By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Birds are everywhere in poetry, so compiling this list of ten of the greatest bird poems has involved leaving many great poems out. However, we hope that the selection below will suggest the wondrous variety to be found among English-language poets and their descriptions of birds. What’s your favourite bird poem?
1. Anonymous, ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’.
Ich was in one sumere dale,
in one suþe diȝele hale,
iherde ich holde grete tale
an hule and one niȝtingale.
Þat plait was stif & starc & strong,
sum wile softe & lud among;
an aiþer aȝen oþer sval,
& let þat [vue]le mod ut al …
This is the one longer poem on this list; it’s also the earliest, by some distance. Thought by some estimates to have been composed as early as 1189 or shortly thereafter, it’s among the earliest poems composed in a form of English that resembles the language we use today – though it’s still difficult to read in the original (which we’ve linked to above; see here for a modern prose translation).
The poem takes the form of a debate between the two birds, the owl and nightingale, which have very different views on everything from religion and poetry to lavatorial habits. It anticipates Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls by nearly two centuries.
2. William Shakespeare, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.
Let the bird of loudest lay
On the sole Arabian tree
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.
But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.
From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king;
Keep the obsequy so strict …
This poem by Shakespeare has been called the first metaphysical poem, and takes as its focus the two birds, the mythical phoenix (which is famed for being able to rise from the ashes of its own funeral pyre) and the turtledove (associated with love). It was published as a sort of supplement to a much longer poem by Robert Chester, which also focused on the phoenix and turtledove.
3. Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
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 …
So begins one of the most celebrated bird poems in all of English literature. Shelley (1792-1822) completed this, one of his most famous poems, in June 1820. The inspiration for the poem was an evening walk Shelley took with his wife, Mary (author of Frankenstein, of course), in Livorno, in north-west Italy.
Mary later described the circumstances that gave rise to the poem: ‘It was on a beautiful summer evening while wandering among the lanes whose myrtle hedges were the bowers of the fire-flies, that we heard the carolling of the skylark.’ The opening line of the poem gave Noel Coward the title for his play Blithe Spirit.
Shelley’s poem is as much about poetic inspiration as it is about the bird itself. As so often with Romantic poetry, the self of the poet, the stuff of poetic creativity, the individual soul of the artist, is at one with nature’s awe-inspiring beauty and majesty. We have analysed this poem here.
4. John Clare, ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’.
Just by the wooden brig a bird flew up,
Frit by the cowboy as he scrambled down
To reach the misty dewberry—let us stoop
And seek its nest—the brook we need not dread,
’Tis scarcely deep enough a bee to drown,
So it sings harmless o’er its pebbly bed
—Ay here it is, stuck close beside the bank
Beneath the bunch of grass that spindles rank
Its husk seeds tall and high—’tis rudely planned
Of bleachèd stubbles and the withered fare
That last year’s harvest left upon the land,
Lined thinly with the horse’s sable hair …
Clare is still a rather overlooked figure in English Romanticism and nature poetry, and he had a fine eye for detail, as this poem demonstrates. ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’ also shows Clare’s wonderful sensitivity to vowel sounds, as he explores the patterns found within nature by focusing on the nest of the bird, which is described as ‘poet-like’. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
5. John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.
Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown …
John Keats (1795-1821) wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, one of his most celebrated poems, in Hampstead in 1819 – sitting under a plum tree, according to one account. (In the same account, he wrote the entire thing in one morning!)
Keats uses the nightingale as a way of talking about death, annihilation, immortality, and, indeed, his own feelings about these subjects – the nightingale being a common symbol for the poet. We have analysed this poem here.
6. James Henry, ‘Pigeons’.
By what mistake were pigeons made so happy,
So plump and fat and sleek and well content,
So little with the affairs of others meddling,
So little meddled with? say, a collared dog,
And hard worked ox, and horse still harder worked,
And caged canary, why, uncribbed, unmaimed,
Unworked and of its will lord absolute,
The pigeon sole has free board and free quarters,
Till at its throat the knife, and pigeon pie
Must smoke ere noon upon the parson’s table …
As an opening line for a nineteenth-century poem, ‘By what mistake were pigeons made so happy’ stands out for its directness, its sheer oddness, and its unusual choice of subject-matter (doves in poetry, why yes; pigeons? Um…). James Henry (1798-1876) was overlooked during his lifetime and it was only more than a century after his death that his work was discovered. ‘Pigeons’ offers something very different from Henry’s contemporaries, whether Keats or Tennyson or even Browning.
7. Emily Dickinson, ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all …
As with many of her poems, Emily Dickinson here takes an abstract feeling or idea – in this case, hope – and likens it to something physical, visible, and tangible – a singing bird. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it.
8. Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’.
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
So begins this brilliant take on the sonnet. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) thought ‘The Windhover’ the best thing he ever wrote. He wrote it in 1877, during a golden era of creativity for the poet, while he was living in Wales.
The comparison between the kestrel or ‘windhover’ and Christ arises out of Hopkins’s deeply felt Christianity (he was a Jesuit), and the poet’s breathless exhilaration at sighting the bird is brilliantly captured by Hopkins’s distinctive ‘sprung rhythm’.
9. Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.
Taken from Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium (1923), though it was first published in 1917 in the journal Others, this poem has been viewed as an example of American imagism and as an exercise in Stevens’ idea of perspectivism, whereby each of the thirteen mini-poems examines the blackbird in a different way. We have analysed this poem here.
10. Ted Hughes, ‘King of Carrion’.
Any list of the best bird poems should probably include something from Ted Hughes’ experimental but defining volume, Crow (1970). Hughes wrote the cycle of poems about ‘Crow’ in the late 1960s, and it was a far more experimental and avant-garde book than Hughes’s previous volumes of poetry.
‘King of Carrion’ is an accessible but representative poem from this enthralling if unsettling collection. Hughes doesn’t shy aware from the Darwinian violence inherent in the natural world.
For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. Continue to explore the world of poetry with our tips for the close reading of poetry, these must-have poetry anthologies, and these classic poems about horses.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.