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NATURE AND THE POETS
I HAVE said on a former occasion that "the true poet knows more about Nature than the naturalist, because he carries her open secrets in his heart. Eckermann could instruct Goethe in ornithology, but could not Goethe instruct Eckermann in the meaning and mystery of the bird?" But the poets sometimes rely too confidently upon their supposed intuitive knowledge of nature, and grow careless about the accuracy of the details of their pictures. I am not aware that this was ever the case with Goethe; I think it was not, for as a rule, the greater the poet, the more correct and truthful will be his specifications. It is the lesser poets who trip most over their facts. Thus a New England poet speaks of "plucking the apple from the pine," as if the pineapple grew upon the pine-tree. A Western poet sings of the bluebird in a strain in which every feature and characteristic of the bird is lost; not one trait of the bird is faithfully set down. When the robin and the swallow come, he says, the bluebird hies him to some mossy old wood, where, amid the deep seclusion, he pours out his song.
In a poem by a well-known author in one of the popular journals, a hummingbird's nest is shown the reader, and it has blue eggs in it. A more cautious poet would have turned to Audubon or Wilson before venturing upon such a statement. But then it was necessary to have a word to rhyme with "view," and what could be easier than to make a white egg "blue"? Again, one of our later poets has evidently confounded the hummingbird with that curious parody upon it, the hawk or sphinx moth, as in his poem upon the subject he has hit off exactly the habits of the moth, or, rather, his creature seems a cross between the moth and the bird, as it has the habits of the one and the plumage of the other. The time to see the hummingbird, he says, is after sunset in the summer gloaming; then it steals forth and hovers over the flowers. Now, the hummingbird is eminently a creature of the sun and of the broad open day, and I have never seen it after sundown, while the moth is rarely seen except at twilight. It is much smaller and less brilliant than the hummingbird; but its flight and motions are so nearly the same that a poet, with his eye in a fine frenzy rolling, might easily mistake one for the other. It is but a small slip in such a poet as poor George Arnold, when he makes the sweet-scented honeysuckle bloom for the bee, for surely the name suggests the bee, though in fact she does not work upon it; but what shall we say of the Kansas poet, who, in his published volume, claims both the yew and the nightingale for his native State? Or of a Massachusetts poet, who finds the snowdrop and the early primrose blooming along his native streams, with the orchis and the yellow violet, and makes the blackbird conspicuous among New England songsters? Our ordinary yew is not a tree at all, but a low spreading evergreen shrub that one may step over; and as for the nightingale, if they have the mockingbird in Kansas, they can very well do without him. We have several varieties of blackbirds, it is true; but when an American poet speaks in a general way of the blackbird piping or singing in a tree, as he would speak of a robin or a sparrow, the suggestion or reminiscence awakened is always that of the blackbird of English poetry.
"In days when daisies deck the ground,
And blackbirds whistle clear,
With honest joy our hearts will bound
To see the coming year"
sings Burns. I suspect that the English reader of even some of Emerson's and Lowell's poems would infer that our blackbird was identical with the British species. I refer to these lines of Emerson:
"Where arches green the livelong day
Echo the blackbirds' roundelay;"
and to these lines from Lowell's "Rosaline:"
"A blackbird whistling overhead
Thrilled through my brain;"
and again these from "The Fountain of Youth:"
" 'T is a woodland enchanted;
By no sadder spirit
Than blackbirds and thrushes
That whistle to cheer it,
All day in the bushes."
The blackbird of the English poets is like our robin in everything except color. He is familiar, hardy, abundant, thievish, and his habits, manners, and song recall our bird to the life. Our own native blackbirds, the crow blackbird, the rusty grackle, the cowbird, and the red-shouldered starling, are not songsters, even in the latitude allowable to poets; neither are they whistlers, unless we credit them with a "split-whistle," as Thoreau does. The two first named have a sort of musical cackle and gurgle in spring (as at times both our crow and jay have), which is very pleasing, and to which Emerson aptly refers in these lines from "May-Day:"
"The blackbirds make the maples ring
With social cheer and jubilee"
but it is not a song. The note of the starling in the trees and alders along the creeks and marshes is better calculated to arrest the attention of the casual observer; but it is far from being a song or a whistle like that of the European blackbird, or our robin. Its most familiar call is like the word "bazique," "bazique," but it has a wild musical note which Emerson has embalmed in this line:
"The redwing flutes his o-ka-lee."
Here Emerson discriminates; there is no mistaking his blackbird this time for the European species, though it is true there is nothing fluty or flute-like in the redwing's voice. The flute is mellow, while the "o-ka-lee" of the starling is strong and sharply accented. The voice of the thrushes (and our robin and the European blackbird are thrushes) is flute-like. Hence the aptness of this line of Tennyson:
"The mellow ouzel fluted in the elm,"
the blackbird being the ouzel, or ouzel-cock, as Shakespeare calls him.
In the line which precedes this, Tennyson has stamped the cuckoo:
"To left and right,
The cuckoo told his name to all the hills."
