The best bird poems in English literature selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
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?
Anonymous, ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’. 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; click here to read 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.
William Shakespeare, ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. This short 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.
Percy Shelley, ‘To a Skylark’. 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.
John Clare, ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’. 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’.
John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. 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.
James Henry, ‘Pigeons’. 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.
Emily Dickinson, ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’. 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.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’. 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’.
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.
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.