. Aren’t all the birds innocent?

Percy Bysshe Shelly (1792-1822) composed his famous “To the Skylark”. He describes how the Skylark springs up from the ground reminding him of a cloud of fire.  While soaring high in the sky, it sings sweetly while its blue wings flutter.  He writes:

“Higher still and higher,
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar,
and soaring ever singest.

You achieve greater and greater heights, and rise from the earth like a cloud of flames, soaring through the deep blue sky while singing nonstop. P.B. Shelly was all of 29 years when he breathed his last.  It was an unbearable loss to the lovers of PB Shelly and his classic poetry. 

I had come across poems, the subject of which were based on ornithology but they were all sporadic and not on a regular basis as they were scattered in so many other books. Then suddenly I discovered a gold mine in a   book edited by Jessie Rittenhouse Scollard with Clinton Scollard   titled "The Bird-Lovers Anthology”. Call this a gold mine since  W. Somerset Maugham had said, “The Crown of Literature is Poetry”.  This book contained   countless gemstones of poems based only on one subject- Birds. Various birds such as Lark, Nightingale, Mockingbird, Whippoorwill, Sandpiper, Water Duck, Catbird, Robin, Bobolink, Yellow Hammer, Balliol Rook,  Owls, Vultures, Crows and many, many others. Take for example this bird called Bobolink. About which the poet James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) in his “Sunthin’ in the Pastoral Line” says,

……..’Nuff sed, June’s bridesman, poet o’ the year,
Gladness on wings, the bobolink, is here;
Half-hid in tip-top apple-blooms he swings,
Or climbs aginst the breeze with quiverin’ wings,
Or, givin’ way to ’t in a mock despair,
Runs down, a brook o’ laughter, thru the air.
I ollus feel the sap start in my veins
In Spring, with curus heats an’ prickly pains,
Thet drive me, when I git a chance, to walk……..

You come to know in the poem that Bobolink is a bird to be found in the month of June and it is so sweet that the poet calls it Brook of Laughter! He further adds, “ Having said that, the June poet of the year, Gladness on wings, the bobolink, is here. He swings while being partially obscured by the apple blossoms' peak flowers. It raises its wings and soars against the wind. Or, by letting it go in a staged state of desperation, a torrent of laughing erupts into the air. As I type this, sap starts to fill my veins. Spring brings scorching temperatures and sharp pains.

Next in line was “O Nightingale,” by William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

O Nightingale! thou surely art
A creature of a "fiery 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;

As though the nightingale's call were a fire, Wordsworth goes on describing, a nightingale, Without a doubt, you have a "fiery heart". Your chords, which are ferocious and turbulent harmony, stab me endlessly! You sing as if you received a sweet heart (here a sweet voice) from the wine god.

"Yellowhammer's Rat-tat-too on the Orchard Bough" is a traditional English folk song, first collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in 1892. The lyrics to the song tell the story of a yellowhammer trying to find a mate by drumming on the branches of an apple tree. The song has been recorded by various artists, including Ewan MacColl and the Watersons, and remains popular to this day.

Yellow hammer's Rat-tat-too on the Orchard bough;
That's the sound that used to break through my
morning dreams;
Heighho! Heart of youth!when I hear it now,
Back again my boyhood comes; very near it seems.

“My morning dreams used to be interrupted by the sound of a yellow hammer hitting an orchard branch. Heighho! youthful heart! My boyhood comes flooding back to me now when I hear it; it seems to be quite close.” That is how the poet describes about yellow hammer.

Eliza Cook (1818-1889) writes about the bird Balliol Rook or Sable Rook.

"Tai rook sits high when the blast sweeps by,
flight pleased with his wild See-Saw,
And hollow and bleak be the fierce wind’s shriek
It is marked by his loud Caw Caw.
"What careth be for the bin robed tree,
Or the rose so sweet and fair,
The loves not the sheen of the spring-time green
Any more than the branches bear.

The Balliol Rook/Sable Rook resembles a crow in appearance. It has additionally been called a tough, inclement weather-resistant bird. The poet claims that it is not one of the weak birds that the cold, wind, and rain shake. The sable rook prefers perching on treetops and cawing loudly when the wind blows. It doesn't give a damn about the fragrant rose or the thornless tree. Springtime green doesn't pique its curiosity. It enjoys shouting caw-caw while perched on the barren branches.

Here is a stanza of a poem on the Hummingbird by Alexander Wilson (1766-1813):

When the morning dawns, and the blest sun again
Lifts his red glories from the eastern main,
Then thro' our woodbines, wet with glittering dews,
The flower-fed humming-bird his round pursues;
Sips, with inserted tube, the honey'd blooms,
And chirps his gratitude as round he roams;

When dawn breaks, and the bright sun shines gloriously once more from the horizon of the east, then through our moist, shimmering dew-covered woods. The hummingbird is pursuing in his circle, feeding on flowers; as he walks around, chirping in gratitude, he sips the honeyed petals via the tube.

