The relationship between humans and birds goes back to the earliest times. This relationship has all along been based on fascination and wonder, in all probability because of the alluring beauty of their plumage, rich in all hues, and the variety of their melodious calls, but above all, because of the effortless ease with which they could take to air and fly, soaring to great heights. Primitive humans even went to the extent of viewing them as numinous beings in league with unseen powers. Till this day, birds are considered creatures endowed with some spiritual significance and they evoke aesthetic delight, wonder and reverence. The eagle, the hoopoe, the dove and the peacock came to be credited with an association with divine forces. It is little wonder then that bards of all times and climes have derived inspiration from birds, big and small, and they find a place in a wide range of poetry in all languages. In this article we will confine ourselves to the English language, as many a British bard has written about birds since the days of Chaucer.
Bards share with ornithologists an acute sense of observation and in addition have the facility to communicate the subtlest aspects of nature. However, we shall see that very few of them have looked at birds as a naturalist or an ornithologist does. Shakespeare, one of the few exceptions, took birds as part of the world, to which any sensitive human being capable of appreciating the finer things of life would respond. In such a context, bird-song serves as background music, enhancing the goodness innate in the very process of living. The lines that follow illustrate this well:
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring
(As You Like It)
William Cowper, in his Winter Walk At Noon, refers to a robin flitting among trees, singing feebly and shaking off at the same time bits of snow as he brushes past the twigs. This reference also brings out the accuracy of the bard's observation:
No noise is here, or none that hinders thought.
The redbreast warbles still, but is content
With slender notes, and more than half
Unfortunately, this kind of careful observation is not generally followed in English poetry. There is very little natural history in the sublime poetry inspired by the Nightingale in Keat's Ode, though the poem has its own haunting quality. The same is true of Shelley's To a Skylarkwhich has hardly any ornithology in it. There is a great deal about human thought and emotion, but very little about the bird, except as a symbol of soaring human aspirations. Likewise, the sadness evoked by a caged bird or a dead pet is a frequently occurring theme. William Blake reminds us of the pathos of the image of enslaved humanity in his crisp expression:
A Robin Redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage.
(Auguries of Innocence)
In general, it can be said that a majority of poets use birds merely as a form of symbolism. They bring them into their poetry mainly to illustrate some striking qualities, to serve as similes and metaphors. They focus their attention on certain features of bird behaviour, and attribute to these traits a human significance that has no relevance to the bird's own traits. In other words, the poems are anthropocentric. Thus owls suggest wisdom, presumably due to the look on their faces; they also suggest a kind of fright by their eerie hoots or screeches which mar the silence of the night. The nightingale came to signify things melancholy, the lark joy that lifts the human spirit far above things earthly, the turtle dove fidelity in love, the robin friendliness, the swallow the coming and going of summer, the jackdaw mischief and so on - all ideas with strong human connotations.
However, here and there we do come across lines in English poetry that give accurate descriptions of bird behaviour, reflecting the poet's uncanny powers of observation and accuracy of description. Andrew Marvell admirably described the Green Woodpecker's manner of climbing trees:
He walks still upright from the root,
Measuring the timber with his foot.
(Upon Appleton House)
Browning's line on the call of the thrush is diagnostic even:
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song
(Home Thoughts, from Abroad)
The song thrush does repeat his notes, often twice - but also thrice, as often Tennyson had observed. This made him say:
Summer is coming, summer is coming,
I know it, I know it, I know it.
Of all the English bards, Shakespeare remains unsurpassed, be it in the number of species that drew his attention or his unmistakable delight and interest in wildlife. This aspect of Shakespeare's work is something more than poetic knowledge and talent. One can even go to the extent of saying that it is a proof of personal predilection, and that he was a bird lover. He was no ornithologist, not even a naturalist. But as a country-born poet he had ample opportunities to watch a variety of living things during the most impressionable years of his life. Also, there is proof that he was of a compassionate disposition. The cruel Elizabethan sport of cock fighting aroused his feelings of pity.
In Shakespearian imagery, nature and animals come first, and among the latter, birds play a major role. He had a keen eye for detail. Proud and impetuous Coriolanus is compared to the eagle: the eagle shaking the moisture from its wings after a bath or the allied osprey that takes a fish 'by sovereignty of nature' (Coriolanus, IV.VII.34.). Antony is likened to a doting mallard in the mating season (Antony and Cleopatra, III.x.21). There are striking proofs of bird watching, such as the description of a dabchick, 'a dive- dapper peering through a wave' (Venus and Adonis), and of jackdaws, 'rising and cawing at the gun's report' (A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii.21). Shakespearean realism is at its best in the picture of Beatrice who 'like a lapwing runs close to the ground' (Much Ado About Nothing, III.i.24).The mobbing of owls by small birds in retaliation for their nocturnal raids (Macbeth, IV.ii.II) is hinted at by the bard. He also voices the common superstitious dread of the owl, referring to the 'bird of night' as the 'fatal bellman' (Macbeth, II.ii.3). For Shakespeare, the sensitive lover of nature and music, it is not the aesthetic value of the plumage that matters somuch as the 'nimble' movement of the birds on the wing and their songs. The 'royal' eagle, the fabulous halcyon, the biblical sparrow, the motherliness of the domestic hen, the pride of the peacock, the squalid vulture, the greedy cormorant are all put to apt symbolic uses, and are subjects of repeated allusions.
It can be said by way of summing up that nearly all the major orders, exceeding sixty species, are represented in Shakespeare's works. There is not a single play or poem that does not contain some bird allusions. An admiring contemporary, Ben Jonson, in a posthumous prophetic tribute to his friend's future greatness, coined the famous phrase 'sweet swan of Avon'.
Coming closer to recent times, there cannot be a more appropriate reference to the prevailing anarchy than that used so tellingly by W.B. Yeats in his poem The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.
For the falcon, the sky is the playground and it can fly with a ferocity that never seems satisfied with killing. The destructiveness of such a bird, that goes out of control of the falconer, metaphorically, is beyond the power of words to describe. And to describe the chaos and the violence of modern times there can be no better analogy.
To conclude, poets have made much use of birds in their poetry from ancient to modern times. The range of such poetry is such that it can only be covered by an omniscience beyond the reach of even the most assiduous student of world literature.