The cuckoo is a bird that figures largely in English poetry, but he always has an equivocal look in American verse, unless sharply discriminated. We have a cuckoo, but he is a great recluse; and I am sure the poets do not know when he comes or goes, while to make him sing familiarly like the British species, as I have known at least one of our poets to do, is to come very wide of the mark. Our bird is as solitary and joyless as the most veritable anchorite. He contributes nothing to the melody or the gayety of the season. He is, indeed, known in some sections as the rain-crow," but I presume that not one person in ten of those who spend their lives in the country has ever seen or heard him. He is like the showy orchis, or the lady's-slipper, or the shooting star among plants, a stranger to all but the few; and when an American poet says cuckoo, he must say it with such specifications as to leave no doubt what cuckoo he means, as Lowell does in his "Nightingale in the Study:"
"And, hark, the cuckoo, weatherwise,
Still hiding farther onward, wooes you."
In like manner the primrose is an exotic in American poetry, to say nothing of the snowdrop and the daisy. Its prominence in English poetry can be understood when we remember that the plant is so abundant in England as to be almost a weed, and that it comes early and is very pretty. Cowslip and oxlip are familiar names of varieties of the same plant, and they bear so close a resemblance that it is hard to tell them apart. Hence Tennyson, in "The Talking Oak:"
"As cowslip unto oxlip is,
So seems she to the boy."
Our familiar primrose is the evening primrose, a rank, tall weed that blooms with the mullein in late summer. Its small, yellow, slightly fragrant blossoms open only at night, but remain open during the next day. By cowslip, our poets and writers generally mean the yellow marsh marigold, which belongs to a different family of plants, but which, as a spring token and a pretty flower, is a very good substitute for the cowslip. Our real cowslip, the shooting star, is very rare, and is one of the most beautiful of native flowers. I believe it is not found north of Pennsylvania. I have found it in a single locality in the District of Columbia, and the day is memorable upon which I first saw its cluster of pink flowers, with their recurved petals cleaving the air. I do not know that it has ever been mentioned in poetry.
Another flower, which I suspect our poets see largely through the medium of English literature and invest with borrowed charms, is the violet. The violet is a much more winsome and poetic flower in England than it is in this country, for the reason that it comes very early and is sweet-scented; our common violet is not among the earliest flowers, and it is odorless. It affects sunny slopes, like the English flower; yet Shakespeare never could have made the allusion to it which he makes to his own species in these lines:
"That strain again! it had a dying fall:
Oh! it came o'er my ear like the sweet south
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odor,"
or lauded it as
"Sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath."
Our best known sweet-scented violet is a small, white, lilac-veined species (not yellow, as Bryant has it in his poem), that is common in wet, out-of-the-way places. Our common blue violet the only species that is found abundantly everywhere in the North blooms in May, and makes bright many a grassy meadow slope and sunny nook. Yet, for all that, it does not awaken the emotion in one that the earlier and more delicate spring flowers do, the hepatica, say, with its shy wood habits, its pure, infantile expression, and at times its delicate perfume; or the houstonia, "innocence," flecking or streaking the cold spring earth with a milky way of minute stars; or the trailing arbutus, sweeter scented than the English violet, and outvying in tints Cytherea's or any other blooming goddess's cheek. Yet these flowers have no classical associations, and are consequently far less often upon the lips of our poets than the violet.
To return to birds, another dangerous one for the American poet is the lark, and our singers generally are very shy of him. The term has been applied very loosely in this country to both the meadow-lark and the bobolink, yet it is pretty generally understood now that we have no genuine skylark east of the Mississippi. Hence I am curious to know what bird Bayard Taylor refers to when he speaks in his "Spring Pastoral" of
"Larks responding aloft to the mellow flute of the bluebird."
Our so-called meadowlark is no lark at all, but a starling, and the titlark and shore lark breed and pass the summer far to the north, and are never heard in song in the United States. 1
The poets are entitled to a pretty free range, but they must be accurate when they particularize. We expect them to see the fact through their imagination, but it must still remain a fact; the medium must not distort it into a lie. When they name a flower or a tree or a bird, whatever halo of the ideal they throw around it, it must not be made to belie the botany or the natural history. I doubt if you can catch Shakespeare transgressing the law in this respect, except where he followed the superstition and the imperfect knowledge of his time, as in his treatment of the honey-bee. His allusions to nature are always incidental to his main purpose, but they reveal a careful and loving observer. For instance, how are fact and poetry wedded in this passage, put into the mouth of Banquo!
"This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved masonry that the heaven's breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze.
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate."
Nature is of course universal, but in the same sense is she local and particular, cuts every suit to fit the wearer, gives every land an earth and sky of its own, and a flora and fauna to match. The poets and their readers delight in local touches. We have both the hare and the rabbit in America, but this line from Thomson's description of a summer morning,
"And from the bladed field the fearful hare limps awkward,"
or this from Beattie,
"Through rustling corn the hare astonished sprang"
would not apply with the same force in New England, because our hare is never found in the fields, but in dense, remote woods. In England both hares and rabbits abound to such an extent that in places the fields and meadows swarm with them, and the ground is undermined by their burrows, till they become a serious pest to the farmer, and are trapped in vast numbers. The same remark applies to this from Tennyson:
"From the woods
Came voices of the well-contented doves."
