Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Longfellow and the poetics of bird defense in America - the ceaseless fusillade of terror

It’s always the same story when I return to boring, stuffy, old-fashioned, simple-minded Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:  “This is a lot better than I expected.”  You think I would learn sometime, although some of the fault might lie with Longfellow.

In the plus column, Longfellow is among the deftest versifiers to ever write in English; the biggest minus is that he had no ideas of any originality so expended much of his talent on well-made versions of banalities.  But in the end it is the exceptions that survive.  So I will celebrate Book Blogger Appreciation Week by writing about some of Longfellow’s exceptions.  Since no one wants to read about Longfellow, the posts will be eminently skippable and skimmable, thus allowing my valued readers to get off the dang internet earlier than usual.  No, no, thank you!

In “The Birds of Killingworth,” a New England town decides it has had enough with their thievery and racket and votes to kill all the birds in town.  I see that two of the poems eight pages are devoted to a defense of the birds, not all that interesting.  No, it is the massacre that is interesting:

And so the dreadful massacre began;
    O’er fields and orchards, and o’er woodland crests,
The ceaseless fusillade of terror ran.
    Dead fell the birds, with blood-stains on their breasts,
Or wounded crept away from sight of man,
    While the young died of famine in their nests;
A slaughter to be told in groans, not words,
The very Saint Bartholomew of Birds!

As much as I enjoy singing along with Longfellow, he also spurs me to argue with him, and what is the point of that, so I will just say that the best lines are more in the middle of the stanza than at the beginning or end, the Fs and Ds and Ss (“ceaseless fusillade”), and the horrible image of the crawling wounded birds.

Anyway, the best part is what happens without the birds, a Dantean hell on earth, some of it ecologically plausible, some more fanciful:

The Summer came, and all the birds were dead;
    The days were like hot coals; the very ground
Was burned to ashes; in the orchards fed
    Myriads of caterpillars, and around
The cultivated fields and garden-beds
    Hosts of devouring insects crawled, and found
No foe to check their march, till they had made
The land a desert without leaf or shade.

Actually, this is the best part of the best part:

From the trees spun down
    The canker-worms upon the passers-by,
Upon each woman’s bonnet, shawl and gown,
    Who shook them off with just a little cry;

Longfellow does not have a satisfactory ending to the tale, so I will just spend a minute enjoying the Song of the Canker-worms.  As the narrator said in that Jacques Poulin novel, “we must embrace the author’s style.”  I assume that the current cohort of eco-critics have made great use of this surprising environmental parable in verse.

Actually, I could look that up in the MLA International Bibliography.  Hmm, one article, “The Poetics of Bird Defense in America, 1860-1918” (in Poetry After Cultural Studies, 2011), Angela Sorby.  One article since 1947.  Listen, eco-critics, you’re missing a sure thing here.  Sheesh.


  1. Wonder what "bird defense" is, because I'm thinking of the somewhat remarkable presence of birds as just the sort of reign of terror that was then rained down on these birds above (oh god, forgive the pun!). The Plague of Doves, scenes from Little House somewhere or other, and of course "The Birds" itself. And I've had plenty of nasty vultures in my reading lately as well. I never really thought how afraid we were of these things that swoop down from the sky.

  2. Oh, you know, scarecrows, I guess. Twigs with lime. Nets of various sorts.

    The citizens of Killingworth seem as much as anything irritated by the confidence of the birds. No, there is also fear. E.g., the birds of passage "with outlandish noise \ Of oaths and gibberish frightening boys and girls."

    Outlandish Noise of Oaths and Gibberish would be a good name for a book blog.

  3. "The very Saint Bartholomew of Birds!"

    Ha ha!

  4. I love Longfellow, and hardly ever find him boring.

  5. Rob, that's a good point - I, too, rarely find him boring. I could test the point by trying to read Christus, but you're right, boring is not Longfellow's problem. He's not Wordsworth.

    Tonight I plan to write about The New England Tragedies which are positively thrilling.

  6. Oh how you made me laugh! The canker-worms dropping down from the trees is marvelous. the eco-critics are definitely missing out on this one.

  7. Yeah, the canker worms are good. It's the mix of the oddball fantasy story with this kind of genuine little bit of nature observation that makes the poem work surprisingly well. And that the ladies don't scream or freak out but just emit "a little cry" - I see Longfellow's wife or daughters out for a walk.