This week in 1862, Dickinson most likely read Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s essay, “The Life of Birds,” in the September edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It is one of the many essays he published in the Atlantic later collected in a volume in called Out-door Papers (1863) and was inspired in part by his admiration for Thoreau.
According to Christine Gerhardt, author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (2014):
Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures.
Birds Dickinson mentions by name are: bluebird, blue jay, bobolink, crow, hummingbird, lark, oriole, owl, phoebe, robin, sparrow, woodpecker and wren. To help us explore Higginson’s essay and its influence on Dickinson’s many poems about birds, we are fortunate this week to have Christine Gerhardt as a guest blogger !
Her book, A Place for Humility, is a revelation. Not just because it finds surprising and substantial links between the two major poets of the 19th century who are more often set in opposition, but on account of the exquisite and often surprising treatment of their nature poetry as poetry about real nature. We are so accustomed to reading Whitman and especially Dickinson as poets of self and consciousness using the world as metaphor that we sometimes forget they were also keen observers of the nature around them. Christine shows why this is important. She reads their work in the context of the emerging science of ecology and environmental sensibility of the second half of the 19th century, and the result is a model of eco-criticism that also highlights the growing, pressing concerns we face today in a world of headlong and devastating climate change.
“Birds are the Poor Man’s Music”
Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebel armies still march on. There is no longer any doubt of their intentions. They have adopted the offensive policy, and are marching straight for the free states, hoping to do such damage and create such a panic before our new levies are brought into the field as shall bring us to their feet to accept peace on their terms. They have left their coast defenseless and have massed all their available force in Virginia and Tennessee, where they are moving northward and westward.”
Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Birds are the poor man’s music, flowers the poor man’s poetry; and the rich man has no better.”
A Mad Poetess, page 7
“In that part of the Washington asylum which is still devoted to its insane patients, Dr. Nicholas showed me a sight which was particularly touching to me. Cross-legged upon the round table in the centre of the room was seated a woman, perhaps thirty years of age, who had the remains of remarkable beauty. Her long, gray hair was disheveled, and of her dress and appearance she evidently had not a thought; but, open upon her lap was a volume from which she was pretending to read aloud, making an unintelligible and incoherent gabble. By her side lay a volume of a novel of her own writing, with her own likeness as a frontispiece, and she had gone crazy as an authoress. But what a pity is such an apparently unnecessary wreck of a lifetime of a beautiful girl, for I am told that her recovery is hopeless. Alas for the head that is to go wild with over-endowing!”
Poetry, page 6
Glorious Victory!!: The Enemy Fleeing in Panic, page 2
“A very severe engagement took place on Sunday last, between our forces under Gen. McClellan and the rebels under Gen. Lee. The rebels were overtaken by our troops 3 miles northwest of Middleton. Gen. Lee was wounded, and Gen. Garland was killed. Our troops pursued the enemy as fast as possible. Gen. Hooker captured a thousand prisoners, and Gen. Lee, it is said, places his own loss at 15,000, and is represented to have said that he was shockingly whipped.”
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862
“The Life of Birds” by Thomas Higginson, page 368
“When one thinks of a bird, one fancies a soft, swift, aimless, joyous thing, full of nervous energy and arrowy motions—a song with wings. So remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language; and men only stare at their darting, inexplicable ways, as at the gyrations of the circus. Watch their little traits for hours, and it only tantalizes curiosity. Every man’s secret is penetrable, if his neighbor be sharp-sighted. But this bird that hovers and alights beside me, peers up at me, takes its food, then looks again, attitudinizing, jerking, flirting its tail, with a thousand inquisitive and fantastic motions—although I have the power to grasp it in my hand and crush its life out, yet I cannot gain its secret thus, and the centre of its consciousness is really farther from mine than the remotest planetary orbit.”