Doves and wood-pigeons are almost as abundant in England as hares and rabbits, and are also a serious annoyance to the farmer; while in this country the dove and pigeon are much less marked and permanent features in our rural scenery, less permanent, except in the case of the mourning dove, which is found here and there the season through; and less marked, except when the hordes of the passenger pigeon once in a decade or two invade the land, rarely tarrying longer than the bands of a foraging army. I hardly know what Trowbridge means by the "wood-pigeon" in his midsummer poem, for, strictly speaking, the wood-pigeon is a European bird, and a very common one in England. But let me say here, however, that Trowbridge, as a rule, keeps very close to the natural history of his own country when he has occasion to draw material from this source, and to American nature generally. You will find in his poems the wood pewee, the bluebird, the oriole, the robin, the grouse, the kingfisher, the chipmunk, the mink, the bobolink, the wood thrush, all in their proper places. There are few bird-poems that combine so much good poetry and good natural history as his "Pewee." Here we have a glimpse of the catbird:
"In the alders, dank with noonday dews,
The restless catbird darts and mews;"
here, of the cliff swallow:
"In the autumn, when the hollows
All are filled with flying leaves
And the colonies of swallows
Quit the quaintly stuccoed eaves."
Only the dates are not quite right. The swallows leave their nests in July, which is nearly three months before the leaves fall. The poet is also a little unfaithful to the lore of his boyhood when he says
"The partridge beats his throbbing drum"
in midsummer. As a rule, the partridge does not drum later than June, except fitfully during the Indian summer, while April and May are his favorite months. And let me say here, for the benefit of the poets who do not go to the woods, that the partridge does not always drum upon a log; he frequently drums upon a rock or a stone wall, if a suitable log be not handy, and no ear can detect the difference. His drum is really his own proud breast, and beneath his small hollow wings gives forth the same low, mellow thunder from a rock as from a log. Bryant has recognized this fact in one of his poems.
Our poets are quite apt to get ahead or behind the season with their flowers and birds. It is not often that we catch such a poet as Emerson napping. He knows nature, and he knows the New England fields and woods, as few poets do. One may study our flora and fauna in his pages. He puts in the moose and the "surly bear," and makes the latter rhyme with "woodpecker:"
"He saw beneath dim aisles, in odorous beds,
The slight Linnζa hang its twin-born heads
. . . . . . . . . .
He heard, when in the grove, at intervals,
With sudden roar the aged pine-tree falls,
One crash, the death-hymn of the perfect tree,
Declares the close of its green century."
"They led me through the thicket damp,
Through brake and fern, the beavers' camp."
"He saw the partridge drum in the woods;
He heard the woodcock's evening hymn;
He found the tawny thrushes' broods;
And the shy hawk did wait for him."
His "Titmouse" is studied in our winter woods, and his "Humble-Bee" in our summer fields. He has seen farther into the pine-tree than any other poet; his "May-Day" is full of our spring sounds and tokens; he knows the "punctual birds," and the "herbs and simples of the wood:"
"Rue, cinque-foil, gill, vervain, and agrimony,
Blue-vetch, and trillium, hawk-weed, sassafras,
Milk-weeds and murky brakes, quaint pipes and sun-dew."
Here is a characteristic touch:
"A woodland walk
A quest of river-grapes, a mocking thrush,
A wild rose, or rock-loving columbine,
Salve my worst wounds."
That "rock-loving columbine" is better than Bryant's "columbines, in purple dressed," as our flower is not purple, but yellow and scarlet. Yet Bryant set the example to the poets that have succeeded him of closely studying Nature as she appears under our own skies.
I yield to none in my admiration of the sweetness and simplicity of his poems of nature, and in general of their correctness of observation. They are tender and heartfelt, and they touch chords that no other poet since Wordsworth has touched with so firm a hand. Yet he was not always an infallible observer; he sometimes tripped up on his facts, and at other times he deliberately moulded them, adding to, or cutting off, to suit the purposes of his verse. I will cite here two instances in which his natural history is at fault. In his poem on the bobolink he makes the parent birds feed their young with "seeds," whereas, in fact, the young are fed exclusively upon insects and worms. The bobolink is an insectivorous bird in the North, or until its brood has flown, and a granivorous bird in the South. In his "Evening Revery" occur these lines:
"The mother bird hath broken for her brood
Their prison shells, or shoved them from the nest,
Plumed for their earliest flight."
It is not a fact that the mother bird aids her offspring in escaping from the shell. The young of all birds are armed with a small temporary horn or protuberance upon the upper mandible, and they are so placed in the shell that this point is in immediate contact with its inner surface; as soon as they are fully developed and begin to struggle to free themselves, the horny growth "pips" the shell. Their efforts then continue till their prison walls are completely sundered and the bird is free. This process is rendered the more easy by the fact that toward the last the shell becomes very rotten; the acids that are generated by the growing chick eat it and make it brittle, so that one can hardly touch a fully incubated bird's egg without breaking it. To help the young bird forth would insure its speedy death. It is not true, either, that the parent shoves its young from the nest when they are fully fledged, except possibly in the case of some of the swallows and of the eagle. The young of all our more common birds leave the nest of their own motion, stimulated probably by the calls of the parents, and in some cases by the withholding of food for a longer period than usual.
As an instance where Bryant warps the facts to suit his purpose, take his poems of the "Yellow Violet" and "The Fringed Gentian." Of this last flower he says:
"Thou waitest late and com'st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frosts and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end."