Joseph Ouslander (1897-1965) was an American poet who wrote about the blackbird, thus:

Heaven is in my hand, and I
Touched a heartbeat of the sky,
Hearing a blackbird cry.
Strange, beautiful, unquiet thing.
Lone flute of God, how can you sing
Winter to spring?
You have outdistanced every voice and word.
And given my spirit wings until it stirred
Like you a bird.

He described about the blackbird as though the “heaven is in my hands, and while listening to a blackbird cry, I felt the sky's heartbeat. Strange, lovely, and unsettling thing. How can you, God's lone flute, sing winter into spring? Every sound and word has been eclipsed by your presence, and gave my spirit wings so that it may soar like a bird.”

William Weaver Christman(1865-1937) was a nature’s poet, A national historic district called Christman Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary is located close to Delanson in Schenectady County, New York. The sanctuary got its start in 1888 when W.W. Christman, the landowner, and his wife, the former Catherine Bradt, started a winter bird feeding programme following that year's major blizzard. He wrote a poem “A Mourning Dove” perhaps looking at this bird in that blizzard. A stanza in this poem is:

O shirring wings! O trembling throat
That puts such heartbreak in a note!
All through the woodlands shadows dim,
My heart is glad to follow him
O soft an low -- but I'll no more
Over the ferny forest floor
At dawn or dusk to listen lest
He pluck the heart out of my breast

Poet describes: Oh, shimmering wings! Oh, my throat is trembling that makes a melancholy tone, I tell you! As the shadows grow longer over the forested areas, my heart is content to follow him. O delicate and low, but I'll stop there, above the forest floor covered in ferns. Lest He take my heart from my breast, I must not hear at dawn or dusk.

These co-parenting birds lay up to six broods each year due to the high mortality rates of their fledglings, earning them the name of their characteristic, sombre song.

Robert Frost (1874-1963) wrote about a minor bird. We don’t know what minor bird is this one, Myna or something else, but it is a precious little poem. The final verse contains the loveliest message. A poet may be writing or studying intently when he hears a bird chirping, but for some reason his sleep is interrupted. The poet then claps his hands and motions for the bird to fly away, but no matter how loudly he calls, the bird keeps returning and chirping. The poet ultimately acknowledges that the fault was not of that chirping bird's, but rather his own, after droning on for a while.

I have wished a bird would fly away,
And not sing by my house all day;
Have clapped my hands at him from the door
When it seemed as if I could bear no more.
The fault must partly have been in me.
The bird was not to blame for his key.
And of course there must be something wrong
In wanting to silence any song.

Frost says, “When it appeared that I couldn't bear it any longer, I clapped my hands at a bird outside my door, and I wished all day for him to take off and quit singing outside my house. I must share some of the responsibility. The bird wasn't at blame for losing his key. Of course, trying to turn off any song is a sign that something is wrong.”

The book covers almost all the species of birds and the poems based on their attributes and shapes and sizes and more importantly their sweet voice. Of course there are villainous birds like owl and vultures and other vicious looking species, but the number of poems dedicated to innocent and sweet birds far outnumbers the awful ones. I could know so many birds such as Oven bird, oriole, thrasher, linnet, white throat, horned owl, beach bird, sea bird, hermit, robin, wood thrush, heron, grackle. There are Doves and Woodpeckers, Tropical Birds, Birds of Prey, Birds of Snowy Solstice, Clerics, Birds of the Night, Birds of Lake and River, Birds of Marsh and Moor, Birds of Sea and Shore, The Mockers, Winged Jewels, Birds of Summer Choir, Ethereal Ministrels, , the list is endless. Contributions are from the luminaries such as William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, PB Shelly, Walter de la Mere, Whitney Montgomery, Maurice Thompson, James Lowell, William Griffith, Sara Teasdale, Richard Hove, Walt Whitman and many more. Birds have sparked writers' enduring interest for centuries and the avian life around us has captured our attention. Poetry honoring birds and the delights of our own gardens are collected in this anthology. Bird enthusiasts and anyone who has found solace or joy in watching a bird fly will appreciate this fascinating anthology.

This is the kind of book you want to have around when you just want to unwind and appreciate the power of the written word. The only drawback I felt about this otherwise beautiful book is that it didn’t contain the pictures of the birds but it can certainly transport you to a quiet setting where you can hear all those birds chirping.

Image (c) istock.com

04-Feb-2023

More by :  Dr. Satish Bendigiri

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