“Small, like the Wren”
by Christine Gerhardt
Birds were a major preoccupation of Dickinson’s throughout her life, and they mattered to her both as potent metaphors and as actual, living creatures. In many of her letters, she identified with birds intensely, engaging some of her culture’s more conventional views of birds while also reshaping these views in provocative ways.
Consider, for instance, her famous epistolary self-portrait, sent to Higginson in the summer of 1862, close to the cultural moment that this week’s blog focuses on:
I […] am small, like the Wren; and my hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves. (L268)
This snapshot echoes culturally condoned claims of female modesty, yet it also links being small to a transgressive sense of natural-cultural boldness. Just days later, she wrote to her friends the Hollands :
My business is to love. I found a bird, this morning down – down – on a little bush at the foot of the garden, and wherefore sing, I said, since nobody hears? One sob in the throat, one flutter of bosom—‘My business is to sing’ – and away she rose! (L269)
Here, the common association between birds and delicate, humble song begins to suggest a somewhat precarious relationship to Dickinson’s own audience, and a necessary, albeit melancholy sense of artistic independence. And when she wrote to her young cousins,
I think the bluebirds do their work exactly like me. They dart around just so, with little dodging feet, and look so agitated. I really feel for them, they seem to be so tired (L339),
she merged a Victorian woman’s practiced compassion for the small with a subdued sense of crisis regarding women’s work, and, maybe, even with concern over the fate of birds in the increasingly cultivated landscapes of New England, undercutting her time’s widespread notions of birds’ cuteness and childlike innocence.
Thus, the numerous birds in Dickinson’s letters and poems form a nodal point of her deep connection with the world around her, from which she drew inspiration and to which she responded so intensely. Orioles and phoebes, hummingbirds and jays were among the many non-human creatures she frequently encountered during her explorations of Amherst’s fields and forests as a girl and young adult, and even when her outward life became more and more secluded, she kept meeting birds in the extensive family gardens.
Birds were also part of Dickinson’s life through various environmental discourses that intensified in the mid-nineteenth century, also and especially in her native New England. For one, the newly specialized natural sciences not only included astronomy, botany, chemistry, and geology, which Dickinson studied at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke, but also the somewhat younger discipline of ornithology, which her textbooks discussed under the more general rubrics of Natural Philosophy and Natural History. (More indirectly, birds were also discussed in her immediate vicinity when renowned geologist and natural theologian Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College discovered thousands of fossil dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut valley, insisting they stem from flightless birds.)
Second, Dickinson kept herself informed about the latest developments in natural history, including the emerging field of ornithology, through her avid readings of the Springfield Republican, Harper’s New Monthly, Scribner’s Monthly, and, especially, the Atlantic Monthly. These newspapers and periodicals carried not only reviews of Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), with its massive notes on diverse bird populations of South America, and of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which was inspired by his discovery of the Galapagos finches, but also of Edward A. Samuels' Ornithology and Oölogy of New England (1867) and the popular field guide The Birds of New England (1869).
And third, Dickinson was deeply familiar with the time’s popular genre of natural history essays, dozens, if not hundreds of which focused on birds – from Wilson Flagg’s “Birds of the Night” (1859) to Olive Thorne Miller’s “A Tricksy Spirit” (1885). Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Life of Birds” (1862), which this week’s post focuses on, was among its most influential examples, and Dickinson probably read it in the September issue of the 1862 Atlantic Monthly and owned it in book form, as part of Higginson’s Out-Door Papers (1863).
These seemingly innocent, largely descriptive bird essays are noteworthy for their combination of detailed description, moral instruction, and spiritual reflections, and also for their early conservationist arguments – years before the American Ornithologists’ Union (founded in 1883) and the National Audubon Society (1886) emphasized the need to protect various bird species from the threat of extinction through hunters, farmers, and the millinery trade.
It’s a fascinating exercise to go back and forth between Higginson’s essay and the bird poems Dickinson wrote around the same time. Dickinson knew the essay well, and critics have pointed out that she saw Higginson’s nature essays as a “firm bond between them” (Habegger 453). If her poems can be read as answers to his question about what literature could do “towards describing one summer day” (Habegger 453), these answers are much more unruly than they seem, especially regarding the earth’s smallest life forms.