The fringed gentian belongs to September, and, when the severer frosts keep away, it runs over into October. But it does not come alone, and the woods are not bare. The closed gentian comes at the same time, and the blue and purple asters are in all their glory. Goldenrod, turtle-head, and other fall flowers also abound. When the woods are bare, which does not occur in New England till in or near November, the fringed gentian has long been dead. It is in fact killed by the first considerable frost. No, if one were to go botanizing, and take Bryant's poem for a guide, he would not bring home any fringed gentians with him. The only flower he would find would be the witch-hazel. Yet I never see this gentian without thinking of Bryant's poem, and feeling that he has brought it immensely nearer to us.
Bryant's poem of the "Yellow Violet" has all his accustomed simplicity and pensiveness, but his love for the flower carries him a little beyond the facts; he makes it sweet-scented,
"Thy faint perfume
Alone is in the virgin air;"
and he makes it the first flower of spring. I have never been able to detect any perfume in the yellow species (Viola rotundifolia). This honor belongs alone to our two white violets, Viola blanda and Viola canadensis.
Neither is it quite true that
"Of all her train, the hands of Spring
First plant thee in the watery mould."
Now it is an interesting point which really is our first spring flower. Which comes second or third is of less consequence, but which everywhere and in all seasons comes first; and in such a case the poet must not place the honor where it does not belong. I have no hesitation in saying that, throughout the Middle and New England States, the hepatica is the first spring flower. 2 It is some days ahead of all others. The yellow violet belongs only to the more northern sections, to high, cold, beechen woods, where the poet rightly places it; but in these localities, if you go to the spring woods every day, you will gather the hepatica first. I have also found the claytonia and the coltsfoot first. In a poem called "The Twenty-Seventh of March," Bryant places both the hepatica and the arbutus before it:
"Within the woods
Tufts of ground-laurel, creeping underneath
The leaves of the last summer, send their sweets
Upon the chilly air, and by the oak,
The squirrel cups, a graceful company,
Hide in their bells, a soft aerial blue,"
ground-laurel being a local name for trailing arbutus, called also mayflower, and squirrel-cups for hepatica, or liver-leaf. But the yellow violet may rightly dispute for the second place.
In "The Song of the Sower" our poet covers up part of the truth with the grain. The point and moral of the song he puts in the statement, that the wheat sown in the fall lies in the ground till spring before it germinates; when, in fact, it sprouts and grows and covers the ground with "emerald blades" in the fall:
"Fling wide the generous grain; we fling
O'er the dark mould the green of spring.
For thick the emerald blades shall grow,
When first the March winds melt the snow,
And to the sleeping flowers, below,
The early bluebirds sing
. . . . . . . . . .
Brethren, the sower's task is done.
The seed is in its winter bed.
Now let the dark-brown mould be spread,
To hide it from the sun,
And leave it to the kindly care
Of the still earth and brooding air,
As when the mother, from her breast,
Lays the hushed babe apart to rest,
And shades its eyes and waits to see
How sweet its waking smile will be.
The tempest now may smite, the sleet
All night on the drowned furrow beat,
And winds that, from the cloudy hold
Of winter, breathe the bitter cold,
Stiffen to stone the mellow mould,
Yet safe shall lie the wheat;
Till, out of heaven's unmeasured blue,
Shall walk again the genial year,
To wake with warmth and nurse with dew
The germs we lay to slumber here."
Of course the poet was not writing an agricultural essay, yet one does not like to feel that he was obliged to ignore or sacrifice any part of the truth to build up his verse. One likes to see him keep within the fact without being conscious of it or hampered by it, as he does in "The Planting of the Apple-Tree," or in the "Lines to a Water-Fowl."
But there are glimpses of American scenery and climate in Bryant that are unmistakable, as in these lines from "Midsummer:"
"Look forth upon the earth her thousand plants
Are smitten; even the dark, sun-loving maize
Faints in the field beneath the torrid blaze;
The herd beside the shaded fountain pants;
For life is driven from all the landscape brown;
The bird has sought his tree, the snake his den,
The trout floats dead in the hot stream, and men
Drop by the sunstroke in the populous town."
Here is a touch of our "heated term" when the dogstar is abroad and the weather runs mad. I regret the "trout floating dead in the hot stream," because, if such a thing ever has occurred, it is entirely exceptional. The trout in such weather seek the deep water and the spring holes, and hide beneath rocks and willow banks. The following lines would be impossible in an English poem:
"The snowbird twittered on the beechen bough,
And 'neath the hemlock, whose thick branches bent
Beneath its bright, cold burden, and kept dry
A circle, on the earth, of withered leaves,
The partridge found a shelter."
Both Bryant and Longfellow put their spring bluebird in the elm, which is a much better place for the oriole, the elm-loving oriole. The bluebird prefers a humbler perch. Lowell puts him upon a post in the fence, which is a characteristic attitude:
"The bluebird, shifting his light load of song,
From post to post along the cheerless fence."
Emerson calls him "April's bird," and makes him "fly before from tree to tree," which is also good. But the bluebird is not strictly a songster in the sense in which the song sparrow or the indigo-bird, or the English robin redbreast, is; nor do Bryant's lines hit the mark:
"The bluebird chants, from the elm's long branches,
A hymn to welcome the budding year."
Lowell, again, is nearer the truth when he speaks of his "whiff of song." All his notes are call-notes, and are addressed directly to his mate. The songbirds take up a position and lift up their voices and sing. It is a deliberate musical performance, as much so as that of Nilsson or Patti. The bluebird, however, never strikes an attitude and sings for the mere song's sake. But the poets are perhaps to be allowed this latitude, only their pages lose rather than gain by it. Nothing is so welcome in this field as characteristic touches, a word or a phrase that fits this case and no other. If the bluebird chants a hymn, what does the wood thrush do? Yet the bluebird's note is more pleasing than most bird-songs; if it could be reproduced in color, it would be the hue of the purest sky.
Longfellow makes the swallow sing:
"The darting swallows soar and sing;"
which would leave him no room to describe the lark, if the lark had been about. Bryant comes nearer the mark this time:
"There are notes of joy from the hang-bird and wren,
And the gossip of swallows through all the sky;"
so does Tennyson when he makes his swallow
"Cheep and twitter twenty million loves;"
also Lowell again in this line:
"The thin-winged swallow skating on the air;"
"Swallows twitter on the chimney tops."
Longfellow is perhaps less close and exact in his dealings with nature than any of his compeers, although he has written some fine naturalistic poems, as his "Rain in Summer," and others. When his fancy is taken, he does not always stop to ask, Is this so? Is this true? as when he applies the Spanish proverb, "There are no birds in last year's nests," to the nests beneath the eaves; for these are just the last year's nests that do contain birds in May. The cliff swallow and the barn swallow always reoccupy their old nests, when they are found intact; so do some other birds. Again, the hawthorn, or whitethorn, field-fares, belong to English poetry more than to American. The ash in autumn is not deep crimsoned, but a purplish brown. "The ash her purple drops forgivingly," says Lowell in his "Indian-Summer Reverie." Flax is not golden, lilacs are purple or white and not flame-colored, and it is against the law to go trouting in November. The pelican is not a wader any more than a goose or a duck is, and the golden robin or oriole is not a bird of autumn. This stanza from "The Skeleton in Armor" is a striking one:
"As with his wings aslant,
Sails the fierce cormorant,
Seeking some rocky haunt,
With his prey laden,
So toward the open main,
Beating to sea again,
Through the wild hurricane,
Bore I the maiden."
But unfortunately the cormorant never does anything of the kind; it is not a bird of prey: it is web-footed, a rapid swimmer and diver, and lives upon fish, which it usually swallows as it catches them. Virgil is nearer to fact when he says:
"When crying cormorants forsake the sea
And, stretching to the covert, wing their way."
But cormorant with Longfellow may stand for any of the large rapacious birds, as the eagle or the condor. True, and yet the picture is a purely fanciful one, as no bird of prey sails with his burden; on the contrary, he flaps heavily and laboriously, because he is always obliged to mount. The stress of the rhyme and metre are of course in this case very great, and it is they, doubtless, that drove the poet into this false picture of a bird of prey laden with his quarry. It is an ungracious task, however, to cross-question the gentle Muse of Longfellow in this manner. He is a true poet if there ever was one, and the slips I point out are only like an obscure feather or two in the dove carelessly preened. The burnished plumage and the bright hues hide them unless we look sharply.
Whittier gets closer to the bone of the New England nature. He comes from the farm, and his memory is stored with boyhood's wild and curious lore, with
"Knowledge never learned of schools,
Of the wild bee's morning chase,
Of the wild flower's time and place,
Flight of fowl and habitude
Of the tenants of the wood;
How the tortoise bears his shell,
How the woodchuck digs his cell,
And the ground-mole sinks his well;
How the robin feeds her young;
How the oriole's nest is hung;
Where the whitest lilies blow,
Where the freshest berries grow,
Where the ground-nut trails its vine,
Where the wood-grape's clusters shine;
Of the black wasp's cunning way,
Mason of his walls of clay,
And the architectural plans
Of gray hornet artisans!"
The poet is not as exact as usual when he applies the epithet "painted" to the autumn beeches, as the foliage of the beech is the least painty of all our trees; nor when he speaks of
"Wind-flower and violet, amber and white,"
as neither of the flowers named is amber-colored. From "A Dream of Summer" the reader might infer that the fox shut up house in the winter like the muskrat:
"The fox his hillside cell forsakes,
The muskrat leaves his nook,
The bluebird in the meadow brakes
Is singing with the brook."
The only one of these incidents that is characteristic of a January thaw in the latitude of New England is the appearance of the muskrat. The fox is never in his cell in winter, except he is driven there by the hound, or by soft or wet weather, and the bluebird does not sing in the brakes at any time of the year. A severe stress of weather will drive the foxes off the mountains into the low, sheltered woods and fields, and a thaw will send them back again. In the winter the fox sleeps during the day upon a rock or stone wall, or upon a snowbank, where he can command all the approaches, or else prowls stealthily through the woods.
But there is seldom a false note in any of Whittier's descriptions of rural sights and sounds. What a characteristic touch is that in one of his "Mountain Pictures:"
"The pasture bars that clattered as they fell."