More generally, the dialog between Higginson’s essays and Dickinson’s poems reveals noteworthy similarities in their proto-ecological attention to natural detail and the dynamic relationships between species and their environments, as well as a shared eco-ethical humility. It also highlights how boldly Dickinson’s poetic snapshots pushed beyond his learned, sentimental, moralistic prose, mediating between exultant gestures of identification and the recognition of nature’s difference without resolving the tension, and embracing scientific nomenclature and conventions without assuming interpretive control, even at moments of highest achievement.
Higginson’s bird essay accentuates a related but different quality of Dickinson’s ecopoetics, which has to do with their shared interest in birds’ large-scale, unsettling movement. I don’t mean their fluttering about, or their sheer ability to fly – of course birds are mobile – but movement of a different order. Higginson begins by stating that
so remote from ours their mode of existence, they seem accidental exiles from an unknown globe, banished where none can understand their language,
viewing birds’ global, even cosmic motions as key to their life and tantalizing elusiveness. Just as remarkably, he casts New England as a hub of such wide-ranging movements:
[Migration] is, of course, a universal instinct, since even tropical birds migrate for short distances from the equator, so essential to their existence do these wanderings seem. But in New England, among birds as among men, the roving habit seems unusually strong, and abodes are shifted very rapidly.
Yet in spite of his focus on birds’ migrations, and the recognition that one cannot “know” a single hummingbird (an “exiled pigmy prince, banished, but still regal”) or swallow (“the strange emigrant from the far West”), his text is driven by the impulse to grasp these “images of airy motion.”
Ultimately, he imaginatively contains all of his birds through detailed descriptions, “translations” of their song, and allusions to their good habits, monogamy, and parental instincts, claiming that “[a]mong all created things, the birds come nearest to man in their domesticity.”
Dickinson’s bird poems turn this tension between birds’ mobility and their apparent domesticity on its head, most memorably, perhaps, in “A Bird came down the Walk – .” Initially, this genteel robin leisurely strolls through a garden, yields the right of way, and drinks delicately. Yet its final flight undoes all of this scene’s assumptions. In the speaker’s New England garden, this robin is increasingly out of place: “frightened” and nervous from the third stanza on, its flight, for all its ephemeral softness, marks an escape into an unbounded realm where it is actually at “home.” As the speaker’s attempt to care for and feed the robin fails, so does the poem’s effort to symbolically domesticate it: here, tame birds are not to be had, and even sharing a place with them is fraught with tensions.
Less directly, this inter-species encounter gone wrong also renders the garden and its boundaries fluid. Commonly idealized as delimited space where cultivation recreates heaven on earth, this garden is crossed by birds and other animals who will forever re-wild it. As such, this bird’s final flight also undermines humankind’s larger efforts to domesticate all that seems “too wild” in this world. In this, we can imagine Dickinson talking back to her naturalist friend Higginson, who would later remember his meeting with her by posing as an ornithologist yielding (at least some of) his systems of control:
I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.
bio: Christine Gerhardt is Professor of American Studies at the University of Bamberg, Germany. She is the author of A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World (U of Iowa P, 2014) and Rituale des Scheiterns: Die Reconstruction-Periode im US-amerikanischen Roman (Winter Verlag, 2003). She is also the editor of The American Novel of the Nineteenth Century (2018) and one of the co-editors of Religion in the United States (2011). Her essays have appeared in Profession, ESQ, The Emily Dickinson Journal, The Mississippi Quarterly, and the Forum for Modern Language Studies.
Gerhardt, Christine. A Place for Humility: Whitman, Dickinson, and the Natural World. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014.
Atlantic Monthly, September 1862
Hampshire Gazette, September 16, 1862
Springfield Republican, September 13, 1862