It is the only strictly native, original, and typical sound he reports on that occasion. The bleating of sheep, the barking of dogs, the lowing of cattle, the splash of the bucket in the well, "the pastoral curfew of the cowbell," etc., are sounds we have heard before in poetry, but that clatter of the pasture bars is American; one can almost see the waiting, ruminating cows slowly stir at the signal, and start for home in anticipation of the summons. Every summer day, as the sun is shading the hills, the clatter of those pasture bars is heard throughout the length and breadth of the land.
"Snow-Bound" is the most faithful picture of our Northern winter that has yet been put into poetry. What an exact description is this of the morning after the storm:
"We looked upon a world unknown,
On nothing we could call our own.
Around the glistening wonder bent
The blue walls of the firmament,
No cloud above, no earth below,
A universe of sky and snow!"
In his little poem on the mayflower, Mr. Stedman catches and puts in a single line a feature of our landscape in spring that I have never before seen alluded to in poetry. I refer to the second line of this stanza:
"Fresh blows the breeze through hemlock-trees,
The fields are edged with green below,
And naught but youth, and hope, and love
We know or care to know!"
It is characteristic of our Northern and New England fields that they are "edged with green" in spring long before the emerald tint has entirely overspread them. Along the fences, especially along the stone walls, the grass starts early; the land is fatter there from the deeper snows and from other causes, the fence absorbs the heat, and shelters the ground from the winds, and the sward quickly responds to the touch of the spring sun.
Stedman's poem is worthy of his theme, and is the only one I recall by any of our well-known poets upon the much-loved mayflower or arbutus. There is a little poem upon this subject by an unknown author that also has the right flavor. I recall but one stanza:
"Oft have I walked these woodland ways,
Without the blest foreknowing,
That underneath the withered leaves
The fairest flowers were blowing."
Nature's strong and striking effects are best rendered by closest fidelity to her. Listen and look intently, and catch the exact effect as nearly as you can. It seems as if Lowell had done this more than most of his brother poets. In reading his poems, one wishes for a little more of the poetic unction (I refer, of course, to his serious poems; his humorous ones are just what they should be), yet the student of nature will find many close-fitting phrases and keen observations in his pages, and lines that are exactly, and at the same time poetically, descriptive. He is the only writer I know of who has noticed the fact that the roots of trees do not look supple and muscular like their boughs, but have a stiffened, congealed look, as of a liquid hardened.
"Their roots, like molten metal cooled in flowing,
Stiffened in coils and runnels down the bank."
This is exactly the appearance the roots of most trees, when uncovered, present; they flow out from the trunk like diminishing streams of liquid metal, taking the form of whatever they come in contact with, parting around a stone and uniting again beyond it, and pushing their way along with many a pause and devious turn. One principal office of the roots of a tree is to gripe, to hold fast the earth: hence they feel for and lay hold of every inequality of surface; they will fit themselves to the top of a comparatively smooth rock, so as to adhere amazingly, and flow into the seams and crevices like metal into a mould.
Lowell is singularly true to the natural history of his own country. In his "Indian-Summer Reverie" we catch a glimpse of the hen-hawk, silently sailing overhead
"With watchful, measuring eye," the robin feeding on cedar berries, and the squirrel,
"On the shingly shagbark's bough."
I do not remember to have met the "shagbark" in poetry before, or that gray lichen-covered stone wall which occurs farther along in the same poem, and which is so characteristic of the older farms of New York and New England. I hardly know what the poet means by
"The wide-ranked mowers wading to the knee,"
as the mowers do not wade in the grass they are cutting, though they might appear to do so when viewed athwart the standing grass; perhaps this is the explanation of the line.
But this is just what the bobolink does when the care of his young begins to weigh upon him:
"Meanwhile that devil-may-care, the bobolink,
Remembering duty, in mid-quaver stops
Just ere he sweeps o'er rapture's tremulous brink,
And 'twixt the winrows most demurely drops."
I do not vouch for that dropping between the windrows, as in my part of the country the bobolinks flee before the hay-makers, but that sudden stopping on the brink of rapture, as if thoughts of his helpless young had extinguished his joy, is characteristic.
Another carefully studied description of Lowell's is this:
"The robin sings as of old from the limb!
The catbird croons in the lilac-bush!
Through the dim arbor, himself more dun,
Silently hops the hermit thrush."
Among trees Lowell has celebrated the oak, the pine, the birch; and among flowers; the violet and the dandelion. The last, I think, is the most pleasing of these poems:
"Dear common flower, that grow'st beside the way,
Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold,
First pledge of blithesome May."
The dandelion is indeed, in our latitude, the pledge of May. It comes when the grass is short, and the fresh turf sets off its "ring of gold" with admirable effect; hence we know the poet is a month or more out of the season when, in "Al Fresco," he makes it bloom with the buttercup and the clover:
"The dandelions and buttercups
Gild all the lawn; the drowsy bee
Stumbles among the clover-tops,
And summer sweetens all but me."
Of course the dandelion blooms occasionally throughout the whole summer, especially where the grass is kept short, but its proper season, when it "gilds all the lawn," is, in every part of the country, some weeks earlier than the tall buttercup and the clover. These bloom in June in New England and New York, and are contemporaries of the daisy. In the meadows and lawns, the dandelion drops its flower and holds aloft its sphere of down, touching the green surface as with a light frost, long before the clover and the buttercup have formed their buds. In "Al Fresco" our poet is literally in clover, he is reveling in the height of the season, the full tide of summer is sweeping around him, and he has riches enough without robbing May of her dandelions. Let him say,
"The daisies and the buttercups
Gild all the lawn."
I smile as I note that the woodpecker proves a refractory bird to Lowell, as well as to Emerson:
Emerson rhymes it with bear,
Lowell rhymes it with hear,
One makes it woodpeckair,
The other, woodpeckear.
But its hammer is a musical one, and the poets do well to note it. Our most pleasing drummer upon dry limbs among the woodpeckers is the yellow-bellied. His measured, deliberate tap, heard in the stillness of the primitive woods, produces an effect that no bird-song is capable of.
Tennyson is said to have very poor eyes, but there seems to be no defect in the vision with which he sees nature, while he often hits the nail on the head in a way that would indicate the surest sight. True, he makes the swallow hunt the bee, which, for aught I know, the swallow may do in England. Our purple martin has been accused of catching the honey-bee, but I doubt his guilt. But those of our swallows that correspond to the British species, the barn swallow, the cliff swallow, and the bank swallow, subsist upon very small insects. But what a clear-cut picture is that in the same poem ("The Poet's Song"):
"The wild hawk stood, with the down on his beak,
And stared, with his foot on the prey."
It takes a sure eye, too, to see
"The landscape winking thro' the heat"
or to gather this image:
"He has a solid base of temperament;
But as the water-lily starts and slides
Upon the level in little puffs of wind,
Though anchor'd to the bottom, such is he;"
"Arms on which the standing muscle sloped,
As slopes a wild brook o'er a little stone,
Running too vehemently to break upon it,"
and many other gems that abound in his poems. He does not cut and cover in a single line, so far as I have observed. Great caution and exact knowledge underlie his most rapid and daring flights. A lady told me that she was once walking with him in the fields, when they came to a spring that bubbled up through shifting sands in a very pretty manner, and Tennyson, in order to see exactly how the spring behaved, got down on his hands and knees and peered a long time into the water. The incident is worth repeating as showing how intently a great poet studies nature.
Walt Whitman says he has been trying for years to find a word that would express or suggest that evening call of the robin. How absorbingly this poet must have studied the moonlight to hit upon this descriptive phrase:
"The vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue;"
how long have looked upon the carpenter at his bench to have made this poem:
"The tongue of his fore-plane whistles its wild ascending lisp;"
or how lovingly listened to the nocturne of the mockingbird to have turned it into words in "A Word out of the Sea"! Indeed, no poet has studied American nature more closely than Whitman has, or is more cautious in his uses of it. How easy are his descriptions!
"Behold the daybreak!
The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows!"
"The comet that came unannounced
Out of the north, flaring in heaven."
"The fan-shaped explosion."
"The slender and jagged threads of lightning, as sudden and fast amid the din they chased each other across the sky."
"Where the heifers browse where geese nip their food with short jerks;
Where sundown shadows lengthen over the limitless and lonesome prairie;
Where herds of buffalo make a crawling spread of the square miles far and near;
Where the hummingbird shimmers where the neck of the long-lived swan is curving and winding;
Where the laughing-gull scoots by the shore when she laughs her near human laugh;
Where band-neck'd partridges roost in a ring on the ground with their heads out."
Whitman is less local than the New England poets, and faces more to the West. But he makes himself at home everywhere, and puts in characteristic scenes and incidents, generally compressed into a single line, from all trades and doings and occupations, North, East, South, West, and identifies himself with man in all straits and conditions on the continent. Like the old poets, he does not dwell upon nature, except occasionally through the vistas opened up by the great sciences, as astronomy and geology, but upon life and movement and personality, and puts in a shred of natural history here and there, the "twittering redstart," the spotted hawk swooping by, the oscillating sea-gulls, the yellow-crowned heron, the razor-billed auk, the lone wood duck, the migrating geese, the sharp-hoofed moose, the mockingbird "the thrush, the hermit," etc., to help locate and define his position. Everywhere in nature Whitman finds human relations, human responsions. In entire consistence with botany, geology, science, or what not, he endues his very seas and woods with passion, more than the old hamadryads or tritons. His fields, his rocks, his trees, are not dead material, but living companions. This is doubtless one reason why Addington Symonds, the young Hellenic scholar of England, finds him more thoroughly Greek than any other man of modern times.
Our natural history, and indeed all phases of life in this country, is rich in materials for the poet that have yet hardly been touched. Many of our most familiar birds, which are inseparably associated with one's walks and recreations in the open air, and with the changes of the seasons, are yet awaiting their poet, as the high-hole, with his golden-shafted quills and loud continued spring call; the meadowlark, with her crescent-marked breast and long-drawn, piercing, yet tender April and May summons forming, with that of the high-hole, one of the three or four most characteristic field sounds of our spring; the happy goldfinch, circling round and round in midsummer with that peculiar undulating flight and calling per-chick-o-pee, per-chick-o-pee, at each opening and shutting of the wings, or later leading her plaintive brood among the thistle-heads by the roadside; the little indigo-bird, facing the torrid sun of August and singing through all the livelong summer day; the contented musical soliloquy of the vireo, like the whistle of a boy at his work, heard through all our woods from May to September:
"Pretty green worm, where are you?
Dusky-winged moth, how fare you,
When wind and rain are in the tree?
Cheeryo, cheerebly, chee,
Shadow and sun one are to me.
Mosquito and gnat, beware you,
Saucy chipmunk, how dare you
Climb to my nest in the maple-tree,
And dig up the corn
At noon and at morn?
Cheeryo, cheerebly, chee."
Or the phoebe-bird, with her sweet April call and mossy nest under the bridge or woodshed, or under the shelving rocks; or the brown thrasher mocking thrush calling half furtively, half archly from the treetop back in the bushy pastures: "Croquet, croquet, hit it, hit it, come to me, come to me, tight it, tight it, you're out, you're out," with many musical interludes; or the chewink, rustling the leaves and peering under the bushes at you; or the pretty little oven-bird, walking round and round you in the woods, or suddenly soaring above the treetops, and uttering its wild lyrical strain; or, farther south, the whistling redbird, with his crest and military bearing, these and many others should be full of suggestion and inspiration to our poets. It is only lately that the robin's song has been put into poetry. Nothing could be happier than this rendering of it by a nameless singer in "A Masque of Poets:"
"When the willows gleam along the brooks,
And the grass grows green in sunny nooks,
In the sunshine and the rain
I hear the robin in the lane
Cheer up, cheer up;
"But the snow is still
Along the walls and on the hill.
The days are cold, the nights forlorn,
For one is here and one is gone.
'Tut, tut. Cheerily,
Cheer up, cheer up;
"When spring hopes seem to wane,
I hear the joyful strain
A song at night, a song at morn,
A lesson deep to me is borne,
Cheer up, cheer up;
Cheer up.' "
The poetic interpretation of nature, which has come to be a convenient phrase, and about which the Oxford professor of poetry has written a book, is, of course, a myth, or is to be read the other way. It is the soul the poet interprets, not nature. There is nothing in nature but what the beholder supplies. Does the sculptor interpret the marble or his own ideal? Is the music in the instrument, or in the soul of the performer? Nature is a dead clod until you have breathed upon it with your genius. You commune with your own soul, not with woods or waters; they furnish the conditions, and are what you make them. Did Shelley interpret the song of the skylark, or Keats that of the nightingale? They interpreted their own wild, yearning hearts. The trick of the poet is always to idealize nature, to see it subjectively. You cannot find what the poets find in the woods until you take the poet's heart to the woods. He sees nature through a colored glass, sees it truthfully, but with an indescribable charm added, the aureole of the spirit. A tree, a cloud, a bird, a sunset, have no hidden meaning that the art of the poet is to unlock for us. Every poet shall interpret them differently, and interpret them rightly, because the soul is infinite. Milton's nightingale is not Coleridge's; Burns's daisy is not Wordsworth's; Emerson's bumblebee is not Lowell's; nor does Turner see in nature what Tintoretto does, nor Veronese what Correggio does. Nature is all things to all men. "We carry within us," says Sir Thomas Browne, "the wonders we find without." The same idea is daintily expressed in these tripping verses of Bryant's:
"Yet these sweet sounds of the early season
And these fair sights of its early days,
Are only sweet when we fondly listen,
And only fair when we fondly gaze.
"There is no glory in star or blossom,
Till looked upon by a loving eye;
There is no fragrance in April breezes,
Till breathed with joy as they wander by;"
in these lines of Lowell:
"What we call Nature, all outside ourselves,
Is but our own conceit of what we see,
Our own reaction upon what we feel."
"I find my own complexion everywhere."
Before either, Coleridge had said:
"We receive but what we give,
And in our life alone doth Nature live;
Ours is the wedding-garment, ours the shroud;"
Wordsworth had spoken of
"The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet's dream."
That light that never was on sea or land is what the poet gives us, and is what we mean by the poetic interpretation of nature. The Oxford professor struggles against this view. "It is not true," he says, "that nature is a blank, or an unintelligible scroll with no meaning of its own but that which we put into it from the light of our own transient feelings." Not a blank, certainly, to the scientist, but full of definite meanings and laws, and a storehouse of powers and economies; but to the poet the meaning is what he pleases to make it, what it provokes in his own soul. To the man of science it is thus and so, and not otherwise; but the poet touches and goes, and uses nature as a garment which he puts off and on. Hence the scientific reading or interpretation of nature is the only real one. Says the Soothsayer in "Antony and Cleopatra:"
"In Nature's infinite book of secrecy a little do I read."
This is science bowed and reverent, and speaking through a great poet. The poet himself does not so much read in nature's book though he does this, too as write his own thoughts there. Nature reads him, she is the page and he the type, and she takes the impression he gives. Of course the poet uses the truths of nature also, and he establishes his right to them by bringing them home to us with a new and peculiar force, a quickening or kindling force. What science gives is melted in the fervent heat of the poet's passion, and comes back to us supplemented by his quality and genius. He gives more than he takes, always.
1 The shore lark has changed its habits in this respect of late years. It now breeds regularly on my native hills in Delaware County, New York, and may be heard in full song there from April to June or later.
2 Excepting, of course, the skunk-cabbage.